Passport
Full Episode
Touching the Wild

Joe Hutto’s idea of research is anything but normal, dedicating seven years of his life to becoming a wild mule deer. The herd would ordinarily run from any human but, incredibly, these keenly intelligent animals come to regard this stranger as one of their own. Accepted by the matriarch, he walks among them, is even groomed by them, and can lie with a pregnant doe talking to its unborn fawns. As he crosses the species divide Joe is tapping into a new understanding about these elusive animals, literally entering a deer society. The captivating joy he feels for his new family is nothing short of infectious, but this human predator also learns to see the world from the point of view of prey – and it’s an experience that will ultimately rock him to his very core; sharing their world so personally finally takes a toll that sends him back to his own kind.

Transcript Print

[Guitar playing over] I've been doing this every year for six years.

I mean, it's embarrassing.

It's absolutely every day.

You know, I could count the exceptions probably on one hand when I haven't been with these deer.

And then, six years, that's literally it.

I've been with these deer every single day -- you know, and not just for a minute here and a minute there.

Someone might ask, Why would you do such a thing?

and my response would be, How could you not?

It doesn't come without a terrible cost.

But this is a chance to know this animal in a way that no one else can -- perhaps to truly see the world through a wild creature's eyes.

[Soundtrack playing over] All my life I have been compelled to try to make contact with wild creatures.

I am trained as a scientist, but what I really study is hard to quantify, because I just don't observe a species, I try to get close enough to get to know the characters of individual wild animals.

I have lived alongside all kinds of creatures.

But one chance encounter with a mule deer was the instigation for a study that would take over seven years of my life.

I was out in the sagebrush and I met this young buck, and he had such a peculiar interest in me.

Hey, boy.

Who are you?

Somehow I made a gesture.

Maybe I spoke to him, maybe I said, 'Hey, buddy, what's happening?'

We stared, and he clearly understood that I was not a threat.

I would encounter that same deer, and that deer would go, 'Oh, it's that guy.'

He returned an upward nod of the head, and I looked away and I nodded my head, and he returned the gesture again.

That deer was willing to see me as an individual, and he very clearly saw that I granted him his individuality.

I was not seeing some I never saw that lone buck again.

But it was in that moment that I realized just what potential there was in these animals.

And I was perfectly placed to study them.

Where I live is dead center in the winter range of a large herd of mule deer.

[Playing guitar] [Chipmunk chittering] I live on an old Wyoming homestead ranch dating back to the 1880s.

It's often referred to as 'The Old Corbett Place.'

Anna-Mae Corbett, she was the first schoolteacher in the pioneer community of Lander.

[Chittering echoes in pipe] Her old log home is now refuge for a family of Least chipmunks, who appear too small to exist, let alone propagate in such great numbers.

But really, my new home was to be away from the ranch and out onto the sagebrush steppe of the mountains beyond.

Ultimately, my aim was to write a book and to uncover the private lives of these deer.

But more importantly, I wanted to be the voice for an extraordinary animal that's in trouble.

The North American mule deer has problems on a bewildering array of fronts, and unless we take notice soon, we may just watch this species fade into oblivion.

I wanted to get to know these creatures personally.

I want to see how close I can get to them, and the way I do that is by introducing myself and letting them get to know me.

This was a long process, but I found it irresistible and I had to do it.

and I just had to become a part of these animal's lives, and I wanted them to be a part of mine.

I'm not afraid to push the envelope, and I don't mind going beyond science, and I try to walk a fine line between the science and the sentiment.

This is about making contact with the wild.

If I can put in the time for an animal to come to know me, and trust me; if they become entirely comfortable, then perhaps I have the opportunity to see them like no one ever has before.

But you shouldn't underestimate what was involved here -- this doesn't happen overnight.

I had to be out there every day for over two years just to gain the first signs of trust from these deer.

But eventually -- and it was quite sudden when it started to happen -- I realized -- I was out on the mountainside, in the sagebrush, with this herd of wild mule deer.

These deer weren't running away.

They weren't entirely accepting of me, but they were letting me be there, and it was really a pivotal moment.

It wasn't until I got to know one particular doe that I really gained access into the world of the wild mule deer.

