Mary Zeiss Stange, “Why Deer Hunts Can Be Humane,” USA Today, December 20, 2005, p. 13A. Reproduced by permission of the author.
“Life in the suburbs has become a war of attrition, and Bambi and his mom are winning.”
In this viewpoint, Mary Zeiss Stange discusses the approaches different suburban and urban developments are taking to address the nuisance deer issue. She notes that solutions such as sterilization and relocation have proved ineffective and that some communities have hired sharpshooters to thin the herd. Stange advocates the use of highly regulated skilled local hunters to decrease deer numbers humanely, economically, and effectively. Mary Zeiss Stange is an author and a professor at Skidmore College in New York.
As you read, consider the following questions:
According to Stange, why is contraception ineffective in controlling deer numbers in many communities?
What are the methods that Stange states are used by companies hired to thin deer herds?
According to Stange, why are urban hunts more humane and ethical than a team of sharpshooters?
At first, they are charming visitors. Sylph-like, whitetail deer amble into the backyard, cropping a dandelion here and a bit of clover there. Startled by your appearance on the deck, they gracefully bound over the fence. Thrilled, you feel fortunate to live this close to nature.
Years pass and these same adorable mega-faunas, growing in numbers and audacity, have taken on the aura of a plague. They trash flower beds, decimate vegetable gardens, denude deciduous trees and shrubs. Far from dashing away, they train those liquid brown eyes on you with a look you have come to associate with a cervid version of zombies. Life in the suburbs has become a war of attrition, and Bambi and his mom are winning.
It’s a story being played out across the USA, in many major metropolitan areas. Deer are, by nature, browsers—they eat a broad range of fruits, flowers, grasses and greenery. Add to this the fact that they are highly adaptable, and the convergence of whitetail and humans’ taste in landscaping is bound to become a problem.
To be fair, it probably started when the first homesteader who planted a garden wound up cussing the deer who helped themselves to the first pickings. The problem is becoming exacerbated by the suburban and ex-urban developments that are vastly encroaching upon whitetail habitat. Make no mistake: The deer are not “wandering into” these sprawling developments. They were there first. And, at this point, they have nowhere else to go.
Take the case of Ramsey County, Minn. In the Highwood neighborhood in St. Paul and South Maplewood to the east, according to St. Paul City Councilmember Kathy Lantry, deer are so numerous “they’ve become like rats,” and so destructive that one former resident remarked, “You can’t plant anything. They eat it all.”
How to solve the problem? Hunting the rural fringes of the development has not sufficiently reduced whitetail numbers. Relocation doesn’t work: It is costly and labor-intensive, many deer don’t survive it, and the ones that do often simply become somebody else’s headache.
Contraception is an option, although it too is expensive, and generally unreliable. Wildlife management officials in Princeton Township, N.J., were hopeful that they had turned the corner on their perennial deer problem last year, when they injected more than 50 does with [the contraceptive vaccine] SpayVac. Come springtime, with two dozen spotted fawns prancing about Princeton’s avenues, they declared the experiment a “disappointment.” Some pilot studies, in places as far-flung as Houston and the New Jersey suburbs, have suggested somewhat more promise. But significant problems remain: What, for example, are the implications—ethical as well as ecological—of manipulating the gene pool?
Will the fact that inoculated does go into heat multiple times place impossible stress on the buck population, as well as precipitating even more deer-vehicle accidents? And there is the bottom line: Deer can live up to 15 years, so even successfully sterilized ones will be munching on the hollyhocks, and darting in and out of traffic, for the foreseeable future.
Ramsey County, along with a growing number of other municipalities, has decided to call in the heavy artillery, in the form of a team of sharpshooters to thin 200 does from the herd.
Tony DeNicola and his crew from White Buffalo Inc., a non-profit corporation based in Connecticut, are pros. In a relatively straightforward situation such as St. Paul, where whitetails tend to congregate in park areas, they shoot deer over bait with high-powered rifles from vehicles and tree stands. Fees range from $200-$350 per deer, depending on the project’s difficulty. “I do this every day,” DeNicola has said. “For me, it’s like brushing my teeth.”
In some less open spaces, White Buffalo opts for the “capture-and-kill” method, in which baited deer are trapped in nets and killed with a metal bolt administered at point blank range to the head. It’s the same device used in slaughterhouses.
One need not be an animal rights activist to be appalled by this way of dealing with “nuisance deer.” Indeed, hunters have been among the most vocal critics. Neighboring hunters offered to help thin the herd at no taxpayer expense, but John Moriarty, Ramsey County’s natural resource manager overseeing the cull in St. Paul and South Maplewood, rebuffed them: “There’s no way you can have people with guns shooting deer in the city.”
But, actually, you can. All that skilled hunters need to do the job are access and homeowners’ permission, and several metropolitan areas that have established “urban hunts” do provide both—among them are Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, and some counties around the Twin Cities [Minneapolis/St. Paul].
Though most of these urban hunts involve archery rather than firearms, all have three things in common: They are highly regulated, and only very well-qualified hunters make the cut. As a result, they are very safe; there are no documented cases of injuries to non-hunters in any urban deer hunts. And they do work to bring down deer numbers—perhaps not quite so dramatically as a sharpshooting fest, but certainly more humanely, economically and ethically. The meat from these urban hunts generally goes to community food banks.
There is an additional advantage to urban hunts: It reminds the deer, and us, about our respective places in the scheme of things.
Urban hunts can help make deer more wary of coming into contact with human beings. They also remind the people that they are more than mere sightseers in the neighborhoods they and the deer both now call home.