Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Two Tales of Deer, Part II

One thing -- as I mentioned at the close of my previous post -- that I've tried to avoid in this series is photographing animals that were killed purposely by humans. I don't hang out at slaughterhouses and haven't been to the buck pole in years, so hunted and slaughtered animals just aren't something I ever encounter. In addition, as I think I might have explained in the early days of this blog, society -- myself included -- has a completely different perception of livestock and game animals that are killed for food.

Hunting is a sensitive subject for me; I both understand it and dislike it. As speciesist as it may be, I am much more open to the hunting of herbivores (such as deer) than that of carnivores (such as coyotes). And, having lived in the state of Michigan my entire life, I certainly understand the hype and celebration surrounding deer season. All that said, all opinions aside, hunting is completely within the law -- that is, if you're doing it legally.

This story isn't about natural deaths, nor is it about deer season -- it's about poaching, and a blatant disregard and disrespect for life and the law.

On Sunday morning, my dad and I drove out toward Pinckney to visit friend and fellow photographer Marc Akemann. About a week earlier, when I had been lamenting the lack of subject matter in Ann Arbor, Marc had suggested I visit, as his property borders the Brighton Recreation Area. He told me that he was finding dead animals all the time out there -- primarily, poached deer.

Upon arriving, the first spot we inspected was a parking area next to a small lake. As soon as I climbed out of the car, the stench of death hit me -- it was a very familiar odor, one that I'd not encountered in many years. It was the smell of recently-slaughtered, rotting deer. The bodies didn't take long to locate. The first two deer that we found had to have been killed within the past couple weeks -- one was extremely fresh: the fat and muscle on his exposed ribcage was glistening, and flies were flocking to his legs and face. The second was only slightly older; the fur had seemingly exploded from his head, creating a most bizarre scene:

Poached Deer

A third deer was found in the most disturbing of places: beneath a heap of garbage. The corpse had been hidden, but not very well, as a simple nudge of the trash uncovered the skull's ghastly smile:

Poached Deer

This deer, too, had not been there for more than a month or so. Skin and fur still clung to the skull, and the mountain of waste atop the body was trapping in the smell, and perhaps slowing decomposition. The deer's teeth, and that perceived grimace, was incredibly powerful to me. Combined with the trash and ditched mustard packet, the scene spoke volumes. Waste... disrespect... uselessness.

Poached Deer

These deer were poached for meat and antlers. After those things were taken, the bodies were thrown into roadside ditches, hidden beneath piles of brush and garbage, and, in some cases, left behind in plain sight without a care in respect to life or the law. I did find the remains of two or three does (both yearling and adult), but the majority of the corpses belonged to bucks. Their antlers were cut from their heads, leaving behind grisly, gaping holes in the skulls.

Poached Deer

This skull, bleached white and starting to grow green moss or algae, had been there for quite some time -- a few years, at the least -- and one must wonder just how many layers of poached deer line the parking lots and roadsides of this area.

Because there were so many bodies, lone skulls, and partial skeletons, it was hard for me to keep track of how many deer we encountered. At the lakeside parking area, I counted at least five deer, but it was probably closer to six or seven, all in various stages of decomposition. Marc showed us some other areas, and led us along a few trails through the (very beautiful) forest. We didn't encounter any ditched deer corpses in the woods, however -- we only found them along the roadsides. One such body, left in plain sight, had been decapitated. The tissue on its ribcage had turned dark, and falling leaves were starting to cover the corpse.

Poached Deer

Though we probably saw more, I can specifically remember seeing the corpses, skulls, and skeletons of eleven separate deer. One of the last bodies we visited was one that Marc had found a year or two prior. It, like the others, had been dumped along the roadside. All that remained were the bones; the spinal column, though disarticulated, still rested in a row.

Poached Deer

Nature, of course, treats these bodies like any other. They decay and fall apart; maggots squirm in the meager flesh left behind, and crows pick away at the skin and connective tissues. But at what cost?

I plan on returning to this area once rifle season has come and gone, as I'd like to do more extensive photography of the bodies, and try some different compositional techniques. I'd also like to shoot with film, in black and white. For this set, I attempted to follow my standard Useless Creatures rule of bringing out the beauty in the dead; however, it's terribly hard to bring beauty into something so evil and wasteful.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Two Tales of Deer, Part I

In the past week, I've had two very different experiences with deer remains. The first, which I'll chronicle in this post, took place at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens (MBG). There's a good deal of land on the MBG property that isn't explored by the public, as there are no trails. Steph and I have only begun our exploration of the area, and there's still plenty for us to discover. Earlier this week, we blundered through the woods, eager to see what we could find.

The first discovery we made was a deer skull -- at least, most of one. Largely chewed away, it had been sitting in the forest for quite some time. Its size was smaller, indicating it was likely from a younger doe. Interestingly enough, there were no other bones nearby. Here is how we found it, upside-down and unmistakable in the leaf litter:

First Deer Skull

We continued on our way, and soon we found a second deer skull, also from a doe:

Second Deer Skull

This skull, like the first, was very clean and white, and had probably been sitting in the woods for at least a year or two. However, unlike the first, this skull was accompanied by a good deal of the skeleton. Steph and I searched through the fallen leaves for quite some time, and found about half of the vertebrae and ribs, a leg bone, and one of the jaw bones. The bone pile that we made:

Bone Pile

Over half the skeleton was missing, which can probably be attributed to the coyotes in the area. In fact, the skull even had some peculiar punctures, one beneath the eye socket, which I think was the result of coyote teeth.

