Of Deer and the Deer Man

PBS this week featured two excellent shows on animals. One was a Nature episode about the Turkey man, Joe Hutto, who grafted himself into a flock of wild turkeys and learned their ways. In this new documentary he makes contact with mule deer simply by being among them for two years.


{It seems to me that over the course of the filming the deer may have been fed near his cabin. Nevertheless I think any artificial inducements that may have been used were for the purposes of getting a scene and most likely came later in the process of making contact and bonding. This show has an undeniable ring of truth and you just can’t fake the deers’ primordial reactions. I don’t doubt that the seminal process was the manner in which Deer Man conducted himself as he walked alongside and eventually among the deer until by the end of the two years he was able to give them rub-a-dubs as they grew to accept him.}

The second show that followed was a NOVA program entitled “Inside the Animal Mind” and it featured many well known researchers on dogs such as Alexandra Horowitz and Brian Hare.


I won’t comment on this second show here since so many themes come into play, but I do want to note that the two episodes in combination bring the notion of an animals’ sense-of-self to the forefront and how in my mind a sense-of-self determines how the animal mind constructs a view of reality, an emotional dynamic that also speaks to why dogs follow the human gaze and gestures and turn to their owners when they meet with too much resistance when working a puzzle. Wolves even when raised with humans do not. (There’s conflicting evidence on the gaze/gesture response, but when problem solving wolves stay focused, dogs turn toward humans.)

I mention the second show because a quote from the NOVA site tells us where all this research into animal cognition is going to end up, i.e. a Theory of Mind (ToM).

“We have all gazed into a creature’s eyes and wondered: What is it thinking about? What does it know? Now, the revolutionary science of animal cognition is revealing hard evidence about how animals understand the world around them.”


It was humorous to see dogs trained to lie inert in an MRI for brain scans. Scientists are always looking in the brain to find a dog’s sense of its Self. In my view they aren’t going to find IT behind the eyes or between the ears. That said, I’m all in favor of scientists coming up with as many clever experiments as they can and applying the very latest in technology. For the love of dogs let the chips fall where they may.

However, can one learn to see the animal mind in a different light, to see inside their minds without the encumbrance of an MRI machine? Yes because a dog moving around and interacting with the world is far more revealing. The body is the key to the animal mind.

Just understanding that animal senses are radically different from human senses isn’t getting to the crux of the problem. The real problem is the default action of the human intellect and how it reflexively interprets the evidence on the animal mind. The human intellect operates under the assumption that animals weight the world exactly as we do, by thinking (see Nova quote above). In my definition of human thinking, as opposed to mental activity, a thought posits the bearer as separate from its surroundings. So if we’re asking what is a dog thinking, we will reflexively interpret the evidence as if the animal is thinking that what happens outside causes what happens inside. (For example, we will say that the deer runs from the predator because it feels threatened. This is confusing a thought with a feeling and constructs a view of animal reality that the outside causes the inside.) And this means that intelligent and especially social behavior in an animal (in an emotional model for behavior there is no distinction between the two classes of behavior) will be seen as a function of intention and that an animal therefore connects the dots in a rational process akin to the way the human intellect connects dots, by reason. A human references a Self as something that stands in relief against its  surroundings and due to such a perspective we presume this to be true of animals as well even if we don’t consciously or explicitly articulate this belief.

In contravention I argue that we can entertain the equal/opposite possibility, that because emotion is what human and animal have in common we can objectively plumb this common domain because we are emotional animals too. Our senses may be different, our thoughts can be taken off the table, but even science demonstrates that the emotional affects of emotional experience are exactly the same for human beings as it is for animals because there is a common neurology and neurochemistry. (This belief is also affirmed by observing animals in terms of the immediate-moment.) So as an emotional being we can entertain the idea that perhaps animals perceive the world as if that which happens inside emotionally is what causes what happens outside to happen. (This is the most reasonable presumption given that an internal emotional experience is all consuming to an animal mind.) It will ultimately follow from here that all behavior is a function of attraction rather than intention which is why it is possible for wild deer to connect with a human being who does nothing more than mirror their movements and absorb their momentum as best as he can. There is no survival advantage to the deer letting Hutto into their midst. In fact the more they were to acclimate to humans the shorter they are likely to live.

