In the mouth of madness.
I wish I was cool enough to write about the Sam Neill movie.
Before I begin the tale, I want to clarify one thing. A note on responsibility: I erred in a dozen ways in the course of the following events. I was reckless and irresponsible, naïve, and altogether an idiot. While the animals acted according to instinct and, therefore, cannot be faulted, I was brazen enough to create a situation riddled with potential hazards. I believe I learned several lessons. And I feel incredibly lucky for escaping largely unscathed.
Long Island, NY – A large square field, some 50 yards on each side, marks the end point of most every morning walk. It affords not only ample space for reckless running, but clean sight lines in every direction until either forest or buildings reclaim the landscape. From dusk until dawn, the field belongs to the deer. They graze and lounge, cluster on the edge of panic, and do whatever else deer do under the cover of night.
Icarus (my whippet, newcomers) and I typically conclude our walks with an inspection of the entire perimeter of this field. The purpose here is to check the whereabouts of deer – most nights they sleep in the open spaces, and then retreat into the woods just after sunrise. More often than not, however, a few will linger along the edges, dragging their hooves and nibbling at tall grass. So the dog and I secure the perimeter every morning: I whistle loudly to announce our presence; Icarus bounds along with occasional high jumps so any creatures can catch his scent and steer clear.
The deer in these parts lack a healthy fear of canines. Whether from lack of exposure or a cultivated feeling of security, the instinct to fly in terror from just the rumor of a dog has been dulled. In an attempt to dull my dog’s opposite inclination to chase, I have walked him within 10 feet of the bravest beauties. So long as they stand their ground, curiosity tends to trump madness. Should they run, however, his world goes red. And so we secure the perimeter.
Once I am confident that the wild is aware of us, I let the pup off leash so he can stretch his legs and do what he was born to do. Most mornings, this means a raucous round of Frisbee. A German neighbor named Icarus “the most sporting hound around” after seeing these daily exploits. After nearly a month of these routine frolics, the system of deer-dodging has proven successful.
Yesterday morning, I cut a few corners – or rather one specific corner of the field entirely. The sun was high in the sky, the land featureless and flat, and I deemed the field secure. I let Icarus loose.
During one Frisbee throw, as the pup sprinted east, I spotted a deer grazing between two buildings in the southeast corner. This was one deer, far off and slow moving. In the thick of a game, Icarus usually doesn’t notice much. But as Icarus caught the Frisbee, three more deer rose from blissful oblivion. At once, all four realized that a dog was sprinting hard some 40 yards away.
Icarus, gifted with uncanny vision and a prey drive hardwired into his DNA, noticed being noticed.
To my right, these four deer ran for cover on the south side of the building. To my left, Icarus decided to cut them off and catch them unawares by running toward the north side. He still carried the Frisbee, incidentally. He steered left while the deer steered right, setting up a collision hidden behind the building and even farther from me. I chose to follow the path of the deer, hoping to intercept Icarus before he fell in amongst them. I had no hope of catching any of these animals outright, but I could descend upon the chaos at an opportune moment.
I have never been slower. I felt as ungainly as a toddler and just as quick. With all animals suddenly vanished, I took a moment to consider that my shoes were far from ideal to give a proper chase. And I wondered about what kind of distance I would ultimately have to run and if I should somehow pace myself. I chose to sprint – and I think I also decided not to breathe.
I cleared the building. Icarus was running in full double suspension, but lower to the ground and more dangerous than ever before. Cheetah-like, I thought. All four deer surrounded him, panicked. And it was clear to me (and the deer, I suspect) that Icarus was faster than all of them. Much, much faster. The deer, so often majestic and nimble, appeared awkward and clumsy alongside Icarus in his element.
This madness went down another 20 yards away from me. In the desperate panic of a predator descending on prey, the deer failed to commit to one direction. That was the first lucky break, really.
Three of the four beasts were adult females; one was adolescent. She was still twice the size of Icarus, but clearly younger. The adults peeled off and sprinted east, away from me and towards the busy road in the distance. A fresh wave of panic struck me: the hunt could move into traffic. But then the second lucky break hit. Icarus singled out the young one and drove it north away from the others.
