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Wild Things

The weird and wonderful in the natural world
Sarah Zielinski
Wild Things

Deer and other animals can survive being impaled

New Jersey resident Susan Darrah spotted this deer with an arrow stuck through its head in her backyard in early November. It’s not unheard of for animals to survive impalement.

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In the last week or so, you may have seen this disturbing photo on Facebook: A woman in New Jersey spotted a deer in her backyard that had an arrow stuck in its head. “He’s not in distress,” Susan Darrah wrote in the comments of her photo, noting that the little deer was traveling in a group of four other animals and appeared to be eating just fine.

But having an arrow stuck through your head is probably not a healthy long-term adornment. Darrah called the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife for help, which sent rangers to stake out Darrah’s backyard. Over the weekend they were able to catch the poor little deer, nicknamed Little Steve Martin, and remove the offending item. Darrah photographed the whole thing and posted the images to her Facebook page.

Whether they are hunting shots gone wrong or something more sinister, stories of animals surviving such misfortunes are not uncommon. As long as the object doesn’t hit any major arteries or organs, and deadly infection doesn’t set in, the wound is survivable. There was a report last year in Old Lyme, Ct., of a goose with an arrow stuck in its head. Just last month a young bull moose was photographed in Alaska with an arrow stuck in its face. A duck in St. Petersburg, Fla., survived at least six months after being impaled with an arrow.

Even humans have survived similar incidents, some without the benefits of modern medicine. The most famous of these tales is probably that of Phineas Gage, who in September 1848 had a 1.1-meter-long, 6-millimeter-diameter tamping iron driven up through his left cheek and out his skull. “Despite his injuries he remained conscious and only a few minutes later was sitting in an ox cart writing in his work book,” neuroscientists Kieran O’Driscoll and John Paul Leach of Fazakerley Hospital in Liverpool, England, noted in the British Medical Journal in their description of the incident more than a century later.

Gage suffered “a virulent infection that rendered [him] semiconscious for a month,” they wrote. “His condition was so poor that a coffin had been prepared.” Despite that, Gage survived, but he lost vision in his left eye, had facial weakness on his left side and suffered a radical change in his personality such that his friends said he was “no longer Gage.” The injury didn’t stop him from working, though: From 1851 until his death in 1860, he worked as a coach driver.

As one of the earliest documented cases of brain injury, Gage and his preserved skull offered important contributions to early neurology. Impaled animals, too, have contributed to science — the pfeilstorch, in particular, provided a key clue to bird migration.

The white stork (Ciconia ciconia) can be found throughout much of Europe during the warm months of the year. But in the winter, the birds disappear, and this perplexed Europeans for centuries. Aristotle thought that white storks, swallows, kites and doves might hibernate in winter, perhaps at the bottom of the sea. A 1703 pamphlet put forth the idea that the birds flew to the moon to the winter.

Europe’s white storks were flying somewhere, but it wasn’t as far as the moon. They go to Africa. But the first sign of this didn’t come until May 21, 1822. Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras explain in the Atlas Obscura:

A white stork, shot on the Bothmer Estate near Mecklenburg [Germany], was discovered with an 80 cm long Central African spear embedded in its neck. The stork had flown the entire migratory journey from its equatorial wintering grounds in this impaled state.

More than two dozen of these impaled storks have been documented since then, and they even have their own name in German — the pfeilstorch, or arrow stork. It’s proof positive not only of migration but also that can animals can survive such a violent incident and even thrive. At least long enough to make their escape. I do wonder, though, if any pfeilstorch was inclined to fly back to Africa.

Editor's note: This post was edited on November 14 to correct the names of the authors of the article from Atlas Obscura.

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