Meditation on Pere David’s Deer
Years ago, I used to like to wander in a back part of the National Zoo that was just labeled “hoofed stock.” There obscure deer and antelope grazed on enclosures with grassy slopes. Somewhere beyond the muntjacs and the bongos, you would find Pere David’s deer.
I think there was a sign reporting that Pere David’s deer was a rare and highly endangered species. This seemed appropriate, in a way, for an animal named after one individual. Inevitably, you had to wonder, “Who was Pere David?” “Why is this his deer?” But the enigmatic animal behind the fences gave no answer.
Pere David’s deer has stayed in the back of my mind all these years as something odd and mysterious. The other day I came across an article about the deer on the Nature Conservancy’s blog. When I read “Saved by Chance: The Incredibly Strange Story of the Pere David’s Deer” by Matt Miller I finally learned its story after all these years.
It turns out that Pere David was the European who first learned of this species. The deer was already reduced to a remnant population in the mid-19th Century in China. The few left lived in the Emperor’s Hunting Park. Pere David, in China as a missionary, learned of the animal and visited the Park. He communicated to Europeans about the species. It was arranged for some of the deer to be sent to game preserves and zoos in Europe. Thus Pere David’s deer, while dying out in its native China, has lived on in a captive state in Europe and the United States.
Reading this story made me wonder: what is it like to be the last of a species, all that is left of a once flourishing life form? Silly thoughts, of course. The deer simply live, however differently from their ancestors in the wild. Their days are filled with the usual details of living—eating, sleeping, sensing the world around. It makes no difference to these animals that they are members of a rare species that has survived only in zoos and parks.
But it matters to humans. It matters to us that Pere David’s deer continues to live. And it also matters to us that the deer no longer lives its natural life in the wild. Miller writes in the article, “You might say that today’s Pere David’s deer has become something less than a Pere David’s deer. How did these deer shape the land and how did the land shape the deer? That we no longer know. The deer’s complex interplay with native plants, marshes, with predators—these are lost to time.”
Is Pere David’s deer of less value because of this? Why do humans keep it—and other species nearly at the point of extinction—going? What is it about a species that makes us not want to lose it? Pere David’s deer has long since ceased to be a part of a natural ecosystem where it might have a role. Yet humans continue to perpetuate its existence in artificial circumstances.
The deer, though, are not artificial. They are as real as white-tails in your garden. But they don’t determine their own fate; we do. And this deer with the unusual antlers is something we do not want to lose.
In another recent article on the Nature Conservancy blog, conservation scientist Jensen Montambault wrote, “So much of conservation feels like gardening. If a cavity nesting bird requires predator excluders on every successful nest site, is it wild? Will we have to light and tend prescribed fires in perpetuity?”
Montambault was writing about the Whooping Crane whose continued existence has depended on very close management by humans. A recent study has shown that Whooping Cranes over time are becoming independent of human intervention once again, giving hope to the project of re-establishing captive species in the wild. Such efforts are also underway now with the Arabian Oryx and Przewalski’s horse, both considered extinct in the wild until reintroduced recently.
There seems no such hope for Pere David’s deer. Humanity does not even know how these deer lived in the wild. The possibility of re-establishing them as they once lived is likely gone forever.
Yet Pere David’s deer lives on. Maybe we feel there is something to be learned from it. Maybe science can study its living genome and find useful information. Or maybe we just appreciate it as its own special thing, a living thing like no other that has lived before or ever will again. I do not really know. Still, I am glad Pere David’s deer still shares the earth with us.
Photo Credit: Matt Miller/TNC