June 26, 2009

Blame Walt Disney

What’s the most environmentally catastrophic film of all time? Some sci-fi thriller? Not a chance. The hands-down winner is ‘Bambi’. Four generations of children have now been indoctrinated with the notion that deer are wonderful little creature with big eyes and cute lashes, and that they eat nothing but tufts of spring grass. Your garden may say something different.

The impact of ‘Bambi’ can be seen in the numbers. The whitetail deer population of North America before the advent of European settlers is generally pegged at around 20 million. Hunting by Native Americans and the realities of harsh winters kept the number of deer stable. European settlers brought farms, urbanization, and a rising demand for venison and hides. The number of deer declined through the 18th and 19th centuries, reaching a trough of under a million whitetails by 1930 because of over-hunting and habitat destruction.

Then, along came ‘Bambi’. Every child in America recoiled in horror as Bambi’s mother was killed by hunters. Hunters were portrayed as evil people, creating forest fires and killing with abandon. Not content with bringing child audiences to tears in 1942, Disney re-released the film in 1947, 1957, 1966, 1975, 1982, and 1988 (and thereafter on home video so it could be watched in an endless loop).

Today, the whitetail deer population of the United States is estimated at 30 million – fifty percent above the pre-Columbian figure. Deer have learned to adapt – indeed, to thrive – in suburbia. There are fewer hunters (Bambicide!), no wolves, no predators of any kind.
Keeping out deer has created an arms race worthy of the Cold War. We have friends who have encircled their entire property with a ten-foot fence – and worry every time the driveway gate is left open for guests. Other friends believe in hanging scented soap from the branches of bushes. The deer eat the shrubbery and leave the soap alone.

Which brings me to our garden. We back up to a pond and border several square miles of town watershed. I estimate the local whitetail deer population at around half a million. I see them strolling the neighborhood, tasting the new, the flowering, and the beloved plants (the Latin name for ‘tulip’ translates as ‘deer candy’), leaving a fresh crop of deer ticks in their wake.
My wife and I keep deer at bay through a number of techniques. In the winter we fence the most delectable plants. Every month we apply a solution that, when sprayed on plants, smells as though the entire sixth-grade class of our local elementary school came down with stomach flu in our yard. It works. The smell (the base ingredient is putrefied eggs) fades to the human nose after a few hours but the scent lingers (to deer, anyway) for several weeks.

My wife plants native trees and shrubs that have developed their own deer defenses over the millennia. Our property abounds in blueberry, Clethra, Fothergilla, Itea, Leucothoe, Rhododendron and a host of other trees and shrubs that look glorious to humans but that the deer find unappetizing.

When we note the presence of deer in our yard, usually in the early morning, we run out screaming in robes and slippers, waving our arms. The deer retreat into the woods a few feet and watch us. We chase them and throw rocks at them (yes, I throw rocks at Bambi; so sue me). By continuing to chase them deep into the woods, we have caused an entire generation of deer (and neighbors) to believe that there are crazy people living on the street that are best avoided.

There is no present solution for the glut of deer. Declaring open season for hunters in densely populated suburbs isn’t going to happen for very good reasons. ‘Relocation’ has proven an abysmal failure. Birth control (via contraceptive darts) appears to work only in areas with a static population such as islands. Friends of Animals estimates that half a million deer are killed each year in collisions with automobiles. Sadly, disease and starvation due to a lack of food – both products of overpopulation – are what currently thin herds. It is indeed time for fresh thinking on the subject.

In the end, it’s a problem of our own making – our own changing sensibilities along with the creation of suburban gardens that act as feeding station… aided and abetted by Walt Disney.

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