The great Magalia deer-feeding bust

How writing about an act of kindness led to a fine and possible jail stay

The author was particularly taken with this doe and her fawn.

The author was particularly taken with this doe and her fawn.

Photo By Karen O’Neill

Jaime O’Neill is a frequent contributor to the CN&R, as well as numerous other publications. He lives in Magalia with his wife, Karen, who took the photos illustrating this story.

The first morning I woke up in Magalia, the deer were on my front lawn. That was a decade ago, but I didn’t begin feeding them until after my neighbor across the street moved away. I used to watch him through the pine and cedar trees, putting out grain for the deer, a thing he had been doing for a long time.

He’d go out first thing in the morning, raise the American flag, then fill a wooden planter with food for the does, the fawns, and the bucks that would show up in groups of two or three or sometimes as many as eight or 10.

My neighbor was in his mid-70s, a retired blue-collar worker from Southern California, a nice guy. Like many elderly people in Paradise and Magalia, he spent his days devotedly caring for a spouse in decline. His wife was housebound, in a wheelchair. He told me that there was nothing that delighted her more than watching the deer come to feed just outside their living-room window. Sometimes, when her husband was tardy in putting out the grain, one of the does would press her nose to the glass, and I could imagine his wife calling to tell him that the deer were waiting.

I always felt a little guilty that I wasn’t sharing the expense he bore in feeding the deer. Though he was careful not to feed them enough to make them dependent on what he put out for them, the cost of what he did offer surely wasn’t cheap for an old man on Social Security. I was freeloading on the pleasure those deer brought to his household, and to mine.

The economy had hit him hard. By the time he and his wife were forced to move, his place had lost most of its value, and the cost of his wife’s medical treatment has wiped out a lifetime of hard work. Perhaps he forgot it, but now, two years after he moved away, the American flag he used to take in each night still hangs limp near his front porch.

After my neighbors moved out, the deer would come to stand outside the window of the empty house where his wife once took delight in their daily arrival, and so I decided to take up where he left off, and began putting out grain for the deer. Within a day or so, they’d crossed the street and were outside my window. Within weeks, we’d come to a shared routine.

I was touched by their beauty, and so I wrote an essay about them. That essay was syndicated to several dozen papers through a consortium called Writers on the Range, offered by High Country News in Colorado. Here is an abbreviated version of what I wrote:

This older buck, with his impressive antler rack, often dined at Chez O’Neill.

Photo By Karen O’Neill

Feeding the Deer

I’ve taken to feeding the deer, though I’m sure there will be people who will say that I shouldn’t. I’ve come to think of these critters as my neighbors since we inhabit the same forest. I buy a 50-lb. sack of Wet COB once every 10 days or so. Wet COB is a mixture of corn, oats, and barley, hence C-O-B. The patrons of my little dining establishment for deer seem to like it rather a lot, probably because what makes it ‘wet’ is molasses.

Word has spread in the deer community about this new ‘in’ spot, a place where both the food and service are pretty good. What began with a doe and a fawn has been gradually expanding to a group that now includes three additional does, plus two young bucks, one with a broken spike. There’s also a gorgeous older buck with a really impressive rack of antlers.

They show up at almost precisely the same time every morning, and if I get distracted, I’ll look up from my writing to see them standing by the green plastic tub they feed from, always the doe and the fawn first, waiting patiently as if to say, ‘Deer, party of two.’ And, like a combination waiter and maitre’d, I hasten to fill the tub with their brunch buffet as they move off about 10 yards to let me serve them. I’ve got a salt lick out there, too, and sometimes I cut up apples that have gone soft to vary their diet.

In the weeks since I started doing this, they have come to feel more comfortable, and now there are mornings when they move back a mere five or six yards, though I doubt the day will come when I will ever be able to feed them from my hand, a little fantasy I sometimes entertain of St. Francis of Assisi moments in which I truly become one with nature.

