CANAL FULTON: Sometimes, people spend their entire lives searching for the meaning of life. Realization may come for some during a life-threatening illness or the birth of a child.
Occasionally, it shows itself in the most unlikely of places, as it did for a Canal Fulton woman. The true meaning of life came to veterinarian Melanie Butera in 2004 as a tiny blind fawn wrapped in a soft blue blanket. The fawn is now known as Dillie the deer.
Butera, owner of Elm Ridge Animal Hospital in Canal Fulton and Dillie’s “mom,” said she has come to realize that every life has meaning, “even this little ‘throwaway” deer who was abandoned by her mother because she was defective. Survival of the fittest in nature is harsh, but real.
A local deer farmer brought the dying fawn to Butera’s emergency vet clinic and told her he couldn’t afford to pay for treatment, but was willing to give the deer to Butera, who with help nursed it to health.
Dillie became a media sensation in 2009 after Butera entered a contest sponsored by Zoombak, the maker of the GPS unit Dillie wears. Soon, film crews from South Korea visited the two-story home she owns with husband and partner Steve Heathman.
A globally recognized professional photographer and national television crews descended on the family that included the two humans, an aging standard poodle named Lady (who at 16, still shares her beloved toys with a visitor), two cats, a Sun Conure bird and the doe they all came to see, Dillie, who took up residence in her own bedroom in the Butera/Heathman house.
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this, Butera said with a shake of her head.
“She was supposed to live in the barn, but she was afraid of the horses.” Living in the barn also meant Dillie would be separated from her first love, Heathman, who took over her care when she was three days old.
There was never any real choice. The best medical treatment couldn’t help if the deer refused to eat so Heathman took it upon himself to search until he found just the right elixir — goat’s milk — that the deer soon learned to love. Heathman patiently dribbled it onto her tongue until she was strong enough to suck from a baby bottle. It meant all the difference and soon, the little fawn was on all four legs, spreading joy, climbing stairs, housebreaking herself and learning how to find treats in the most unlikely places.
Dillie, named for the bed of yellow daffodils she played in when she was no larger than a long-legged cat, is internationally known with a webcam — which has more than a million page views — in her bedroom, a website and a Facebook page where she gets messages in 14 languages.
When Dillie abandoned her bedroom after getting stung by a bee, Butera got a message from the crew on the International Space Station asking about Dillie’s welfare.
The messages kept coming until Butera took the webcam out of the deer’s bedroom. Butera returned it when Dillie got over her fear and re-inhabited her room.
Lately, the couple’s journey with Dillie has taken on a greater meaning. Butera, who is battling cancer, has realized that the deer is a conduit that has helped her find meaning in her own life through the interaction she has established with Dillie’s fans.
Each day, Heathman writes messages from Dillie on a chalkboard above her bed. Messages about current events are always humorous, but there are also messages for those seeking hope for people who have made a connection with the deer — some who have devastating illnesses or have suffered grave losses.
In 2010, Butera began to chronicle the events that led to the couple’s reputation as “the patron saints of deer” the world over in her book, Dillie: Love on Hooves.
“It’s what we have always said about her,” Butera said of the book’s title.
In December, Butera learned that the cancer she thought she had beaten earlier in the year had returned. Her prognosis is uncertain. But the news gave her the jolt she needed to pick up the manuscript and continue to tell the story that has become as much about her life, forever changed by a four-legged creature she has learned to love like a child.
“The book has become about the many different people I would have never met who have come into my life because of her,” Butera said. “It will be my legacy. Even if I don’t sell one copy, I want evidence that I was here.”
Dillie: Love on Hooves takes the reader on the couple’s journey from the first day Dillie was carried into the animal hospital to the visit from a local woman last week who needed to recharge her “hope tank.”
It was just one meeting in a decade of meetings with new friends and acquaintances, said Butera who sees each new connection as a brick — a stepping stone leading to the final destination that we all will make.
Laid together, the bricks make up the bridge she no longer fears to cross.
“I’m not afraid,” she said. “I’m on a mission.”
“People who love animals will understand. Those that don’t, well I’ll never be able to explain it to them. [The book] is a tribute to us and [Dillie’s] story. It’s about the amazing way this simple little life connected us with so many people. It isn’t just a coincidence.”
Kathy Antoniotti can be reached at 330-996-3565 or firstname.lastname@example.org.