With raids and handcuffs, an overreaction to pet deer

October 28, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

I'M NOT a scientist - my older brother got that part of the brain, not me - and that I've read about chronic wasting disease in wildlife indicates that the science on this matter is far from conclusive. So I'm not the one to tell you that the 17 pet fallow deer seized by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in Anne Arundel County during the past month presented a risk of introducing CWD into Maryland and threatening our burgeoning wild deer population, giving the DNR the full right to kill them all as a precaution against potential disaster.

I can't say that.

But the DNR says that.

Keeping deer of any kind is illegal in Maryland - has been for 20 years - and the DNR says that the fallow deer belonging to Chuck Vernon, Allen Anderson and Butch Perry needed to die because the chances of an outbreak of CWD "increases exponentially when wild animals are held in captivity."

Again, I'm no scientist, but I have a problem with that assertion, at least as it's applied to this case. Fallow deer are native to Europe and the British Isles. To call these Arundel fallow deer "wild" is a bit of a stretch. From what I've been told, they were more like pet billy goats.

Allen and Shirley Anderson had kept deer on their place for 25 years; they pretty much had a petting zoo in Pasadena. Chuck Vernon had his for about 10 years; the three deer ordered to be killed on his 27-acre farm had been born there. Butch and Laura Perry got their one fallow deer, which they named Master, from Vernon about seven years ago.

So, these were pets.

And yet they were all killed by the Natural Resources Police on the grounds that they constituted a threat to wild deer - the ones that live outside the fence.

A lot of people, including Don Dwyer, a state delegate from Anne Arundel County, have reacted to this story with outrage and with scorn for what they see as an overreaching state police agency.

Facts: CWD, a disease that attacks the brain and spinal cord of infected animals, has been diagnosed in captive deer and elk herds in 10 Western states and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. It has been confirmed in wild deer populations in seven Western states and Saskatchewan.

Fact: The disease has not been confirmed in any state east of Wisconsin.

Fact: Maryland is east of Wisconsin. There's been no CWD here.

Thus the question: Was what happened in Anne Arundel County in the past month overkill by the DNR?

Grandma, did Master have to die?

All three deer owners say Natural Resources officers came onto their properties without warning and, while in possession of search-and-seizure warrants, carried out executions of their animals, and there was no arguing with them.

The Allens say the officers knocked on their door at 6:30 in the morning. Laura Perry estimated that eight officers came onto her property and that Master was killed despite the pleading of some of her five grandchildren. Chuck Vernon was handcuffed for a few hours after he refused to sign some documents presented to him by officers when they arrived to kill his deer.

So it sounds like real Kill-Bambi SWAT team stuff.

Real heavy-handed.

This is how Paul A. Peditto, the state Wildlife and Heritage Service director, defended the quick-response actions of the state:

"Given the potentially devastating effects of CWD, a disease nearly identical to mad cow disease and the unknown effects associated with it, failure to take quick and decisive action would be irresponsible as state natural resource managers."

Was this action based on sound science?

It's not clear.

Information about CWD is a bit conflicting.

Fallow deer, the kind kept by the three families in Anne Arundel County, "are not known to be susceptible" to CWD, according to the official Web site of the state of California, where the ranching of all deer - except fallow deer - is banned.

Virginia's Web site says, "Susceptibility of exotic deer species (e.g., fallow deer, reindeer, muntjac, etc.) remains unknown."

The home page of the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance, a group formed by conservation organizations out West, says only three species of deer - mule deer, elk and white-tailed - are known to be susceptible to CWD.

Meanwhile, as a precaution against CWD, Massachusetts and other Northeastern states expanded their bans on the farming of white-tailed deer to include all species of deer, including fallow deer.

Maryland has had a ban on the breeding and raising of captive deer of any kind for 20 years. So, in the matter of the Arundel Fallow Three, the law appears to have been on the state's side. And some science, however inconclusive about the susceptibility of fallow deer to CWD, might even be on the state's side: Research by the National Institutes of Health indicates that Wisconsin's problem with CWD in wild deer might have started with infected white-tails that escaped from the some of the state's 550 licensed game farms.

Still, early-morning barn raids? Handcuffs? Killing Master while the children were about? There must be a better way to keep the state's white-tailed deer population safe from disease, which, of course, is a worthwhile endeavor. We can't have unhealthy deer stepping in front of oncoming vehicles or shotgun blasts.

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