Nancy Balaban, of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., inspects deer damage to a cypress tree in her yard. The village plans to inject does with a contraceptive to reduce the deer population. (AP Photo/Jim Fitzgerald)
HASTINGS-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — This suburban village overlooking the Hudson River is a mere 2 square miles, home to a hip downtown, neighborhoods of neatly kept homes and an ever-growing population of deer that overrun woods, chew through gardens and cause more than a dozen car crashes a year.
Grasping for a way to control the deer without hunting the animals, leaders of this village of 7,900 have proposed an ambitious compromise to shoot them up — not with bullets but with birth control.
Scientists and humane groups hope the program, which seeks to capture and inject female white-tailed deer with a contraceptive made from pigs’ ovaries, can become a model for other places that are too congested or compassionate to consider killing.
“We’re hearing all about ‘Don’t kill Bambi’ and all the jokes about deer condoms,” Mayor Peter Swiderski said. “People are having their little chuckles. But deer have a pretty big negative effect on the community.”
Under the plan, which will begin this winter if approved by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, as many as 90 percent of the does in Hastings will be tranquilized, inoculated with the contraceptive, then tagged and released. The deer population is estimated at up to 120, a density of 60 per square mile. That’s three times the deer density that some studies have tied to a decline in plant and animal species.
The goal is a 35 to 40 percent reduction in five years.
Stephanie Boyles Griffin, a senior director at the Humane Society of the United States, said, “There are thousands of communities in the U.S. that are looking for alternative ways to manage the deer populations.” If successful, she said, “Hastings would be the first open suburb in the U.S. to manage deer exclusively through the use of immunocontraception.”
Swiderski said he had heard about such experiments and approached expert Allen Rutberg, director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University.
Rutberg went for a walk in Hastings, saw plenty of deer and deer damage, and figured the village would make an interesting experiment.
“For me the idea is to intervene in the lives of the deer as little as possible, to allow them to mingle with us but not to the level where they become a nuisance,” Rutberg said. “If we can avoid killing things that live in our neighborhoods, then I think we should.”
The protein, called zona pellucida, is obtained from pork industry slaughterhouses. It creates antibodies in deer — and elephants and horses — that prevent fertilization.
The mayor said dozens of residents have volunteered to monitor deer numbers and travel patterns and measure landscape damage.
Among them is Nancy Balaban, 85, who said she’s had to give up gardening in her yard because “the deer just ate everything down to the ground. Hostas, tulips, even holly bushes.”
She especially laments the damage to Hastings’ “beautiful treasure,” its village forest, where hardly anything green can be seen from the ground to 6 or 7 feet up the tree trunks.
“All the saplings are eaten,” Balaban said. “It’s going to end up being a desert.”
Rutberg said the forest damage also affects “the critters that live in the vegetation: ground-nesting birds, small rodents, amphibians.”
Some neighbors have erected tall wrought-iron fencing, coupled with netting, to keep the beasts out of their gardens.
Balaban said that’s too expensive. She limits her puttering now to a few pots of flowering begonias and bacopa on a second-floor balcony. “The deer haven’t learned to fly yet,” she said.
The mayor said he suspects most Hastings residents would support a killing program, but opponents could delay or sabotage it.
“I’m picturing kids on TV with signs that say ‘Don’t shoot the deer,’” he said.
The Humane Society and In Defense of Animals are helping to pay for the experiment, which will probably cost at least $30,000 for the first two years. Although the does have to be treated every two or three years, they don’t have to be captured again once they’re tagged and that will keep labor costs down. Subsequent doses can be delivered by dart, Rutberg said.
The Humane Society supports the program because “our major focus is to encourage people to tolerate wild animals and coexist with them,” Griffin said.
Barbara Stagno of In Defense of Animals said, “There’s a lot of killing of wildlife under the guise of not being able to cohabit. It happens with geese, it happens with deer. Killing rarely is the answer.”
Rutberg has run similar experiments on Fripp Island, S.C., and on the enclosed grounds of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md. Because Hastings is neither an island nor fenced in, there’s a risk of deer from elsewhere moving in and affecting the numbers. But Rutberg said that makes it more of a real-world experiment.
He added, however, that deer tend to stay within a quarter-mile of where they’re born.
“They obviously like it here,” he said. “They’re native, they belong in our forests. But maybe not at 60 per square mile.”