And he brought it down. I think he dove underneath it and bit a front leg, throwing it off balance and into the pavement. They both went down hard. Icarus leapt on top, too fast to see. Then the deer started crying, a loud, panicked bleat – not unlike the casual call of a goat.
Again, as my slug-self raced to catch up, I had a moment to hope for the best. Icarus brought her down – they’re not running into traffic, and they’re not vanishing into the woods. And Icarus doesn’t know what to do when he catches an animal, he’ll panic and prance and I’ll be on top of him before things escalate. After all, he’d caught rabbits and birds in the past and seemed crestfallen when the chase ended.
Only Icarus knew exactly what to do. The wolf in him, diluted by millennia of careful domestication, took over. Pure instinct, pure predator.
When I got there, his teeth locked somewhere near her head – which was twice the size of his own. The deer tried in vain to stand, and cried out louder. I separated them for a split second when I tackled Icarus, but he tore loose and brought the deer back down only five feet away. This time, he locked his jaw on top of her skull. His teeth made contact just behind her eyes on either side.
Have you ever looked in the eye of a creature filled with true desperation? The deer was beyond survival instinct, beyond pure pain – it was deep and genuine fear in those eyes.
I noticed the blood at this point, on my gloves and on both animals. But in the mad tussle it was impossible to determine the source.
I tried to pry the dog’s jaws open and couldn’t. I pulled apart as hard as possible; each hand wrapped around one set of teeth. But he wouldn’t budge. Who knew that Icarus had that kind of power? I managed to loosen his grip enough for the deer to slide out maybe a centimeter, but it only served to let Icarus close his mouth a bit. His back teeth locked onto my thumb – only I didn’t notice at the time.
I picked him up and slammed him onto the ground, deer rolling with us. Icarus had been silent the entire time, eyes narrowed and uninterested in my existence. The cries of the deer and my own grunts filled the air, tufts of hair flew everywhere. The only thing I knew to do, a lesson learned when a pit bull once locked his jaws on Icky’s collar, was to choke my dog out. So I wrapped my arm around his neck and did my damndest to put him in a sleeper hold.
It worked in seconds. He loosened enough for the deer to spring onto her feet and tear off in the direction of the others. She had no noticeable wounds, no heavy bleeding from her head, and no issues with her stride. Icarus, now endowed with monstrous, primal strength, attempted to break free and finish the job. I grabbed his front leg and brought him to the ground and then pulled his body close.
All told, from Frisbee throw to getting Icarus under control, maybe three minutes passed.
Then Icarus broke his silence and transformed from predator into whiny pup with a torrent of sobs as the deer vanished. He still fought to break free, but there was no chance of victory. I reattached his leash, hoisted him up, and headed for home. Also, at that moment I realized that my entire body was trembling and I couldn’t catch my breath.
Once inside I collapsed onto the ground and discovered the deer fur plastered to my coat. Icarus paced around crying. Nicole walked in and asked about the horrible goat sounds that she’d heard moments before.
Then we noticed that Icarus had torn off part of a paw pad, was bleeding a bit from each leg, and had a cut along his chin. It was all shallow damage. I suspect, though, that most of the blood spotted in the course of the battle belonged to him.
He remembered himself after a few minutes and promptly passed out in a chair. Betel and Lulu, our two visiting Pomeranian-like dog cousins, were oblivious to everything.
It took the rest of the morning before I caught my breath.
Aside from the lessons on not being a reckless fool (this could have been genuinely tragic), the real takeaway here is that Icarus unleashed the beast. He brought down and tried to kill an animal twice his size. He actually tried to crush its skull in his mouth. Madness. Icarus! Extraordinary that he has that in him. I know him better now, though, having confronted that demon.
I’ve never been so intimately involved with that primal drama, with a deer’s eye inches from my own, my hands in the mouth of the predator, and a haze of breathless abandon hanging over the entire scene. It’s as real as it gets, ladies and gentlemen.
Last night, when Icarus spotted a few deer running off into the woods, I wondered if his experience would drive him back into madness. But he did his usual light pulling on the leash before falling back in step. It wasn’t even a big deal to him. I love that.