Wild Animals in Our Midst

What should communities do when deer habitat disappears and the animals spill out into yards, parks and streets?

In the area where I grew up (Essex County, New Jersey), the community recently responded with deer hunts. The alternative — giving the deer contraception — was rejected due to cost. I was horrified.

Not so long ago, the white-tailed deer was almost killed off in the U.S. by overhunting and habitat destruction. If not for conservation efforts taken in response (by hunters, among others), there might be no deer today. Instead we have an abundance of these splendid animals, which should bring joy, but for many doesn’t because they eat our plants and forest understory, cause car accidents and carry ticks.

It’s true – the deer don’t obey our rules. They’re wild. That’s what I appreciate most about them.

Measures to limit the damage that deer can cause are necessary, of course, but the measures needn’t include killing the animals. It doesn’t make sense when we just went to such lengths to save them.

If we can’t find a way to live with deer in our midst, how will we ever accommodate the fiercer animals making a comeback today – from bear in northern New Jersey to wolves in the Rockies? Indeed, the small population of wolves so recently taken off the Endangered Species List in Montana and Idaho are now being hunted down. Read my “Wild Things” column on This Green Life for more on this subject and take a moment to speak out for the wolves.

Here is a poem written in response to the Essex County deer hunts by my brother, Ted Eisenberg. He and his wife, Karen, protested the hunt at Hilltop Reservation near where they live.

Our Mayor

This was Hill Top; last spot of unclaimed land
for miles. There was a path where we walked
our dogs and watched deer quiet in the morning.
Occasionally, a rakish fox looked us down; our
dogs stone still, leashes tight. Sometimes a shape
would stir, and we would point, but not know.
Other times, I would turn to her and ask, what is
that scent, and we would exhaust the names of
what we knew.

At first, deer found their way, along streets named
after Roosevelt and other presidents, to sodded lawns
where they munched Asian shrubs. There was a vote
by grown-ups, after Christmas, after wire reindeer
disappeared, to hunt them down. Our Mayor was
emphatic. As were Sunday hunters in red vests, lining
the perimeter of remaining acres, rifles at the ready.
Some argued for bows and arrows. For malcontents,
our Mayor had an answer, We’ll eat the meat.

The grazing knoll is high with venison. Locals will
draw lots to claim their share of kill; and all agree
our Mayor deserves first cut. This road is on that
path; people no longer sense the hill.

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16 Responses to Wild Animals in Our Midst

  1. Anonymous April 20, 2010 at 11:02 am #

    Without a healthy predator population, deer will overpopulate. The best thing to do is to have a healthy predator population, but that may not be reasonable in semi-urban areas. What's wrong with humans performing that function? Do you think that wolves are any more gentle than a bullet? We should learn to live among wild animals and many of the suggestions here are good ones, but we still have to control the population when Mother nature doesn't.

  2. Anonymous April 20, 2010 at 11:47 am #

    Cheryl,

    I believe your reasoning is a bit flawed. The massive deer population is a problem, and is in fact unnaturally robust. Why? Because we have eliminated the top predators for white tail deer, wolves.

    Please do further research on this topic, and consider revisting this post topic. I'd suggest LordsofNature.org as a jumping off point.

  3. marnor April 20, 2010 at 12:08 pm #

    As a child growing up in Morris County, New Jersey, I found it exciting and great to see deer in our backyard. As an adult who lives in north central Texas, I have to drive for a bit before I can experience this excitement. And I do still find it a wonder, thrilling and great to come upon deer quietly doing their thing. As an adult I made a conscious decision not to eat meat. As a child I generally ate what was put in front of me, except for venison. I found that I actually could not swallow when told what was on my plate. (other meat I barely tolerated) All I could see in my child's mind's eye was a pair of beautiful brown eyes. I didn't understand then and frankly, I still don't today, the need to hunt these quiet, lovely animals or any others for that matter. Nature has her own methods for population control; it is people who muck all that up in the first place. Surely we can find ways to live in harmony with the creatures that God created even before He created man?

