Me and Him: Three life-changing deer encounters in four weeks

Courtesy of Nicholas Tillinghast '25.

The white-tailed deer is one of nature’s most sophisticated woodland creatures. In my short time on Vassar’s campus, I have been able to take part in the complex interactions typical of animal-human communication that few naturalists have managed to capture. Let me paint you a picture of how one deer has personally touched my life.

Encounter one: It was a quiet summer evening. I had just finished my perusal of the Loeb Art Center and I was making my way to Skinner Hall. Along the way, I quietly sang the first verse of Gloria Gaynor’s 1981 hit song “I Will Survive” under my breath. Then I saw him from a distance. The white-tailed deer, nature’s horse. He heard me, looked up for a brief moment and then craned his head down slightly as if to say, “Were you singing Gloria Gaynor’s 1981 hit song ‘I Will Survive’? I like that song but people don’t give Gloria enough credit for her other musical gems.” I gave him a nod back as if to say, “I’ll have to check them out,” but with the subtext that I don’t actually plan to. I then proceeded to take seven pictures of him and his family before they departed.

Encounter two: The sun had set on a humid early September day and night had fallen on Vassar’s campus. I was in the library working on a long English reading. When I finally left the library and made my way onto the path in front of it, I saw a familiar face to my right, some 10 meters away. It was him. He looked at me for a brief moment and tilted his head as if to say, “You’re lucky. They won’t let me in there. They only let bats in there.” At that moment, I felt a fountain of sympathy grow within me. I could confirm the presence of bats; I had seen one in the library only a few days prior. But this incredible white-tailed deer in front of me did not have the same educational resources available to him that I or the bat did. I took five pictures of him that night and then bid him an emotional adieu.

Encounter three: Another calm night on campus. Things were starting to settle down for me. I had picked up a gig ushering at Skinner Hall, and I was set up at the back alley door letting people in for a show. Most people didn’t come in through the back door, so most of the time I was looking out at a sea of nothing. The depths below the Bridge were laid out in front of me, dark and foreboding. Then something stalked into my right periphery about 15 meters away. He looked at me and then prodded around in a little circle. The silent treatment tonight, huh? The prior warmth he had once offered me was gone and I didn’t feel like trying to open up the conversation.  I guess we had both already said all there was to say. He and his family soon galloped away toward the abyss of the underbridge with a brilliance that only the white-tailed deer exhibits, but not before I captured a few candids.

After reflecting on these brief glimpses into the animal kingdom, I found that my connection to the white-tailed deer strengthened significantly, but so did my connection to society as a whole. He was right in saying that I was lucky to have the opportunities I have, but I must disagree with my deer friend on one key point: his assertion that the bats are allowed in the library was categorically false. The bats sneak in. In the animal kingdom, it’s survival at all costs. Whatever animal rises to the challenge is the one that succeeds in the end. Through my studies on the white-tailed deer, it has become increasingly clear to me that if he can somehow find a way to make himself as flat as the northern bat, he too, like Gloria Gaynor, will survive.


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