Those who will disapprove of me for feeding these deer are likely to say that I’m inadvertently endangering them, reducing the instinctual fear they have of my kind and thus making them more vulnerable to those who don’t share my sappy liberal desire to turn them into welfare recipients instead of real conservative American deer who know that survival must be hard won, and that handouts are, inevitably, destructive of moral fiber.

I worry some, like a parent, which may be why this tends to be an old-guy pastime I’m engaged in, converting non-human four-legged forest creatures into surrogate children who, I reckon, take up that place in my heart once occupied by my daughters when they were little girls. I think the shrinks call it ‘transference,’ but it mostly feels like plain old love in one of the myriad forms love takes. I would not want to know a fellow human being who could watch these deer eating every day and not feel some measure of love for these animals, sharing our brief blink of sentience here on this earthy sphere.

But I do worry about the always lurking laws of unintended consequences, worry especially about that beautiful buck, and even about the does and fawns because I know there are poachers, and even creeps who take inexplicable pleasure in hurting animals.

Is this a stand-off or just mutual fascination?

Photo By Karen O’Neill

But, as with those aforementioned human daughters, I cannot spread a blanket of security that will protect them from all the world’s cruelties and dangers. I cannot shield them from the encroachments of my kind, or the changes in the world that imperil them. What I can do is feed them corn, oats, and barley sweetened with molasses, take pleasure in watching them eat, then swaddle them with unspoken hope as they take their leave.

Perhaps it will surprise you, as it did me, but my little essay prompted some pretty harsh comments. A guy named Rob Caldwell wrote the first response.

“It is illegal to feed deer in California,” Mr. Caldwell wrote. “I’ve forwarded this story with the link and your name to the California Department of Fish and Game. Penalties include fines and possible jail time. I hope they make an example of you.”

Another reader added:

“There are good reasons why feeding wildlife like deer is frowned upon by wildlife professionals and often illegal, as Rob pointed out: Feeding concentrates animals and increases the likelihood of disease spread (like chronic wasting disease); the animals tend to concentrate near houses and roads, which increases the probability of getting hit by vehicles; artificial feeding tends to increase the population which then increases the damage done by over-browsing; and increased deer populations tend to attract more mountain lions, which then get shot because they’re too near humans.”

A woman from here in California wrote:

“Here in the Sierra foothills, the deer are everywhere. They are a hazard on the roads and even in the yard. I had a standoff with one buck who wanted the goats’ hay. He won. I am writing to tell you that there are too many deer, not enough predators … and a deer is on my porch looking to eat my pumpkins right now.”

Rob Caldwell rejoined the conversation, adding:

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“When I first read [O’Neill’s] article the thing that jumped to mind was Ted Nugent, NRA spokesman, busted last year in California for baiting deer. It’s incumbent upon anyone doing more than looking at wildlife to know and understand the laws and traditions of the state you are visiting. I only wish Ted had done time.”

It’s certainly a truism that we never see ourselves as others see us, nor can we always predict how our words will be read. But the idea that my essay would prompt a comparison to Ted Nugent never even remotely occurred to me.

It also surprised me more than just a little when Officer Josh Brennan of the California Department of Fish and Game showed up at my front door on a chilly night in February, dispatched by higher-ups who had been alerted to my crimes by the aforementioned Rob Caldwell, protector of wildlife, who had ratted me out from his home more than a thousand miles away.

Turns out that Mr. Caldwell was right. Feeding the deer is a no-no, proscribed by law, enforced by penalties. I was utterly unaware of the fact that it was a crime to feed the deer, though I am fully aware of the fact that ignorance of the law is no excuse, and no defense. Not only was I ignorant of this particular law, however, but most everyone I know also has been unaware that it’s illegal to feed deer here in California. If I thought, even for a moment, that my attitudes toward wildlife (or anything else) were in any way comparable to those held by Ted Nugent, I’d throw the book at myself.