Why is animal behavior a function of attraction rather than intention? Because an animal feels its physical and its emotional equilibrium are one and the same and it therefore feels that it is physically connected to what has knocked it out of emotional equilibrium. And when something displaces any living being from equilibrium, there is an autonomic and undeniable urge to return to equilibrium, which means generating a counter acting force directed TOWARD the source of the disturbance. Every action (displacement) has an equal and opposite reaction (attraction). The very seed of the attraction is the individual’s physical center-of-gravity which it projects forward into the source in order to neutralize the force.

In this second possibility of inside-over-outside, the individual feels that it is physically connected to what’s going on around it because its internal experience is the only thing relevant in any given sequence of events. Anything out there is only of import if it affects the inside. In such an emotional world view wherein the animal doesn’t make a distinction between its physical and its emotional equilibrium, whenever the animal mind is stimulated by anything, absolutely anything, whether it be one of its own kind, an outsider, or a leaf blowing across its line of sight, it feels as if it has been displaced from emotional stasis just as if it has been acted on by an external force. Nerve synapses firing equals being acted on by an external force. Stimulation is synonymous with being displaced from emotional equilibrium and so that source of disturbance is first and foremost perceived as an external force acting on it, and the innate response to a force acting on the body is to neutralize it, either by counteracting, or by absorbing it. The subsequent behavior we observe is an expression of this return-to-equilibrium-response and it is additionally a function of conductivity, i.e. whether or not the animal can go forward or not based on the perception of resistance.

The learning that we then observe as animals adapt to disturbances, i.e. emotional attractants, occurs through a biofeedback dynamic rather than a rational one. It’s just as if the animal believes that what it feels internally causes the external object to move, it literally feels as if it has willed what happened to happen, even though it has no higher understanding of causality (which is why a dog can be frightened by his own bark). And since emotion equals motion, animals learn by moving their bodies in order to affect how objects of attraction make them feel. Therefore an animal, unlike a human, references its Self as a function of its surroundings, not as something separate from its surroundings.

Animals move to improve how they feel. They want to feel flow rather than resistance. However since the world is full of so many objects-of-resistance, they are additionally motivated to improve their flow BY CONNECTING with objects-of-resistance because in their mind they are indeed physically connected. The longer this contact is sustained the more deeply the animal feels connected. So in this alternative view wherein what’s going-on-inside is more important than what’s happening outside, an animal constructs a view of reality by way of constructing a sense of its Self since it always feels physically attached to any stimulation. The only question is whether it can connect or not, how much resistance can it tolerate before the feeling of attraction collapses. The core of what it is feeling internally, its physical center-of-gravity, is projected onto Objects-of-Resistance, and becomes an emotional center-of-gravity. If the animal feels flow by being connected, then the Object-of-Resistance is perceived of as a part of its self. This is what happened with Deer Man and the deer.

An animal makes sense of the force that is acting upon it via an embodied cognition, in other words an innate emotional awareness of the principles of physics, primarily, thermodynamics and the laws of gravity and motion, most especially every-action-equal-opposite-reaction. (These laws of nature enable the development of an animals’ sense of its Self and as the relationship elaborates they can then evolve into magnetic-like emotional phenomena as individuals interact. In other words they feel aroused by touch and movement just like an electrical current animates an electromagnet.)

We can see this very progression unfold through embodied cognition (a bit of an oxymoron since such intelligent awareness of the world has nothing to do with mental cognition, but of course it is very much a kind of knowing it’s just that it arises from the body) over the two years chronicled between the deer and the Deer Man. If an object-of-resistance becomes the pole of low pressure, then contact can be made, emotion as an electric-like phenomenon. And then if Newton’s third law of motion is enabled, i.e. every action has an equal and opposite reaction, that object-of-resistance begins to be integrated into a sense of self.

