We killed a deer. We were four hikers from our club, a fifth hiker and his dog. A small dog who frolicked off leash as his owner followed us into the woods surrounding a county nursery.
Sycamore, black walnut and live oaks shade the hillside leading down to the office that also serves as a “Sheriff’s Referral Station.” Beside it looms an equestrian camping ground, a well groomed collection of paddocks, practice rings, parking spots for horse trailers and even a small grandstand. It is in a remnant of wildness several miles from the experimental forest, surrounded by golf courses, new housing tracts, and two probation camps. A small population of deer enjoy the relative quiet of the neighborhood and hikers in turn enjoy the sight of wild deer families.
The equestrian camp and the nursery squat on a hillside separating two trail systems. Most hikers prefer to go around these structures but that day, we were exploring. We found old rusting equipment, graffiti marked lawn furniture, and wildflowers: buckwheat, desert asters, invasive broom.
Someone had left the gate between the nursery and campground open. So we walked through it. And as we walked into a fenced off area, someone spotted a deer, then another and finally two more. Three yearlings and a young doe.
As we marveled at their beauty, they watched us cautiously. Deer are accustomed to seeing hikers in the canyon.
Then the little dog noticed them and took off. No one called him back. At that time, we did not know the dog’s name. The deer separated, the older one leading the dog in one direction, the younger three dashing away to freedom in the other.
The deer and dog disappeared into the shrubs at the boundary of the camp but only the dog emerged, limping. My first thought was that the deer had escaped through an opening in the fence and the dog got a much deserved chastisement. But when we got there, she was on the ground, legs twitching.
As we approached, one of the hikers said to back away because we would only stress her further. But the little dog trotted up to sniff at the hurt animal before someone could tell the owner to put him on a leash.
The nursery sent two of its workers to check the deer. They arrived to find her still body, confirmed she was dead and carefully and gently examined her. There were no fractures, no broken legs, back and neck were intact. She appeared uninjured with only an old healed wound, probably made by a coyote. She probably died of heart failure.
The taste of regret lingers in the green of the foothill canyons where we often interact with deer, tarantulas, rattlesnakes and birds. If we had only backed away from the fallen animal, if we had verbally insisted on following our rule that all dogs be leashed, if only we had never gone exploring.
There is a reason dogs in the wilderness must stay on the leash. Normally we think it’s for the dog’s own good, to keep them out of trouble with other hikers, to avoid ticks and fleas that live in the brush, and to protect them from dangerous rattlesnakes and even tarantulas.
But the main reason is to keep our pets from hurting the wilderness. That deer had survived what nature threw at her, she had survived a coyote attack and was healed from that wound. But she didn’t survive an encounter with a small dog that ran off leash along the border of the forest.