Flat, gray rocks snapped under my feet as I walked carefully along the path in order to avoid stepping in a muddy spot or lose my footing. My husband and I spoke quietly to each other, chatting about the wildflowers and lack of people in the park when a commotion in the woods jolted our attention. A white-tailed deer bounded over a branch and stopped in a clearing, staring at us in curiosity from a safe distance.
We stood quietly, observing the creature and whispering to each other.
“It’s so beautiful.”
“Look at the way it turns its ears.”
“Do you see where the antlers are going to grow in?”
“His tail is longer than I’ve ever seen before.”
This wasn’t the first deer we’d encountered since entering Ontario south of Thunder Bay, and they’d been particularly generous in popping up throughout Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. Growing up in Wisconsin, where people routinely took time off of work and school every fall to hunt white-tailed deer, the animals were much more skittish and quick to dash off into the woods at the first scent of a human. Here, the animals hesitated a moment, checked us out just as we observed them, then casually munched on a mouthful of grass before turning and wandering into the woods and out of sight.
I believe that, in addition to giving visitors the opportunity to stretch their legs via a web of hiking trails, the collection of national parks, natural reserves and other assorted protected areas around the world provide a valuable opportunity to view wildlife in a noninvasive, safe and natural way—an experience that is becoming increasingly difficult to have beyond these areas.
Indeed, there have been problems with overpopulation in areas where hunting isn’t allowed, and the arguments for and against population control both have something worth considering. Nonetheless, it’s in these protected areas that I have had the privilege to see many animals that I otherwise would not have encountered on my own. In viewing these animals in real life without the assistance of a zoo, I’ve grown to appreciate what they have to offer to the circle of life. I notice the coloring of chipmunks, sounds of birds and movement of lizards. I’ve marveled at the size of bighorn sheep, moose and sloths. I’ve come to respect spiders and snakes, when everything in society says I should fear them. And, in the case of this deer, I’ve had the chance to truly appreciate a creature that’s always been a part of my surroundings but was never much more than the elusive animal that picked at the seeds below the bird feeder then ran away when the kitchen door was opened.
We stood for several more minutes and watched as the deer twitched his long, brown ears. His white-striped tail hung about halfway down his back legs but it didn’t move at all—not even to swat at the mosquitoes or dragon flies.
“Thank you,” my husband said, louder than a whisper to the deer. The creature stared back, unblinking.
We turned our attention back toward the trail, the conversation about wildflowers now lost to one about our latest wildlife sighting.