Some years back my father sent my daughter a DVD of the PBS program My Life as a Turkey. She and I didn’t get around to watching it for months, but when we finally did, we were riveted. A reenactment of two years wildlife researcher Joe Hutto spent studying wild turkeys in Florida, the film depicts a remarkable and moving interaction between a human being and animals in nature. Like primatologist Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees in Africa, Hutto’s practice of bonding with other species is as simple — and as profound — as getting up each day and roaming the woods with a flock of turkeys.
A postscript at the end of the documentary noted that Hutto was currently living in Wyoming with a herd of mule deer, a long-eared species native to western North America. As it turned out, he was only a few miles from my parents’ home, and on my next visit I looked him up in the phone book and asked if we might meet. Our two-hour breakfast together at a cafe in town was the first of many conversations we would have.
Now a youthful-looking seventy-one, Hutto grew up outside of Tallahassee, Florida, when that area was a good deal less inhabited than it is today. He was an only child and spent much of his free time wandering the backcountry and interacting with animals, often bringing young creatures home to populate his yard and room: foxes, squirrels, raccoons, hawks, and others.
He attended Florida State University, studying wildlife biology and archaeology as an undergrad and a graduate student. Hutto never outgrew his passion for befriending critters, however, and eventually his ability to form relationships with wildlife began to attract notice. In 1995 he published his first book, Illumination in the Flatwoods, about his two years with the turkeys. It was followed by The Light in High Places, in which he describes living on and off for six years among Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. His most recent book, Touching the Wild, is about his nine-year relationship with the mule deer whose territory overlapped with his Wyoming property. He has been the subject of a second PBS documentary, also titled Touching the Wild, and has been honored with an achievement award from the Tallahassee Scientific Society.
When I first met Hutto in Wyoming, he was living on a ranch in Deadman Gulch, on the edge of the Wind River Range, and still spending most of his days wandering with the mule deer. His wife, Leslye, supported his work and had even participated in the early stages of the mule-deer project. Hutto and I spoke at his writing shack, a cozy log cabin located under some willows in the yard. He had a lean physique born of years of hiking through the wilderness with animals, and he held forth with quiet assurance and self-deprecating humor.
I went back to talk to him on several occasions over the years, during which time Leslye was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She conducted her own studies of local wildlife and remained active until only a few days before she died in 2014. Since then, Hutto has sold the ranch and relocated to rural Florida, where he continues his work with wildlife. Among other projects, he is presently engaged in studying carnivorous plants.
After my last conversation with Hutto at his Wyoming writing shack, we stood in the ranch yard while half a dozen mule deer grazed nearby. Hutto had recently finished his work with the deer but still clearly enjoyed their company. He called a large buck, Homer, by name. Homer walked right over to us. Hutto gave me a handful of grain, and Homer ate it from my open palm. I felt the velvet touch of his lips and the warm breath from his nostrils. In his intelligent brown eyes I thought I detected an acknowledgment, animal to animal.
Kesselheim: What were your earliest experiences with wildlife?
Hutto: When I was a kid, my life centered on the natural environment in northern Florida. I loved animals and had a compulsion to be with them: tadpoles, turtles, baby raccoons — anything I could get my hands on. I was pretty much a wild animal myself, going out the door in the morning and not coming home until dinnertime. I discovered that if I could find young animals — ideally ones who had just been born — they didn’t have the same fear of humans that most grown animals have. This was a thrilling insight. If I was able to develop a relationship with newborns, then I became a part of their life. They would “imprint” on me: that’s when a newborn animal comes to identify the first creature it sees as a parent figure.
By the time I was eleven, I had numerous cages and had built a small pond — basically an outdoor laboratory. Eventually the cages moved into the house. My understanding parents laid down linoleum in my bedroom. Their only rules were no venomous reptiles, and all the animals had to stay in my room — except a wild hog I raised. When my family would watch TV at night, that little pig was always in someone’s lap. It used a litter box just like a cat.
The house got cold in the winter, and the animals would climb in bed with me. You wouldn’t believe what slept in my bed: squirrels, raccoons, foxes. I had an eight-foot red-tailed boa constrictor who slept with me. Sometimes I’d have friends over to spend the night, and it would get a little awkward: “Don’t mind the boa. He doesn’t take up much room.”
Kesselheim: What was a day outdoors like for you?
