Deer in the Head Lights

Haley Phelps via Unsplash

Last night while traveling at 190 kilometers per hour on a highway just outside of Barcelona, a deer decided to challenge my rented Sports Utility Vehicle. And a challenge it was. At that speed, I decided that applying the brakes would have been an exercise in vanity. I figured my best option was to accelerate and just as the car would strike the beast I would turn the wheel so the car would travel the path of a parabola, like a baseball bat moving through the strike zone. I was hoping that the poor thing would just bounce off the front grill like a well-struck double. Apparently, the elasticity of a deer isn’t the same as that of compressed yarn and rubber wrapped in cowhide during a wooden bat beating. It turned out, the deer was struck mostly about the inferior portion of its torso and entirely about its legs. This manner of collision served to low bridge the animal. Immediately disemboweled, it slid across the hood, through the windshield and took its final rest nestled in the passenger side seat. It was a two-lane road, and I was traveling in the far-right lane. I failed to complete the full path of the parabola. Once I saw the animal descending across the hood, I realized it wasn’t going to ricochet; it was at this time that I applied the brakes. Fortunately, other than the SUV I had borrowed, no inanimate objects were harmed (guard rails, light posts, etc…). The empty road meant that my stunt driving went off without involving any other motorist as well. It could have been the mushrooms, or maybe not, but I swear, before its’ spirit departed, it expressed a thought to me… Riding shotgun in my rental, the deer looked down at the remainder of its abdomen, brandishing its intestines, and then looked at me with the expression of angered confusion. The look conveyed the question just before his demise- “Did you just accelerate?”

Certainly, not the first deer I’ve hit with a vehicle- maybe the first I’ve eviscerated- but this one was different in other ways. Just the vision of the noble beast sitting comfortably in the front passenger seat like a friend about to buckle up for a quick venture to the market made the vehicular homicide hit a little closer to home. I kept thinking, “It just stood there”…The proverbial deer in the head lights. Why did it stop and stare? Why do they all stop and stare?

What is it about the glow of an oncoming promise of a less fortunate future that is so mesmerizing? To continue the previously plotted trajectory is life-saving. How is it that they are physically able, yet paralyzed, when the subtlest contribution of energy to motion would save them from a brutal collision with fate? A lifetime filled with steps unconsciously measured to avoid morbidity… Mortality. Is it a momentary malfunction of a dynamic system so over practiced that it typically runs on autopilot? Instincts are a survival mechanism. If someone swings a hammer at you, you will turn or flinch 10 out of 10 times. Deer often gaze into an oncoming set of headlights. There is no survival advantage to pausing to wait for an immanent tragedy. We do not need to think before running from explosions, gunfire, or lions; but we do need conscious thought to pause. It can’t be instinct at the helm. A mistake? The same as any other traffic accident between two human participants, just a simple miscalculation of the oncoming velocity. Mistakes are made by the conscious mind not by reflex or instinct.

The ultimate and final expected fortune couples with ones’ own inability to avoid destiny amongst mid-day traffic? Does the deer appreciate destiny? Maybe. Maybe not.

Perhaps this is unique to humans? Is the doe-eyed gaze into a certain death not the first representation of insecurity, the earliest sign of the conscious front brain controlling the primitive brain stem? The stem tells us to continue to rely on the instincts it has relied upon during countless occasions. While the bright light communicates to the conscious as to say, “Wake up my friend, you are truly in control.” The conscious’ immediate reaction is a pause in fear, as to say “What the hell is this? Is this happening?”

Like a newborn’s hesitation before belting out a loud resonating bellow on its arrival to the most unfamiliar and cold of places. The instinct is to cry. The conscious action is to pause and think, “What the hell is going on here?”

This pause and stare into the lights may represent a short, subtle miscommunication between the frontal lobe and the stem before the stem attempts to regain control. But the struggle for control is real. The brain stem’s attempt to wrestle control away from the frontal lobe in an act of survival. The deer stands entrenched in his position with the headlights bearing down. It may be unaware that it’s going to meet a certain death, but it is aware of this novel feeling of control and it likes it. It’s overwhelmed by the sense of free will. It’s paralyzed by it. And eventually, it is destroyed by it.

As I slowly drive down the dark Spanish road with my forever muted friend riding shotgun next to me, all I can think is that there must be a special circle in Dante’s hell for the narcotized man who would challenge and gut Bambi. A car is approaching from the other side of the road. Its high beams are engaged. Blinded by headlights, I stare into the illuminated abyss.

-Professor Matic

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