We called her Raggedy Ann, because she had seen and done it all.

This was a very experienced deer, this was a veteran.

Raggedy Ann was a very nervous deer.

Some deer are bold and fearless, and other mule deer are very cautious and wary.

She would come near, but she wouldn't come close.

And eventually after about two years, two-and-a-half years, one day, and it was like a switch had been flipped.

Raggedy Ann made a conscious decision that I was entirely safe to be around.

Her eyes softened, she relaxed, and for the first time, Raggedy Anne approached me -- she walked up.

And it was a profound moment, an amazing moment.

This wild mule deer had overcome so much, and was willing to accept me into her life.

It was only later that I recognized the importance of this moment -- because it was not the big bucks that were in charge here.

Gradually I came to recognize that Raggedy Ann was the herd's leader.

She did not maintain her status through aggression, and she never had to assert her dominance.

And so, it took quite a long time to recognize how profound her influence was on this herd of deer, and that she was, in fact, the lead deer, and she made decisions about where they would go and what time they would go there.

I'm now fully accepted.

I can be in the midst of 20, 30, 40 mule deer in a wild setting, and I am, in a sense, embedded in their society -- it's as if I'm just another deer, because no one pays attention to me -- which is the perfect perspective.

Every deer in this herd has a distinct face, it's a group of individual characters with differing personalities and complex social relationships.

Relationships that now include me.

Boar is by far the biggest buck, but Babe is in charge.

Ragtag is the matriarch's daughter, but with special privileges of her birth.

Blossom is the kindest natured animal I've ever met, and is slowly becoming a close friend.

I am part of this deer hierarchy, with etiquettes that must be observed.

If a deer's space is violated, then the trespasser is warned with a raised chin.

And if this gentle reminder doesn't work, then a strike with the front legs will send the offending deer back into its rightful space.

Each day I arrive and they recognize me instantly.

But that doesn't mean these deer are tame to any humans.

I can be with 30 deer on the mountainside, but if another human being appears even on the horizon, they'll explode with fear.

Well, that's an example of how wild these deer are around other humans.

There's horses and riders over there, a half a mile away.

And the deer stormed off like their lives were in jeopardy, and now as you can see, they're a half a mile in the other direction.

So, they've run a mile from those riders in five minutes -- and left me.

Mule deer are naturally somewhat elusive and wary of humans -- after all, they've been a legally hunted game animal for generations.

I'm now beginning to see this landscape through their eyes.

The Rocky Mountain west is their refuge... but it's also home to the bears and wolves that hunt them.

[Deer bellows] Living side by side is a chance existence, and they survive on their wits.

Mule deer are a profoundly intelligent animal.

They in fact may have, pound for pound, the largest brain of any deer in the world.

And we see them being identified in some way by their curiosity.

Raggedy Ann's daughter, Ragtag, was also a breakthrough deer.

She allowed me to touch her, of course, but the phenomenal thing with Ragtag was that she was the first deer to actually groom me in return.

Mule deer do not randomly groom one another -- it is something that occurs within the family.

And I realized suddenly, I had this revelation that, 'Oh, this deer thinks of me as one of her family members.'

What is it? You need more scratching?

You need more scratching?

It's phenomenal, and it's actually quite an honor to be included like that.

Babe!

Babe, look here.

When getting close to other animals, I've always tried hard to never to use my human voice.

But with these mule deer, I immediately recognized they were somehow acknowledging their names and responding appropriately.

Blossom.

I call, and they instantly look up.

Come here, Blossom.

And perhaps slowly amble over to my side.

Of course, deer don't understand a human language, but without doubt, they derive meaning from the context and tone of my words.

Dogs have been bred for thousands of years to pay attention in this way, but such traits in a wild mule deer are a mystery.

What evolutionary advantages can there be in this ability?

[Deer bellowing] Early winter is the time for the bucks.

That's when they come together with the herd, arriving from their secret mountain retreats, hoping for a chance to mate.

But they'll have to reckon with the dominant buck in this herd, and his name is Babe.

Babe was extraordinary even as a fawn.

He was clearly intelligent but also very aggressive.