So on Day One Deer Man arrives and all the deer run off about a 1/4 mile. They have been displaced by a specific degree of force, quite a strong one given a human being’s pronounced predatory aspect. The deer run off this force of momentum to terminus. To our intellect which processes information in the exact opposite manner, i.e. the outside causes the inside we say that Deer Man frightened the deer causing them to run away until they felt safe enough to assess the level of threat he posed. The problem with this narrative is that a human psychological principle as opposed to a law of nature is now in play and will pre-determine all subsequent interpretations of everything that follows. The process of inquiry has a foregone conclusion so that two years later when the first crossover deer leaps the gap and connects with Deer Man, we will conclude that trust is a psychological phenomenon. We will have thus disavowed what is really happening, the organizing principles of emotion, i.e. the laws of nature, which are truly responsible for the remarkable relationship that EVOLVES between the deer and Deer Man.

While it took two years for the connection to evolve, pretty quick on the evolutionary time scale, nevertheless on the very first encounter between the deer and Deer Man, even though they ran away the deer were attracted to him and were feeling a physical connection between them because their attraction to Deer Man was physical, not intellectual. Hutto wasn’t being viewed as another entity on the horizon relative to them, who are likewise an assemblage of related self-contained entities perceiving each other as selves relative to other selves. Instantly they felt a physical connection to Deer Man and then their interaction began to evolve according to the principles of physics and how energy moves from one pole to another. In the first instant, the deer were knocked off balance with a specific degree of force, and they ran this off a specific distance. In other words, at rock bottom emotion is invested with a degree of momentum. Emotion wants to move, but emotional intelligence only wants to move toward that which can absorb this momentum. When it cannot, the state of attraction collapses and the animal runs it off toward the path of least resistance. They run to more stable ground, they are not running from the man. It’s a flow principle not a cognitive understanding of a man posing a threat to them.

When they saw Deer Man they FELT something happening within their body (they weren’t thinking. The germ of their Self is within their body, not their brain). That charge (internal vibration of falling) is satisfied by ingesting an essence (preyful aspect), which would be by way of smell when they got downwind at a safe distance (i.e. exhausted their emotional momentum). If they have assessed Deer Man as a threat visually, why is there a drive to smell? Supposedly the threat has already been assessed. But there is a drive to smell because the act of ingestion is the mechanism of emotional grounding. The question now becomes the matter of conductivity. In other words, how close could they be to Deer Man and yet continue to feel their Self. Because of the wide open plains Deer Man could skulk around the herd and gently probe the flight threshold. He could maintain visual contact and continually mirror their movements day after day. (I suspect that trying to do this with white tailed deer in the heavily forested and short-horizon Northeast might take a lifetime, if it was even possible. In the Northeast it would be impossible to play with this flight distance, i.e. the threshold between hunger and balance.)

Then one day the deer happened to arrive in a zone that Deer Man was already present and since they came upon him, to whom they had already become acclimated through the equal and opposite law of motion, he was able to flow alongside them as long as possible and so their connection began to take a deeper root. It was easier to stay close in the area they were going to graze then run away in flight. Hunger was beginning to outweigh balance in how they modulated their attraction to Deer Man. In my model, alignment and synchronization is the most highly refined form of ingestion, and thus can serve as its substitute and this is the basis for social structure. So if the deer are able to  graze within the flight distance, then Deer Man is being given emotional credit for the flow of nutrient into their bellies because he is indelibly imprinted onto their physical center-of-gravity as well. The only question is one of conductivity, are they assessing their physical center-of-gravity in terms of balance, or in terms of hunger.