Hutto: I might spend it with a young raccoon, traversing a couple of acres. Any young animal is busy exploring and discovering the world: wading in a creek, turning over stones, eating crustaceans, chasing minnows, cleaning itself. And it notices everything: smells, a change in the breeze, the sun going behind a cloud, a birdcall, a newly fallen branch, a coyote track — always curious, never rushed. Many species are born with a basic blueprint for survival. For example, they know how to differentiate a predator from a nonpredator; which berry will be bitter or poisonous and which one is good to eat; how to root around in the leaves for grubs and insects; which snake is a dire threat and which isn’t. In addition to this hardwired knowledge, the animal also has things it needs to learn about the landscape: where to find water; where the neighborhood dogs live; the danger of a busy road; where there are shady areas and wetlands. This is what I brought to their lives: a knowledge of the lay of the land. At some point each day the animal and I would nap, curled up together, utterly content.
Of course, I, too, was learning and exploring and noticing all the time, soaking up knowledge with them. I didn’t consider myself a scientist back then. I was simply drawn to animals. The way some kids get absorbed with building a fort or playing Kick the Can, I was absorbed with wandering the woods and creeks and fields with a raccoon or a fox or a bear cub. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized people actually made a living doing this. It’s called ethology: the close observation of a wild animal in its natural setting. What has been most satisfying for me is to go with animals into their environment and adapt to their world; to walk across a sagebrush mountain with a herd of mule deer, for example, and have them pay me no more regard than they do one of their own. But just because they understand that I am safe doesn’t mean they make that assumption about other humans.
It’s important to stress that these animals I kept as a child were wild, never domesticated, and they invariably preferred to be wild. When they were ready, they would break with me just as they would normally break the parental bond. They would leave and find mates and have offspring.
Even while they were with me, it was different than with a pet. Through domestication, we’ve taken self-reliant species and bred that self-reliance out. They defer to us. They see us as a dominant creature and become dependent on us. Wild animals don’t do that. When I’m with a wild animal, there is no sense of superiority. You can’t deal with a wild animal by asserting your dominance. You can only have a relationship, which is what I’ve done since I was a young boy. Never for one minute have I thought I am instructing the animals or controlling them. I might try to protect them, but they never rely on me. I am not in charge. They don’t think I am a superior being. We’re on the same plane.
Kesselheim: How do you earn an animal’s trust?
Hutto: As I said, if you are the first thing a baby animal sees, you have an instant and profound connection, accompanied by a daunting level of responsibility, the kind that any good parent feels. With grown creatures I work at becoming familiar by being near them, by following animal etiquette to the best of my ability, and by being patient.
I spent a long time with the mule deer, working my way closer and closer to them as they fed. I approached indirectly and never made aggressive motions. I didn’t make eye contact, which is a general rule for working with any wild animal. Eye contact doesn’t occur often in nature unless it is aggressive or predatory. An uninterrupted stare will be interpreted as a threat.
A doe I named Rayme was the first to accept me. She would stand outside my window at the cabin and gaze at me for long periods. Finally she walked right up to me. After that, the other deer allowed me to get close. Once I was accepted into their group, they knew me by smell, body language, appearance, voice. They recognized me as they did members of the herd, even at two hundred yards. Every day I’d pack a lunch, kiss my wife goodbye, and head out to wander with the deer. They’d graze their way across the foothills, and I’d walk along with them. They’d bed down for a nap, and I’d lie down, too. And I’d have interactions with them. Each deer had a different personality. Some were curious and affectionate; others showed little interest in me.
Kesselheim: You’ve said before that the deer included you in mutual grooming. What was that like?
Hutto: Grooming serves a function, but also it’s about social bonding. You’ve probably seen primates groom each other or horses standing side by side, waving their tails to keep flies off each other. At some point I realized that if I crouched down next to the mule deer at eye level and scratched their necks, they would start either nibbling on me or grooming me with their tongues, as if I were family. I had known many of them since they were born. On a personal level the sense of acceptance was flattering. It was also gratifying to me as a scientist to think that I’d accomplished my mission of becoming an intimate part of these animals’ lives.
Kesselheim: Are there species you find unapproachable?
Hutto: A producer at National Geographic once asked if I would live with wild grizzly bears and observe their culture. I told them that would be fascinating, but anyone who did it would inevitably be killed. You might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later one of those bears would be in a bad mood, and you wouldn’t come out alive.
Most people seem to be repulsed by snakes. I don’t know if the aversion is genetic or cultural, but I’ve never had it. I’ve always caught snakes without trepidation. Spiders don’t bother me, either. The only animals I’ve ever resented are the large roaches of the South, because those really invade your space.
Kesselheim: You say you are flattered by animals’ acceptance. Is it gratifying to your ego, having privileged access to this other world?
Hutto: Not that I’m aware of. It’s just a pure, authentic fascination with these critters. When I was a boy, every nest I saw was an invitation, a doorway into a creature’s life. It didn’t matter if it was a bird, a mammal, or a reptile — I had to bring it home and get to know it. I wasn’t content to keep them in cages either. I might leave them in a cage while I was at school, but after I got home, I was immediately out the door with them, spending time in nature. It was great fun for me, but it also provided incredible insight into their lives.
