Tammy Emery used to think of deer as sweet and adorable, like Bambi. An encounter with a hard-charging doe changed that. The 31-year-old secretary was among at least seven people threatened or injured by female deer last year on Southern Illinois University's campus — attacks that have prompted the school to wage a safety campaign during this spring's fawning season.
The attacks in the woods at the 20,000-student university have been attributed to a combination of protective motherly instinct, squeezed habitat and, in some cases, a little too much human curiosity.
The message now: Keep your eyes peeled for deer, don't approach them, and if a wild-eyed deer starts bounding your way, run.
"Before last year, no one really had heard of this sort of thing," says Clay Nielsen, a wildlife ecologist at the university.
Nielsen believes different deer were responsible for the three attacks that sent Emery and at least three others to the hospital, mostly with minor injuries.
"It wasn't like it was one crazy animal," Nielsen says. But some of the attacks may have been avoided, he thinks, if the victims hadn't committed an absolute no-no: moving in on a fawn to pet it.
Now, with fawning season soon to peak — last year's attacks happened June 7-15 — Nielsen and other campus officials are using signs, radio spots, e-mails and fliers about the deer in Thompson Woods. Later this month, Nielsen will lead a seminar titled "Avoiding Deer-Human Encounters of the Third Kind on Campus."
The effort also includes a two-year study by Nielsen and other researchers to count the deer, pinpoint how the animals affect the campus' ecosystem and gauge what locals think of them. Nielsen says the study will offer no recommendations on what to do about the deer, leaving that difficult issue for administrators.
All of this comes too late for Emery, a secretary in the political science department who still winces when she recounts what happened to her on the June afternoon she took a shortcut through Thompson Woods.
Emery heard a rustling and saw "this deer was headed right toward me, full charge." Emery never saw any fawn, only the adult deer with eyes wide.
"I could tell it was angry, but I wasn't sure what about," she says. "I know by the time I was in the area she was really mad and going to take it all out on me. I couldn't have run if I tried."
In an instant, the deer knocked the woman to the ground and delivered a flurry of kicks. Emery, screaming, curled defensively into a ball as the snorting animal rained blows on her, slicing open one of her ears and leaving her with huge bruises and a hoofprint on her hand.
"I thought, 'This is crazy, this can't be real. I'm being attacked by a deer,'" she recalls.
The deer was scared off by passers-by. Emery has not been back in that stretch of the woods since.
While taking a shortcut through the woods this week, Stephanie Eastwood, a biochemistry major, wondered what all the fuss was about, saying deer were the least of her worries.
"Deer are docile creatures — they don't just attack," said Eastwood, 26. "I find it amusing to see the animals in the park, but all I've seen here is squirrels and snakes, and snakes bother me more."
Nielsen suspects various factors conspired in last year's attacks, including an increase in the deer population and the clearing of trees and windbreaks around the campus' edge. That shrinking habitat has forced the animals into Thompson Woods, which is 20 or so acres with hundreds of yards of paved trails.
"It's the result of having a beautiful campus that we have to deal with wildlife," Nielsen says.
Emery says she thinks differently deer these days: "When they're mad, they're vicious. They're not the pretty creatures they were to me before."