A deer named George roams free in the sprawling woods of Chester County, South Carolina.
But his heart keeps dragging him back to the only family he's ever known.
You see, when George was an unsteady fawn, his mother was struck and killed by a car. A passerby took him home and tried to nurture him. It wasn't working.
So she called the Funderburks, a local family that often cared for animals in distress before releasing them back into the wild,
"He wouldn't even take a bottle when we first got him," Kena Funderburk tells MNN. "It took us about 18 hours of constant work and cuddling before he would even take a bottle."
And then there was the other business of manually stimulating George to go to the bathroom.
But soon, those days of uncertainty passed, and the children — Kaleb and Laney — took over George's care.
"My son was always the one holding the bottle, while my daughter did the dirty work," Kena says.
George soon developed a fondness for cupcakes, chicken biscuits, mangoes — and especially 14-year-old Kaleb's face.
"My son is his person," Kena says. "He likes to lick my son's face."
Indeed, as a tiny fawn, George liked nothing more than to suck on Kaleb's ear — like an infant with a thumb attached to his mouth.
It was a comfort to an animal born into a world of uncertainty.
But that world would have to get bigger. The Funderburks never intended to keep George as a pet. They knew he was born wild and, once he got his bearings, he would have to return to the wild.
"People find fawns in the woods all the time, and then they think they can take them home and keep them as a pet," Kena explains. "A lot of them die."
"In George's situation, his mother was dead. So we knew if we didn't take him, he would not survive."
So, little by little, George was introduced to the vast green spaces that surround the family home. Big and strong now, the 7-point deer thrived out there on his own, but over the last two and a half years, he has always come back for visits. And to lick his favorite person's face.
But the Funderburk property is surrounded not just by land, but by the hunting clubs that make sport on them.
"We know them," Kena says. "We're friends with them. We've known them our entire lives. They started saying, ‘You'd better mark him. I''d hate to shoot George.'"
Helping George survive deer season
And so, with hunting season looming, the Funderburks wrapped George's antlers in bright yellow tape and made an impassioned plea on social media: Please don't shoot George.
"The suggestion to mark him really came from the hunters around here. They did not want to kill a deer that was raised by hand."
On Oct. 22, a hunter spotted a deer with those striking yellow antlers and got in touch with the Funderburks. George was 15 miles from home — the longest distance he had yet wandered.
But that hunter, like many who saw Kena's Facebook post, also wanted to let the family know George is okay.
But how long can he expect to stay that way? For the Funderburks, releasing George was an excruciating decision.
In the end, they decided it was better for George to take a risk and live free than huddle safely in a pen.
"I would rather he live two-and-a-half years of wonderful life of being free and take our chances with hunting season, then lock him up — and have him live six years in a pen," Kena says.
Besides, why rob George of the joy of returning to his family — and seeing those old familiar faces light up again? George did just that — returning on Nov. 19 to once again say hello. The Funderburks were so relieved to see George was still alive.
"Even now that he's bigger, he comes back and my son is still his person. He licks Kaleb's face."
Maybe that's because it's the face of human kindness.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in October 2018.