published Monday, August 15th, 2011

Georgia deer raised from birth by local resident

By David Rodock/Valdosta Daily Times
Gary O’Neal pets Rufus, a 25-point, 225-pound deer in Valdosta, Ga. O'Neal rescued Rufus as a newborn fawn and raised him.
Gary O’Neal pets Rufus, a 25-point, 225-pound deer in Valdosta, Ga. O'Neal rescued Rufus as a newborn fawn and raised him.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

VALDOSTA, Ga. — A trophy buck beyond the wildest dreams of most hunters and outdoor enthusiasts resides just outside the Valdosta city limits, but you won’t run across him out in the wild.

Rufus, a 25-point, 225-pound white-tailed deer, has been under the care of local resident Gary O’Neal since the deer was a day old.

With a personality more in resemblance of a family dog, Rufus was found by O’Neal’s Labrador retriever, Bud, on June 2, 2002. The deer was caught in a fence.

“I had let loose some female deer and my Lab chased them like he typically did,” said O’Neal. “Usually, when I blew my horn, he knew to come back, but when he didn’t come back, my son and I went to go look for him.

“He was waiting for us under this big, beautiful oak tree and was dancing in the middle of the road,” said O’Neal. “I told my son that he had found something. Bud didn’t even let me get out of the truck. He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me out of the truck and led us to the baby deer and just started licking.”

Rufus was still wet from birth and even had part of his umbilical cord still attached. He had attempted to go through the bottom of a wire fence and got his hip stuck.

Part of the reason for Rufus’ relaxed and comfortable behavior around humans is a result of being mostly raised by the Labrador retriever and O’Neal’s son, David.

“We brought him home, and my Lab more or less just took care of him,” said O’Neal. “He got the personality from a dog. They slept together; it’s unreal.”

Today, Rufus is a majestic sight, with velvet-covered antlers sprayed out in all directions. He has a sturdy stable to sleep in, with his own personal radio playing classic rock. A 2-year-old buck, aptly named Buckshot, also shares an eight-acre plot with Rufus and was visibly jealous at the amount of attention Rufus received. Buckshot was prancing and spinning around, while Rufus calmly ate apples, blueberries and grapes indiscriminately from human hands.

Although he looks a bit small, especially considering the size of his antler rack, he tops out at over 225 pounds. O’Neal estimates he would weigh 100 pounds more if he had been raised in the wild due to muscle buildup from jumping and gathering his own food.

O’Neal has been raising deer for more than 25 years, a hobby he has always loved and made time for.

“I’ve always had a knack taking care of wildlife. I’m just real good at it,” said O’Neal. “I’ve probably gotten 10 calls this year from folks asking me to care for fawns.”

Fawns are taken care of by his wife, Vicky, who nurses them with bottled goat milk. After about three months, fawns are released to fend for themselves. Rufus will never have this opportunity.

“He cannot go back into the wild. He’d walk right up to somebody’s front porch to get a meal,” said O’Neal. “He’d crawl up in your lap if he could. He’s just a big old baby, so laid-back, and loves people.”

Along with a $20-a-day fruit diet, Rufus and Buckshot eat grasses, clover, corn, protein pellets, animal crackers, Cheerios and even doughnuts if the opportunity arises.

In the last year or so, Rufus has been featured in numerous television and print advertisements and will appear in season two of the AMC Channel zombie television series, “Walking Dead,” which will premiere this fall.

Jeff Eldridge, a friend of the O’Neal family, was on scene during the shoot and commented on how relaxed Rufus was during the filming process.

“It’s pretty rare with deer, since deer are one of the main animals that you can’t hold in captivity,” said Eldridge. “He’s been around cameras since he was young. During the shoot, there were probably 80 people on the set, along with cameras and lights everywhere.”

In addition to commercials and television roles, Rufus has become one of the most popular attractions at the Georgia Outdoor News Conference and the Georgia Wildlife Federation Buckarama, which is a yearly event held in Perry with about 20,000 visitors.

O’Neal, who enjoys hunting trophy white-tailed deer, believes bringing Rufus to these types of events is important for wildlife conservation education with people of all ages.

