December 19, 2013
By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
As we gather around the campfire and fireplace during this holiday season, J.R. Dunsmore has a cautionary tale to share about white-tailed deer as pets.
“Just don’t do it,” said the 69-year-old Dunsmore, who lives just outside Guntersville. “They are dangerous. I didn’t know how dangerous. Now, when I wake up I see half the world, because this (right) half is gone. It can’t be fixed.”
Wearing a patch over his right eye, Dunsmore relived the moment when the buck (named Zeke) that he considered a pet reverted to the normal behavior of a wild animal and almost killed the Marshall County resident.
“I had a limb off a tree that had acorns on it,” said Dunsmore, who had illegal captive deer in a 1 1/2-acre pen behind his house. “I would pick acorns up off the ground and dump buckets full of them into the pen. I looked around and didn’t see the buck. I opened the gate, stepped through and threw the limb into the pen. When I threw the limb, undoubtedly he was standing against the fence behind me because he just picked me up by the legs and carried me down to a tree and or stump. I really can’t tell you which one he put me against.
“He never did back up and charge like you see on TV. When he put me down, he just started pushing. He just pushed. I could see his back legs and they were buried this (6 inches) deep in the ground. He was just digging in, shoving me. I had a hold on his horns (antlers) and that’s when one horn got me right here (right cheek). It went through my sinuses, through my optic nerve and stuck into the edge of my brain. I got that pulled out, and when I did that I got turned around. For some reason, he kind of picked me up. When we backed up, we hit right at the gate, and the gate was still open. When we hit the gate, I rolled through and pulled the gate shut behind me.”
The 6-year-old, nine-point buck had a 27-inch inside spread. Conservation enforcement officers estimated the buck weighed in excess of 250 pounds. Mature bucks go through a transition in the fall as rutting activity approaches. Hormones change the buck’s behavior into that of an animal accustomed to fighting to establish domination in the herd.
“That deer picked me up, and I weigh 260 pounds, and carried me 30 or 40 feet in the air, never put me down,” Dunsmore said. “I was just like a rag doll. I was on top of his horns and my feet were off the ground. I was in the cradle and couldn’t do anything about it.”
When the buck slammed him into the tree or stump, Dunsmore managed to get turned around to face the deer.
“I had no problem getting a hold of his horns when he had me down,” he said. “When that horn went into my cheek, I could hear bones cracking and I knew I had to do something. I grabbed him by the nose and squeezed. Then I could see he was blowing vapors out of his mouth. I rolled my hand around and ran it up into his throat. I don’t know if that did it or what, but at that point he backed up enough that I pulled the horn out of my face. He picked me up a little to twist. That’s when I was able to get on my feet and start backing up. He was still pushing. He never stopped. I was on my feet and I knew I couldn’t stop, I couldn’t fall. When I got through that gate, he hit that gate like he was going to tear it to pieces.”
Sitting in his driveway, Dunsmore tried to evaluate his situation and quickly realized he needed medical help, pronto.
“I couldn’t see one side because I had blood in my eye,” he said. “Then I saw blood running down the driveway and I knew I had to go call 911. I got back to the house and called. I remember the first responder and I remember coming back to in the ambulance. Then I don’t remember anything else for about two days.”
The wound that cost Dunsmore the sight in his right eye was not the only trauma he suffered. He had puncture wounds in his arm, hip, thigh, lower leg, ribcage and lung.
As the bulk of Dunsmore’s wounds heal, the ramifications of having captive deer continue to negatively affect his life. He has been charged by Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries officials with the illegal possession of white-tailed deer.
“You can get in a lot of trouble with the law,” he said. “I didn’t know it was against the law to have, even though it was running partially loose, a captive deer or pet deer on your place. I just did not realize this. I’ve had deer in here for 26 or 27 years. I’ve had deer jump the fence and stay and then jump back out, because we’ve got deer all around here in the woods. I did not realize it was against the law, even though he was running loose. I didn’t sell them to anybody. I didn’t shoot them.
“But it is (against the law) and it’s for your own protection. They’re dangerous. I’m facing some pretty tough consequences. But that’s the least of my worries, as far as money goes. My bill at the hospital trauma center was $47,000. I haven’t heard from the four doctors who worked on me. I haven’t heard from Marshall North, where I went to start with. That is just the Huntsville hospital.”
Dunsmore said he started keeping deer innocently enough, but he now realizes that was a mistake, a big mistake.
“People would call and say they had fawns where the mother had been killed,” he said. “The buck that got me, the mother had been killed by a car and a lady picked up the fawn on the side of the road. It lived with her in an apartment. She realized, ‘This thing is going to grow up and I can’t keep it.’ She called and I got it. I turned it loose here. Then I got a call from a guy with a horse pen. He had two horses, two goats and a couple of dogs. There was a pile of brush in the middle of the pen and a (doe) fawn was in the pile of brush. The momma never came back. I took it, put it on a bottle and raised it.”
Those two deer had offspring that were reared in the pen, and Dunsmore had been lulled into a sense of complacency just two weeks before the tragic incident.
“The guys were logging next door,” he said. “He wanted to see how steep the bank was below the pen. He came up; we walked through the gate and down the hill. The deer (Zeke) came up behind us and was licking my arm. The deer reached up and licked him on the neck. He came out and told his son, ‘You ain’t going to believe what I was doing. I had a nine-pointer licking me on the neck. I was petting it.’
“It was just a big baby until something happened when I stepped through the gate. Something snapped in his mind. He went from a big baby to he wanted to kill me. That’s the only thing I can think of. He wanted to kill me, because he tried his best to run his horns through me.”
Although Dunsmore has a variety of animals on his farm, there won’t be any more captive deer on his place. Bucks are not the only captive deer that can injure a person. Does and even fawns, when frightened or attempting to show their territorial dominance, can cause significant damage with their hooves. Unlike bucks, who fight predominately with their antlers, does stand on their hind legs and flail with their front legs. Any captive deer, with or without antlers, can inflict severe injury.
“I know the fawns are sweet and cute,” he said. “When they’re first raised up, they’re like dogs, like pets. I had one that would get on the couch and watch TV with me. But they grow up, and they are wild animals. All the years I had them, I never knew one could be that strong. I don’t know what snapped.”
Dunsmore has some hard-earned experience that he would like to give as advice for anyone who finds what they think is an abandoned fawn.
“The best thing to do, I hate to say it, but if you see a fawn lying there, just walk off and leave it,” he said. “I know I will.”
PHOTOS: (ADCNR) J.R. Dunsmore of Marshall County lost the vision in his right eye and suffered other serious injuries after the buck he had in a pen on his farm attacked him. The buck, named Zeke, had to be euthanized by Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries personnel after the attack. Dunsmore also faces charges of keeping deer in captivity, which is against Alabama law.