  4. Anonymous April 20, 2010 at 4:15 pm #

    While humans look at the deer as a problem they need to take blame for them. They have taken the deer fields and built homes forcing them out. They level the trees to build homes and again force the deer out. Not only deer but oppossum, skunks, foxs, wolves, coyotes, squirrels. You see the road kill everyday, everywhere. They are all seeking their homes that we have taken from them. And then while they seek food and shelter, let's go blast them because they are bothering our ornamental plants and running in the street. I say that the people are over-populating the area and they should be shot and killed instead. Lets takes the mothers and fathers and shoot them, orphaning the children and while they run seeking help, shoot them too. Animals are part of a family. Realize what you are doing to them. Put yourself in their place. If you can't get along with them, MOVE!!! YOU ARE IN THEIR HOME!!!

  5. DianaHenderson444 April 20, 2010 at 4:17 pm #

    Thank you for this blog post, Sheryl. I love deer! When I was a child growing up in North Carolina, my family regularly put food out for the deer in our large wooded back yard (3 acres). The Whitetail were always welcome at our house, and we didn't care what they ate from the garden. We planted an acre every year; so there was plenty to share with the wildlife. In college, I had an accident avoiding a deer crossing the highway, but I still continued to love these innocent, beautiful animals who have as much right to the land as we humans. (That DeerDeter Wildlife Crossing Guard sounds wonderful!) Thanks for advocating for the deer!

  6. sweet alyssum April 20, 2010 at 6:19 pm #

    I agree with the anonymous posters about deer hunting. If you eat meat, it is the best way to do it. The animal has a full and healthy life as opposed to animals raised for the slaughter. Deer live to be hunted – by wolf or man. I am not saying that they should be hunted for eating people's landscaping, but that hunting is a sustainable solution. Hunters tend to be great conservers of nature.

  7. Anonymous April 20, 2010 at 6:39 pm #

    This is complicated problem that no doubt will require complicated, multi-pronged solutions. Although your article addresses the incursion of deer into suburban landscapes, the issue is actually bigger than that, with deer overpopulation affecting crops in rural locations in addition to the situations you have mentioned. Although I grew up feeling that hunting was a disgusting and cruel activity, it does stem from an ages-old need to find food for human consumption. I haven't come to the point that I can condone hunting, but I do see that it has served some useful purposes — as hard a pill as that is to swallow.

  8. Melanie April 20, 2010 at 8:21 pm #

    Sheryl, thank you for posting this. We have become so inured to killing and consider it as an easy solution of early resort in so many situations. I have been requesting a "vaccine hunt" and a "photo shoot" for years as being more sporting. I've managed my garden more successfully each year as I've learned more of the old ways of re-directing/discouraging wildlife. I've had deer whistles on my cars for decades and have only had problems with deer in the road when they were removed. You've added some new information for road-crossing and for garden planning, for which I'm very grateful. And I'm even more grateful that you've brought this discussion up; we need to have it as many times as it takes until we're solving problems without having to kill. Imagine a world where our budgets and energies currently devoted to killing in one form or another are directed toward finding quality of life solutions.

  9. Sheryl April 21, 2010 at 6:03 am #

    To the commenter yesterday who attacked me personally (you know who you are) — sorry, but I had to reject that comment. Try again and stick to the point next time. If you do (and are civil), I will publish it.

  10. Anonymous April 21, 2010 at 7:54 am #

    There are many great points in this article, but there are some with faulty reasoning. On the one hand, animal activitist who see only the vicious hunter are not exactly correct. I know many people that hunt responisbly (get their licence, hunt only the limit, teach children gun responsiblity and lock up unloaded guns, use the meat for food for their family) I am confused at what is the difference that a family is feed by a deer for some months or feed by a commercial cow. at least the deer is natural. Don't misunderstand, I am not a hunter and I do not like guns, but I am respectful to responsible hunters.
    I also have difficulty understanding the constant support from "environmentalists" to pump humans and animals with chemicals, yes chemicals. All the fights for getting rid of chemicals in produce and hormones in cows and in our plastics. Yet, it is never a second thought what "birth control" chemicals are doing. Anyone can read water evaluations to see what the humans are excreting in our water systems from the enormous amounts of chemical birth controls and now we want to pump animals with it. I can't understand how one can fight against chemicals except birth control ones. It seems some one wants to play God and that is not right in any way. When you get down to it, birth controling animals as well as human is not natural no matter how you want to "defend" it.
    Let's stick to the "natural" methods used throughout centuries and live WITH our wildlife co-inhabitators of the Earth.

