Deer oh deer

The surrogatesWashingtonians do not feel or behave very kindly toward the deer living in their midst. They do try to make nice with reindeer, the close cousins of deer, at this time of year. But the decorative, illuminated Christmas reindeer now offered as peace tokens in neighbourhood yards do not make up for the lack of love extended to real, wild deer most of the year.

The free-roaming sika deer of the Todaiji temple complex in Nara, Japan, are venerated in Shinto belief as “messengers of the gods”. There is, however, nothing sacred or sentimental in how most Washingtonians regard the deer so ubiquitous to these parts. White-tailed deer here are described as “scourge” or “rodents with legs”. This is a bit harsh, to my mind, since deer are certainly more thrilling to encounter than, for example, the rats often seen scurrying in urban environments anywhere in the world. Yet deer too are bearers of disease. Lyme’s disease, a debilitating illness caused by a bite from infected deer tick, is treatable, fortunately. The bulkiness of deer makes them deadly for drivers, especially those traveling fast on area roads. These collisions, of course, also always end very badly for the deer.

My family has journeyed the usual trajectory of most area residents in their feelings toward deer. It was initially quite charming to observe deer in our garden. Especially when the grazing gang included little Bambi-like family members. This pleasure faded somewhat when noticing how much foliage could disappear during visits from deer. I did not mind too much when the leaves munched were from big, settled trees or bushes. But now that I’m mutating into a novice gardener, I’m very much minding the deer.

Virginia’s hot, humid summers and its heavy clay soil present enough gardening challenge. Trying to garden with hungry, wild deer is an obstacle of a different order. I’m learning, most painfully, some of the tricks of the business: I’ve learned about breaking up mothballs and scattering the pieces generously around the base of the plant one is trying to protect. It’s not easy to remember to renew sprayed deterrents on time, so physical barriers ultimately work best. I’ve learned about plumbers’ piping, and how it can be sectioned to protect the trunks of trees. Some young male deer apparently went on a rave in our garden one night and repeatedly rubbed their antlers against numerous tree trunks (apparently to try to get rid of the velvet on the antlers), in between hearty feasting. The remedy this time was fencing with poles. But we’ll see if these trees survive winter and rebound in the spring. Unfortunately, the bark plus waxy coating was removed in some areas.

Deer like to eat bulbs, so I’ve learned that deer-resistant bulbs are essential. Actually, one needs bulbs to be squirrel resistant too since squirrels are always hungry and also rather partial to them. I have to admit to thinking that these athletic little creatures seem to get particular joy digging up bulbs in places—like a raised “deck” or stoep—where they have no competition from deer and the bulb planter naively thinks the bulbs might be “safe”…

Recently, there was an unusual request on our neighbourhood listserv, with a neighbour asking for help with a problem I hadn’t previously considered. Her children had discovered a dead deer in their garden. Northern Virginia Critter Control was unavailable for a couple of days. She had also called the county, but they would not come unless the deer was road kill. What to do? A respondent rather brilliantly suggested dragging the deer into the road!

The happiest place to see deer is when walking in the many wooded parks in Arlington and Fairfax Counties that abut the creeks feeding into the Potomac River. Discovering and enjoying these parks is one of my favourite parts to living in Washington. And the amount of wildlife one can experience is quite surprising, considering how populated the area is. I’ve seen lots of deer, tortoises, quite a few snakes, a raccoon, a coyote, and even a fox. The bird life is impressive too.

And that’s the rub of the problem. It’s we humans who have intruded on these animals’ habitats. The more construction there is, the more squeezed these animals are. No wonder they come to feed in our gardens.

Deer are rampant in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Without traditional predators to keep the deer population in check, culling or hunting deer is definitely one solution. Such efforts do exist and are highly controversial. They vary from controlled urban archery to regulated public hunts using firearms. There are also hunts conducted by police sharp-shooters. Reintroducing wolves and mountain lion is another possibility, but not for solving a suburban problem.


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