Most of the animals I raised as a kid were pretty short-lived. Birds, for example, become adults within a year. So my experiences with them came and went in a hurry. Foxes are fantastic creatures, but they live only three to four years. When they got to be about nine months old, it was like a switch was flipped: they would leave and never come back. I had no idea where they’d gone.
In college I lived in a shanty on a huge tract of land, and I raised a fox there. We spent several months together; then he disappeared. Two or three years went by, and one morning the fox just walked into the house as if he hadn’t been gone a day. He hopped up on the bed with me, stayed for a while, then ran out the door. I never saw him again.
Much later I began to understand how little people know about animals. For example, I did a project with wood ducks — also known as Carolina ducks — and I realized I was probably observing behaviors that no one had ever seen before.
Kesselheim: Like what?
Hutto: Like the relationship between the wood duck and the alligator. Wood ducks live in tree cavities next to swamps and ponds. The young wood duck is vulnerable to many predators, but their primary predator is the alligator. I owned some property next to a gorgeous cypress swamp, a perfect habitat for wood ducks. So I found and raised these wood ducks and took them out to the swamp every day. I’d sit in a metal garden chair in the water, and the wood ducks would swim around me. There was a significant alligator population in the area, and I started observing them, too. Alligators are hugely intelligent and strategic, and they show great restraint. It might take one of them an hour to approach a duck. The alligator would surface fifty yards away, only his eyes out of the water, rising so slowly he didn’t make a ripple. Then he’d go underwater again. The water was dark, like Coca-Cola, so the alligator couldn’t be seen. Thirty minutes later, his eyes would reappear twenty yards away. In another thirty minutes they’d come up fifteen yards away. Finally the alligator came close enough that I could see him under the dark water, flat on the bottom, waiting for a wood duck to pass overhead. Of course, I didn’t want any wood ducks to be eaten, so I would scare the alligator away. Still, on several occasions an alligator had the opportunity to strike. What I observed is that, once a wood duck had eluded that first attack, it was alligator-proof after that.
Kesselheim: Tell me about how you communicate with animals.
Hutto: The mule deer and I have a communication that does not involve human language but is absolutely satisfying and unambiguous. I can have a very deep relationship with a mule deer.
Many animals have what we might call a vocabulary. Turkeys can convey very subtle information to each other about, for example, hawks in the vicinity and their precise location: Are they soaring high overhead or coasting through the trees? But these vocalizations are in addition to the nonverbal communication that is going on all the time.
When you think about it, much of human communication is nonverbal, too. We often know without words what our family members are feeling or thinking. We know when our spouse is angry or happy. We can have this same communication between species. We know when our dog or cat is hungry or thirsty or when they need a walk. My body language and moods must come across clearly to turkeys and deer. When you encounter a bear, you can tell immediately by its body language if the bear is frightened or angry. When I was with the mule deer, if the energy level in the group rose, I paid attention, because I knew something was about to happen. Maybe it was time to move to a new place to forage, or to seek shade, or to take a nap. It’s not clear to me how this communication is accomplished, but I have no doubt that it is.
Kesselheim: Many linguists claim that human beings are the only species to have developed complex language.
Hutto: That’s just human arrogance. Some people want desperately to separate us from other animals. The Bible says that we are somehow above all the beasts of the field, but biology has gradually disproven, one after another, every attempt to distinguish us from other creatures. We share with animals the need for companionship. We have a similar need to find a mate. We share the impulse to go out and explore and exploit resources. Emotions like affection, irritability, anger, and sadness are obvious in animals. We see them in our dogs and cats all the time. Other species do everything we do. Do many animals think? Yes. Are they analytical? Yes. Do they have emotions? Of course. Do they grieve when a family member or close associate dies? Absolutely.
For a while we thought what distinguished humans from other animals is reciprocal altruism: when an individual acts in the best interest of a group or of the species in general, even though that individual doesn’t directly benefit. Obviously we will protect ourselves and our home and family, but we’ll also go to war to fight for an enormous abstraction called our culture. When a young man leaves his home and goes to the other side of the world to fight an enemy and gets killed, that’s reciprocal altruism in the extreme. We thought there were no other animals who do that, but, guess what: there are. For example, Susan Lingle in Canada discovered that mule deer exercise reciprocal altruism. She was putting radio collars on newborn fawns to study their movements, and some of these fawns, when captured, would make a loud, bleating cry. In response to the cry, here would come a mama mule deer with an attitude. Lingle wondered whether does would differentiate between their own fawn and another baby deer. So she recorded the cries and played them back through speakers hidden in the wild. She found that a mother mule deer would abandon her fawns to go fight the mountain lion or bear or whatever might be threatening the unseen fawn whose cries she had heard. That doe was risking her life, and thereby her offspring’s lives, to save another doe’s fawn.
