Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Herd Instinct


THEY gather at dusk, when the last traces of sunlight paint the horizon in hues of pink and blue, just before night extinguishes all color.

They can be found under a nearby oak, usually in groups of five or six. They seemingly exchange furtive glances, lest they be disturbed.

Before they are done, they will wreak havoc on the particular piece of land they have chosen to occupy.

Yet, their presence usually draws expressions of affection and awe.

"They" are deer. And "they" are overrunning my neighborhood.

I consider myself an animal lover. Not a vegan, mind you, but a person who enjoys animals in all their infinite varieties. I mean, I can't bring myself to pick a live lobster out of a tank for dinner. And I saw "March of the Penguins" three times.

But let me tell you something, folks, Bambi is getting brazen.

I've lived in the foothills for three decades and never have I seen anything like the herds that nonchalantly parade through our streets and yards. While some folks have neighborhood cats, we have neighborhood bucks.

Some display an air of detached entitlement. A family group in my driveway one evening wouldn't move even after I blinked my lights and honked.

I've gone eyeball-to-eyeball with a deer while retrieving my morning paper more than once. Over at the local golf course, they graze or lay about oblivious to flying golf balls and the anguished cries of the wounded duffer.

Most of my neighbors have long ago given up on growing roses in front of their houses. Roses, it seems, are a favorite hors d'oeuvre.

My wife has bravely fought back by spraying deer repellent on a row of roses in front of our house, but it works only sporadically and seems to repel humans as well as animals.

None of this should come as a great surprise. Deer populations are exploding and our neighborhoods have become vast urban salad bars for an increasingly hungry herd.

As far as I can tell, there have been no measures taken to mitigate the deer population binge, at least in our neck of the woods. Deer reproduce quickly. A doe matures at 2 or 3 years, and then typically gives birth to twins each year for 10 or more years.

According to scientists, deer birth control is a bit of a problem. First, every female deer must be captured for the first dose then given booster shots after that. Any volunteers?

Hunting seems out of the question. The prospect of orange-jacketed, rifle-toting hunters moving through our neighborhoods like Germans through France seems like a really bad idea.

Yet scientists also point out that the deer population expands exponentially, that is the herd does not increase the same amount each year but grows in ever-greater amounts as babies have babies.

And we thought immigration was an issue.

So do we learn to live with it? That presents its own set of problems.

One family member has already hit a deer while driving her car. A spooked doe kicked in a window in front of our house one day.

That's not the worst of it. As recounted in USA Today:

Ron Dudek, 73, of Rancho Santa Fe died of complications from antler wounds inflicted to his face by a male deer that Dudek encountered when he went to pick tomatoes in his backyard garden.

Karen Morris, 56, of Clearlake was hospitalized for 12 days with head injuries after an attack by a buck outside her home. The horns bruised Clifford Morris, 68, when he came to his wife's aid.

In Covelo, Arnold and Jeannine Bloom returned to their pickup after watering a friend's vegetable garden. A small buck ran up to the truck and knocked the man on his back. When Jeannine Bloom swung at the animal with a piece of firewood, it turned to her and ripped a hole in her arm.

Game wardens shot five bucks on the streets of Helena, Mont., after the deer threatened staffers at a day care center and a teenager delivering newspapers.

Welcome to Bambi and the Beast.

A biologist at the National Wildlife Research Center blames most of the trouble on the edginess of male deer during the fall mating season. Great, another thing to think about just before I drift off to sleep.

Bottom line: I'll do a little deer proofing around the house. Because given the choice of living with nature or living without it, I'll take the former.

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