Then in the scene documented at the two year mark, we see the first deer closing the gap while Deer Man sat motionless. The human intellect sees a two year span of learning as having transpired between the deer and Deer Man. But in a flow perspective, the charge that had been activated two years earlier had finally run to completion. The initial momentum reached terminus. It had been percolating below the surface all that time. In the animal moment the movement of that deep current represents but one moment. The doe was connecting with her Self.

Even as they connect we can see just how primary the sense of balance is, not only in the first encounter but in all subsequent ones as well. We should note how both the deer and Deer Man CONDUCT themselves in deference to the principle of conductivity. Both the deer and the Deer Man are aware of the intense balance dynamic and how the hunger circuitry is hanging by a thread. When the deer are tentative, Deer Man mutes his output, he is very still but soft so that he doesn’t push them over capacity, and this allows the deer to feel that if they subordinate their fear of falling to their desire to ingest, this keeps Deer Man quiet. They are internally regulating how Deer Man behaves, an auto-tuning/feedback loop.. Since they would rather feel flow (hunger) than balance, they will move their bodies in a way that will keep Deer Man calm. And because everything about what the Deer Man does is resonant with alignment and synchronization, the first deer can feel its Self as it closes the gap and makes contact.

Monty Roberts on horseback was able to achieve “Join Up” with a deer in but a few days and the deer went on to become his lifelong pet on his ranch (albeit somewhat neurotic and dangerous). But on foot it took Deer Man took two years, the difference between the two feats being a principle of conductivity, how fast Deer Man could move and therefore conduct the deers’ attraction to him. Were he able to run like a deer, it would have gone much faster. Bravo to Deer Man for his incredible perseverance.

There is also a long distance running sport in the hot plains when a marathoner, who can always see the quarry, attempts to run it down to a state of exhaustion and touch it, but without it dying from heatstroke. Since humans can sweat and run long distances in the extreme heat, the speed disparity between human and deer is soon neutralized. In modern Africa “persistence hunting” still persists. Now were the hunter not to kill the prey, and then simply hang out with it as it began to recuperate (the same being true of marathon runner as well), and then sustain contact over the next  days and weeks, I believe the same emotional bond that Deer Man achieved would evolve as well and probably a lot faster. This might very well be how the first prey animals were caught and then domesticated.

The principle of conductivity accounts for why the deer could acclimate to Deer Man with whom they had achieved alignment and synchronization, but then with him standing by their side, paradoxically as it might seem, freak out when a human rides by on horseback half a mile away. The deer can’t feel their Self in the horseman, and in fact, they can’t in that moment feel Deer Man either because their state of emotional alignment and synchronization isn’t strong enough to conduct intense predator energy. This is why Deer Man always acts prey-like (soft) in both voice and manner in order to absorb their momentum.

The most important thing this show revealed was that all behavior is a function of attraction. Deer like every other animal in nature is attracted to human beings. Domestication is inevitable. Attraction is experienced as a force, as if an external physical force is acting on the animal. If that experience can be processed via the hunger circuitry, contact can be made and we see this connection being consummated through ingestive processes, smelling, gaping, licking, and gripping/rub-a-dubbing once the conductivity of the connection is high enough.

The most interesting revelation was the Deer Man’s discovery that a doe was the lead animal, rather than one of the mighty bucks. Earlier I wrote a post entitled “Who’s In Control? about the “Heat Pack” that formed around a female dog in estrus roaming the streets of South Central L.A. It came to my attention because it had been posted on a trainers’ forum to counter the Positive Trainers mantra that the old notion of a dominance hierarchy is outdated. Both camps are half right. There is a hierarchy, but it isn’t a question of status accruing to the strongest. The real leader, if it is a leader we must assign, was the female in heat, not the powerful male that ultimately prevailed by tooth and claw over all comers. I think it’s long past time that the dog world get up to speed on the nature of hierarchy as a flow dynamic by reading “Design In Nature” by Adrian Bejan. This book can help them learn that they are watching friction not competition, and a hierarchy predicated on flow, not on rank or control over resources. There is no leader, flow is “in charge.”

