Where is Bambi?

When deer season arrives, everyone asks, “Where’s Bambi?” Well, not necessarily. They’re asking where that elusive buck is hiding, as deer hunters are looking for the big one.

But for me, my brothers and sisters, the question really was “Where’s Bambi?” It didn’t pertain to the Disney character. This one was real — he was a real, living, breathing piece of nature we loved so much.

My father put up a lot of hay in his day — he had to, with a lot of dairy cattle to feed. Sure, there were the alfalfa fields, but he also cut prairie hay. We had numerous fields which were nothing but wild brome. Several times a year, he’d head out with a tractor and sickle, knock it down and put up hay stacks.

One morning, as he cut the tall grass, he suddenly realized he had hit something.

When he jumped off the tractor to take a look, he saw the situation. In the grass was a fawn.

Dad’s machinery had maimed the young deer to the point that one leg was mangled and a portion of another was badly injured.

My father said his first instinct was to put the young animal out of its misery. But as the fawn looked at him, seemingly asking for help, Dad decided to take another approach. He scooped the baby in his arms and somehow got the wild animal to the farm.

When we arrived after school, to do chores, we were told we had a new mouth to feed. In the calf barn, in a pen all his own, was that fawn. His remaining three legs were bandaged and he lay in the corner, nestled in straw. He had a watering bowl, like the other animals in that barn. We were told he’d be receiving milk replacer in a bottle until he was ready for the bucket, like the calves next to him.

He didn’t seem to mind the bawling from the other pens, which always happened when we walked in. He looked around seemingly without fear.

I’m not sure how Dad got him the medical care he needed — the veterinarian had been out earlier in the day to do some other work, so I assume the timing was right. I heard the deer had been given antibiotics, we’d take care of him “and see how things go.”

“You mean, we get to keep him?” my brother Steve asked, grinning with excitement.

“We are going to keep him as long as he’ll have us,” Dad said, as he gingerly rubbed the animal’s head. “He’s a wild animal — so we’ll help him get better and then decide what should happen next.”

We fought over who should feed him. We’d hold the bottle to his mouth, trying to get him to take advantage of the free lunch. Eventually, he took the first swallow, much to the joy of my brother, Terry, who was the initial person to make it happen.

“What are we going to name him?” Steve asked, as we watched the fawn grow accustomed to walking with his three remaining legs.

“Shouldn’t it be Bambi?” my little sister, Nancy, asked. “It makes sense.”

Yes, it did make sense.

He was without his mother. He was a deer. Bambi he became.

Bambi learned the “ways of the barn.” He learned to come to the edge of his pen, by the walk-way, when we entered. He learned it was effective to suck on our sleeves until he got his way. He also learned to lick the calves next door, like they did, to get the spilled milk which was left behind.

Bambi, although always a deer, started to act like a calf. He aged with the rest of the young ones — and loved to run around the outside yard when they were let out to roam. Yes, I said run — he learned to compensate for his disability and became quite agile.

He was playful with us, playful with his companions. And he loved his own pen, where he could nestle in the straw at night and munch on the feed pellets when he was old enough.

Bambi became part of the family. We’d open the door and yell his name. He’d nuzzle up against us. The folks probably worried about what they were going to do when the arrangement was no longer acceptable — but we didn’t know it. For all we knew, Bambi would be with us forever.

One day, we were amazed to find little bumps growing on the top of Bambi’s head. We asked our dad about the new development.

“Kids, Bambi is starting to grow horns, antlers,” he said. “He’s becoming an adult.”

“No, he’s still a baby deer,” Steve argued.

But as I looked at Bambi, I realized his leg muscles had grown. His chest was broader. The hue of his hide had changed. He still looked lovingly at us with his dark, watery eyes — but he was turning into someone else.

I overheard my parents talk that night, as I lay in my bed just down the hallway from the living room. Dad told my mother Bambi was starting to grow horns “and you know what that means.”

“They are going to be broken hearted,” she said quietly.

I didn’t know why we were going to be broken hearted and of course, I worried enough to lose sleep.

The horns grew and they were actually kind of velvety on the outside. They didn’t get that long and soon they were gone. We went back to normal life – us loving Bambi, him loving us back.

Well, until things started to change.

When we played with him, he was more aggressive. Bambi was stronger than he used to be, despite his three-legged situation. Mom said we shouldn’t get in the pen with him any longer.

The bumps returned — but this time real, actual horns came out. We couldn’t believe what we saw. Sure, we’d seen hundreds of deer in our lives. But it was a different experience when we could watch the antlers sprout and grow.

Then came the end — commonly known as Bloody Thursday.

My brother, Terry, had gone to the yearling pens (indoor and outdoor) with buckets of milk replacer.

I remember hearing my mom yell. There was a lot of commotion and she was clearly upset.

As I approached the scene, I saw my brother, with a wadded up sweatshirt pressed against his head and blood running down his face.

Dad said Bambi was playing around with Terry and as his natural instincts kicked in, he jumped up in the air and came down on Terry’s head, full force, with his antlers. He was simply head-butting the other creature who was part of his family.

Dad sat us down that night, to explain it was time for Bambi to be eased back into his natural habitat.

“Remember, I told you, he’s a wild animal,” Dad said.

“No he’s not,” we argued. “He’s part of our family. We love him!”

“And because you love him, you have to let him go,” Dad said while the younger ones cried. “We’ll make sure that he’ll be alright.”

“Somebody’s just going to shoot him,” said my brother, Steve.

“No, no one is going to shoot a three-legged deer who hobbles around, especially when everyone around here knows we have him,” Dad consoled us. “They’ve all seen him. There’s no way they’re going to shoot Bambi — they know who he is.”

Sometime before we got to the farm the next day to do chores, Dad let Bambi go. Grandpa Andy said it was “amazing,” while Grandma Onie said she’d “never seen anything like it.” Our hired man said he actually saw a tear in my father’s eye and my mom said she cried a little, later while folding laundry.

They all told a story of Bambi just hanging around for a while, not wanting to go anywhere. He didn’t understand why he was allowed to just walk around the yard. Dad opened the gates to the big, wide open pasture and lured him into it. Then, Grandpa Andy said, Bambi suddenly looked around, his ears perked up, “and he took off, the best he could on those darn three legs.”

Dad told the neighbors Bambi had been released and asked for everyone’s consideration during deer season. We’d hear reports, how Bambi had been spotted among a bunch of deer a few miles away, or how he was standing in a shelterbelt belonging to our neighbors.

“Where’s Bambi?” we’d whisper in our bunk beds at night.

“Where’s Bambi?” we’d ask each other while we fed the calves in the pen he once occupied.

And each deer season, for at least four years, we’d look at each other in silence, when we heard a gun go off in the distance.

The reports of Bambi died off after a while. Dad said he was probably the “King of the Deer” by then, living the good life.

I wondered what it was like for him to be with his own kind for the first time. To run wild, to be what he was supposed to be.

Where was Bambi and what became of him? We never knew and never will. But it was good while it lasted.

 

 

 

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