Other species do everything we do. Do many animals think? Yes. Are they analytical? Yes. Do they have emotions? Of course. Do they grieve when a family member or close associate dies? Absolutely.
Kesselheim: What else have you learned living with mule deer these past nine years?
Hutto: I’ve had time to interact with multiple generations of deer. I’ve been able to observe some who have survived for six, eight, even going on ten years — a full lifespan. Mule deer are dependent on the accumulated wisdom of the matriarch, her expertise. She causes the clan to stay together and succeed. If a mature doe is killed, the younger does do not have the wisdom or the inclination to take her place. An eighteen-month-old deer has great difficulty successfully raising a fawn. Even a three-year-old doe doesn’t have the expertise to take over the herd. These animals have a culture that’s passed on from one generation to the next. Without that mature doe, the herd falls apart. They don’t know what to do. They don’t stay together.
The herds migrate seasonally between summer and winter ranges. To get from one to the other might be a journey of 150 miles, and timing is critical. The herd relies on the eldest doe to lead and to find good habitat along the way, where they can refuel. The mule deer’s winter range is rigidly defined. They might get run out by a predator, but within twenty-four hours they’ll be back. If there’s another herd nearby, the line between their territories is absolute. They all know that.
Twice I have seen winter herds of twenty to fifty deer hunted out of existence. I call this tragedy “winter-herd extinction.” Four years ago I saw a neighboring herd killed off by hunters in five days. I believe human activity is the principal mechanism by which mule deer are disappearing all over the West, one winter range at a time. It’s never due to too many animal predators. It’s always human manipulation of the land — highways, fences, suburban sprawl — and overhunting on private land. More mule deer are killed and injured by fences in a week than are killed by predators in an entire year. Out of fifty deer, there might be two killed by mountain lions in a year and maybe three or four fawns killed by coyotes. Rarely do we have problems with wolves.
In both cases of winter-herd extinction that I witnessed, every buck, doe, and fawn was killed in a single hunting season. The tragic part is, mule deer are so territorial that they won’t enter an extinct herd’s winter range. Over the long haul that may change, but in the decade I have observed them, those ranges where a herd has been extinguished have not been repopulated, even though they are perfect deer habitat.
Kesselheim: What’s being done to protect mule deer, and what’s thwarting those efforts?
Hutto: It’s complicated. Unfortunately animal welfare doesn’t necessarily guide wildlife management. Instead it’s about politics, exploitation of resources, protection of property rights, and economics. The outcome is rarely based on sound scientific principles. It’s a compromise between science and stakeholders — hunters or landowners or fishermen — who don’t generally talk to scientists. They go directly to the politicians. How species are managed often comes down to the revenue wildlife generates.
Don’t get me wrong: stakeholders often have valuable input. They might complain about all the four-wheelers scaring off deer. That’s good. But wildlife management needs to come back to science and statistics instead of politics. The most important thing we can do to protect mule deer is to immediately stop hunting does and fawns, without exception.
Kesselheim: Have you observed predator species, too? How are they different?
Hutto: When I was younger, I was drawn to the more solitary and exciting lives of foxes and coyotes and hawks. Humans tend to identify with predators, because they appear to think like us. We see them strategize, stalk, and hunt. In contrast, herd animals appear more obtuse, but we underestimate their intelligence. As I got older, I became more fascinated by the subtle and compelling social life of sheep and deer and elk. If you spend time with them, you understand that they are profoundly intelligent.
Kesselheim: How do you deal with charges that you are just projecting human traits onto other species?
Hutto: Making an analogy between animals and humans can help us understand otherwise impenetrable animal behavior. This is not a 1950s Walt Disney fantasy I’m talking about. Pretty much everything humans do has an analogy in animals. We are not that peculiar.
Have you ever been to an animal shelter and seen a dog who was clearly emotionally damaged — so much so that it could not be rehabilitated? Well, I can tell you with certainty that mule deer, too, get emotionally damaged by loss. Sometimes they never recover. I’ve observed that over and over.
