The Hidden Life Of Deer: Lessons from the Natural World Hardcover – Sep 4 2009
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“In this slim and amiable book Ms. Thomas gathers a pile of small, not uninteresting observations about deer, and in doing so she subtly alters the way you look at them in a forest or from a window.” (New York Times)
Praise for CERTAIN POOR SHEPHERDS:“America’s foremost explainer of animal feelings and thoughts has woven fur and scent into the Christmas story, with amusing, moving results.” (John Updike)
Praise for REINDEER MOON“[The author] knows human feelings so well, in all their joy and bitterness. And her literary judgment is flawless. Her wisdom shines forth and, as always, her prose is strong and sure.” (Annie Dillard)
“The Hidden Life of Deer is a glorious achievement, giving new meaning to what it is both to be human and to be alive on this planet of wonders.” (New York Review of Books)
From the Back Cover
The animal kingdom operates by ancient rules, and the deer in our woods and backyards can teach us many of them—but only if we take the time to notice.
In the fall of 2007 in southern New Hampshire, the acorn crop failed and the animals who depended on it faced starvation. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas began leaving food in small piles around her farmhouse. Soon she had over thirty deer coming to her fields, and her naturalist's eye was riveted. How did they know when to come, all together, and why did they sometimes cooperate, sometimes compete?
Throughout the next twelve months she observed the local deer families as they fought through a rough winter; bred fawns in the spring; fended off coyotes, a bobcat, a bear, and plenty of hunters; and made it to the next fall when the acorn crop was back to normal. As she hiked through her woods, spotting tree rubbings, deer beds, and deer yards, she discovered a vast hidden world. Deer families are run by their mothers. Local families arrange into a hierarchy. They adopt orphans; they occasionally reject a child; they use complex warnings to signal danger; they mark their territories; they master local microclimates to choose their beds; they send countless coded messages that we can read, if only we know what to look for.
Just as she did in her beloved books The Hidden Life of Dogs and Tribe of Tiger, Thomas describes a network of rules that have allowed earth's species to coexist for millions of years. Most of us have lost touch with these rules, yet they are a deep part of us, from our ancient evolutionary past. The Hidden Life of Deer is a narrative masterpiece and a naturalist's delight.See all Product Description
Top Customer Reviews
After fruitlessly searching the internet, I was thrilled to finally come across "The Hidden Life of Deer." Ms. Thomas's accounting of her local deer families enlightened me as to many of their characteristics and social interactions, exactly the information I was seeking. After reading the book, I was able to identify with the deer out my window and understand more of their social behaviors.
Well written, filled with great information, I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in learning more about these gentle and fascinating creatures of our forests.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
She writes about how she attracted the deer for the winter by feeding them corn--she goes on for a whole chapter about why she felt that the laws were BS and that she was just supplementing their diet, saving them from a winter of starvation. If she read up on the subject a bit she'd find that ruminates that eat corn have the acidity in their rumen go up and kill off the good bacteria causing difficulty digesting food and sickness. It's why we pump our cows full of antibiotics and other chemicals during finishing when they are on a high-corn diet. In other words--she not only was harming them but is encouraging others to harm them as well. Deer aren't meant to eat high carbohydrate feed in the winter--their system is meant for fibrous stems and grasses at that time. Please don't follow her lead!
She also doesn't observe so much as come up with her own random hypotheses without actually testing them in any way through her observations. She just gets excited and sees any little details as confirming whatever she believes. At one point in the books she feels she could "thought-speak" to one of them. She's very emotional, and I think the biggest example of her misinterpretation of animal behavior is when she thought that the small male deer were claiming a larger buck's territory after he was shot was them "honoring his spirit." No lady, it's very obvious that these animals were taking advantage of the fact that they could look larger than they really are by running their scent all over the areas where he rubbed his antlers higher than they could actually reach. FOr the reviews that say she doesn't anthropomorphize--I have no idea if they read the same book I did because she does it left and right.
I'm not going to deny that her writing style is easy to read an enjoyable--if it weren't for the crazy misinformation she has because she assumes so many things rather than look at others' research as well as a modern naturalist ought to. I would not be so annoyed if this book were touted about what it really is--a misguided animal lover who likes to come up with stories about the animals in her backyard. If this were a work of fiction or a memoir on naturalism I'd rank it 4 stars--as a book that pretends to be science I'm rating it 2. You will learn nothing of worth here, except an appreciation of nature.
