Fletcher, John. (2014). Deer. London, UK: Reaktion Books

(Summarized by Stephen Vrla, Animal Studies Graduate Program, Michigan State University)

            In Deer, Fletcher (2014) describes deer and their historical and contemporary relationship with humans, and he makes an argument about the importance of hunting to the deer-human relationship. Although his description and argument are interconnected, he focuses six chapters on his description of deer and the deer-human relationship: “1: The Family of Deer,” on the evolution of deer species; “2: How Deer Survive,” on deer biology; “3: The Exploitation of Deer,” on humans’ efforts to tame and domesticate deer; “4: Deer Hunting and Art,” on deer hunting; and “5: Deer as Symbols,” on humans’ use of deer in art and culture. Fletcher focuses the book’s three other chapters on his argument about the deer human relationship: “Introduction,” “6: Deer in North America,” and “7: Deer and People Today,” in which he claims that
[t]here is now a pressing need for deer to be understood broadly, from all disciplines. As we hunt less, instead using livestock for meat, deer numbers grow. Increasingly we share their physical space as they become more suburban and mankind becomes more populous. We are compelled to make decisions that will affect them. (Fletcher, 2014, p. 8)
and that
[t]o make intelligent decisions about the management of deer, we need to be informed both scientifically and culturally…At the moment, the only feasible means of management lies in hunting, yet most Western countries are experiencing a growing shortage of hunters. (Fletcher, 2014, p. 9)
In short, he makes the seemingly paradoxical argument that deer have played and will continue to play a significant role in humans’ lives, and that humans should honor deer’s role in their lives by hunting them in a respectful manner.

Chapters 1 to 5

            In “1: The Family of Deer,” Fletcher describes the evolution of deer, which he defines as all forty species of the Cervidae family. These species include white-tailed deer, elk, and moose—the three deer species native to Michigan—as well as black-tailed deer, mule deer, caribou, wapiti, and thirty-three other species. Throughout the chapter, Fletcher highlights some similarities among these species—deciduous antlers, for example—but also many of their differences, including differences in size, diet, and behavior. Fletcher (2014) closes the chapter with the following statement: “If this chapter has served to break down the notion that all deer are the same, then I will have really achieved something” (p. 37).

            In “2: How Deer Survive,” Fletcher describes deer biology, including their antlers. Deer’s antlers are deciduous, which means they fall off and regrow each year. Male deer use their antlers to compete with one another over female deer during mating season. Because they do not need to compete during mating season, female members of most deer species do not grow antlers; however, female members of some deer species, including reindeer and caribou, do grow antlers to protect their calves’ access to food.

            In “3: The Exploitation of Deer,” Fletcher describes humans’ efforts to tame and domesticate deer, including in deer parks and on deer farms. Humans have tamed deer for millennia, but with the exception of reindeer, we did not domesticate them until the twentieth century. The domestication of deer raises many of the same ethical issues the domestication of cattle and other animals, but it also raises some unique issues. According to Fletcher (2014), “[i]n many countries the notion of farming red deer has elicited a very strong negative reaction among hunters, especially in Germany and Central Europe, where the hunting philosophy is especially strong” (p. 80).

            In “4: Deer Hunting and Art,” Fletcher describes deer hunting, which he understands as an integral part of the deer-human relationship as well as of humans’ relationship with animals and nature in general. At the beginning of the chapter, he observes that hunting has an elevated position in human culture, whereas farming does not. For example, humans have elaborately decorated objects associated with hunting, but not tools associated with farming. Furthermore, deer are a common motif in hunting art: “[The hunt] has become one of the commonest subjects for our literature, myth and symbolism. Within that compass and across many cultures, it is deer that are the commonest and most esteemed quarry. (Fletcher, 2014, pp. 84–85)

            In “5: Deer as Symbols,” Fletcher describes humans’ use of deer in art and culture, including the connection between humans’ understandings of deer biology and the concepts deer symbolize. The deciduous nature of deer’s antlers makes them a common symbol of regeneration. Similarly, their crepuscular nature—that is, the fact that they are most active at dawn and dusk—makes them a common symbol of mystery. Notably, humans’ misunderstandings of deer biology have also led to contributed to the concepts deer symbolize: “[A] large animals briefly glimpsed vanishing into the deep forest in the grey dawn, leading its own life independent of human agency. Such transient observations are fertile ground for myth and for confirming preconceived ideas” Fletcher, 2014, p. 117).

Introduction and Chapters 6 and 7

            In “Introduction,” “6: Deer in North America,” and “7: Deer and People Today,” Fletcher describes the extent to which deer and humans have come into conflict over the past several decades. This deer-human conflict, he continues, is rooted in the growth of deer populations, which has led them to move into urban areas. High deer populations in urban areas leads to deer-vehicle collisions and damage to gardens, among other issues. According to Fletcher, hunting is the most appropriate response to deer-human conflict. Compared to other responses like sterilizing or relocating deer, it is more effective and efficient. Indeed, one could argue that it is also more humane, as it quickly kills deer who would otherwise starve to death. Finally, and perhaps most importantly to Fletcher, it reclaims a significant aspect of the deer-human relationship that has connected humans to animals and nature for millennia.