Morning File: Deer danger

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Oh deer
Run for your lives. No one is safe. The deer are rutting.

These woodland animals, with their graceful movements and doe-like eyes (yes, very doe-like), can make for wonderful fauna. It's hard to find more attractive fauna, in fact, within an easy drive. It's not like they're competing with pandas or anything. Put up a whitetail deer against a groundhog or chipmunk in any local fauna contest, and the deer is going to win nine times out of 10.

But something's gone awry. Where once they might have trailed only dogs and swimsuit models as man's best friend, perfect for stalking and hunting (the deer, not the models), they're developing a rather nasty aggression. These brazen vegans, coming into anyone's yard or garden and nibbling away at whatever they please, have spent years heightening the irritation of suburbanites.

But the deer have gone far beyond that, shifting from non-violent foraging into activity demanding creation of a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Humans. In the most recent example, a Clinton County couple who live together were hospitalized with injuries last week after a six-point buck evidently gored them with malice aforethought in their back yard.

Defenders are likely to call it an aberration: "Don't blame all deer for the bad behavior of one." If they check their facts, they'd know better. But they're too lazy, which is why The Morning File exists.

Bucks gone wild
The headline in the Oct. 21, 2005, Ventura County Star in California said it all: "Man dies of injuries he received when deer attacked him."

The Associated Press reported that 73-year-old Ron Dudek was simply trying to pick tomatoes in his back yard (seemingly a favorite area for deer to stalk their prey) when encountering a 6-foot-tall buck that struck him in the face, ripped a hole in his cheek and rammed an antler into his mouth. It caused a blood clot that went to his lungs and killed him weeks later.

A spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Game described it as the third violent deer encounter within a four-week period, victimizing either Homo sapiens (they have a lot of those in California) or their pets. ABC News suggested the incidents were a combination of overcrowding of deer--who were coming in unavoidably close contact with people -- and the rutting season, in which horny bucks aren't eating much as they eagerly search for females.

Todd Smith, editor-in-chief of Outdoor Life magazine, noted the nation's whitetail deer population was at an all-time high. "So it's not surprising we're having more encounters," he observed. "When deer and people meet, stuff's going to happen." We think he meant a Sienna Miller-style word other than "stuff."


Even colleges are unsafe
On the leafy campus (our favorite kind) of Southern Illinois University, students one day last May came upon yellow crime-scene tape cordoning off an area. Big signs offered the explanation: "Caution, Deer Attacks."

Three different times, a single doe had "launched unprovoked attacks on passersby, including a campus police officer," according to the Chicago Tribune. In a maneuver called the "beat down," which sounds likes a favored move of some masked World Wrestling Federation maniac, she charged her victims, reared on her hind legs and slashed them with her sharp front hooves. And that came less than a year after another serial, four-legged beater-downer caused similar panic at the school in Carbondale.

SIU wildlife ecologist Clay Nielsen attributed it to fawning season, when the protective instincts of mother deer are particularly acute. Still, that was no excuse, and the defense would probably not hold up in court. "I have never seen anything like this anywhere," said Nielsen, an expert on urban deer populations. The bad news: He feared that fawns observing their mother's rough, charging behavior might find it the appropriate way to treat people.

If that's the case, one wonders how such a vicious cycle will ever end. Oh, wait -- I forgot about Monday.


The humans strike back
This is the kind of column that deer hunters like to tape to their lockers before going out at dawn next Monday, getting fired up for mob vigilante reaction to the reports of violent deer. We urge calm, but anything could happen, as nearly a million hunters will be in Penn's woods during the two-week deer season. A few hundred thousand deer have good reason to fear for their lives, if past years are any indication.

"The potential to shoot a large-bodied, rack buck is better than it has been for some time in Pennsylvania," Cal DuBrock, director of the Pennsylvania Game Commission Bureau of Wildlife Management, was quoted as saying last week.

The idea of it evidently has some deer jittery and looking for cover. One thought it could hide out -- perhaps until hunting season is over -- at the Mellon Financial Corp. office near Waterworks Mall last week. Fortunately, the stealth techniques used by deer in their native habitat disappear when on man's turf. The deer set off an alarm when entering the building by charging through a window at 6:30 a.m. Merciful Pittsburgh police shooed it back into the woods rather than harming it or filing breaking-and-entering charges.

One can only hope the deer will show the same compassion toward hunters next Monday, hurting none as they go about their annual forest activities.


Gary Rotstein can be reached at grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.


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