Newsreal: Death to Bambi!

The problem of America's exploding deer population is pitting hunters, who want to shoot more of them, against animal rights activists, who want to try birth control.

By Harry Jaffe

Published December 22, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

WASHINGTON -- There's a buck in Rock Creek Park. He's a six-point male deer that I pass most mornings at dawn as I take my 10-mile bike ride in the national park that cuts through the capital's northwest territory. And every morning, even during the approaching holiday of good will, I have the urge to blast Bambi, gut him out, sling him over my handlebars and take him home to feed the family.

It may be the season of jingle bells and sleigh rides, but in many parts of the country it's also hunting season, and herds of white-tailed deer are exploding out of the forests, with bad tidings for deer and Homo sapiens alike. Suburban roads from coast to coast are littered with deer carcasses. Sometimes, humans are on the losing end of thousands of car wrecks involving our antlered friends.

Rather than joyously extolling the color and size of Rudolph's nose, animal rights activists and hunters are at each others' throats about the deer situation. The former advocate birth control; the latter, backed by local governments, are for shooting the buggers into January and February. Shocked by my own bloodthirsty instinct, I got home one morning last week, steadied myself with a bowl of high-fiber cereal, called the Humane Society and spoke to Dr. Allen Rutberg, the expert in charge of the national society's birth control program for deer.

Rutberg tried to convince me that neutering was more humane than giving in to my base desire for fresh, wild meat. It's called immunocontraception, and he explained how it's done. First, you tranquilize a doe. Then you inject the contraceptive PZP, made from pig egg cells. Or you administer it with a blow dart. Then you tag the deer. And every year, during the fall mating season, you re-administer the contraceptive via a booster shot. Rutberg calls the program "experimental," and admits it takes plenty of flack.

"The more we get," he tells me, "the more we think we're on to something."

Now, we humans may be beyond the hunter-gatherer stage, but are we really ready to insinuate our birth control technology on wild animals? At Point Reyes National Seashore near San Francisco, it took a battalion of veterinarians and burly guys flown in by choppers to subdue the park's exploding elk and inject them with birth control drugs, but at least that's a controlled population where this kind of experimentation might make sense.

The deer population is anything but controlled. When "Bambi" hit movie screens in 1942 there were approximately 500,000 white-tailed deer in the United States. Now there are an estimated 27 million, more than when the Pilgrims landed in 1620. The four-legged varmints are plundering shrubbery, crowding out other wild creatures and causing traffic accidents with increasing frequency. Last year deer and cars collided nearly 500,000 times, and 100 people were killed as a result. With more malls and suburbs crowding into prime deer habitat, too-close encounters between us and them are bound to increase. So, is Norplant for deer the answer? "How else would you deal with deer populations in the middle of a town?" responds Rutberg.

"Shoot them," says Tom Natelli, a developer who's trying to build houses on 383 acres in Gaithersburg, Md., a bedroom community 20 miles north of Washington. It's one of the first cities in the nation to require developers to submit a plan to handle the deer problem. Natelli wants to take care of it with sharpshooters and donate the meat to food banks.

Up the road from Natelli's planned community sits the federal government's National Institute of Standards and Technology, on a 575-acre campus of fenced meadow and woodlands. It has a small, controlled deer population. It is here that Rutberg and the Humane Society are carrying out their latest birth control experiments.

Leaving aside the logistics of trying to tag and dart and then re-inoculate millions of deer, let's check dollars and cents. Developer Natelli has contracted with White Buffalo Inc., a Connecticut wildlife management agency that would cull his 200 deer for about $150 a pop. A Rutberg-style vaccination program could cost more than $500 per doe per year. It could take three to 15 years before birth control methods bring down a deer population. Hunting is quick.

So far, the tide is with the hunters. Counties overrun by deer on Long Island are allowing hunters to cull the herds this January. Maryland will permit hunts on public lands early next year. For the first time, supervisors in Fairfax, Va., a wealthy suburb near Washington, just approved a deer hunt that will extend from late January into February in county parks along the Potomac River.

During this year's deer season, a hunter hopped the fence at Rutberg's institute and tried to bag a deer in the experimental population. He was caught and arrested. "It reinforces all the bad things we think about hunters," says Rutberg.

But I feel the hunter's instinct. Every time I see the buck in Rock Creek Park, I marvel at his proud natural beauty, and as I appreciate his wildness, I feel the urge to take him. President Clinton, who lives just six miles down the road, might think ill of me. But maybe not. Three white-tailed deer jumped the White House fence last spring to munch on the manicured presidential grass.

Where's Teddy Roosevelt when we need him?

Harry Jaffe

Harry Jaffe is a leading journalist covering Washington, DC—its politics, its crime, its heroes and villains. Beyond Washington, Jaffe’s work has been published in Yahoo News, Men’s Health,Harper’s, Esquire, and newspapers from the San Francisco Examiner to the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s appeared in documentary films, and on television and radio across the country and throughout Europe.

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