Basically, the directions to Joe Huttos house are turn right at Muddy Gap. At the end of the road, closer to Lander than Casper, youll likely find the unassuming and understated Hutto, a wildlife researcher, with a herd of mule deer. He wont be standing alone a quarter mile from the herd, however. After spending the past seven years integrating himself into a herd of about 52 mule deer, Hutto will be a part of the herd, even touching, scratching and removing ticks from some of the animals.
Hutto has been so well accepted by much of the herd that the evening before his Casper Journal interview, a young buck literally tried to engage antlers with him. Hutto said brotherly sparring is part of their social bonding, simply something mule deer bucks do, and that the youngster couldnt understand why Hutto wouldnt engage.
As a youth, Hutto accidently discovered wildlife imprinting, where animals born highly independent, or precocial, believe the first creature they see after birth is their mother.
I sort of discovered that by chance, and I realized how profound it was that I could capture a newborn wild animal and in no time at all I had my foot in the door, so to speak, in observing their behavior.
Its a powerful biological mechanism thats basically irreversible, he said of imprinting. In so many young animals, for example a wild turkey, when they come out of an egg, if the first thing they see and hear is me, they immediately identify me as their parent.
Born fully alert
Hutto said when precocial animals are born, theyre fully alert and ambulatory. They can hear perfectly, they can see perfectly, and they can make it on their own with all their oars in the water. Herd animals like deer literally need to hit the ground running. They just dont have time to be altricial, he said.
Humans may be the most altricial of all mammals, born naked and helpless for a very long time.
But mule deer and wild turkeys are born precocial. So this imprinting phenomenon, the minute theyre born they have to identify their mom, and its ironclad, they have to be ready to go and they follow her. And they know what she smells like. They know what she looks like. And if they dont, they dont survive. So its a really powerful mechanism, Hutto said.
Hutto became a wildlife researcher and learned to work with all sorts of animals, living and dead. He became a field archaeologist digging aboriginal Indian and other above- and below-water historic mammoth and Macedon kill sites in Florida dating back as much as 10,000 years.
Then, as a student working in a Florida zoo, Hutto began more serious imprinting studies. My first one was with a family of orphaned wood ducks. I hatched the eggs and I just found out extraordinary things about wood ducks. I never imagined how intelligent they were and resourceful. The wood ducks genome had instructed them in such an outrageous way that theyre so fully integrated they understood all the plants and all the animals from birth. Plus they had these cognitive abilities to just sort of operate through the labyrinth of their universe with true problem-solving and intelligence. It really was a revelation. But Hutto didnt think anyone in the world would be interested.
My Life as a Turkey
Then came an imprinting study of wild turkeys. Still in Florida, Hutto viewed the wild turkey project as a once-in-a-lifetime, beginning-to-end, under-perfect-conditions opportunity.
And again I just thought who would care some weird guy living in a swamp with a bunch of baby turkeys. But he kept impeccable field notes every day and developed a manuscript on the project which he submitted blindly to a New York book publisher who published My Life as a Turkey in 1995, sparking a lot of interest in various national media with Huttos work. He laughs about this as he compares all the attention to being hit by satellite falling from space. Its just phenomenal, he said.
Bighorn sheep study
In 2001, Hutto and his wife, Leslye, moved to Wyoming and joined a study for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department of bighorn sheep in the Wind River Mountains.
I would live up there for months at a time by myself, just following the herds. The study was trying to determine why lambs werent surviving. It was a multidisciplinary research project involving a lot of different scientists.
These were incredible people, Hutto said. So my next book, The Light in High Places, was published involving that study.
Discovering mule deer
Hutto and Leslye then moved to the little ranch where they live today.
It turns out its dead center in the middle of this winter range of mule deer. So were surrounded, he said.
Hutto describes the area as still a pretty wild place, the last place at the end of a road at the foot of the mountain.
And then its remote. I mean you can walk out the back door here and its 50 miles to the next road 120 miles north and south!
Hutto of course noticed when animals came spilling out of the mountain, deer in particular. He had managed a deer research ranch in Florida and spent years working with deer from all over the world: Asian deer, Japanese deer, red deer, fallow deer, Indian deer, Manchurian and other species. But hed never seen mule deer and became interested in them.
It didnt take me a day to recognize there was something extraordinary about these animals. They werent quite like any deer I had ever observed, and what it was, was their strange curiosity. They have this remarkable need to know.
