OLD FORGE, N.Y. -- Whenever 83-year-old Andy Bozek whispers ''dear'' to his wife of 57 years, she's not always sure if he's really speaking to her.
''Sometimes I wonder,'' Agnes Bozek said. ''I don't know. I hope he spells it D-E-A-R.''
Only Andy knows for sure. He's devoted to his wife but is greatly enamored with the four-legged creature -- so much so that he's been feeding the deer in and around his camp here in the Adirondack Mountains for almost as long as he's been married.
Now, Bozek feels like a deer in the headlights. His compassion for deer has gotten him tickets twice in the past three years for illegally feeding deer.
A state statute, enacted in 1997 to decrease car-deer collisions, bans feeding deer within 300 feet of a public roadway. In 1999, there were 10,482 deer-car collisions in the state, slightly above the five-year average of 10,466. A 1990 Cornell University study found that for every accident reported, another five were not.
Andy's Deer Diner, as he has dubbed his camp, sits on a bend near the end of Indian Point Road, a 16-foot-wide dead end with a 15 mph speed limit. Because of the bend, his camp is about 10 feet too close, making it illegal for him to feed the deer, even though his neighbors can.
Still, Bozek hasn't been willing to stop. He feeds them in good weather and bad, driving his beat-up red pickup truck -- the one the deer ride around the yard in while snacking on treats -- 110 miles round trip from his home in Utica three or four times a week.
''My deer are my family,'' said Bozek, who once had five bears as regular customers. ''I have named them, I know their offspring, they kiss me. They walk through my back door and enjoy treats with me and Agnes -- right in our living room.''
Bozek's story has spread far and wide. Several attorneys have offered to represent him at no cost and friends have offered to pay any fines.
Then there's the Web site where Bozek has posted photos and tells his story.
''I've had a million hits from all over the world,'' Bozek said proudly. ''From Hong Kong, even Russia.''
Bozek, who quit school in the seventh grade because of the Depression and went to work in a mill, started feeding the deer in 1925 when his dad brought him to the area. He returned in 1954, bought some land, and a love affair quickly blossomed.
''When we were building the camp, these deer were all around,'' Bozek recalled. ''We were pounding away and everything and the deer would come around watching, so I'd throw 'em some bread. They kept coming and kept coming, and I've been feeding 'em ever since.''
Problems began in 1998 when Environmental Conservation Officer Paul McHale arrived at Andy's back door.
''The minute he come around the corner the first time he said, 'Mr. Bozek, don't you know it's against the law to feed the deer?' I said, 'I'm not feeding no deer.' There wasn't a deer at the table, not a one,'' Bozek said. ''He says, 'You're enticing deer to come over here.' Now, there's no law against enticing.''
McHale, a 15-year veteran who declined to be interviewed, has the backing of his superiors.
''Mr. Bozek has violated the law and has been ticketed accordingly,'' said Department of Environmental Conservation spokesperson Jennifer Post.
''I just think it's terrible,'' Agnes Bozek said. ''Andy's been doing it for so many years. I just feel sorry for him. The deer just love him. They'll just stand there and watch him.''
And they're not alone. Hundreds of tourists stop by every summer. Bozek remembers one busload of children from New York City who had never seen a deer until they stopped at his diner. ''Them kids had a ball,'' he said.
And there were those two vans from a nearby state hospital that came by for four years straight with invalid patients.
Wildlife experts say that feeding deer, especially in an area with such a harsh winter climate -- Old Forge averages nearly 200 inches of snow annually -- is not a good idea, mainly for health reasons.
Hogwash, says Bozek, who once counted 67 deer in his yard.
''The bucks that come in here, they love animal crackers. They love licorice,'' says Bozek, who spends hundreds of dollars a year to feed the deer. ''The conservation department says this food I'm giving them is not good for them, that the deer die. There's never been a deer that's starved to death here.''
Bozek lost his first court case and paid a $25 fine but won on appeal for lack of evidence. He's waiting to see if he has to answer the second summons.
Meanwhile, a petition is being circulated to change the law and state Sen. Ray Meier, who sponsored the original bill, says he's willing to take another look at it.
''All I want them to do is instead of arresting me on a dead-end road, just put on that law that feeding isn't allowed on a through-traffic road,'' Bozek says.
There are other options being considered: raising enough money to buy the road or straighten the curve so that Bozek's place is legal.
''I don't want to get nobody in trouble,'' Bozek says. ''I just want to feed the deer.''
On the Net:
Andy's Deer Diner: http://www.borg.com/(tilde)deerdinr
End advance for Thursday, Feb. 22
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