On Nov. 17 while hunting on a family farm in southeastern Georgia, 19-year-old Mary Bostwick harvested a deer of a lifetime; a deer her father, cousins and brothers chased for three seasons. But the size of the antlers wasn't the only thing that took her by surprise; it was the abnormal, deformed growth that made the animal unlike any she'd seen. Here's her story of how she harvested what was later determined to be a rare cactus buck. The day before, Mary, a sophmore at the University of Georgia in Athens, drove home for Thanksgiving break. Along the way, she passed a truckload of hunters donning orange vests, turning down a dirt road. The sight kick started something in her. It had been years since she'd had the impulse, let alone the time, to run off to the fall woods, but she decided then and there she wanted to chase deer again. "My grandfather went hunting when he was younger, and he and my dad got me and my two older brothers into it," Bostwick says. "I stopped hunting for a while because of school, but over the Thanksgiving break we get together for a "cousins hunt" on our family farm every year--it's like a big family reunion--and since I was in town for it, I just decided to go out with everyone else. I'm glad I did.".
Mary’s father and uncles were excited to hear about her intentions, woke her early the next morning, and told her during breakfast they were going to put her in a stand near an area where trail cameras had been capturing significant deer movement. “My uncle dropped me off on the way to his stand so I could hunt alone. I know how quiet you have to be in the stand and I always feel like if someone is hunting with me, they’re going to ruin it,” Bostwick says laughing.
Soon after settling in, she heard two shots in the distance. Thirty minutes later, a spike buck stepped in front of her. After it wandered out of sight, she saw what appeared to be a deer disappear behind a large fallen pine tree 150 yards away. While waiting for the deer to reemerge, three small deer heads poked out of the treeline, and moments later, appeared another head with antlers–big ones. “I got buck fever right away. I promised myself not to shoot a doe, because I’ve killed a doe before, and I wanted to wait for big deer. So I wasn’t nervous seeing the does, but once I saw him, my heart started beating so fast,” Bostwick says. “He was far enough away that I couldn’t see the features of his antlers, and then he went behind some brush. I knew that once he stepped out, I wouldn’t have much time to shoot him, so I just got ready for the moment. I really didn’t have time to think about anything else.”
Mary squeezed the trigger, watched the buck run out of sight, and started thinking she missed. “My uncle wasn’t far away and heard the shot, so he immediately texted me ‘what did you get?’ So I replied and said I shot at a buck, but I don’t know if I got it. He said he’d be right there, but I couldn’t wait and got down and found the deer on my own,” Bostwick says.
And when she approached the animal’s antlers, it wasn’t the size that amazed her, it was the texture. The big antlers she’d seen moments ago in her riflescope were covered in velvet and riddled with abnormal, random, knobby-looking protrusions. “I called my dad and told him I shot this crazy deer. He started asking me how big it was and if it looked unusual, and when I said yes, he said, ‘well, I think you just shot SpongeBob.’ Apparently, he and my cousins named the deer some time ago because the antlers looked spongy in trail camera photos,” Bostwick says. “My dad has trail cameras out all over the place, and he and my brothers captured photos of this deer for the past three years, but no one ever really got a close-up shot of it, and most images were at night and you couldn’t see a lot of detail. No one ever saw it with their own eyes, so my dad and brothers were hoping someone would tag it just so they could see it–he didn’t want it to die of old age without seeing it up close.”
As luck would have it, hundreds of miles to the North, Indiana resident Jay Smith harvested a similar deer weeks earlier. Thirty-year Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologist and renowned deer authority Kent Kammermeyer says like Smith’s deer, the reason for the velvet and awkward antler growth is simple–peruke (pə-ˈruk). “The condition of Mary’s deer is called peruke, a French word for wig. The nickname is cauliflower growth in European species, though in the U.S., most people just refer to the deer as cactus bucks,” Kammermeyer says. “This condition is caused by a lack of testosterone. That can be from testicles never descending all the way outside the body cavity, or the deer injures or completely removes its testicles somehow. Deer have been known to rip them off going over a barbed-wire fence, so I imagine they can damage or remove them completely in several different ways.” [ KY Hunter Tags 283-Inch Velvet Buck ]
Assuming the deer suffered from some type of genetic malfunction, Mary and her family took particular care when skinning and dressing the animal, and as fate would have it, noticed the absence of male parts between the hind quarters. “We checked the deer, and it was completely missing his private parts,” Bostwick says. “Later, when we were cleaning it, we saw it was hit with buckshot down there. There was some marbled scarring on the meat and some healed wounds. So maybe someone shot and wounded him, but he lived on.”
While the discovery of old wounds lent clues to the deer’s past, Kammermeyer says the character and size of the antlers on Mary’s deer, and the old, scabbed pieces of infected velvet dotting the crevices, offers hints as to deer’s potential future. “If these deer get old enough, and the antlers growth is significant, some of the growth can turn inward. Cactus bucks often die from brain injuries because of it. So she might have performed a good function for the deer by putting it out of the future misery of going through a slow death from brain damage,” Kammermeyer says. “Normally infection around the antlers occurs after bucks fight with one another. But since this buck wasn’t fighting, it was infected from the cauliflower formation of its antlers. It’s a condition that just causes all kinds of problems. That deer might have died this year, or maybe the next, but it was certainly scheduled to die.”
Mary and her father selected Josh Teston, a taxidermist in Sylvania, Georgia, to complete a shoulder mount, though even he admits the odd nature and size of the deer caught him of guard, and he’s not quite sure where to start. “I’ve been doing taxidermy for about 10 years, and my dad has been doing it for about 30, and neither of us have seen anything like it. The bases of the antlers are as big as Coca-Cola cans, and since it didn’t have any brow tines, it’s weird looking,” Teston says. “The deer had a big head on it and a small neck like a doe’s–unusually small, like someone took a doe head and neck and put it on a 175-pound deer. I’m actually going to have find a form and whittle it down to make it fit the natural shape. They really don’t make anything for a deer like this.”
Whatever Teston decides to do, Mary says she’ll simply to be happy to have a trophy hanging on the wall, along other deer harvested by her father and brothers, and that maybe when she’s finished with college life, she’ll have a place on her own wall earmarked for what she says is one of her most treasured experiences. “My dad was more excited than me–he’s always more excited than his kids when we’re successful. He already had a lot of hunting experiences when he was young and he just wants us to be able to enjoy it now, so I’m glad he’ll be able to enjoy the mount for a few years. but when I get out of school and get a house, maybe I’ll be able to move it into my study or something,” Bostwick says laughing again.
On Nov. 17, 2012, while hunting on a family farm in southeastern Georgia, 19-year-old Mary Bostwick harvested a deer of a lifetime; a deer her father, cousins and brothers chased for three seasons. But the size of the antlers wasn’t the only thing that took her by surprise; it was the abnormal, deformed growth that made the animal unlike any she’d seen. Here’s her story of how she harvested what was later determined to be a rare deer–a cactus buck.