“When young people see something like this, it gets them motivated to go out to the woods and hunt,” O’Neal said. “We need more young people in the woods instead of out in the streets. If you keep them in the woods and keep them fishing and hunting, then you don’t have to worry about them getting with the wrong crowd and doing something they shouldn’t.”

Plans for Rufus include the creation of an education center to allow guests to come visit and learn more about wildlife conservation.

Eldridge echoes O’Neal’s sentiments: “It’s such a tradition, especially in the southern part of the county where you get these generations of families out there hunting. You have to control the population because, if you didn’t, the deer could cause major damage to crops, vehicles and even cause human casualties from accidents. I think promoting wildlife overall is vital to our culture, and when you have something like this and let people walk up to get an up close and personal look, they realize what’s out there in the wild.”

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HannaBeckman said...

Now that the location of this deer has been printed, I will bet $100.00 that some redneck jerk will shoot it by the end of autumn, and claim it as a trophy. Any takers? TFP ,way to go!!!!

August 15, 2011 at 1:07 p.m.
jesse said...

back in the mid 80's i fished a lot out of tims ford state park and there was a doe that hung around the boat ramp that was as tame as a pet dog(named susie) shure enough some redneck "great white hunter"sneaked in one night and killed her w/a bow and arrow!!! some folks don't know the diff. between being a hunter and being a "killer"!!

August 15, 2011 at 1:42 p.m.
timbo said...

HannaBeckman....Since this was a slap at hunters, I hope you get to meet your furry friend on the highway some day. You can give up you seat in the ambulance for the deer.

August 15, 2011 at 2:41 p.m.
eastridge8 said...

HannaBeckman...I agree...someone will kill this deer...but not a true deer hunter...

timbo...my son hunts deer and turkey every year in South Georgia but he would NEVER condone the killing of this animal...he has wild deer come up on his property all the time but he would never shoot them...even in deer season...his dogs just chase them back into the woods...true deer hunters would not kill this deer...but ignorant red-neck jerks will...in a heartbeat.

August 15, 2011 at 3:07 p.m.
maryjanicep said...

Hunting does not keep kids from getting into trouble. Families & parents do that. A lot of good hunters out there but I also know alot of bad. Hope this deer is neutered as a guy in Monroe County Ga. had to have 1200 stitches due to an attack from a pet deer during mating season years ago.

August 15, 2011 at 4:18 p.m.
BobbyBruce said...

I love Georgia venison. I wish there was stories like this in Chattanooga and the local newspaper would cover it. O'well go Chattanooga Times Free Press and the great work you are doing in the state of Georgia. Keep pushing that blight that is North Georgia on to us Tennessee folks. We love it.

August 15, 2011 at 5:58 p.m.
jesse said...

you think bobbybruce might be a "knuckle drager"??

sounds about right!!

August 15, 2011 at 7:17 p.m.
macropetala8 said...

Amid all the anger and hate in today's society, this is a refreshing and inspiring story. Thanks, tfp. We need more stories like these.

August 15, 2011 at 8:04 p.m.
BobbyBruce said...

@jesse I Love being a ""knuckle drager""??.. @jesse I Love being a ""knuckle drager""??.. What do you say?? What do you say?? Georgia is the worst state in the union.. Try recycling your urine for water.. Georgia is the worst state in the union.. Try recycling your urine for water.. I love using double punctuation after ever thing I say.. I love using double punctuation after ever thing I say..

August 15, 2011 at 8:46 p.m.
HannaBeckman said...

hey timbo, take a chill jerk!!!!Everyone else knows what I meant,some jerk off will sneak over to this guys yard and kill this deer,cut off the antlers for a wall mount,or just leave it to rot.Because the Times Free Press has reporters who do not think what their stories end up doing after the fact. The man to blame however should be this idiot taking a wild animal and taming it, if he had any smarts he would tomorrow take this deer and turn it over to a wildlife park,refuge, he would be saving the deers life.

August 15, 2011 at 11:20 p.m.
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