A few weeks back — as yet another “big buck” story ran wild on the Internet, generating thousands of page views an hour — my editor asked me a question that should have been quite simple.
Why do so many people want to read about big dead animals?
Unspoken: We can write touching, heart-warming stories about people in our community, or stories about fires or crimes or courts, for that matter, and one big dead deer (huge rack of antlers optional) and that deer story will trump ‘em all.
Want proof? The most popular story on our website last year (and a couple more in our top 10) involved big dead deer.
Since I grew up in Maine and my editor is from Connecticut, we were coming at the question from different angles. Neither of the first two responses I thought of — “Because” and “Why not?” — was particularly powerful, nor persuasive.
In Connecticut, I found out, there’s not much of a market for big dead deer stories. Go figure. (They probably don’t get their jollies from hanging deer carcasses in a tree and inviting in their neighbors over to take pictures, either. I guess there’s no accounting for taste).
Of course, when editors start pondering such important questions, there’s a predictable outcome: Eventually, they’ll tell you to write about it. And she did.
Given my marching orders, I sought out some people who could help. And one of the first things I learned was that the big deer fascination (while possibly not being observed in Connecticut) is a pretty primitive thing.
“Antlers have a long history of being held in admiration by people,” said Kyle Ravana, the deer biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, in an email. “Studies of wildlife going as far back as the time of Aristotle have expressed interest in antler growth. Today, society seems to hold them in higher esteem than maybe even the animal itself.”
With that said, Ravana admitted that for the deer themselves, antlers aren’t as big a deal.
“In regard to nutritional status, antlers are considered a physiological luxury,” he said. “What I mean is that they are not needed to survive. As such, if an animal is in poor condition, the energy the animal takes in will be allocated toward maintaining itself before being allocated to antler growth.”
Ravana’s colleague, wildlife biologist Scott McLellan, also pays particular attention to antlers. He’s an avid “shed hunter” and spends the winter months tromping through the woods, looking for antlers that have been dropped by moose or deer.
He said the allure for him — one that likely affects others who like looking at photos of big deer or deer with large antlers — is the fact that he gets to experience something that’s pretty rare.
“I think one of the biggest things that’s most fascinating is the fact that you don’t see big, huge antlers all that often,” McLellan said. “We live in a state that is very, very forested, sometimes just viewing deer is a big deal. It’s a unique sighting to see a big-antlered deer … those big bucks are usually pretty nocturnal for the most part, and they really aren’t observed all that often.”
Josh Slezak, who lives in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, said he checks out the Bangor Daily News for outdoor coverage. Among the things he likes to read are stories about big deer.
“I think from a hunter’s perspective, it’s the amount of time you spend in the woods without seeing anything, let alone a giant, that makes them so majestic,” Slezak said in an email. “Many people that don’t hunt think you just walk through the woods and ‘Oh, here comes a deer,’ and you blast it. Not so.”
My own hunting buddy Chris Lander of Orrington grew up hunting, and he had an interesting take on the matter. Lander grew up hunting with his dad and older brothers, and he said that as a youngster, he always had one goal in mind: He wanted to shoot a 12-point buck.
“My emphasis was always on the rack,” Lander said. “I didn’t care if the deer was 150 pounds, if it had a big rack, I was in. [My dad’s] response always was, ‘You can’t eat the rack.’ I guess he was brought up in a different time with different priorities. He was always focused on how heavy the deer was.”
Lander said when he looks at photos of deer and moose, he still focuses on the antlers first. And he admits that sometimes, he finds himself hoping to encounter a similar animal.
“I think as hunters we all have in the back of our minds we want to harvest a big-racked buck,” he said. “It gives you the trophy on the wall and bragging rights for years to come.”
Rob Speirs of Cumberland is 67, and he said he’s been hunting for years. He said that stories about successful hunts that end with a big buck being taken matter to him because he knows how hard the feat can be.
“[A big buck] makes for a great story, eliciting strong interest from others in how it came to be harvested, because it is such a cautious and wary animal, and we learn from each other’s stories,” Speirs said. “That is why I always click on big buck stories. I enjoy hearing how others came to shoot a big deer, and to hear their stories. It puts me right in the woods with them, and at their sides as the story unfolds. I can see it, hear it and smell it! I can imagine it as they tell it, transporting me to my own experiences and the thrill and rush of fleeting moments with big bucks.”
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke.