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Wednesday, 18 August 2010 20:27

Gentle Ben

By Jake MacDonald

After a long career in the NHL, centre Randy Gilhen and his Veloy were looking for a place where they could teach their kids Scott and Alexandra about nature. In 1991 they bought a cottage at West Hawk Lake, Manitoba. The forests around their cottage are full of wildlife and, during a Christmas visit in 1999 they saw a large whitetail buck in the yard. Randy says, “He acted unusual, just staring at us. I was wary, because his neck was still swollen from the rut, but he seemed friendly so I gave him an apple.”

Veloy looked into the buck's eyes and saw a “gentle expression I had never seen before.” They saw the deer again in the summer. “He started coming every day at dusk,” says Veloy. “He loved to have his velvet antlers rubbed, and one day he started licking my leg. We started calling him 'Gentle Ben.' We gave him cracked corn, but I don't think it was just the food that interested him, because if we put the food out, he’d leave unless we stayed with him. It was like he wanted to socialize.”

“The kids loved that deer,” says Randy. “Sometimes we’d leave Alexandra baby-sitting Scott, and when we got home they’d have all these stories about how they’d spent the evening patting the deer. He was like a member of the family.”

Judging by its body size and mature antlers, the deer was already four or five years old when they first met him. Most adult white-tailed bucks don’t live much longer than that, but ‘Gentle Ben’ endured. “Every summer we were afraid it had passed away,” says Veloy. “But then I'd be working in the garden and see this big head coming down out of the woods.” As the years passed, the buck grew old and lame, and they tried not to worry about him. Says Randy, “We’re pretty realistic people. I’m a hunter, and Veloy is the daughter of a resource officer, so we knew the story would have an unhappy ending. That’s the way of Nature – it would get killed by wolves or break a leg or something like that.”

This year, on Boxing Day, they were going for a walk when Randy noticed something back in the woods. It was the tip of an antler. They walked in and found the buck's fresh body in the snow. He’d died a few days before, probably on Christmas Eve. Incredibly, he’d lived to be eleven or twelve years old. “I backtracked him for a ways,” says Randy. “There was no blood and he hadn’t been hit by a car. He just walked into the woods, curled up under a tree and went to sleep. We were sad to lose him, but we were all glad to know how he passed away.”

Randy plans to mount the antlers, along with some photographs, as a memento of their old friend.