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Once Upon a Fenceline

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

I find a lot of things when I'm out walking. Pretty leaves, frost flowers, box turtles, scat...I read the book of the forest. 

Some of the things I find are beautiful, and some are ghastly. I came upon this bit of animal on October 25, 2019. It's the leg of a white-tailed deer who got hung up in barbed wire in a hayfield about a half-mile from my door. 

The wires all converge in a deadly star, a Union Jack pattern, on the severed leg of the hapless deer. The flesh on it was still moist and pliable. This had happened last night.

The ground beneath is leafless, kicked white, down to the clay. I gazed at this scene, at the splayed toes of the deer, and felt in a great rush all the agony and terror of the animal being free and leaping and then, in one miscalculation, instantly caught and doomed.

Last night, I'd been kept up by coyotes singing and yipping. I knew they had happened upon something big. I listened in the dark and wondered who might be the object of their attention. I was glad to be inside. The woods is a different place at night.

Well, what they were singing about was here in my hand. They were setting this deer free in the only way they could. I was grateful that we now have packs of coyotes in Ohio; that there were social canids big and skilled enough to end this animal's suffering--even to sever its leg and drag it down the hill to be eaten. No trace of it remained, save for a random bone fragment that I heard Curtis crunch down as he inspected the catbriar patch just down from the fence. Yes, a pack of coyotes can make a large whitetail disappear overnight. I've seen it done.

The splayed hoof was eloquent in its silence, speaking of the wire's cruel and ever-tightening grip. I was stunned and very, very grateful I hadn't been the one to come upon the struggling deer, for that is something I could not have let run its course.  I would have had to find someone to kill it as humanely as possible.  Instead, Nature took her course, and the coyotes feasted. I'd heard their song of death and satiation, the song that raised the hair on my arms in the dark. 

We walked on, me silent and absorbed, Curtis ebullient and enthusiastic. What a neat find for a dog to unravel! I wished I could feel that way about it, but I was stumbling on empathy and sorrow. 

It was a soft gray day, and until we found the dangling leg, it had been the kind of day when you don't expect much to happen. I let Curtis snoop around in the grass and composed photos in a desultory way, thinking about that deer and the rotten way it had to die. There are cattle behind that old fence; you don't just go tearing it down, as was later suggested to me, without wreaking havoc on the landowners. Clearing around it and flagging each wire so the animals can see it, as has also been suggested to me, would be the work of a lifetime, and I don't have that kind of time. There are miles of such fence all around these fields. It lies in wait. Sometimes it snags something.

It is easy to suggest such things when you are sitting comfortably, pecking at your keyboard hundreds  or thousands of miles away. It is much harder to go out and do those things.  I am the one who lives with this fence. I decided  as I tramped along that I would have to walk it as often as I could.

We turned around. I heard crows cawing, the harsh rough crawwww call that says they have something. I ran to a hedgerow running at right angles to the deadly fence and came up the hill under its cover, hoping perhaps to see something snooping around the fresh kill site. 

The leg was untouched. The crows flapped off. The sky was quiet. 

And a hundred feet farther on toward my house, I heard a soft "flup."
It was the sound a manila folder makes when it falls to the floor. It was not an impressive sound, but it stopped me in my tracks.

It was the sound made by the wing of a red-tailed hawk, opening suddenly against briars. A red-tailed hawk, hanging helplessly on barbed wire. I had probably walked right by her on the way out. That time, she hadn't opened her wing.

The cascade of words and oaths and silent cries and prayers that happened inside my skull at the moment I found the hawk could never be put into type. "Sweet baby Jesus!!!" was one thing I said.  And "Oh sweetheart. I have to get you off this fence!!!" was another. The rest was incoherent, panicked, profane because I was alone and here was this hawk who needed me like nothing had ever needed me before, save perhaps crawler Liam when he choked on a Goldfish cracker and I ripped him out of his high chair without even unbuckling the seat belt whoooosh and he was up in the air over my head upside down and the cracker fell out. It was like that. Pure adrenaline and horror and just do it, all colliding at once.

I knew I couldn't untangle her. I couldn't even touch her without gloves.  I'd have to find a way to cut the wire. "Stay here. Don't struggle. I'll be back. I will get you off that fence."  I broke into a run and started the half-mile home, glad I could run in hiking boots, glad I could run at all. What I'd planned for my day had changed.


As the poet said--nature, red in tooth and claw. And it's so hard to take.
I have of late become practically a Jain--I walked around any creepy crawling thing I find; I escort spiders outside (in warm weather) or leave them be (in cold weather).
On and on it goes--I am hard pressed to want to destroy any living thing.

OMG... don't keep us hanging in suspense too long! I hope that you were able to save this creature. Too many bad things happen to animals who encounter us and our accoutrements. I hate my species (with exceptions for individual representatives of it, like you. But on the whole, we are a blight.)

Posted by mimimanderly November 26, 2019 at 1:05 PM

OH!!! Cliff-hanger!!! Agreed, getting hung up in a fence and then finished off by coyotes isn't a wonderful way to go, but it was a deer. They aren't rare and in some places, there are far too many of them and far too few coyotes to whittle down their numbers. I'm not sure that putting flags on the fences (as you mention was suggested) would help them to see the fence any better. Would a flag on a fence look any different from a fluttering leaf in the dark?

This is all by way of saying, I'm in your corner, Julie. You can't save them all.

Sweet baby jesus, don’t leave us hanging! Oh I hope you can save it, though I’m doubtful. Nature doesn’t often bend to my soft heart.

This week my dog Layla “found” an entire deer leg - hip socket to hoof - in a field in our patch. Not a scrap of meat on it - and just enough sinew to keep the bones in one long piece. We have coyotes in this patch, and have seen them and their handiwork before. We agree they are part of the circle of life and our shrinking eco-system. PLEASE tell us now the poor hawk fared. And happy Thanksgiving.

Now you have us hanging on the edge of our seats.

Storyteller extraordinnaire. I think of you and your soft heart so often. Rough year, lots of loss and sorrow, yet you continue to shine the light for us readers out here. Your spirit of thanksgiving reigns. I'm thankful for you. I'm convinced it's no accident that creatures in need makes themselves known to you with the well trained ear and eye. Kim in PA

Wowza. Looking forward to your next post!

I am breathless to find out how this story ends. So grateful there are people like you
who help the helpless. No one can save them all, but anyone can make a small difference in their own corner of the world. Julie, you prove that with stories like this one.

Hi! I work for a raptor rehab and education organization in eastern Iowa... would it be ok for us to use the Photo of the hawk caught in the wire? We are making an education poster about man-made dangers to raptors!! My email is

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