Hutto learned that curiosity is the mule deers primary adaptive and escape strategy.
When a whitetail is disturbed, they run. They dont look back, they turn around and they run in a straight line as far as they can go. Thats their response. Its obligatory.
But he said with mule deer, its just diametrically opposite.
Mule deer will spook. Theyll run. But theyll run about 200 yards and then they stop and they start asking questions. Did I respond appropriately? Was there actually something that I need to fear? If it is, is it a predator? If its a predator, is it in predatory mode? Is it actually hunting or is it just walking by? They dont waste energy running five miles just because theres a mountain lion walking across the ridge in the distance. And a whitetail doesnt make that discrimination. They dont ask questions. Mule deer are out there asking questions.
Hutto said this is a result of an evolutionary phenomenon.
Evolution of mule deer
Mule deer evolved during the late Pleistocene era, surrounded by mega predators like dire wolves, saber tooth cats, cave bears, a remarkable cheetah-like animal, and Felis atrox, a cat that looked like the African lion only twice as big. There were enormous predators everywhere.
So what you got was this thoughtful, cognizant creature that lived by virtue of its wits. Thats who the mule deer is, he said.
Hutto said because mule deer are intelligent creatures, a herd animal with dynamic populations and also subject to predators, theyve developed a complex social organization.
Theyre actually applying this intelligence, this cognition, to their society as well, he said.
Hutto cites mule deer making extraordinary altruistic sacrifices that no other animal in the world would make, except human beings.
And when it occurs in human beings, theyre celebrated as heroes, he said. Hutto describes a doe mule deer literally abandoning her fawn at her side when she hears another mule deer fawn in distress.
If the fawn is being attacked by a mountain lion or wolf or coyote, shell leave her own fawn to go and, if necessary, give up her life to save that other fawn for another female. I mean it just doesnt occur in nature. A lot of females protect their young and theyll fight to the death. But they wont leave their own young and go defend another animals offspring. That rarely occurs in nature. He said it occurs among human beings because thats our culture. But its unique and really phenomenal wildlife behavior.
So you have an incredibly intelligent animal and I was just compelled to get caught up in it. And the more I learned, the more compelling it became. So Ive just spent seven years of my life, almost every day, and I cant get away from them. I cant stand to miss a day because whats being revealed is so abundant, so remarkable, at least to me the mule deer is phenomenal, and evolutionarily, its a work in progress.
Different than whitetail
Hutto explained that whitetail deer are irrepressible. No matter where you put them, in any kind of habitat or ecology, they thrive.
Theyre considered by evolutionary biologists to be a weed species, a generalist that can adapt to anything, anywhere, anytime, and thrive. And in fact whitetail populations have become so abundant across the U.S. that they become a serious problem.
Mule deer characteristics
But with mule deer its exactly the opposite. They cant tolerate human disturbance and as a result, Hutto said, mule deer have been in decline for 30 years and are absent altogether in many ecologies. Unlike other deer populations, mule deer are biologically obligated to return to their exact same habitat along the creeks and the drainages and river valleys each winter. Thats where they have to live in the wintertime, Hutto said. They cant go up where the elk are because they cant survive up there. And so people see mule deer walking along the roadsides and on ranches and in the towns and they think deer are abundant and everywhere. Well theyre not. Hutto said the mule deer we see in the winter are literally all the mule deer and that populations of the animal are down 50 to 70 percent in many places across the west.
People have this misplaced idea that theres an abundance of mule deer. And the truth is, in a lot of places mule deer are absent altogether.
This is a problem, according to Hutto, who said when the mule deer vanishes from the landscape you cant reintroduce them, unlike the whitetail.
You can take a mule deer from the sagebrush ecology out here where I live, and you can transport it 200 miles away to an ecology that looks absolutely identical and appears to have the same diversity of land, and they wont survive. You cant transplant mule deer. If they do survive, the reproductive rates are very low and they dont do well. And thats been demonstrated over and over again, he said.
A day in the life
Hutto has joined the herd of mule deer near his home nearly every day for the past seven years. The animals welcome him and accept him, though he said theyre not habituated to other humans.
Thats a very important point, Hutto stressed. Just because they know me, theyre in no way habituated to other humans. And when were out on that mountain, if another human pops up a half a mile away, they run a half mile or quarter mile and stop and look back. Theyre in no way habituated to people because of my relationship with them. Thats something I was very concerned about originally. If this made them more vulnerable to hunting, I wouldnt have done it. But it doesnt, he said emphatically, noting that the area is hunted hard each fall.
