We call them “Bambis” — the dapple-coated fawns we see gamboling throughout our neighborhood. It’s not unusual to find them in our yard, curled up amid the blueberry brush or in a bed of peonies. Once a mother deer guided one into our outdoor shower, where the virtual newborn spent the day until Mama, replenished, returned at dusk.
Deer sightings are a daily occurrence here. Indeed, “sightings” is an insufficient way of describing our relationship with this species. Cohabiting is probably closer to the mark. We actually see deer more frequently and at closer range than we do many of our two-legged neighbors. This has become an issue in our town.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that coming upon a deer was a rare, even thrilling, occurrence. Around twenty years ago, when a young buck settled into a shoal of some nearby pachysandra, our neighbor Joy snapped a photo of him and gave it to my parents, who displayed it on their mantle. Having a wild creature like that in our midst seemed like some sort of miracle.
It still does. But with the passage of time, these miracles have become more commonplace. Deer have found our town’s woods and dunes a congenial habitat. The lack of any serious predators has certainly played a part. The predictable result has been a burgeoning population of white-tailed, big-eyed, and strangely tolerant animals. Try walking up to one as she’s helping herself to your hostas. She’s liable to regard you with the ambivalent forbearance of a celebrity at her favorite restaurant, being importuned for an autograph by some over-eager fan.
Gardeners have never liked them. Grown deer will eat about 2,000 pounds of green stuff a year. This means folks trying to plant vegetable gardens or suburban-style flower beds are likely to wake up on a given morning to find their efforts chomped. Sprays can help (I like using a mixture of mint oil and garlic) but only to a point. The deer will bide their time until it rains.
The bigger problem is that, as the deer population has grown, their reliance on the understory in our woods has increased. Bushes, shrubs and small trees that belong here are being eaten, making it easier for invasives to take hold. Though I don’t think we’ve reached it yet, the carrying capacity of our environment will soon be unable to sustain the number of deer relying on it for food. Then, too, there is the question, brought home by the pandemic, of at what point living in close proximity with a wild species becomes a hazard to human health.
Our town council has proposed a deer kill. But the idea of setting hunters loose in what is, after all, a residential community is fraught with unintended consequences. What could possibly go wrong? What’s more, and more heartening, a substantial portion of our fellow citizens find that co-existing with the deer contributes to what makes this place special. Signs expressing opposition to slaughtering the deer have started showing up in peoples’ yards.
I have a brother-in-law, retired now, who spent years working with Native American tribes in Wisconsin and the Dakotas. One morning over breakfast he suggested our town leaders consider getting in touch with tribal people in Southwestern Michigan. His thinking was that if a hunt was deemed necessary, perhaps it would be best to have it conducted by those whose culture and traditions lent hunting a time-honored and spiritual dimension. An alliance like this, he said, would acknowledge and honor the roots upon which our town is planted. It might also enhance the way we think about any number of other issues we people feel compelled to manage.
Just a thought, my brother-in-law said. I’m thinking of it now — watching the white tails on those Bambis, little flashes, go racing up our hill.