So I was in trouble, though Officer Brennan was a little vague about how much trouble I was in. That won’t be revealed until April, when the citation I was given by the California Department of Fish and Game gets adjudicated. For now, all I know is I have the option of forfeiting a bail amount of $585 or showing up in Superior Court over in Oroville on April 6 to enter a plea.

Should I choose the second option, some of my friends fear that I could get hit rather hard, especially if there’s a move afoot to make an example of me. According to Officer Brennan, my case had gained quite a bit of attention, from the head of the Department of Fish and Game on down through the ranks.

I’ve already admitted my guilt in print, and I even took Officer Brennan out to the scene of the crime where he took pictures of the evidence—the green plastic tub bearing incriminating flakes of grain and the big sealed container I refilled every couple of weeks with bags of feed.

It’s not likely I’ll do time for this offense, but the possibility can’t be ruled out entirely, especially since I’m disinclined to forfeit such a large bail amount. The judge will decide, so it’s kind of the luck of the draw, I guess. This citation comes with the prospect of penalties left to judicial discretion, and that exposes me to the power of a guy in a robe who may have taken umbrage at a policy or a politician I’ve criticized in print.

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Given all the negative words I’ve written about Wally Herger, for instance, it would be just my luck to get a judge who liked to hang with the ol’ Wallster at Republican fundraising events.

And, I’m a little distressed about the prospect, however remote, of being locked up and having to tell any possible future cellmates just what I’m in for. Though my advancing years are chipping away at my allure, I still may be fetching enough to garner interest from horny guys who’ve been locked away for a long time, especially when my attempts to convince them I’m a badass probably won’t be helped when they find out I’m in the joint for feeding Bambi.

For a man whose exercise of his official duties was going to prove to be such an irritating pain in the ass, Officer Brennan was an undeniably nice guy, and I admired his commitment to his work. He patiently explained the inadvertent harm I’d been doing by feeding the deer. His concern for wildlife and his love of animals were on evidence, clearly every bit as genuine as mine.

He told me stories about poachers who have been known to take deer on the Magalia golf course, peckerwood archers who hunt there at night. Lots of bad stuff happens to animals who thread their way through the homes that have made this ridge a tree-clustered suburb. In Magalia alone, there are more than 11,000 people who share space with an indeterminate number of deer and other critters; 4,800 human households break up deer trails laid down by animals who predated the coming of white men to this state.

Officer Brennan informed me that the deer population is down in the less populated back country, but that it’s thriving in the places where wildlife contact human populations. That would seem to contradict the idea that deer populations are threatened by human interaction, but there is, of course, the additional threat posed by the fact that mountain lions are drawn to where the deer are, thus putting people at risk as the big cats come down from less populated higher elevations to hunt.

Mountain lions often have to be put down when they are attracted to places where human beings live. Feeding the deer, Officer Brennan told me, may lead to the death of mountain lions, a concern that later came to seem somewhat ironic when one of the people who oversee the work of men like Officer Brennan created a media stir that made the California Department Fish and Game synonymous with the practice of hunting and eating mountain lions in other states.

Not long after I got busted for wanton deer feeding, Dan Richards, a rich real-estate tycoon appointed by Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Fish and Game commissioner, earned that state agency a whole bunch of unwanted publicity by heading up to Idaho to hunt mountain lions, then had his picture taken while beaming and holding up a prize mountain lion specimen he shot.

But beyond the threat of inadvertently chumming mountain lions into my own front yard, my activities were said to be endangering the deer since I was encouraging them to all eat from the same plastic tub, a practice that increases the likelihood they will more readily spread disease among their kind.

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When my scolding was finished, and my citation completed, I bade Officer Brennan goodbye, shook his hand at the door of his green Fish and Game truck, and told him that I hoped he’d show up the next morning to explain to the deer why there was no breakfast service, and that he’s the bad guy, not me. My little joke.

