Monday, January 30th, 2023
Monday, January 30th, 2023

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Sportsmen Since 1967

Trophy buck saved, becomes big attraction

VALDOSTA, Ga. (AP) – 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 originally 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 over 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 the fawns
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, Cheerio’s
and even doughnuts if the opportunity arises. A typical wild
white-tailed deer has plenty of eating options to choose from as
well: Grasses, bark, corn and soybean crops during the summer
season and wheat, oats, and clover during fall and winter. The
layer of fuzzy-like substance that covers the antlers is called
velvet, which a male deer will rub off during mating season.
Oftentimes, the buck will eat the velvet afterward. According to
Vicky O’Neal, the velvet is high in protein.

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.”

According to Eldridge, the set was a recreation of a woodland
scene, around which Rufus walked calmly while being hunted from an
actor in a tree stand.

“He did everything. He held the spot and didn’t seem to care
about the two days of filming or cameras,” said Eldridge.

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 the City of Perry with about 20,000
visitors.

“So many people came out just to see him,” said Eldridge.
“It’s rare to see a buck this size. There was one elderly man who
drove an hour just to see Rufus and he brought his chair and just
sat there in front of the pen and watched him for hours.”

Eldridge said he gets three or four calls a week from people
hoping to bring the deer to their event, but he has to limit the
number of appearances to protect the health of Rufus. For travel
arrangements, Rufus rides in a RV-like trailer complete with air
conditioning and roams around a 10-foot by 40-foot enclosure during
events.

Gary 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,” said Gary O’Neal. “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.”

Future 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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