These animals rely on each other. They develop bonds and transmit knowledge and live together for years and generations. And then, tragically, one of them dies. It might be a bullet in the gut or a car accident, or maybe the deer just gets sick. The change that occurs in the survivors is palpable. I don’t know whether to call it grief or confusion or something else; it doesn’t matter. In the case of a doe who loses a fawn, the mother becomes absolutely despondent. A doe I knew had twins, and one of them died quite young. I saw her grieving for several months. Then the other twin died. The death of that second fawn brought the mother down, and she died shortly thereafter. I’ve seen does protect a dead fawn from scavengers for days, and even from other deer. They are obviously feeling a kind of sadness.
Kesselheim: What about joy?
Hutto: You can’t watch an animal at play and see anything but joy. We feel joy when we celebrate being alive, being healthy, feeling good. The weather is nice today. The sun is out. It’s not raining. We have food in our bellies. It’s an aesthetic experience animals share. They recognize a beautiful landscape. It brings them joy and peace of mind, just as it makes us feel joyful to see a place that can sustain us.
Kesselheim: How have the tragedies you’ve experienced with these animals affected you?
Hutto: We all share a parental response to young beings we’re close to. You see a puppy or a fawn, and you feel a profound empathy. It’s a biochemical response that happens to every new parent: this mass of protoplasm that objectively might seem pretty unappealing becomes overwhelmingly attractive and interesting and mesmerizing. Even its noises and smells aren’t so annoying. You fall in love with that newborn child, or puppy, or raccoon. That’s what happened to me. I didn’t want to do anything but be with these creatures. I never had a day with animals when I wished I was somewhere else.
If you live with an animal long enough, you will observe not only its birth and its life but also its death. Because I was in love with them, when one of them died, it was a profound loss — especially when the death was tragic.
I have never euthanized a deer, and I’ve been surprised again and again to see them survive some horrendous injuries. A deer I called Shadow got his foot caught in a coyote trap. He fought so hard to free himself that he literally pulled his foot off. He was crippled after that, but he lived for several more years. By the time he was about six, he finally went down. I stayed with him until the end. He was lying next to me, and he put his head in my lap, looked up at me, and died.
When these animals suffer and die, I feel a heartache similar to what I would feel from losing a family member. And the deer are suffering and dying in many ways and in great numbers. Most go no longer than a month without receiving some sort of injury from a barbed-wire fence. Every fence is a potentially lethal obstacle the deer have to negotiate. The toll ranges from cuts to broken limbs to death. Also these deer are largely unhealthy for reasons that aren’t fully understood. Is it drought? Compromised forage? Insect infestations? Atmospheric changes have altered soil chemistry, so certain nutrients and minerals might be in short supply. There’s always another challenge, always more agony. It’s bewildering to me. I can almost detect the same bewilderment in the deer.
I had a relationship with a buck I’d known since the day of his birth. His name was Babe, and I watched him work his way up to a position of dominance in the herd. He liked me. We had good chemistry and enjoyed being together. When some filmmakers were getting set to make Touching the Wild, the documentary about mule deer, they bought up the hunting rights to thousands of acres to protect the herd, including this exceptional, magnificent buck. Just before we started filming, a poacher came in and killed Babe. I have difficulty talking about it to this day. [He pauses to gather himself.]
I spent fourteen hours a day with those deer. It was an incredible emotional investment. And, by the way, this does not compromise my objectivity. The more attachment you can develop with an animal, the more insight you get into its nature. But my heartbreak is absolute. I’m still not over deaths that happened years ago.
Kesselheim: Is that why you are taking a break from the deer?
Hutto: Yes. Even though the longer I lived with them, the more revelations came to me, there was also this constant accumulation of heartache. Every time I looked at a newborn fawn, I would think, Here’s another tragedy waiting to happen.
I still have dreams about mule deer every night.
Kesselheim: You lost your wife to cancer. You were with her during her final months as her condition deteriorated. Did your prior experience with the deaths of animals inform your experience with your wife and give you some understanding or acceptance?
Hutto: No, just the opposite. I have not learned any extraordinary wisdom about the nature of life or come to see nature as kind. It’s not. My wife contracted a terminal form of cancer. She had led a healthy life, never had a bad habit, and yet this awful disease took her. It was one more tragedy I had to experience up close. She was one more beautiful creature who died with her head in my lap.
We have this distinctly human concept of good and bad. Nature doesn’t have that. It just is. I’m not comfortable with that. I’m not accepting of the fact that we live in a profoundly brutal world. I don’t fully approve of the way nature works. This lifetime of study has left me disappointed by the brutality of it all.
It has also made me more sympathetic to the human condition and the many unbearable circumstances we find ourselves in. You and I are lucky in this part of the world not to experience the sort of wretched life that is a reality for so many.
Kesselheim: In My Life as a Turkey you talk about how animals never “betray the moment” the way humans do. What do you mean?
