WASHINGTON -- The government sharpshooters worked so efficiently in the dead of the night in Washington's Rock Creek Park that by the end of this year's short killing season, they had shot 106 white-tailed deer.
Make that 3,300 pounds of local venison turned into meatloaf, burgers and more for the surprised directors of homeless shelters and other charities across the capital.
"I don't think of Rock Creek Park as a hunting ground," said Michelle Durham, program director of Rachael's Women's Center, speaking of the expanse of forest and ravines where President Theodore Roosevelt once rode horses.
She said she was shocked to learn that a recent batch of venison served at the center came from deer in the park, just 2 miles away.
But such are the eat-what-you-kill sensitivities as the National Park Service struggles to manage proliferating deer that gorge on seedlings and threaten the abundant vegetation in the 2,000-plus-acre park that bisects Washington.
"It's like a deer smorgasbord," said Nick Bartolomeo, the park's chief ranger, describing the daily feast the animals enjoy in the park and surrounding neighborhoods. As of December 2013, before this year's killing season, the National Park Service estimated that there were more than 320 deer in the park.
Despite local protesters who say the killings are cruel, the goal remains culling the deer population down to no more than 20 deer per square mile from 77 per square mile counted last fall. Armed with small-caliber rifles, professional sharpshooters from the Agriculture Department first started killing deer in a one-night operation in March last year. The herd thinning quietly picked up again over five nights from January to March this year.
Now, to help the homeless and to make sure that the dead deer are not simply discarded -- an action that would further outrage local residents -- the National Park Service has the meat inspected and processed, and then gives it to DC Central Kitchen. Using donated ingredients, the kitchen cooks and distributes 5,000 meals a day to community centers and shelters.
"It would be really sad if the National Park Service had to kill all these deer and throw the meat away," said Paul Day, a spokesman for DC Central Kitchen.
In all, the National Park Service donated about 3,900 pounds of venison this year and last to DC Central Kitchen, which used the lean protein to make not only meatloaf and burgers, but also breakfast casseroles and chili.
DC Central Kitchen makes the meatloaf from a classic recipe on the website Simply Recipes, using onions, carrots, eggs, ketchup and Worcestershire sauce, but substituting venison for the ground beef. DC Central Kitchen already accepts about 5,000 pounds of venison annually from Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry, a charity that, like others across the country, takes donations from hunters with extra venison on their hands. Generally, DC Central Kitchen does not volunteer the source of its meals -- and beyond wanting fresh, healthy food, the charities do not seem to care where it comes from, Mr. Day said.
But that policy created some surprise among Washington charities when they were told that the meat was deer from Rock Creek Park.
"Now, I'm wondering what other things I don't know," Ms. Durham of Rachael's Women's Center said.
Would she continue to accept it? The answer appeared to be yes. "We serve two meals a day, so we do rely on DC Central Kitchen," she said.
At Casa Ruby, a community center for gay, bisexual and transgender people, some would not touch the Rock Creek Park venison served recently -- a departure from the chicken, fish and beef that are their main sources of protein, said Ruby Corado, the founder and executive director. But there were no leftovers.
Ms. Corado was taken aback when a reporter told her that the meat came from the park, but she said that since people rely on Casa Ruby to provide what may be their only meal of the day, she was grateful to DC Central Kitchen for helping her replace a menu once dominated by pizza and hot dogs with healthier fare. "If that's the only thing on the menu, do we really want to go hungry?" she said.
April Hanson, case manager at a residential substance abuse program called Clean and Sober Streets, said the origin of the venison they received last month, which was hot and ready to eat, did not matter at all to the 80 patients who enjoyed the meal. "As long as they get to eat," she said.