PITTSBORO — Im riding down U.S. 64 in a Ford pickup driven by Ken McEntire, better known as The Deer Man, whos carting two dead does and an expired buck on a flatbed trailer.
Were hauling Bambi, he jokes.
Our load is a gift for a pack of tigers who love raw venison bones and all. In a few minutes, Ill be watching a volunteer at Carolina Tiger Rescue cut this roadkill into meal-sized pieces with a watermelon knife, and maybe even make a chew toy out of the ears.
McEntire makes a retirement hobby out of collecting roadkill deer, fielding daily calls from police in Apex or Morrisville or Cary. He gets rousted at midnight, out to fetch another buck that wandered into traffic chasing a does scented charms. At age 75, he often finds himself scrambling to the bottom of a ditch, fixing ropes around a hoof, hauling a fresh carcass up a hill.
When you get deer out of the woods, you dont pull straight, he explains. Youve got to zigzag around trees.
McEntires work kept 97 deer bodies out of the landfill so far this year, and it put a sizable dent in the Tiger Rescues chicken budget, which can run to $80,000 a year. Big cats favor red meat, and as we pull into their Pittsboro driveway, you can hear them purring through 6-inch fangs.
Later, we meet Kaela a 9-year-old tiger who was found wandering a highway outside Charlotte. She chuffles a hello and drops a leg bone, all that remains of the last luckless deer McEntire delivered. Around her on the 55-acre property, 60 other rescued lions, cougars and caracals look at McEntire as though hes the Good Humor Man.
We can take the ears and use them for tiger toys, says Laura Cox, their keeper. We can use the hoofs. They eat the bones. They eat the ribs. We can take their Boomer Balls and wrap them in deer pelts.
I knew The Deer Man by reputation long before we met. I imagined him in mythical terms, thinking that it must take a centaur or a unicorn-man to look after the graceful creatures cut down by cruel hunks of plastic and steel, to give life with dead flesh.
Then I pulled into his Cary driveway, spied the three deer bodies waiting in his trailer and pictured an altogether different man, this one wearing bloody overalls and carrying an ax.
But thats not who stepped out and shook my hand.
McEntire is a retired electrical engineer who worked for ITT and Alcatel, logging 175,000 miles a year on an airplane, traveling to Germany and Australia for work. When hes not hoisting dead animals off the highway, hes playing country and bluegrass in nursing homes on guitar or dobro. He does all of this for free, fronting his own money for gas.
I dont know why youd think Im interesting, he told me humbly, over the squawking of the family parrot perched in his living room.
He didnt choose deer extraction so much as it came crashing into him. When a car hit a deer outside his house one night, he asked the officer, Can I keep it?
Once he explained the tiger rescue idea, the officer asked, Can we call you next time?
Now McEntire carries a signed permission slip from Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison and from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, which requires that he record the date, time and location of every deer he picks up. Hes listed with police in Apex, Cary, Morrisville and Raleigh, plus the sheriffs department and the N.C. Highway Patrol. On Thursday, he delivered his 97th deer to the tigers.
Ill make it to 100 if I dont drop dead or something, he said.
He wont take a deer if he doesnt know when it died, and in the winter, each carcass only has a shelf life of 24 hours. Once, somebody dropped one at his house. Fresh, he said. It was bleeding. I know it didnt get hit there because there was no blood on the sidewalk.
We make a funny picture driving through spotless Cary with a trio of furry corpses, but if anybody notices, they manage to keep their lunches down.
Along the way, somebody notices the big red sign on the back of McEntires truck Deer for Tiger Rescue and calls him up while driving right behind. Hes going hunting on N.C. 751, and if he should happen to shoot anything, would McEntire come get it?
Sure, he says. As long as you take it legally.
At the rescue, I watch a poor deer who smacked the front end of a fire truck get transformed into Tiger Chow. One leg, Cox tells me, equals 10 chickens. The rescue keeps a donation box out front, where fresh deer can be deposited anytime. But McEntire is their main donor, the only one to come every day.
Later that night, when the temperature hovered around freezing, McEntire called me at home to invite me out on his latest deer run. It was 10 p.m., and by that time Id shed my shoes and sunk deep into a sofa cushion. I decided to leave the night and all its terrors, its headlights and screeching tires, its scurrying hooves and broken antlers, in the care of The Deer Man.