It was just after a five-minute break for coffee and hand-decorated Christmas cookies that the conversation turned to contract killings and systematic execution.
The people gathered in the makeshift meeting room of a nearly empty tin shed in the woods had seemed harmless enough -- until they broached the subject of some horrific possibilities.
Murder, starvation, involuntary relocation or deadly viral infections? Mandatory birth control?
Even Tabasco sauce.
Anything to get rid of the problem: rampant white-tail deer that pose not only a nuisance but a health threat for neighbors of Sandy Point State Park outside Annapolis.
Infrared Department of Defense technology came up with the statistics. At Sandy Point -- as in countless regions with rapid development throughout the state and nation -- deer are being pushed and crowded into the handful of remaining wooded areas.
From a helicopter hovering 300 feet above ground, wildlife biologists recently took a midnight head count and found there were at least 85 deer per square mile scattered throughout the 800 acres of Sandy Point State Park. A healthy herd should number about 20 per square mile, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
During the meeting last week, the park's citizen advisory group was asked to consider a number of options -- many of them lethal -- for dealing with the deer hordes.
"There's no doubt about it," said Paul Peditto, a DNR biologist. "These numbers are dangerously high."
Peditto said there are so many deer that the animals could die painfully of disease and starvation if nothing is done -- and might destroy the park's vegetation.
Motorists can count on an ugly collision sooner or later, he said, and there might be health risks for people in the area, where a handful of neighbors have made unconfirmed claims of Lyme disease, a life-threatening illness spread by deer ticks.
"I'm not going to advocate any of these options as better than the other," Peditto said of the deer-control proposals. "I'm simply here to lay out all your options and let you decide."
Birth control was one, but the Humane Society has issued a statement that the "technology thus far falls short of our hopes." It also has acknowledged that the initiative has not been successful among wild deer anywhere in the nation.
The problems include having to shoot each doe twice a year with a dart gun loaded with a contraceptive drug, and catching and tagging the animals so that they can be identified and recorded as receiving their doses. The park would have to be completely fenced so that pregnant or fertile does could not get in.
"And that gets tricky because I don't know of a fence that can hold white-tail deer," Peditto said. "Ten feet is not high enough to keep them in. And if they were scared enough, I suspect they could clear a 20-foot fence. When it comes to fences, they will go over them, under them and, in some cases, through them."
"But the contraceptives are something they're still working on?" asked board member Jerry Preis.
"Certainly," Peditto said, preparing to move on to an unlikely option No. 2: Tabasco.
Apparently, white-tail deer have an aversion to spicy foods -- or used to.
For years, gardeners have tried sprinkling drops of Tabasco sauce on their tomato plants and lettuce leaves.
"It would be next to impossible to cover all the vegetation of Sandy Point with hot sauce," Peditto said.
"In fact," he said, "we're finding that some deer are actually growing to like spicy foods. We've heard many cases of farmers who grow hot bell peppers or banana peppers who have been having terrible problems keeping their deer out of their fields."
Theresa Chonoski, an advisory board member and Sandy Point neighbor, burst out laughing.
Other options include:
A deer relocation program.
Several counties in southern Kentucky find themselves without as many wild deer as they'd like. Urban sprawl and beltway traffic are not an issue there, and they have made an offer to places on the East Coast that have built one too many shopping mall for the wildlife to tolerate.
At a cost to Maryland of about $800 to move each deer, Kentucky would take them.
But the scientists have issued a warning.
"Deer don't take well to being captured," Peditto said. "How well they would survive such a relocation is highly questionable."
"I'd have a hard time advocating this option," he said.
VTC The board members had already stopped taking notes.
With this option, expert hunters would be issued permits to hunt in the park. Park rangers would monitor hunting, the killing of a predetermined number of deer would be allowed and neighbors would be educated about safety concerns associated with the short-term event.
Such hunts can be public relations nightmares for state parks, drawing animal rights activists with protest signs such as "Bambi has feelings, too."
Joseph Lamp, an Arnold member of the Maryland Wildlife Advisory Commission, has made his stance clear.