The next morning, when the deer arrived, Officer Brennan didn’t show, leaving me to break it to them myself. A doe and her fawn are always the first to show up. I’ve come to know that doe very well. She has a patch of white that runs the length of her muzzle, and she has eyes like an Arabian princess.

“Sorry, Mom,” I said, “can’t do it.” One of the several ways old guys can get weird is when they talk to the animals, and that’s how I roll these days. At the risk of exposing my overweening sentimentality, it kinda hurts to deny this doe and fawn their breakfast. If you could see her eyes you would know how much will power it takes not to break the law again.

They wait patiently. The mother looks toward the house, still expecting me to venture out in my robe to fill the green plastic tub that Fish and Game has told me is a disease vector. And perhaps it is, though the deer look remarkably healthy to me, not only these two, but the others who will turn up later, the bucks and the other does with their young.

I know they will find other provender, will find ways to make up for this disruption of a very small portion of their food supply, but it’s hard to restrain myself from going out to feed them.

The guy who turned me in described himself as a “liberal” who believed in government scientists and the rule of law. I, too, believe in the “rule of law,” though I’ve engaged in acts of civil disobedience in defiance of laws I thought needed to be changed. I, too, think of myself as a “liberal,” though I get nervous about others in that category who can so readily become monitors of other people’s consciences, ready to snitch on those who don’t share their adherence to current orthodoxy or ideological purity.

Spirited disagreement about what we should and shouldn’t do when it comes to animals is probably always a good thing, but the little colloquy I provoked reminded me of how self-defeatingly self-righteous so many otherwise well-intended environmentalists and animal lovers can be.

I suspect I’m a little older than this particular “liberal,” and I’ve probably lived in rural mountain places longer than he’s been alive, so I may have more reasons to be skeptical of “government scientists” than he does, especially some of the bureaucrats who work in agencies that manage forest and range lands. I’ve seen them poison lakes and implement other policies that came with disastrous unintended consequences.

And, despite the current orthodoxy about the deleterious effects of encouraging deer to congregate near sources of food supplied by human beings, I note that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is feeding several hundred elk up on a feeding ground near Yakima. They’re also feeding more than a hundred bighorn sheep. If deer are subject to contagious diseases when they are lured to common feeding areas, wouldn’t the same apply to elk and bighorn sheep? Just askin’.

And, if a law is to have the intended effect, it seems important that the law be promulgated. I’ve purchased the criminal contraband with which I broke the law at both Skyway Feed and Pet in Paradise and Northern Star Mills on The Esplanade in Chico, always announcing when I did so that it was intended as food for the deer. In fact, had I not told them what the feed was for, I wouldn’t have known what to buy. Never once did anyone at those stores tell me that it was unlawful to use their product for the purpose I intended.

I have quit feeding the deer, though I’m not entirely convinced that the harm I was doing was very real. Officer Brennan also encouraged me not to feed the hummingbirds, offering an initially plausible scenario of how those hummingbirds put their tongues in the same feeders, thus posing a health threat. On reflection, however, it seemed logical to assume that hummers are always putting their tongues in the same places, even in environments where humans and hummingbird feeders aren’t present.

Epilogue: In the weeks since Officer Brennan cited me for feeding the deer, the doe with the seductive eyes continues to come with her fawn whose tail twitches, perhaps in anticipation of grain. They come to this spot just as their kind have come since the days when the Maidu and the Wintu hunted them here. And before that. These two, in particular, have been coming to my window since the days when the fawn still wore the speckled coat nature devises to camouflage him in the mottled light of his forest home.

And mine.

I await my upcoming court date. Though I cannot plead innocent, I also cannot find it in me to pay this fine, an amount that seems utterly disproportionate to my “crime.” I’m considering taking the option of going to jail. As a writer, that would surely provide some interesting material for a story, and it would be a whole lot less expensive. Plus, I’m told they feed you there, where inmates are kept in close proximity to one another.