COOKSBURG — A ranch near Cook Forest is giving the public the chance to get up close and personal with one of nature’s deerest creatures.
While they are often hunted, white-tail deer have become family to Rusty and Roger “Shorty” Snyder, the owners of Double Diamond Deer Ranch.
Rusty proudly refers to herself as the “deer lady,” and she has even become a motherly figure to all the fawns she has raised.
Double Diamond Deer Ranch, located just miles down the road from Cook Forest, opened in 1990 with only five deer. In the beginning, the Snyders had deer as pets, but after so many people would come to visit them, they turned their pets into a business.
The ranch offers three phases of white-tail, tame deer for visitors to learn about — brown, white, and piebald. Most of the deer were born on the ranch, so their genealogies can be traced.
There are currently 21 deer — 13 bucks and 7 doe. Each has a special, funny, quirky name, like “Jane Doe,” Cupid and Starsky and Hutch.
Tourist season for the Snyders is May to December, and they are closed in the winter. Summer is busy with visitors eager to pet the deer and give them treats.
While they normally have twin fawns each year, only one joined the family this summer. Vixen is a little white, wobbly-legged fawn who is only about two months old.
Vixen has become Rusty’s baby — she bottle feeds him three times a day, the first at 6 a.m. and the last at 10 p.m., warming the bottle in the microwave as you would for a newborn. Bottle-feeding helps the fawn connect with people and grow up tame.
While most deer live only 3 to 5 years in the wild, bottle-feeding can help them live much longer, healthier lives, Rusty said. Their oldest, Pebbles, lived to be 19 years old.
Families and children often attend “treat time” during the summer, which takes place at 6 p.m. each evening.
The public is invited to watch Rusty bottle feed little Vixen — who sucks down his bottle within a minute — and then feed the rest of the deer apple slices.
Children can be seen pointing at the deer during treat time and saying things like, “What’s that one’s name?” or “His antlers are so big!”
Much like a dog and other household animals, deer know their own name, and can understand attitudes and vibes, Rusty says, describing them as “very intelligent.” They are even extremely patient with special needs children and will “clean” or lick their hands.
“When people come here during the summer, they find a favorite deer, and they come back year after year to find out about that deer,” Rusty said. After picking or connecting with their favorite, they follow them on Facebook to see how they’re doing.
Owning a deer ranch comes with its setbacks, like patrolling the fences during rifle season, since there has been a deer shot and killed before, for no reason at all.
Most people either hunt deer or have a deer farm to raise big, award-winning bucks, Rusty said. They, however, are in it to raise deer people can pet and feed, showcasing them for more than just their antlers.
Although it has become challenging with the many regulations, such as the ear tags, tattoos and microchips the deer are required to have by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, they wouldn’t trade it for the world, Rusty said.
The ranch offers deer with many unique characteristics or features, such as 13-year-old Henry, who was born deaf, or Margaret, who has a “grumpy” face and has been nicknamed the grumpy deer of the farm.
“Over the years, we’ve learned every deer has a different personality,” Rusty said.
Rusty’s passion for wildlife and advocating for deer and animals goes beyond her business. She has been president of the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors Board for years.
The money the ranch brings in is used to repair and improve the land and feed and take care of the deer, Rusty said. They are mainly in the business to share the tame creatures with the public in a scenic outdoor environment.
Their biggest buck to date was Blitzen, who had a 13 ½-inch rack, Rusty said. The bucks’ antlers typically begin blossoming at the beginning of May, and by the end of July they’re finished, shedding the first week of September.
Inside the DDDR shop, customers can see all of the deers’ old antlers lined up on the walls, along with photos and bios about each deer. There also is a taxidermy museum room, where every deer who has died can be viewed and remembered. The public can view all the trophy bucks, a black bear, a moose, coyotes and more.
Campers travel from all over the country to visit scenic Cook Forest, and many leave knowing they’ll visit their deer friends again next year.
“People come in and say, ‘I fed deer when I was a kid, and it’s one of my best memories. I want my kids to have those memories, too,’” Rusty said.
Visit the Double Diamond Deer Ranch at www.thedoublediamonddeerranch.com or the Facebook page for more information.