He didn't have the biggest set of antlers in the neighborhood, but he had the biggest heart in the neighborhood.

He was always a little late arriving.

Apparently, he had his own calendar because he always showed up around the last day of hunting season.

And he obviously had to run the gauntlet past a lot of hunters over a lot of landscape to get to this place, but he never failed to turn up.

For the herd, and particularly the fawns, winter is a really tough time.

The draw of Dead Man Gulch, where I live, is where the deer come to make their last stand against the elements.

It can get to 35 below.

For all the animals, it's a time of survival.

[Low growl] [Birds chirping] Spring transforms my home almost overnight.

From deep inside the ground, snakes can emerge 30 at a time.

[Rattling] Rattlers and bull snakes share dens that have been in use for generations.

[Calling] Male sage grouse have their own historic sites, where males can strut their stuff for their females.

[Calling] And for the mule deer, as spring gradually moves up the mountain, the prospect of lush green flowering meadows, and the sound of rushing snowmelt are the siren's call to the deer that must be obeyed.

Their migratory urge to these new pastures is irresistible.

Raggedy Ann would determine when it was time for their migration to begin, and the other deer, of course, would follow her.

Generation after generation, that knowledge of this migratory behavior was being passed on through these females.

They can migrate over 120 miles, following ancient routes.

The herd is breaking up into family groups, spreading out into the Wind river Mountains and beyond.

Keeping up with these deer is just about impossible out here.

The extent to which they all spread out into this vast landscape remains a mystery.

Suddenly, I go from this relatively intense social environment with all these deer, then I find myself without these deer in my life, and it's -- it's sort of a hard transition for me.

But this year, coming home, I discover Raggedy Ann's daughter, Ragtag, has stayed with me.

Although, she is hard to find in the heat of the day.

Hi, pretty girl.

She had two fawns last year and is pregnant again -- very pregnant.

And... And she's very swollen.

And, uh, you can place your hands on their abdomen, this time of year, just before they give birth, and you can... You can feel the little fawn, or fawns, actually kicking and nosing around.

And what I found is that these fawns are actually hearing my voice.

And so it appears that, when these particular fawns are born, they're instantly comfortable with my presence.

Two weeks later, Ragtag did the most extraordinary thing -- something no wild mule deer is likely to have done with any other human before.

She actually came and got me and led me to a secret place.

[Bleating] [Animals grunting, bleating] [Playing] [Fawn bleating] [Fawn bleats] That's the first time she's let us do that.

Does are very protective of the location of their fawn, and for her to allow me that privilege to actually go with her, and hear her call her fawn, and it respond, that's pretty extraordinary.

And she doesn't have just one fawn -- she's got twins!

A shy little buck and a much more adventurous sister I call Molly.

Molly is as inquisitive as any fawn I have known, and she loves to practice her stotting around my yard.

Molly and her twin brother have both known my voices before they were born.

For Molly, the strength of our connection was something that her survival would come to depend upon.

Mule Deer are completely faithful to their winter range, in particular the bucks.

If they survive, they will always come back.

I can look out in the distance and see someone coming, and just by facial appearances, and sometimes even by the way they walk, I can identify some old friend -- and they recognize me, as well.

Each year this is a time of reunion.

The herd is re-formed and family groups are reunited with old friends.

And both Molly and her twin are introduced to their extended family.

And last to return, as always, is Babe.

He'll have to re-establish his dominance over any pretenders for his crown.

Molly's brother died in the night, and Ragtag is distraught.

I've observed doe in a condition of exhaustion and despondency after losing a family member, and of course in the case of a mother that loses a fawn, the grieving process is clear -- it's almost irrefutable.

And it can occasionally be two weeks before a doe is resigned to leave the side of her dead fawn.

Without question, sorrow is an experience we have in common with other living things.

I've never seen mule deer grief so graphically demonstrated as when tragedy struck at the very heart of this herd.

One day, Raggedy Ann began to act strange, and her family remained in attendance the entire time she was sick.

And we literally saw her die.

Some of the deer would come and inspect her very closely, with great concern.

They would lay down with her.

And, it was a very emotional thing to watch this behavior, and hard to interpret -- were we -- were we seeing grief in mule deer?

