When Melanie Butera and her husband Steve Heathman took in a dying, blind deer, they doubted the animal would last the night. However, thanks to their love, the fawn pulled through. And she’s since repaid them in the most beautiful way.
Butera believes that she was born to be a vet. And over the years, she had learned to take the highs of her job with the lows, given that the lives she was working on often hung in the balance. And sometimes, there was simply nothing she could do to save them.
Allowing animals to pass from this life into the next with as much dignity as possible is all part and parcel of being a vet. However, when a desperately ill creature arrived at her emergency clinic one night in June 2004, Butera was unwilling to give up on it without a fight.
The animal in question was a three-day-old fawn who hadn’t had the greatest start in life. Born blind, the baby deer had been rejected by her mother. As a result, she hadn’t eaten at all since arriving in the world. In short, the poor animal was dying before her life had even begun.
Drawing on her expertise, Butera doubted that the fawn would be able to pull through. But, with the help of her husband, Steve Heathman, she began to treat the deer anyway. She named the creature Dillie and brought her home to Canal Fulton, Ohio, where she could keep a close eye on her.
Recalling Dillie’s initial treatment, in 2010 Butera told the Daily Mail, “We put her on an IV drip because she weighed four pounds and got her back up and running after around two weeks.” The fawn had been handed a shred of hope. But her future was far from certain.
Dillie’s main problem now was that she had nowhere to go. “We then realized that she couldn’t go back to the farm and live with the other deer and she couldn’t live with our horses because they scared her too much,” Butera revealed.
It was then that Butera and her husband decided that Dillie could move in with them and their pet poodle, Lady. Under the dog’s guidance, the fawn learned how to act in the household and even began sleeping on her owners’ bed alongside her pooch pal.
Before long, Dillie was fully house trained. She learned how to operate light switches and even how to use the ice machine in the fridge. However, the deer wasn’t always indoors. Butera allowed her to roam on her sprawling five-acre property and even take dips in the family’s swimming pool.
In 2013 Butera told News 5 Cleveland, “She is housebroken and very gentle. She is never allowed to mix with wild deer. It would be illegal for her ever to go out in the wild.” Meanwhile, Heathman added, “We don’t look at her like a deer. I look at her more like an animal, a dog, cat, she’s just a real nice girl.”
Eventually, Butera moved Dillie into her very own bedroom where the vet set up a live webcam stream. That way, the public could admire the deer in her “natural” environment. And soon enough, Dillie became the talk of the internet, with hundreds of fans to her name.
For her surrogate parents, Dillie’s newfound fame came as a welcome surprise. “Her love bank was so plentiful that she would touch the lives and hearts of people all over the world,” Butera wrote in her 2013 book Dillie the Deer: Love on Hooves.
Little did the vet know that the profound effect her pet had on people would soon become Butera’s own saving grace. In late 2012 Dillie’s owner received some grave news. The endometrial cancer that she had been fighting for a year had spread elsewhere in her body, including to her bones, kidneys, liver and lungs.
Needless to say, Butera’s world came crashing down around her as she contemplated the possibility of her own death and weighed up whether her life had meant anything. But as she reached out to Dillie for comfort, she realized that the little deer had given her life meaning and purpose.
Explaining how she came to that conclusion, Butera explained, “I thought about the thousands of letters of love we had received about Dillie. I had saved her. And now she affected more lives than I could if I worked as a vet for a hundred years.”
It was this revelation that persuaded Butera to forget about writing her own obituary in favor of telling Dillie’s inspirational story. “I wrote a book called Dillie: Love on Hooves, which is the story of the love that she brought into our lives,” Butera later explained.
As Butera wrote, it became all the more clear to her just how special Dillie was. “In that instant, I understood why people had become so enchanted by this little deer who should have never survived. Dillie was so beautiful, so peaceful and so serene. She was the embodiment of joy,” she said.
In the book, Butera writes, “Her survival had been a miracle of love. Every molecule in her body displayed the glory of creation. This beautiful animal returned the love that saved her every day, delivering it to all the corners of the globe on her dainty cloven hooves.”
Now it was Butera’s future that seemed far from certain. But just as she had been there for Dillie, the little deer was by her side every step of the journey. And by simply being there, the animal reminded the vet that life is always worth fighting for.
In her writings, Butera pondered, “What would it even have mattered if Dillie had died on the farm? The universe wouldn’t have skipped a beat. No one would have noticed. Yet in saving her life, she has saved mine. In giving her love, she has given me so much more. She proves to me that every life is a gift.”