A Defunct Deer Is Discovered in Suburban Shrubbery

July 31, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Suburban neurosis seems to be reaching epidemic proportions. The latest victim out our way was Melanie Moore, a homeowner in the Fallston area who was stunned to discover the corpse of a deer in her shrubbery.

There was no sign of foul play, and experts ascribed the death to natural causes -- as though there were anything natural about a dead animal in the back yard. Even in Baltimore everyone knows that dead bodies in back yards aren't natural, except maybe for human ones.

It was bad enough that the critter had had the temerity to expire on Mrs. Moore's acre and a half of private property, a tract to which she enjoyed good and merchantable title. Worse was yet to come.

In the great American tradition of turning to the government whenever something's amiss, she asked Harford County to take away the deer. It seemed to her a reasonable request. The county imposes property taxes on her semi-rural woodsy lot and her nice brick colonial home, after all, and she has a right to expect some service for her money. Or she thought she did.

But Mrs. Moore found, to her shock and amazement, that the Harford County government doesn't do deer bodies on private property. Put lime on it, somebody said. Deer are biodegradable; let nature take its course. The heartlessness of the bureaucratic response astonished her. It was as though the county saw Fallston as some kind of a jungle, the sort of place where animals routinely copulate, give birth and die without any supervision by the authorities.

The authorities in Bel Air tried to explain. If the corpse were on the roadway, or festering on one of the Parks and Recreation Department's many softball fields, the situation would be different. Then the county's deer-removal forces could be dispatched post-haste, even before the first blue-bottle fly touched down. But when the body is on private property other rules apply.

It's a sad fact that lots of venison and other useful provender goes to waste each year. In Pennsylvania, something like 50,000 deer are killed on the highways each year, and mostly end up feeding the buzzards. (Suburbanites in Frederick County are just as upset about buzzards as Mrs. Moore is about her dead deer, but that's another story.)

In Virginia, an enterprising politician recently proposed feeding roadkills to the prison population, but that frugal idea hasn't reached Harford County yet. And even if it had, by the time Mrs. Moore completed her first round of discussions with the local government, the carcass in her backyard was too ripe even for the Detention Center. She was stuck with it.

Farm people, such as those who farmed the ground in Fallston where Mrs. Moore lives before it became a subdivision, don't take the death of a large animal lightly. But it happens often enough that they know how to deal with it. When an animal is hurt or ill and recovery looks doubtful, a farmer's normal course is to sell it promptly. If it's still alive it has more market value than if it's dead. But sometimes animals die suddenly and then must be disposed of.

Not so many years ago, the fresh carcass of a cow or a horse was valuable enough for the hide and other byproducts that rendering companies would pick it up at no cost. Those days have gone; there's now a charge for the service. Thus an animal worth several hundred dollars when alive is a potential liability as well as a nuisance when it's dead.

We haven't lost an animal on our place in two or three years, but we know it can happen at any time. What we do when it does depends on the circumstances. The last time we lost a cow, we just hauled her out into the woods, where she was soon dismantled by foxes, buzzards and other specialists in recycling.

She made her presence known for a while, especially to those passing downwind for the first couple of weeks. After that the dogs would occasionally bring bones and pieces of hide back to the barn. Finally, after several months, someone retrieved her skull and put it on a fence post. The last time I looked it was still there, attractively framed by a Virginia creeper vine.

Mrs. Moore, according to the newspapers, eventually decided to leave her deer carcass alone. It was a wise decision in every way. If the bones haven't yet been picked clean, the process is surely well under way by now. If she were to go and have a look from time to time, she might find it interesting -- food for thought, in a manner of speaking.

She could even salvage the skull and mount it on her mailbox, where it would serve as a symbol not of death but of life, a reminder to all who pass that even in Fallston the natural world hasn't been entirely eliminated. But she'd better do it before the authorities pass an ordinance to prevent that sort of thing.

4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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