Many of the bones we found were heavily chewed, perhaps by animals scavenging in the winter. Rodent gnaw marks, though, were quite minimal. One animal that was using the skull was this incredibly large slug, who had been snuggled up inside the brain case:

Monster Slug!

Steph and I returned to a nearby area at the MBG a few days later. We found a third doe skull, and like the first skull we found, this one was by itself.

Third Deer Skull

In all likelihood, these three deer probably died natural deaths. They might have succumbed to the winter, or they might have been brought down by coyotes. Dixboro Road is a bit of a distance from where these bones were found, but the deer could have been injured in traffic, only to disappear into the forest to die. At this point, it's really hard to tell, though the tooth mark(s) in the second skull definitely point to coyote activity.

Though it was a bit overwhelming to find the remains of three separate deer in one (relatively) small area, it wasn't to be unexpected: deer are very prevalent in this region, especially in areas where hunting is not allowed. Their population is somewhat controlled by traffic and coyotes, but there still are plenty, and, being the large animals that they are, their remains are quite easy to locate.

Part II, which I will post in the coming days, is a completely different story, because the deaths involve the direct hand of Man -- something I have not yet explored in this project.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Dixboro Doe

A doe was hit on Dixboro Road in Ann Arbor Sunday morning; on Monday afternoon, my mother and I pulled over so that I could photograph the body. The doe's corpse lay in the ditch, mere yards from a 'deer crossing' sign; much of her face was obscured by dry, fallen leaves, but her visible eye stared out, dead, yet so emotive.

October Deer II

This is the time of year when deer are more prone to jump into traffic, especially when the sun is low in the sky. If one deer begins to cross the road, always assume that more will follow. By driving cautiously at daybreak and sunset, especially in areas that have a large deer population, you might save a life.

This doe, meanwhile, will become food for roadside scavengers. Hopefully none of the scavengers will meet the same fate.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Squirrel Check-Up

I apologize for the lack of updates. Simply put, I have not been able to find any dead animals suitable for photography -- and not for lack of trying! Steph and I have been outdoors every other day or so, visiting parks and trails both inside and outside Ann Arbor's city limits. So far? Nothing. Leaves are falling from the trees, however, and that can easily camouflage bodies and bones.

What about roadkill, my fallback for when I can't find anything dead in nature? Around here, you don't need to drive far before you start spotting critters in the road, but all the dead animals I've seen in the street have either been a) completely destroyed, b) in a busy and/or dangerous area, or c) both. So -- I've been having a hard time. Not only is this project enjoyable for me, it's something to keep me busy while unemployed. I have been photographing subjects besides dead animals, but it's not as engaging for me.

I knew from the start, though, that this series would be very unpredictable, and the photographs I produce -- and when I can produce them -- depends entirely on the will of nature as well as luck.

All that said, for over a month, I have been keeping track of the fox squirrel killed on our street. For the first two weeks or so, I visited the squirrel quite regularly, and wrote down my observations in a notebook. Here are some of the more memorable snippets:

September 9: "Yellowjacket in squirrel's mouth, many ants in squirrel's eye."

September 13: "Mouth has decayed the most. Mouth/nose area has become a hole, flies laying eggs there."

September 18: "Maggots of all sizes covering the belly/groin of the squirrel, which seems to have burst. There are so many maggots, they have fallen through the carcass and trap, and squirm on the ground. [...] The head of the squirrel is almost unidentifiable, almost could not locate it. The skin (incl. ear) seems to have been pulled through the bars of the trap, but the skull (or what's left of it) has been wedged into a corner of the trap."

September 21: "There was so much movement from the maggots that the squirrel's arm (which had sunk into the body), began to move."

About a week later, as the days got colder and drier, decomposition had slowed, and the body began to mummify. It is interesting to note that early on, the cage was moved on several occasions by an animal; we decided that the culprit was a skunk, looking for maggots to eat! Not only were there flies, ants, and yellowjackets on the carcass, but there were also burying beetles, carrion beetles, and staphylinid beetles.

This afternoon, as the sun sunk lower in the sky, I headed on over to finally photograph the squirrel. Though I had watered it the day before, the body was quite dry, and pulling it out of the trap was relatively easy. I took a series of photographs using the macro lens, and with my close proximity to the subject, I definitely caught a nose-full of dead animal smell.

September Fox Squirrel (October) I

This front paw, as well as a back paw, appear to be relatively unchanged. I couldn't locate the other two feet; I do know that the other front foot sunk into the body at some point.

September Fox Squirrel (October) II

The first thing to decompose was the squirrel's head. The skull was shattered when the animal was hit by a car, but the lower jaws appear to be intact. They (and the skull fragments) are quite clean and detached from the body; the only other visible bones are the scapulae, protruding through the fur and skin.

September Fox Squirrel (October) III

This final photograph reminds me a lot of this scene, colors included.

As a whole, what remains of September Fox Squirrel isn't very impressive; a good deal of the body isn't recognizable, and, upon first glance, seems quite foul. However, using the macro lens to get closer helps me to find those beautiful, if not interesting details.