The first time I noticed it I had to stop and stare to figure out what I was really seeing and why on Earth it was there. Sure enough, as I paused on my way to a meeting at the Inn on the Lake in Canandaigua, a large deer adorned with clouds, vines, and the rolling hills of the Canandaigua area stood off to the left of the main entrance, seemingly greeting me as I walked in. It stood, lurking behind a few trees, gazing ominously back at me. No, it was not a real animal, and no, this wasn’t something out of a Hunter S. Thompson story; but why a hotel would have such a large deer painted like a scenic landscape eerily hiding behind the front door landscaping was completely beyond me. I stared at it in disbelief, like (okay, you saw this coming) a deer stuck in the headlights.

                        Can you spot the deer?

                                                              There he is! 

In my excitement at having found this oddity I quickly sent a text to a co-worker which said, “Hey! Have you seen this thing? Wouldn’t it be cool to write about it? It’s so unusual; I wonder what the story behind it is.” I figured the Inn on the Lake was a good place to start and was informed that the deer had existed peacefully there for a number of years without incident, though recently there had been attempts to use the deer in practical jokes, which caused a bit of a stir. Ordinarily the deer was simply a subject of curiosity. Front desk management informed me that guests often ask what the deer was for, why it’s there at the hotel, but few people recall the origin of the deer.

It wasn’t long after my encounter with the first deer that I began to notice others hidden around the town. I had that odd experience when you hear or see something unfamiliar once and suddenly you see it everywhere. It was as if my brain was fine-tuned for noticing these deer.

Each deer that I noticed had a different theme or motif. Some are decorated with patriotic themes, others more nature elements, and one deer, located in Farmington was painted to resemble Kentucky Fried Chicken’s iconic Colonel Sanders, it is lovingly nicknamed “Colonel Sandeer.” Although some of the deer are a little worse for wear, they can still be seen lingering in places around Bloomfield, Canandaigua, Clifton Springs and Geneva.

Still, I wondered just where these deer had come from and who in their right mind would scatter them around like so. I found some of the answers in a book produced by Finger Lakes Community College titled Deer on Parade, written by Barbara Pierce and designed by Tim Coyne. The book, which amazingly happened to leap right off the shelves in the office “library,” details the sponsor and artist of each deer as well as including a picture. As it turns out, the origins of the deer were a little less mythic than I imagined and quite a bit more straight forward.

The Finger Lakes region is already known for deer of another kind, the unique white deer that are dear to the old Seneca Army Depot in Romulus, between Cayuga and Seneca lakes. But as it turns out, the bucks that I found were actually part of Deer on Parade, a community arts project put together by the Finger Lakes Community College Foundation and Dixon Schwabl, a local PR and marketing firm. Together the two organizations placed about 50 of these artistic animals throughout Ontario County in 2002. Today, few of the deer remain, some having undergone a bit of aging, others auctioned off since their creation.

Other communities around the country had similar campaigns, such as Horses on Parade in Rochester. Even so, it was the first time I had ever seen anything like it and to me the deer were special, especially because these deer didn’t run across the road and wreak havoc with traffic.

Now I’m on a mission to track down the other deer and see what kind of shape they’re in. Each can be found in a different location and I am determined to find them all. While going on a wild deer hunt may not be on your list of things to do, I encourage you to do the following the next time you’re driving through the Finger Lakes: Watch out for the deer.