But the deer do know Hutto and he knows them.
I live with them with hands-on contact. I can touch all these deer. I scratch them sometimes and can remove ticks. Im just like another deer [to them].
Hutto does place his hands on the animals and has felt fawns kicking and nosing around days or even hours before theyre born. Because mule deer are completely precocial, the fawns are wide awake for some period of time before theyre born. Hutto said without doubt that interacting with these does, literally sitting with them, talking to them and feeling their fawns kicking in their bellies, hes certain the fawns are hearing his voice.
Theres just no question about it. And when these fawns are born, theyre immediately, completely comfortable with my presence. Now, familiar does that I can be close to but I havent interacted with before the fawns are born, they have a distinctly different relationship to me. Theyre not as close. And theyre not as readily comfortable. It can take two months for a fawn to become completely comfortable with me. But the response from a fawn where Ive interacted with the mother, as soon as theyre born they hear my voice and they know who I am. While he said he cant demonstrate this empirically, by anecdote hes seen it demonstrated over and over again. Theres a difference in the fawns that have heard my voice in utero and those fawns that havent, he said.
What about the predators?
Hutto is frequently in the field with the mule deer when they spook and run. When this happens, Hutto, who cant run with the fleet-footed mule deer, is left with the predator. When this happens, he said, he gets ready. Last year, a lion hunter training his dogs near Huttos cabin identified eight individual mountain lions in the vicinity.
I get ready. The [predators] are very bold, actually. When hes out with the deer, Hutto always carries a rifle over his shoulder. You know the deer bolt and guess whos left facing whatever it was, a coyote or mountain lion? Hes actually run into mountain lions only a couple of times. But he said Guess what? They dont run from you. He said when a lion sees you coming they hide and you may not see them unless you accidentally flush them out. Yeah, thats kind of disturbing, he said. So he carries his rifle.
And while hes never had a problem and doesnt expect one, he carries the rifle and said, You cant let a 180-pound cat make all the important decisions.
What hes learned
Hutto said much of what hes learned over the past seven years about these mule deer has been a revelation.
Even though I thought very highly of this animal and I knew they were extraordinary, I had no idea just how extraordinary they were. I had no idea how intelligent they were. I had no idea how complex their society was. He said hes been overwhelmed with what hes learned and how, quantitatively and qualitatively, mule deer are so much more interesting and complex than he imagined.
Talking with the animals
Can Hutto communicate with these mule deer?
Absolutely, he said. Mule deer are very loquacious. They have a vocabulary and they talk, though he said their voices are subtle unless youre in hands-on proximity. He said theres a lot of conversation going on all the time. And its been fascinating because theyve included me in that.
Hutto said he cant speak like a mule deer, but can understand their language.
You know they do have a vocabulary of sorts. Its not as complex as wild turkeys, but theyre birds that are known to have complex vocabularies, the wildlife biologist said. But he added that mule deer express themselves vocally in a variety of ways and in a variety of contexts. And yes, and Ive learned all those voices.
Mule deer also employ gestures and greetings.
That was a wonderful thing that I learned early on, that they would greet me from a distance. They just sort of lift up their chins like, OK I see you and Oh yeah, its you, its that guy. And I recognized that almost immediately.
Hutto said he learned that returning the gesture was one means of communication. Mule deer dont have facial muscles like dogs and humans. But Hutto said they still can be very expressive with their ears and their body language.
When you get tuned into that, you can tell theres a lot of communication going on besides their vocabulary.
Mule deer personalities are key
People think ruminants [like mule deer] in general are just biological machines that turn grass into meat and they just go around with their heads down, digesting food and become you know, a pile of flesh and bones. Its just not like that at all. Theyre out there living a real life in a real society and they have vastly different personalities, which is very important. And you would expect that in a population of very intelligent animals. They have this enormous range of variation and thats one of the things that has allowed me to do this. Because you know, some of these deer just literally wont have anything to do with me after seven years. And other deer, because of their personality, within two weeks, I can meet a wild, full-grown mule deer buck whos been hunted and probably shot at on multiple occasions, and in two weeks I have my hands on them, grooming them like an affiliate. Its just because of that remarkable individual personality, Hutto explained. And there are those personalities that have just let me into their world.