Finally I want to mention the instances of “grief” depicted when a member of the herd died. The responses of the deer were remarkable and moving. But is this grief in the human sense of understanding mortality? I would argue it isn’t and that we’re missing a far more powerful and sublime truth. Each deer represents a part of its peer’s apprehension of its Self. They are all on one continuum of being, one continuous feedback loop, each other member perceived of as co-inhabiting their own body on the deepest layer of hunger. They see each other as contained entities of motion. Things that allow them to BE. They are not separate beings, they are all of one BEING.

On the most primal emotional level each deer is an object of resistance, an emotional mass, a contained and constrained bundling of energy. By herding together they each trigger and release the underlying emotion and stress reserves. They experience the feeling of new energy as they move in sync with each other. They give each other credit for the grass in their belly. They become a networked intelligence. This is the logical extension of learning as an auto-tuning/feedback dynamic with a sense of self as a function of one’s surroundings. Thus, when a mother lost her fawn, when the herd lost a member, their group mind loses a vital cog and their momentum is no longer smoothly channeled. The mother ran from place to place to wherever she had felt her fawn. She was trying to will her Self back into Being. A theory of mind couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Is this a clinical view more detached than saying the doe was grieving for her fawn? To me it points to a far more transcendent meaning. The nature of Nature is to nurture.


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Published April 18, 2014 by Kevin Behan
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3 responses to “Of Deer and the Deer Man”

  1. John Cassidy says:

    So if a deer runs from a dog is it really running from the feeling of disconnection inside at that very spot at the sight of the dog ,or is it running because it’s infused with dog energy

  2. Kevin Behan says:

    Yes, the deer is attracted to the dog, but since the dog has a predatory aspect it triggers stress reserves in the deer (this is why the deer’s tail rises), and the subsequent force added to the attraction as stress comes on/line is too much for the deer to process (which is why they often poop at this point), and this is transpiring exactly as in the earlier example discussed between two dogs fighting with one knowing when it’s beaten without the capacity to compare its Self to another Self. The deer loses subliminal contact with its body which it regains by running, just like when our leg or arm goes numb or cramps and we work it out by moving it to regain the feeling. The deer isn’t running from the dog, he’s running from the place where he began to feel numb and shaky on his feet, which would be interpreted as the ground quite literally moving. When he gets far enough away from the place, he will want to double back down wind of the dog to get a sniff and complete the original state of attraction by ingesting a whiff of essence. We could also say that the “dog energy” (strong predator over low prey) was too much for the deer to process as a form of shorthand for the larger group dynamic. But it’s really important to see the system logic that is organizing all this and thereby can tie all animal behavior into a coherent whole rather than construed as a series of disconnected parts only connected by some human intellectual rationale (survival, threat assessment, territoriality, possessiveness, control, dominance, etc.).

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Books about Natural Dog Training by Kevin Behan

In Your Dog Is Your Mirror, dog trainer Kevin Behan proposes a radical new model for understanding canine behavior: a dog’s behavior and emotion, indeed its very cognition, are driven by our emotion. The dog doesn’t respond to what the owner thinks, says, or does; it responds to what the owner feels. And in this way, dogs can actually put people back in touch with their own emotions. Behan demonstrates that dogs and humans are connected more profoundly than has ever been imagined — by heart — and that this approach to dog cognition can help us understand many of dogs’ most inscrutable behaviors. This groundbreaking, provocative book opens the door to a whole new understanding between species, and perhaps a whole new understanding of ourselves.
  Natural Dog Training is about how dogs see the world and what this means in regards to training. The first part of this book presents a new theory for the social behavior of canines, featuring the drive to hunt, not the pack instincts, as seminal to canine behavior. The second part reinterprets how dogs actually learn. The third section presents exercises and handling techniques to put this theory into practice with a puppy. The final section sets forth a training program with a special emphasis on coming when called.
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