Hutto: I’m no expert on consciousness, but I’ve observed consciousness in other creatures my entire life. If we describe it as a state of being awake, being aware, then when you look at an animal, you see true wakefulness. Humans have created a sophisticated culture that serves as an insulating bubble, separating and protecting us from the environment, allowing us to relax such that we don’t have to be totally conscious. Most animals have to be at the helm of their ship all the time, or they die. They have multiple opportunities to die every day. Because humans don’t have that tension, our senses have become dull. Probably the only time that a human being experiences an animal level of awareness is in combat, where every second you might be in the crosshairs of a sniper’s rifle. In fact, it may be that we can’t be fully conscious for long and remain healthy. I suspect that post-traumatic stress disorder is in part the outcome of living with that sort of awareness for months on end. Our minds are not set up to operate that way.
I want to experience the world the way these animals do, just for a moment or an hour. They are fully alive.
Kesselheim: Is there some human equivalent in religious awakening or enlightenment?
Hutto: Absolutely. So many spiritual paths — Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity — talk about being awake, being in the here and now. Novelist W. Somerset Maugham called it living on the “razor’s edge.”
Animals have to confine their awareness to the present moment out of necessity. Compared to them, I am as dull as a fence post. When I want to know what’s going on in the environment, I watch the animals I’m with. If I notice that my companions are especially vigilant, invariably there’s a coyote or a mountain lion nearby.
Perhaps yoga and meditation and silent retreats are attempts to get that awareness back, but I don’t know that we have the ability anymore. We go about our lives only half conscious. Say you’re driving your car — fully alert, being a good driver — but you’re also thinking about your five o’clock meeting. When you get to your destination, you can’t really remember getting there. Most of the time that’s how we are. But if someone swerves into your lane unexpectedly, consciousness quickly assumes command. You avoid the other car and, crisis averted, revert to letting the unconscious do the driving while you’re counting the beans, planning ahead.
It’s unfortunate that we think ourselves superior when it comes to consciousness. It isn’t superiority. When I’m out with animals, I feel like the village idiot. I’m always following their lead. They just indulge me.
Kesselheim: You’ve written that the world opens up to you when you spend time with animals. You see things you never saw before.
Hutto: Yes, I had walked the same Florida backcountry many times, but it was only in the company of the turkeys that the richness and diversity of that ecosystem revealed itself to me. Suddenly I was seeing rattlesnakes I’d never noticed. Other species of wildlife accepted me as part of the turkey flock, so I got very close to deer, bears, coyotes, quail. The interactions were often playful.
Kesselheim: How so?
Hutto: Different species engage in mutual play. It’s useful in a young animal’s development, building stamina and confidence and agility. Mule deer play games like “tag” with cottontail rabbits. As adults, wild turkeys will play with snakes that would have killed them as young birds. Of course, the snakes aren’t really playing. It’s more a matter of the adult turkeys harassing a species that was a dire threat to them in their youth.
Kesselheim: You previously told me that when you come down from the hills after a day spent with wild animals, you feel like the air just went out of your day. Is that because you no longer feel alive in every moment?
Hutto: One of my jobs was to spend three to four months a year up in the northern Wind River Range with bighorn sheep. I would go up with a backpack in the spring after the thaw and come back down in the fall when the snows returned. I was the only human being up there, living with forty or fifty bighorn sheep above the tree line in that beautiful place. I didn’t use human language. I almost lost my ability to think in words. I became socialized to the sheep. I don’t know how this reflects on me, but I never once got lonely or longed for human company. [Laughs.] In all the months I spent with the sheep, I was having the most fun a human being could possibly have. Why on earth would I want to be anywhere else? In fact, I went into an emotional crisis the first time I had to go back to regular human life. I was bereft and unwilling to leave the mountains. Toward the end of the fall, as winter arrived, the sheep migrated away, and I was up there alone. The snows were deep, and I was sleeping in subzero temperatures. Finally I decided to reenter my human life. It was difficult to adjust to modern transportation and deadlines and electronic devices. I had to remember how to have conversations and how to drive a car again. I turned on the radio, and it was this god-awful cacophony. All these things seemed inane.
I’m no expert on consciousness, but I’ve observed consciousness in other creatures my entire life. If we describe it as a state of being awake, being aware, then when you look at an animal, you see true wakefulness.
Kesselheim: I know you said your relationships with animals don’t compromise your objectivity, but how scientific is your work as an ethologist?
Hutto: I walk a fine line between empirical science and sentiment or conjecture. That’s the paradox of ethology: a lot of it is qualitative. You can’t quantify bereavement in an animal, but you can observe it. At what point does an anecdotal observation take on scientific relevance? After ten observations? A hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? Some scientists would say never; that if it can’t be expressed in a number, it’s not scientific. But I think, after you’ve observed these behaviors thousands of times, you can draw informed conclusions.