  11. Anonymous April 21, 2010 at 12:15 pm #

    I am dumbfounded at the suggestion that we should provide contraceptives for deer. I agree with previous commenters, who suggest that some form of predatory structure should be used to address population issues.

    Besides, what if the deer are Catholic?

  12. Anonymous April 22, 2010 at 2:11 pm #

    Thanks for this important post, Sheryl. I agree wholeheartedly that the "deer management" issue represents so much more than that issue alone. We've developed so much wild animal natural habitat for our own purposes, that when animals wander searching for food, or otherwise, we call it "encroachment." Encroachment on what? Our suburban way of life? Please. I also agree that we need more natural predator! For some reason, humans love to kill those off first – whether it be wolves, coyote, grizzly, cougar, shark, etc. It's a real shame. On this Earth Day 2010, let's remember this: we're sharing this planet. Humans don't run the show. Unless we truly stop, reflect and realize this critical fact, we're headed for environmental disaster. We're already on our way…

  13. Anonymous April 22, 2010 at 10:30 pm #

    Thank you for a great article Sheryl. It is wrong to kill deer (or any other animal) in the name of animal control. They were here first and we (humans) are the intruders. Life is hard enough for animals. They spend all day searching for food and shelter. They do not have the luxury of walking into Safeway to buy food. People, please do not feel offended when you see deer along the street – they have lost their land and they are just hungry. I am all for natural ways of dealing with nature.

  14. Sheryl April 23, 2010 at 5:33 am #

    1)I agree that one of the main problems is lack of predators. We need larger tracts of green space and connections between the spaces for deer — and their predators — to wander in. This may be impractical in as heavily populated an area as Essex County. But Essex County could, at least, preserve the open land it has, rather than developing it (as the county recently did with part of its Hilltop reservation).

    Which leads me to…

    2)When we do develop land, it needs to be "smart development," instead of sprawl.

    3)The ethics of hunting is an interesting question, but not one my piece raised. My subject was preserving wild animals in settled areas. In my view, if we want to do that — and policies show we do — then we have to make some accommodations in terms of risk of injury, inconvenience, loss of property, restrictions on development (and therefore money-making opportunities) and fees or taxes to support better animal management practices.

    4)Contraception is a compromise. There are no perfect solutions and this one seems better than the alternative. I feel the same way about neutering pet cats — not perfect but the best choice available.

  15. Anonymous April 23, 2010 at 10:52 am #

    I agree that contraception can be a promising way for deer population control. However, time may be a critical component in small forest ecosystems that are already suffering from invasive worms, invasive plant infestations, and erosion. All these issues can already be straining the health of the understory without adding in the problem of overbrowse from deer. I feel that each preserved area of land needs to have a unique management plan in terms of population control. This may include hunting which can be a far quicker way to reduce numbers than contraceptives.

    It is also important to remember that population control is an ongoing process, something that may need to be done annually. As so many others have pointed out, there are hardly any natural predators left in many regions where white-tailed deer reside to control future numbers (Coyote will occassional take a fawn – deer are only 3%-5% of a Coyote's diet though).

    We must remember that deer are affecting ecosystems when their numbers grow out of control. Not only are they decimating native plants that are part of the understory – they are also destorying habitat for insects, birds, small mammals, reptiles, and a host of other wildlife – drastically impacting an entire food chain. We prefer to side with deer due to the fact that they are cute and deseriable to see up-close. This should not deter us from also appreciating and protecting the flaura and fauna that goes unnoticed, but have an equally important value to ecosystems overall.

  16. Gordon Chin Ho Smith December 27, 2012 at 5:21 pm #

    I have seen so many deers along neighborhoods’ yards. It’s because we, as travelers, the trees have been cut down,beneficial for us, to make way for interconnect highway. But there is no place for deers or in fact for other animals to live. We need to go to place to place, but animals need places to live. I guess there is no win or lose situation.