LUTZ — What began as an afternoon hike in search of rare carnivorous plants wound up as an overnight rescue mission when two local women came upon a pair of deer locked in a deadly battle.
Jeanene Arrington, a Tampa-based outdoors guide, and her friend, photographer Sheryl Kay, were walking through Brooker Creek Headwaters Nature Preserve in Lutz late Sunday afternoon when they noticed a tuft of fur in the middle of the trail.
This wilderness area, one of the largest unspoiled tracts in northwest Hillsborough County, is a mixture of swampland, pine flatwoods and oak hammocks. It is home to species ranging from bobcats to wild boar. Arrington, an avid outdoorswoman, felt certain the clump of hair had come from the belly of a white-tailed deer.
Her first thought was that coyotes might have ambushed the animal and chased it off into the woods. Then she noticed a dead deer lying in the brush.
"As I looked close, I saw, leaning against the tree, a second deer," she said. "It was so still . . . I thought it was dead."
The two young bucks had their antlers tangled. During mating season, male deer often fight to the death, battering and jabbing with their racks, for the right to mate with the nearest doe.
"The one on the ground had probably broken its neck," Arrington said. "I must have gasped or said something, because when I did, the second deer moved."
Arrington tried to get a closer look but the deer became agitated. Even with his antlers immobilized, an adult deer, at well over 100 pounds, can do serious damage with his sharp hooves.
"You don't want to get kicked," she said. "You could end up in the hospital."
The 46-year-old woman got behind the dead deer and tried to drag it away by the hind legs but couldn't budge the creature. The victor had wrapped his antler around the loser's jaw, running a horn into its throat.
"So I tried to call for help, but it was no use," she said. "It was after 5 p.m. on a Sunday.'' She said she called the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which referred her to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. They told her to call a wildlife rescue facility in Dade City, which was closed.
"It was getting dark and we had a long hike back to the parking lot," said Arrington, who offers guided nature hikes through her business, Not a Clue Adventures.
"It made us sick, but we had no choice but to leave the deer and hope it would still be there the next morning."
On the drive back to her Tampa home, Arrington kept calling people to help. A veteran hunter, she has seen her share of death in the woods. Still, she could not sleep for thinking about that young deer.
"I just laid there and prayed that it would make it through the night," she said.
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Tony Young, the wildlife commission's hunting expert, said the drama Arrington described is not unheard of during mating season, which spans January and February here.
"This is how they see who the biggest buck in the woods is," he said
Sometimes the antlers become entangled and one or both deer may die, he said. "It is unfortunate, but that is nature."
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The following morning, Arrington returned to the preserve with her friend Ellie Willingham and waited for daylight.
"By chance, a guy pulled into the parking lot around that same time," she said.
Arrington told the man, a photographer who introduced himself only as "Dave," of her plight, and he agreed to help.
"I told him that I felt a lot better tangling with that deer with a big fellow by my side," she said
The three marched down the trail. The deer had broken every bush and tree in the immediate vicinity in a battle with a pack of coyotes. The dead deer was partially devoured. The survivor was barely hanging on.
The trio went to work with soothing words and a saw. Bit by bit they cut away at the dead deer's antlers until finally, after an hour, the last one snapped and the injured deer staggered away down the trail.
"He never looked back," Arrington said. "He was tired, but I could tell he was going to make it."
Arrington and her companions dragged the dead deer's carcass off the trail. On the walk back to her truck, she took time to stop and admire the pink sundew and hooded pitcher plants that had originally drawn her into the woods.
"Sometimes God puts you in a place for a reason," she said. "You have to make a choice. Do you keep going or do you stop and help?"
Terry Tomalin can be reached at [email protected]