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Meet the man who has lived with wild deer for decades

Brantford's Wayne Etmanski has spent years living in the woods with white-tailed deer. His hope is to co-exist and befriend the herd.

Brantford's Wayne Etmanski has spent years living in the woods with white-tailed deer

Wayne Etmanski has been deer whisperering since 1991. He'll spend days, weeks, even months in a forest in Brantford, Ont., hanging out and befriending a herd of deer. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Wayne Etmanski stands silently over the carcass of his favourite deer, Maybelle, as a swarm of flies pecks away at her innards.

She was the matriarch of the herd, Etmanski's "No. 1" deer. He had gotten so close to her over the past 17 years that he was even there when she gave birth.

Now, he's slicing open her cheek and breaking her ribs to figure out what went wrong.

"I really did have a good relationship, long relationship with this deer, a very special relationship," he sighs. "All the other deer followed what she did so it just might be harder for me now."

A photo of Maybelle prominently sits on a shelf in Etmanski's living room. He named her after the telephone operator on The Dukes of Hazzard — 'a good old-fashioned country name for a good old-fashioned country girl.' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

It's a rough start to Etmanski's return to the woods after a two-year absence. 

He takes a moment to remember his favourite Maybelle memories. But he accepts that it's all part of nature — and presses on.

The Brantford, Ont., man, better known as the "deer whisperer," has spent nearly 30 years living in the woods for days, weeks, even months at a time, documenting and living alongside wild white-tailed deer. He figures he's spent more than 200,000 hours in there.

"For the most part, they treat me like another deer. They treat me like a buck deer," Etmanski said. "It's surreal is what it is. It's so hard to describe. It's like I'm in a world I shouldn't be."

A bad back and subsequent surgery took him out of the woods for two years. This hike marked his first time back since. He missed it too much to not return.

'Treat me like another deer'

As a deer whisperer, Etmanksi's goal is to co-exist and befriend the herd. He's given names to each deer he's met and yells each of those names out as he treks through the bush looking for them. He doesn't use any food or bait, relying only on his voice and instinct.

He claims it only takes him about 15 minutes to find the herd. But this first time back in two years. Things take longer.

Etmanksi scours the woods for almost an hour and a half before stumbling upon five deer, their white tails wagging like dogs.

He gets emotional.

"It's like seeing your kids after not seeing them for years," he said. "It's like being back where I'm supposed to be, doing what I'm supposed to do."

It took almost an hour and a half, but Etmanski was able to locate the herd on his first return to the woods. There were deer he knew from before, like Tootsie, and some new fawns too. He says it will take a few days to get the new ones comfortable around him. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

It's been two years but he's positive these deer remember him. That includes Tootsie, Maybelle's daughter, now pregnant with a fawn of her own.

Etmanski creeps closer. The herd basically ignores his presence. He follows along as they graze, feed and explore — and is able to get within a few metres of them.

Almost immediately after returning to the woods from a two-year hiatus, Wayne Etmanski stumbled upon Maybelle. 1:04

Deer good at determining risk

It may sound like a fairy tale. But some white-tail deer experts say what Etmanski does is more than possible, depending on the herd and when you get to know them.

Keith Munro, a wildlife biologist with the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, said deer are easily able to determine risk — and either avoid it or ignore it.

Deer play a large role in Etmanski's life. He's got several deer-themed tattoos including the saying 'forever with whitetails' on his wrist and this one on his right hand. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

He thinks this herd has determined Etmanski isn't a risk, so they let him hang about.

"I'd say what's a bit unique is that this person has taken that effort to expose himself to the deer," said Munro, who has spent years studying the interaction between deer and humans. 

He warns these are still wild animals, though, and they are unpredictable. 

The deer have served as a form of therapy for Etmanski. He doesn't think of them as his pets, instead comparing them to friends or family. When searching for them, he calls out that daddy's home. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

"Just because … they appear to be friendly, they are still wild animals and we don't know what they are thinking," he said. "I don't know that I would walk up to a deer."

'I did nothing else'

Etmanski has given up a lot to live this life. He quit his job as a social worker, left behind family and friends and ended relationships. Starting new ones is basically impossible when you're in the woods.

"I was told straight out, 'I don't want to play second fiddle to a deer,'" he said. "When you're in the bush with deer, you're doing nothing else and that's all I did. I did nothing else."

His two-year hiatus gave him time to recharge. He even got himself a girlfriend, who he has been teaching all about deer. He hopes to bring her out to see them soon.

Etmanski poses at his home with his girlfriend Jenny Edwards. The home is filled with deer-related objects. There are deer antlers and skulls, deer statuettes, even deer stuffed animals. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Etmanski only makes a little money from his time in the woods. He's been able to sell photos, monetize videos he posts online, and give some speeches. But he says the memories are worth far more.

"Probably the only place I'm truly, truly happy is out here with these deer."

To head out with the deer whisperer on his return to the woods, tap on the audio player below.

You've likely heard of a dog, or horse whisperer ? but what about a deer whisperer? Haydn Watters takes a trip into the woods to meet a man who lives with a herd of deer. 8:29

About the Author

Haydn Watters is a roving reporter for Ontario, primarily serving the province's local radio shows. He has worked for CBC News and CBC Radio in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and the entertainment unit. He also ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont.

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