Was this grief, was this sorrow?

She had a tremendous effect on me, and I learned so much from her about mule deer and their social life.

And, um... I feel privileged to have known her.

She was remarkable.

And so, eventually, they decided that she was in fact gone, and they -- they left, and they went up into their summer migration and did not return until fall.

Well, I hadn't counted on anything like this.

Ragtag came in sick last night, with her fawn.

This morning at first light I saw her heading up this ridge, without her fawn -- even though they're always mothered-up first thing in the morning.

And I could tell by her posture and her attitude that something was really bad.

Well, Ragtag, of course, had already lost one fawn, and now if this is the worst case scenario, we've got this little orphan.

And at 12 weeks, her possibilities are probably remote.

[Bleating] Hi, baby.

It's been over three days now since her mother died, and she's still just frantically searching.

She's just exhausting herself, hunting for her mother everywhere.

She's just running all over this mountainside.

It's kind of pitiful to watch.

[Molly bleating] Over the next days and weeks, I was Molly's best hope for her survival.

Hey, little girl.

Hello girl.

Hello, girl.

[Bleats] Good girl.

There she is, there she is.

She's a little scared but she's okay.

So, she needs a little help.

Mother's milk is about 20% protein, and we can't supply that.

Molly has somehow managed to survive, but she's hanging in there, and I try to give her a little supplemental food whenever I can, and interestingly, it seems my old friend Blossom has taken to helping me out with this young orphan.

Mule deer mothers can be pretty cruel to an orphan, so this is a very interesting development, and it may make the difference in whether or not this fawn can survive, because alone they really don't have much of a chance, and Blossom, she knows the lay of the land, she knows where to go and she knows where not to go -- is probably the most important thing.

So, I'm feeling a little bit optimistic, but still, every morning when I go out there and join the deer, I'm always a little bit surprised when Molly walks up.

[Bleats] And on this particular morning Molly has an injury.

There's a cut on the back of the leg, near the main tendons.

If this makes her lame, she's really gonna have a problem.

And, uh, Molly doesn't need this in her life -- she's having a difficult time as it is.

As winter sets in, this is going to be her biggest trial yet.

The mountain lions and even the wolves are pushed down by the snow.

They all take a heavy toll on mule deer, especially the young fawns.

[Snarling, bellowing] I've observed kills on more occasions than I would like to count, and they're, truly, they're quintessential 'death by a thousand cuts.'

And it's like reconstructing a crime scene.

This is either a wolf or a mountain lion track, I can't quite tell which.

I can see the toes down in there but I can't see the whole footprint.

And the track is an in-line track -- deer don't walk like that, cat's do.

Ah, I was afraid of this.

It's a big buck, I can't tell who it is, but it'll be somebody that I know.

You see where the animal was eventually grabbed, usually by multiple individuals.

Struggled, was dragged to the ground.

Viciously torn, a vital artery is severed, and you see two or three great spurts of red blood in the snow.

And then finally that animal's agony has ended.

And that's a horrible picture.

And, uh, people don't see that.

Oh, yeah... Yeah, I know exactly who this is.

This is a... This is a deer that I have called Bubba, I've known him for about five years.

He's got a twin brother named Boar that's still alive.

That afternoon, Boar came across the carcass of his brother.

They don't cling less desperately to their lives than we do; they do not experience death with less fear than we do.

Their agony and their horror is absolutely real.

And this is an individual that you know.

And so, you see the horror, and you see the agony, and you assign this to the way nature works.

Well, when you're that close to an animal, you can't look at it and say, 'Well, this is the natural order of things, this is the way it should be.'

You just cannot dismiss it that way.

Molly's uncanny sense danger is innate -- she's born with it, and her reactions warn me when I need to be vigilant.

We have an abundance of mountain lions here, and there may be eight different individuals in this area.

And so, of course, I see their tracks everywhere.

I also have had the distinction of being attacked by a mountain lion, so I know what it feels like to be grabbed and seized by a very powerful cat.

The curious thing about mountain lions, they're not uncommon.

And you never see them.

For years I thought that they were so incredibly wary, that they were leaving the landscape long before I entered the area.