The observations I’ve made are not complex. If I have a gift, it’s for recognizing the obvious. But unless you become a part of the lives of these animals and put in the days and months and years, these observations will elude you. My findings could be considered hypothetical, but I think people with common sense would agree with them. They’re not controversial. I’m like a cultural anthropologist, studying the animals’ social lives. When you send an anthropologist to study a tribe in the Amazon, you depend on that person to report what he or she sees as honestly as possible. That’s what I do with these animals. It turns out that many of the things I’ve noticed were previously unobserved.
A key sign of a successful scientific experiment is when others are able to replicate your results. When PBS made a movie about my time with wild turkeys, they re-created my experience with an actor, and the filmmakers were able to replicate my results. For example, they observed turkeys playing with squirrels and exploring a newly cut tree stump. They even caught on film behaviors I never thought they would. It was a vindication of my work. The same thing happened in the filming of the documentary about mule deer.
What’s most meaningful for me are those moments when I stop differentiating between myself and the deer, because our similarities are much greater than our differences. To lose your own identity — isn’t that a blessed relief?
Kesselheim: In your dealings with more-traditional scientists, do you find common ground? Do they envy you?
Hutto: Yes to both. Probably the most rewarding — and the most unexpected — aspect of this work is that I get as much validation as I do from other scientists. By and large they understand and appreciate my observations.
I have had people outside the scientific community be critical of my emotional involvement with the creatures being studied, but I’m unapologetic about my emotions.
I’ve read the published studies by scientists who have observed wildlife from a distance. The fact is, if you go out and watch animals one day a week for a year, you can find out everything that is recorded in the literature: feeding behavior, doe-and-fawn relationships, reactions to predators. There is so much more to learn than that, but it takes being in close proximity for a long period of time. Mule deer are very vocal, but if you’re not within twenty feet of a herd, you won’t hear that. They are constantly communicating, much like wild turkeys. Also these animals have long-standing familial relationships. A three-hundred-pound, eight-year-old buck will stand in the morning sun and be groomed by his aging mother. But how would you know that was happening unless you remembered that buck as a spotted fawn and had watched him and his mother together throughout that span? It’s a revelation that you won’t get from a distant hilltop or from the cab of a vehicle.
Kesselheim: Are there lines you refuse to cross?
Hutto: The prey species I’ve lived with — wild turkeys, mule deer, bighorn sheep — are being killed all the time in the most horrendous ways. I’m sometimes there when it happens. I’ve heard a fawn torn to pieces by six or eight coyotes. It is incomprehensibly brutal. Scientists try to maintain detachment from that, but I don’t know how I can, especially with a young, vulnerable animal I’ve known since it was born.
So if a mountain lion comes and grabs one of the deer, am I going to intervene? Absolutely. The deer are like my family members. I carry a gun with me all the time. If I have to shoot at a coyote to save a deer’s life, I will do that. Some might say that’s not good biology, but mule deer have been in decline for thirty-some years, and I don’t see any benefit in a dead mule deer. That coyote can go find something else to kill that day.
Kesselheim: Isn’t it problematic to protect one species from another?
Hutto: Look, I’ve been attacked by a mountain lion once. I know what it feels like to be grabbed and shaken in the jaws of a big cat. For the most part the gun I carry is for self-defense. I would never kill a mountain lion except in the most dire circumstances. But I have invested a decade in these deer, and to protect that decade of knowledge, I will do my best to discourage that lion.
It rarely comes up, though. Taking on a two-hundred-pound mule deer is an act of desperation for a mountain lion. The two most common ways that mountain lions die are from fighting other mountain lions and from injuries — broken jaws, shattered bones — sustained while trying to kill large prey. They’d much prefer to hunt a smaller animal, like a rabbit or a fox.
Kesselheim: Is there a dimension to your work you might call “spiritual”?
Hutto: I’ll say this: No matter where you look, the longer and closer you observe, the more complicated and mysterious the world gets. If you take the Hubble telescope and look 13 billion light-years into space, does the universe become simpler? No, it becomes infinitely complex — so much so that we can’t explain some of what we find. And then, if you look into the microcosm, do things break down into simple elemental units? No. The closer we look, the more complexity we see, until the ordinary laws of physics no longer apply.
It’s the same with animal behavior, and with life in general. The closer we look, the more complicated and mind-boggling it becomes, until we’re unable to comprehend what we’re seeing. That doesn’t mean it’s supernatural, just that it’s beyond our understanding. In that sense, for lack of a better term, yes, there is something profoundly spiritual about it.
