Deer hunt conundrum

September 28, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- It was still early, the end-of-summer sun just beginning to glisten on the dew, when Matt showed up at the barn in his camouflage clothing. ''I could use a little help,'' he said.

It was the first morning of the new bow-and-arrow deer season, and Matt had been out in the woods long before sunrise, up in the same tree his father has favored for many years. It's a good location, and at first light he'd had a shot. He'd hit his deer squarely. In fact, the arrow passed right through it. But then the deer had bounded away.

Matt knew it probably hadn't gone far; he's a skilled enough hunter to know not to chase it. So he waited for an hour and then went to get some assistance. Along with Ray, who works for me, and my two dogs, I went back with him to help find his deer.

It didn't take us long. The deer, a yearling doe, had gone less than a hundred yards. We followed her trail, marked by little blood spots on the leaves and an occasional hoofprint where the ground was soft, until we found her, curled in a bed of mayapple. She was already cold. The three of us picked her up and carried her to the pickup, and then Matt took her to the checking station.

Another hunting season means a number of things, most of them predictable. It means I'll start getting calls from people I've never met, asking if they can hunt on our farm. It means that a few other people I've never met will show up in our woods, or build tree-stands there. To the best of my ability, I'll remove both the people and the tree-stands.

It's also predictable that the hunters I do allow in, people I know well and whom I trust to hunt safely, will start dropping deer. And if I'm bold or foolish enough to mention that, either in person or in print, much of the reaction will be hostile. That's predictable too.

Why hunt those beautiful creatures? It's an emotional question, and not an unreasoning one. Something more complicated than predation is going on here. While the animals killed are carefully cut into steaks and chops and burger, neither the hunters nor the landowners need the meat to survive.

The deer do some crop damage. This year I have one small field in corn, and the deer have been working on it. But they won't totally destroy it. If I chose to I could protect the corn from them, either by putting a 10-foot-high electric fence around it, or having the field patrolled day and night. I can't very well claim that the deer are about to put me out of business with their browsing.

There are other problems associated with deer too, including Lyme disease and wrecked cars. But I can't say that the reason most hunters hunt, and the reason I encourage deer hunting on our farm, has much to do with public health or public safety. So what is it then, sadism? Plain old thrill killing? By allowing Matt and other hunters to take deer, am I condoning an activity which is fundamentally evil?

Some people have no doubt that I am. They believe that the difference between killing a deer and a songbird, or between killing a deer and a child, is only incremental. How they stand on the killing of a rockfish or an Angus steer, or a groundhog or a rat or a cockroach, or perhaps a Brussels sprout, isn't always clear.

It isn't in dispute that there are plenty of white-tailed deer -- many millions of them in the United States. As I recall, there were 10 killed on our farm during the last hunting season, and there's no appreciable difference in the number of deer around the neighborhood now.

But whether there are too many deer is a matter of opinion. It's my opinion, certainly, that there are too many on our farm; that's why, if no one else were available to hunt them, I'd feel obligated to do it myself. Most wildlife biologists appear to be of the opinion that there are too many deer in much of the country, and especially in the suburbs.

The no-hunting people don't agree -- or if they do, they don't believe that hunting is an appropriate way to get the numbers down. Some of them support such off-the-wall solutions as birth-control injections (''Here, Bambi!'') or rounding up the unwanted deer and taking them away to, well, somewhere.

Anyway, here's to autumn, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, when both arrows and arguments begin to fly.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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