If you're not so sure, here's some more information. She's learned to be a pretty good observer of the natural world - - not a great observer, but pretty good. She figures out how to identify individual deer not by individual marks but by observing the small groups they live with, and then distinguishing individuals within that. She notices some aspects of deer behavior. If you were a deer scientist, I don't think you'd be impressed, but Thomas probably writes a lot better than our imaginary deer scientist. So it evens out.
She spends a lot of time obsessing about whether she should feed the deer when they're starving. She decides that she should, or that she will, which is not the same thing. However, the worries seem to take up half the book. Here's what I would tell her, if she asked me: if you worry so much about it, then you know it's not right even if you want to do it. So don't do it.
The best stuff comes at the end, when she talks about other animals. So, ironically, this book is at its best when she stops talking about deer.
She writes well, and it's a pleasant book to have in your lap in front of the fire with a snifter of brandy. But I find it hard to get much more enthusiastic about it than that.
So my expectations were completely off. And I found myself really irritated with the lack of science, and the constant rationalizations of behavior that goes against recommendations of wildlife experts.
I might have really enjoyed this book, if I'd had appropriate expectations. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas obviously loves her deer friends, and has entertaining anecdotes to share. She's a kind-hearted soul, and a keen observer of "her" animals. Her writing is warm and friendly, rambling like a cozy conversation over a cup of tea - with occasional passionate outbursts.
If you'd like a cozy, relaxing narrative non-fiction about one woman's relationship with her local deer, this is your book. If you're looking for science, look elsewhere.
Welcome to the first one star review I've ever given. I didn't plan it that way; I thought it would be interesting to read something about deer from a non-hunting perspective, and I was just going to take the feeding as an unpleasant given without comment.
But the author spends so much time trying to justify her feeding the deer that it's impossible to not write about it. The attempt at justification of a primate feeding deer relationship is very poor and the author surely knows this. The fact that langur monkeys in India eat only parts of leaves and chital deer wait beneath the trees to eat what's dropped is completely irrelevant to putting out hundreds of pounds of corn.
Ultimately, her stated reason for feeding them is that they are individuals who want to live. To fully appreciation my opposition to her behavior, you need to understand that I live by that principle more than the author does--I don't eat animals, don't believe in using them for entertainment or experimentation, and I don't support hunting them. I've been a wildlife rehabilitation volunteer, and I occasionally toss something out the window for squirrels or crows or whoever wants it and enjoy watching them eat. In short, I completely understand the desire to feed them and if deer existed in a vacuum, I'd say feed away.
But of course they don't exist in a vacuum and her choice has far-reaching consequences, from directly depriving other animals of the food which would have been provided by predation and scavenging of weakened and dead deer, to the later destruction of rare plant life and ecosystems by the resulting overpopulation of deer. Anyone able to view things objectively can see what the overpopulation of the human species has meant to other life forms.
She cites one example of seeing a deer with claw marks which she hypothesizes came from a bear, and wonders with pride if her corn gave the deer the strength to escape. If it did, shame would be a more appropriate emotion for anyone who actually cared about nature as a whole. And of course by feeding the deer in a year of low acorn production, she's directly undermining the reason why there are years of low acorn production. Even the deer themselves attempt to override her feeding of them when the strongest prevent the weakest from eating.
In any case, the fact that deer are individuals who want to live apparently doesn't matter to the author when it comes to hunting. She declares that she'd rather be shot than killed in a slaughterhouse as if it's an either/or choice when in fact neither one has to occur. And then goes on to mention overpopulation as a justification for hunting even as she contributes to that overpopulation.
Although she claims that she has no interest in taking a life, she eagerly goes along to watch a hunter do so, and after he kills a deer he doesn't think is good enough for him, agrees to his suggestion that she lie and claim she killed the deer so he can kill another bigger one. This from someone she considers one of the best hunters, a man who elsewhere in the book she prevents from killing an injured bear who then lives for many years, a man she also criticizes for painfully dragging a deer who'd been hit by a car into the woods instead of shooting the deer on the spot. Considering her claim that the will to hunt is deep in our psyches, I suppose we should all be amazed that the overwhelming majority of people don't do it. Or maybe her claim is just nonsense.
Most of what she writes about the deer is as much imagination as observation which was OK but is there anything actually good in this book? Yes, there's a page about scat which is well-written, and the last chapter of non-deer related nature anecdotes was good enough that I was going to boost my rating up to two stars. Then I came to the epilogue where she declares she's going to keep feeding the deer as long as she's alive regardless of conditions. One star is being generous for the way this book left me feeling.
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