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A Matter of Trust

MANY years ago when I was a young Civilian Conservation Corps enrollee at a camp in northwestern Connecticut, I was enjoying a day of fishing in the nearby Housatonic River.

Involved with my fly-casting, I was totally unaware that circumstances were developing nearby that would linger in memory for the rest of my life and keep me wondering to this day if what happened was not a matter of trust between a wild creature and man.

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Working my way downstream along the west bank of the river, I heard excited barking ahead. The barks were those of our two camp dogs: Chubby, a mongrel with a lot of Irish setter in her, and another long-haired, equally large mongrel whose name I've long since forgotten.

The dogs were running on opposite sides of the river, Chubby on my side and the male on the other. Swimming in the river, which was swollen from the heavy rains of the previous few days, was a doe deer.

As she attempted to climb from the river on one side, the dog waiting for her there would drive her back in. Then she would swim to the other side. She was tiring rapidly, and panic showed in her behavior. Death for her appeared certain, either at the teeth of the dogs or by drowning.

I collared Chubby, trying to hold her. Her predatory instinct kept her struggling to get free to continue her pursuit of the deer.

Finally, I had to hit her with a stick to drive her away from the river. I disliked having to use force, for Chubby was a frequent companion of mine on many hikes into the forested mountains surrounding our camp; she was a friend. She ran back to the camp, about a quarter-mile away.

Free of danger, the doe, her energy spent, clambered up the mossy slope on which I was standing. She then collapsed at the base of a large riverside hemlock. Unable to gather enough strength to move, she lay quivering at my feet, gasping for breath.

I knelt at her side, talking quietly to her. I cannot recall what I said. Perhaps I just mouthed what I thought to be soothing, reassuring sounds.

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Then I gently began stroking her flank and side. Her quivering slowed. She closed her eyes and lay still. I could feel the pounding of her heart.

After about five minutes, she raised her head. Struggling to her feet, she stood motionless for a moment, looking at me with eyes that now lacked the look of fear. She slowly walked away from the river, disappearing in the direction of the mountains.

More than half a year passed. Then, on an early summer day in 1937, while I was hiking in the mountains alone, I had the second experience of this story.

I saw a doe come out of a thicket of mountain laurel. She browsed slowly on the leaves of small maple saplings growing on the old wooded road on which I was standing. I had been traveling slowly, stopping often, when she appeared. She was only a few yards away.

She was evidently aware of my presence, for she looked steadily at me. She did not run, nor did she give any indication of fright. I stood motionless for a while, expecting her to take flight. When she did not, I slowly approached her. She continued her browsing, keeping her eyes fixed upon me as I walked closer.

When I was within an arm's length of her, I paused for a moment, then reached out and placed my hand gently on her flank. She flinched slightly, but did not bound off.

She appeared healthy, and behaved normally except for her lack of fear at my nearness. Lightly stroking the sleek body, I talked to her in low, quiet tones.

She began to walk away, keeping just beyond my reach as I followed. Then, as if only at that moment aware of my alien presence, she bounded off into the laurel with slow, graceful leaps, white tail flying, and was gone.

With my heart beating wildly, I stood rooted in place, hardly believing what I had experienced.

As time passed, I began to wonder if perhaps the two encounters were related and involved the same animal.

Was the doe that showed no fear of my presence and allowed me to stroke her flank in the early summer of 1937 the same deer I saved from the dogs in the autumn of 1936?

Had she associated my scent with the incident at the river and remembered?

I cannot help but believe it was the same deer, and that the wild creature's acceptance of me was a matter of trust.

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