In many communities throughout the United States, particularly in the Northeast, if you want to rile up the neighbors ask them about deer. Many people see these big-eyed ungulates as real-life Bambis, survivors in a habitat modified by humans, and are thus tolerant of the deer’s transgressions and willing to modify their own behaviors and expectations to live with these elegant animals. Others view deer as “rats with hooves,” often cursing their existence and inexcusable gumption for eating garden vegetables and flowers, colliding with automobiles, allegedly spreading Lyme disease, and even pooping in yards.
Whether adored or abhorred, no one can question the remarkable versatility of these animals. Deer, particularly the white-tailed variety, are one of nature’s most adaptable creatures. As we modify their habitats, they find ways to survive and often thrive amidst our homes, strip malls, roadways, and industrial parks. Indeed, in many areas, by taking advantage of human-supplied open spaces such as golf courses, ball fields, parks, and yards, as well as the cornucopia of tasty treats that we provide them via gardens and ornamental plantings, deer densities can soar in suburban landscapes.
Sadly, although the deer are simply adapting to modifications of their wild homes, too many deer eating gardens, getting hit by cars, or triggering fear of disease results in cities and municipalities employing lethal means to remedy the problem. To thin the herds, elected officials and management professionals hire sharpshooters and archers, recruit local hunters, or sanction live trapping and euthanasia. Sharpshooters often work under the cover of darkness with silencer-equipped high-powered rifles, using spotlights to gun down unsuspecting deer feeding on bait piles used to attract them to facilitate their killing. When bow-hunters are employed, there have been reports of deer impaled with arrows wandering into neighborhoods and succumbing to their injuries after what may have been hours of suffering. Such strategies often must be endlessly repeated, as fewer deer results in more food available to the survivors, thus improving their condition, increasing their reproductive rate, and ensuring that they quickly fill the vacancies created by the slaying of their brethren.
Is there a better strategy for deer control in urban and suburban landscapes? In late January 2015, AWI helped fund and AWI staff participated in a deer sterilization project in Fairfax City, Virginia. This was the second year of the sterilization effort approved by the Fairfax City Council in 2013 and organized by Humane Deer Management (HDM), a local group of dedicated volunteers created to promote an alternative to lethal control. Using funds provided primarily by private citizens and humane and wildlife advocacy organizations, HDM hired professionals to carry out the project.
Fairfax City, a 6.3-square-mile enclave within Fairfax County, is home to over 22,500 permanent residents and George Mason University (with its nearly 34,000 students). It represents typical suburbia with its strip malls, neighborhoods, and office buildings interspersed with parks, woodlots, and creeks—an inviting place for deer. Although its deer density (estimated at no more than 16 deer per square mile prior to the initiation of the project) is not nearly as high as other municipalities, citizen concerns about deer prompted the consideration of various lethal and nonlethal deer management alternatives. Instead of proceeding with lethal control as most municipalities do, Fairfax City decision-makers wisely elected to proceed promptly with the humane, nonlethal option of sterilization to control its deer numbers before allowing the population to grow and thereby increase the pressure to resort to lethal control.
Over the course of six nights, Dr. Anthony DeNicola and his team successfully darted 18 female deer, who were then spayed by Dr. Jeffrey Newman of the Caring Hands Animal Hospital and other volunteer veterinarians. They were assisted by AWI and HDM staff, veterinary technicians from the animal hospital and Humane Society of Fairfax County, and other volunteers. Because this technique remains experimental, most of the treated deer were ear-tagged and fitted with telemetry collars to monitor project success before they were returned to where they were darted. In total, over two years, 36 deer have been captured and successfully spayed, with two known mortalities—one spayed doe was struck and killed by a vehicle and another wandered outside the city and was killed by a hunter.
Fairfax City is not the first deer sterilization project in the United States. Similar efforts have been undertaken in Baltimore City, Maryland; Town and Country, Missouri; San Jose, California; East Hampton, New York; and elsewhere. As data is collected from these separate projects, scientists will be able to assess the efficacy and value of deer sterilization as an alternative to hunting, sharpshooting, or capture and euthanasia to control deer populations in urban and suburban areas. Behavioral impacts of this technique on both male and female deer are also being assessed.
Is sterilization an ideal solution to deer-human conflicts? We don’t yet know. Certainly, sterilization is an invasive, labor-intensive, and potentially costly procedure that can result in complications for the treated deer. However, if it proves efficacious, AWI thinks it should be used alongside immunocontraceptive technologies as an alternative to lethal options for municipalities to consider. Muncipalities debating deer management strategies should urgently embrace immunocontraception or sterilization options to stabilize the population instead of delaying action and allowing deer populations to soar.
In an ideal world, those who live among deer would be more tolerant of deer and their impacts, learn to appreciate the value of deer, educate themselves about deer and their behavior, and use the various nonlethal tools and strategies available to live harmoniously with deer—instead of advocating for their killing. Most importantly, they would acknowledge that they have occupied the deer’s habitat, not the other way around. For now, since that ideal world is not yet here, new, less cruel tools are needed to control the deer populations that inhabit cities and suburbs. Deer sterilization may be such a tool.