And now I know for a fact that they don't do that.

They see you coming and they hide.

[Deer bellows] [Mountain lion snarls] There's an old saying in this part of the west -- You don't have to be faster than the bear, you just have to be faster than the other guy.

And when I'm with the deer, I'm the slowest guy in the crowd.

Well, here's Molly.

She's had a... long, hard time, but I think, uh, we can say that, barring any encounters with predators, she's starting to be a pretty healthy little deer.

And she's just gotten to be a real sweetie.

Hard not to fall in love with a little animal like this.

Animals are not the only predators that Molly will encounter.

Living with this herd means I have to face up to the mule deer's real relationship with humans.

The mule deer evolved as a species perhaps as recently as 15,000 thousand years ago.

And in comparison, the white-tailed deer may have been around for six million years.

This means mule deer are probably one of the few animals that evolved alongside us humans.

We must have always represented a conundrum of schizophrenic proportions -- We're that strange creature who will pull you as a helpless fawn from the frozen water, or cut you free from a tangled mass barbed wire, and then tomorrow kill your mother standing at your side, and leave her gut piled in the sagebrush for you to ponder.

[Gunshot] They're really nervous now that hunting season's underway.

[Distant gunshot] Of course, my worst fear is that orange vests will arrive from every direction.

There's one guy over here, half a mile out, and back over here about a half a mile, and two more people, and, uh... Sort of typical -- I've seen as many as 12 out here in a day.

Not many animals are gonna be able to escape that, and so, we've lost a lot of deer around here.

I have been a hunter, and I have participated in that, and I certainly don't object to it.

But yet, I was out there every day and every night, very concerned about what was going on and who was dying, and, uh, that's a -- that's a very difficult thing for an observer to be a part of.

[Gunshot] A shot rang out, and I went to the location not far away.

And I caught up with three fellows, and they were dragging Babe, and from a quarter of a mile away I knew it was Babe they were dragging.

I could tell it was him.

These aging hunters were shaking, they were so tired from the chase.

So, I ended up in this strange position of actually having to help them load up this animal that I had known all its life.

One of these gentlemen turns to me, and he says -- Do you have any idea how old this deer might be?

This is the biggest deer I've killed in 20 years.

[Inhales, shudders] And I said -- Yeah, I know exactly how old this deer is.

I've known him since he was a spotted fawn.

And I know, because I have all of his other shed antlers in my house.

To see Babe being hauled off like that, uh... It -- it was like seeing a friend.

Babe was a friend -- we had a very personal, very long-term relationship.

But mule deer are dying like flies for all sorts of reasons.

This animal needs attention now and, and not 10 years from now.

Now's the time to think about this, now's the time for us to be more observant.

This is a very special animal, and we need to pay attention.

People are not paying attention.

The mule deer is off the radar screen.

[Playing] They're under assault from so many different directions, and I see it in their eyes.

I have come to know the lives of these wild creatures, I've become a member of the herd, but I don't know how long I'll be able to continue, because the sorrow that I observe in these animals is just simply exhausting, because I can't help but experience it with them.

I've... This is hard to talk about.

It's not healthy for me to continue.

It's just taking a toll on me, and I've just got to bring all this to an end.

When they go away for their Spring migration, um, I'll go away, too.

And when they come back in the fall, like, uh, one of their family members that has died during that period of time, I simply will no longer be there.

And these are wild creatures -- they are in no way dependent on me.

And they will go on, and they will live their lives.

And it will be, uh... My loss will be much greater than theirs.

But it turns out my life with the mule deer may not be as easy to sever as I thought.

Petal just had her baby about three hours ago.

Two beautiful little fawns.

Here's fawn number one right here, and fawn number two is about three meters beyond.

And Petal is standing in the distance.

She's okay with this, she's not upset.

And so, it looks like they're doing fine.

Hopefully, we'll see them grow into beautiful adults like their parents.

Well, let's get out of here.

[Fawns bleat] I've really got to get back my life back, I can't go on like this forever.

The trouble is, if I could lead that one perfect life, that utopian ideal, there's nothing I'd rather do that live on the mountainside with a herd of mule deer.