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."