What’s most meaningful for me are those moments when I stop differentiating between myself and the deer, because our similarities are much greater than our differences. To lose your own identity — isn’t that a blessed relief? You stop being an egocentric individual, and you achieve the oneness that the Taoists talk about. That’s not an illusion. Whether you’re talking about religion or theoretical physics, it eventually comes to a point where everything is undifferentiated.
Quantum physicists are starting to look at consciousness as a force of nature, like gravity.
Kesselheim: How so?
Hutto: I’m not a quantum physicist, so I’m cautious about how I represent that world. But, generally speaking, consciousness has an observable effect on the universe. For example, the act of observation itself can change a light wave to a particle. Even stranger, that light wave may be connected, by virtue of its origin, with another light wave ten light-years away, and because they are connected, the other light wave will collapse simultaneously. In other words, they are aware of each other in a manner that transcends space and time. A lot of physicists are suggesting that what we observe in the universe has come about through consciousness — that awareness is the ground for all being, not the result of it. The most elemental things would never have come into being without awareness.
Kesselheim: Can we see this consciousness in other species?
Hutto: First we have to ask: What is consciousness? The word is so loaded. Everyone thinks they know what it means, when, in fact, no one — not neurobiologists, or psychologists, or biologists, or anthropologists, or physicists — has a good definition. It is an absolute mystery, as much as the moment before the Big Bang. But because we need to talk about these things, we are stuck with imperfect words like awareness and consciousness.
We see under a microscope that when an amoeba senses a dangerous change in salinity nearby, it moves away. That’s a single cell, and yet it has a sense of its own well-being and makes a choice between two environments. It could be said that the most fundamental quality of evolution is this predisposition for an animal to operate in its own self-interest. Does the amoeba “know” that the salinity represents a hostile environment? It doesn’t matter. There is still intent involved.
Kesselheim: You’ve watched northern Florida change from the somewhat wild place you grew up in as a child to the more densely populated area it is today. What’s your sense of our environmental future?
Hutto: In the words of comedian Jon Stewart: we’re screwed. But I don’t want to give out that message, especially to young people who have to face this future. So I try to find kernels of optimism. Still, the numbers seem inescapable. Ecologist Aldo Leopold came up with the concept of carrying capacity: the idea that the land is capable of sustaining only a certain number of animals over the long term. Humans surpassed our planet’s carrying capacity decades ago. We’ve been able to postpone the inevitable train wreck, but we are heading toward disaster. The depletion of resources, the accumulation of toxins, global warming, the acidification of the oceans — none of it bodes well.
Kesselheim: In the meantime there’s always another day to go hang out with the deer.
Hutto: Sure. There’s tremendous consolation being out with the mule deer, but they’re involved in their own train wreck.
I recently attended a film festival and heard a woman speak who had been doing elephant rehabilitation for the last fifty years. People who work with the endangered black rhino were also there. I didn’t hear hopelessness in their voices. Yet they, too, seemed to recognize the impossibility of turning this process around.
I’d come to the festival expecting to hear only about how we need to save animals, but one man spoke about places like Cameroon, where in many villages people have few jobs and not much will grow. Kids’ bellies are distended from malnutrition. Their alternatives are to go out and get “bush meat” — literally, kill whatever they can find — or die. Do we let children starve so that we can save an endangered species like the bonobo? This man said he couldn’t make that call. His instinct, when he saw a father going out to shoot something to eat, was to say, “Give me the damn gun. I’ll help you hunt.” It’s an irreconcilable choice where life for one creature can mean death for another. We can’t just come out and say that the bonobo is more important than these people.
Kesselheim: Do you have plans to do a new project with another animal?
Hutto: I never again want to live with an animal that is hunted for sport. It’s just too much heartache. And it’s tough when the survival of a species becomes a bureaucratic issue. A game animal is a commodity. I don’t want to participate in that. After my two years with the wild turkeys, it took another two years or so and some serious counseling for me to recover from the losses I’d experienced. The mule deer I have known since birth accept me as family. They let me groom them. I listen to them talk to each other. I take part in family interactions. I grieve the loss of individuals. I greet newborn fawns. It has been a transformative experience for me. I find them completely irresistible. But I have to move on and do something else. I can’t begin to imagine how wrenching it will be to wean myself from them.
Kesselheim: Do you think it’s time to be with your own species?
Hutto: No, I can’t say that I’m inclined to do that. I’m not a complete recluse. I like people well enough and enjoy being around friends. We’ll sit around and drink wine and rant. I do miss that sometimes. But I really don’t know what I’ll do next.
In the meantime, if there are deer out here, and there always are, I have to be with them. It’s such a gift, even after all these years, just to go out and be a mule deer for a day.