The two whitetail bucks were fighting for control of nearby does when their antlers became entangled, ensuring their slow deaths in a cold creek north of Waverly.
But then the deputy showed up, and the four Game and Parks employees, and the cowboy with the lasso.
The 30-minute rescue played out Sunday, after a woman who lives between Waverly and Ceresco discovered the deer on her land at about noon. It’s mating season, and male deer are bucking for territory.
“Deer, during the rut, they don’t think like a normal deer,” Lancaster County Sheriff’s Deputy Dennis Guthard told reporters Tuesday. “They’re like a teenager.”
He was the first to arrive. The deputy is a longtime hunter, and he’s seen carcasses of deer who died joined at the antlers.
“I’ve never seen two animals lock horns like that that were both alive,” he said. “It was a big deal.”
State Conservation Officer Dina Barta responded, too -- calling another officer and two other Game and Parks employees, who were on duty that day for the pheasant season opener. Someone called a cowboy, Pudge Donahue, who brought his rope.
They found the deer in a creek, one of them exhausted, the other still aggressive and dragging the weaker animal through the water. They each appeared to be about 2 to 3 years old, and they would have died -- from exhaustion, starvation or by drowning -- without human help.
“The deer were still fighting awfully hard, one had so much fight left in him,” Barta said. “It was difficult getting close, especially when the mud is up to your knees.”
Barta stayed on the bank, taking pictures, while the others waded in. Donahue normally uses his rope on the cattle he raises near Raymond. This job was trickier, he said, because the deer were bouncing around in the water.
Still, after a few attempts, he managed to double hock the aggressive animal -- wrapping the rope around both rear legs.
“There’s not too many that can say they roped a deer,” he said.
The rescue crew pulled the pair of 200-pound animals out of the water and an officer used a small saw to cut one piece of antler, uncoupling the deer.
“The lively one, he still wanted to fight,” Barta said. “We had to spook him. He lifted his head and he realized he was free and he took off.”
The other animal was so exhausted it couldn’t stand. They dragged it to a dry, sunny spot on the bank to recover.
She’s not sure if it did. The landowner was going to call if it died, and Barta hadn’t heard anything as of Tuesday.
“I’m going to hope it survived,” she said.