NASHVILLE, Tenn. — About the same time Charles Patterson's azaleas bloomed this year, his deer-hunting days ended.
At least he won't be hunting on his property in Robertson County after befriending a 3- to 4-year-old buck he found eating flowers in his garden.
"I have four tree stands that will go unused as long as he's around," Patterson said. "He's ruined my hunting. I could never kill him now. And I won't allow anyone else to hunt on my land and kill him either."
Patterson, 69, has hunted deer for more than 40 years. He killed three on his property last year.
But he's grown extremely fond of this particular deer, which has visited on two other occasions since their initial meeting about two weeks ago.
They've spent nearly an hour together at times, with the deer rubbing up against Patterson's leg and licking his arm while Patterson pets him on the snout and removes ticks from the deer's body with a pair of tweezers.
Wildlife officials, however, said the deer's behavior is likely to put the animal in danger because it no longer displays its natural defensive tendencies.
For Patterson, the relationship began when he stepped out onto his porch and spotted two deer munching on his dazzling flowers. He tried to shoo them away, but the buck held his ground.
"It was unbelievable," Patterson said. "I said, 'Get out of there! You're not allowed to eat those (azaleas).' I took a couple of steps toward them and another deer that was with him cut and ran. But he just stood and looked at me. So I kept talking to him and I said, 'If you're hungry come on over here and we'll figure something out.' "
The buck stopped eating the flowers, but instead of heading back into the woods he leisurely walked up to Patterson.
"I stepped off the porch and petted his head and rubbed his neck," Patterson said. "At one time he was leaning with his right shoulder against my left hip. I started rubbing his ears and he seemed to like that."
Patterson and a friend, who had come to hunt turkey on his land, took pictures and videos.
"The flashes from the cameras were going off and you could see the silver in the deer's eyes, and he wasn't a bit upset," Patterson said.
The buck finally walked off and Patterson never expected to see him again.
"I figured I'd been blessed and that was the end of that," he said.
Two days later, however, Patterson spotted the same deer off in a distance in his front yard. Sure enough, the deer eventually approached. But this time it gave Patterson something to remember him by: a case of poison ivy.
"I pulled about six or eight ticks off of him and while I was doing that he started licking my arm again," Patterson said. "He'd been eating poison ivy and I now have poison ivy on my arm. But it was the most fun I ever had getting poison ivy."
Three days later while he sat on his front porch reading a book, Patterson saw two deer about 100 yards away. He started talking to them and both came his way. One finally walked away, but the same buck from before approached Patterson yet again.
"We did the same song and dance," he said. "This time only for maybe about 10 minutes because it was cold and I had on short sleeves and no socks. I told him, 'Unless you're coming in with me I'll see you later.' "
Patterson has hunted enough to know this is not normal behavior for a deer, so he contacted the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and showed officer Mike Murdock the pictures and videos.
"Mike's the one who told me the deer was probably between 3 and 4 years old," Patterson said. "He also told me it was extremely probable that somebody within a five-mile radius of here had hand-raised him or fed him as he was growing up."
Murdock told Patterson the best thing he could do for the deer was to shoot him with a BB gun the next time he comes around.
"He said that would wild him up a little bit and run him off," Patterson said. "I haven't done that. I'm not sure I'm going to do that. It's too much fun petting him."
TWRA chief of wildlife Daryl Ratajczak said the deer's behavior is neither normal nor healthy.
"The problem with this is that a lot of people may think this is a feel-good story, but it's actually a feel-bad story," Ratajczak said. "Because with that deer's normal behavior altered so much he is more than likely not going to survive too much longer."
When deer are no longer wary of people they become vulnerable, Ratajczak said.
"I'm not just keying in on the fact that the deer could get shot during hunting season, but if the deer is so used to being around people it's more likely to get hit by a car or be attacked by a dog," Ratajczak said. "It's not displaying its normal defensive behaviors."
So Patterson is left hoping the buck remains on his property when the hunters hit the woods this season.
"He'll be safe here," he said.