The recent surge in public discussion about managing the deer population of Cayuga Heights has included a number of claims that killing deer is counter to the progressive perspective of our populace. While defending Odocoileus virginiana against wildlife management practices is well within the realm of free speech and may help to make sure that best practices are used, it isn’t particularly “progressive.” In fact, protesting the killing of wild animals is near the center of the soul of Victorian sentimentality, while true progressivism emphasizes scientific solutions in the name of reform.
In a balanced New York state ecosystem, wolves and mountain lions would be killing deer and eating them as they did for millennia. Rumors about secret DEC reintroduction programs aside, these top predators have been missing for more than a century and are unlikely to return soon. For much of the intervening hundred years, farming practices eliminated much deer habitat and human predation culled the remaining surplus created by a lack of four-footed predators. With the decline of agricultural acreage and hunting folkways, the deer numbers have rebounded, filling the rural patchwork of woodlot and open field and then spilling into the landscape of perennial gardens and ornamental hedges.
Nineteenth-century animal rights legislation in England was first put in place to protect domesticated animals from mistreatment and later, with help from the likes of Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), expanded into the realm of protecting wild animals. In the 20th century, an avalanche of films by Walt Disney and Brit tearjerkers like Ring of Bright Water caused many Americans to embrace the idea that animals should not be killed for any reason, in any manner.
But this focus on animals as attractive, sentient individuals ignores ecological realities. Many recent letters to the editor have suggested that fencing deer out of Cayuga Heights will cause them to simply wander into the surrounding countryside where they will no longer be nuisance animals. Few people seem to realize that the countryside is already full of deer, and they are eating everything there too.
Village of Lansing trustee and conservationist Lynn Leopold has said that our current population of cervine browsers is in the process of eliminating (and locally may already have eliminated) the next generation of vegetation in the local ecosystem. When the existing trees die, there will be no saplings in the understory to replace them. Herbaceous vegetation on the forest floor has been wiped out in many areas.
Deer, like all herbivores, must eat for hours every day in order to get sufficient nutrition (4 to 6 pounds of vegetation per 100 pounds of body weight). According to wildlife biologists, under ordinary circumstances white-tailed deer eat large amounts of relatively few species in the floral assemblage available to them. The fact that the “deer resistant” plant list keeps getting shorter is a sign of the stress caused by overpopulation.
Merely fencing them out, then, is not a humane solution. The population will continue to grow until we begin to see adverse health effects in the deer. Very thin individuals are already in evidence, and it is only a matter of time before contagions like chronic wasting disease (for which there is no cure) appear locally. Death by starvation is surely less humane than either netting and bolting or employing sharpshooters. Anyone who has seen footage of a wolf pack killing a deer cannot possibly argue that the kind of stress induced by netting and bolting is “unnatural.” Wolves begin eating an animal before it is even dead.
The only real solution to “the deer problem” is the restoration of the true balance of nature by reintroduction of top predators. Californians and Coloradans coexist (cautiously) with mountain lions, and wolves still survive (albeit beset by wild dogs) in Italy, Spain and eastern Europe. Why can’t we bring them back to New York State? This is the only truly progressive solution, but it cannot happen overnight and in the meantime the populations must be thinned for their own collective welfare.
The Victorian sensibility — apparently shared by many Ithacans — imagines sympathy between Homo sapiens and O. virginiana; it projects a human consciousness into the soul of an animal. A more progressive perspective is to have empathy for these animals and show some concern for the stress engendered by the urban and suburban deer’s constant need to avoid dogs, cars, people, and other deer. In other words, to have a truly progressive view of this issue you should learn more about deer so that you can see the world the way a deer does. And a deer in Cayuga Heights is constantly hungry, forced to eat unpalatable food, and forever interrupted in its browsing by barking dogs, rake-wielding shrub-owners, and deer outside of its social group horning in on its turf. Is this any way to live?