Not Tonight, Deer

With in­creases in clashes be­tween hu­mans and deer, one B.C. town wants to use con­tra­cep­tion to re­duce the lo­cal herd

Canadian Wildlife - - OUTDOORS - By Matthew Church

In the past few decades, Cana­di­ans’ at­ti­tudes to na­ture and wildlife have changed. A gen­er­a­tion ago it might’ve been ac­cept­able for home­own­ers to poi­son, shoot, drown or in pretty much any other way be rid of noi­some an­i­mals in and about their prop­erty. Since then, grad­u­ally, the em­pha­sis has been on es­tab­lish­ing hu­mane re­sponses to en­coun­ters with wildlife. That is true deep in the woods as well as in lo­cal ur­ban or sub­ur­ban parks. Most peo­ple would agree that’s progress, even while con­stant ur­ban­iz­ing en­croach­ment on ru­ral ar­eas has led in­evitably to an in­crease in neg­a­tive en­coun­ters. Now, a small Van­cou­ver Is­land com­mu­nity wants to treat an in­tru­sive deer pop­u­la­tion with con­tra­cep­tives.

When it comes to our own back­yards, our re­la­tion­ship with the feral com­mu­nity is fraught, and likely to re­vert to con­flict and ag­gres­sion. In more built-up en­vi­ron­ments the ta­bles are turned: feral ur­ban an­i­mals may be wary but they are largely un­afraid of peo­ple, while hu­mans of­ten re­coil, star­tled. Rac­coons seem to shrug as they am­ble away; skunks stare any­one down, rarely even need­ing to wave their tails threat­en­ingly; rats sim­ply go about their busi­ness un­im­pressed by any­one get­ting in their way. For ur­ban­ites, of­ten un­com­fort­able with un­do­mes­ti­cated an­i­mals, there’s a vis­ceral re­ac­tion, al­most shock, fol­lowed by a cer­tain in­tim­i­da­tion. The re­ac­tion is in­stinc­tive, our an­i­mal re­sponse to an in­truder, a deep-seated an­i­mus of fear and ter­ri­to­ri­al­ity.

When feral in­trud­ers tear up a lawn overnight in search of grubs, or de­mol­ish a veg­etable gar­den or over­turn the garbage again, frus­tra­tion boils over. Now though, city-dwellers are be­ing re­quired to con­sider the in­trud­ing an­i­mal’s wel­fare, needs and, yes, rights. In ad­di­tion to pass­ing and en­forc­ing by­laws to that ef­fect, mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties are lead­ing by ex­am­ple and of­fer­ing re­sources and ad­vice to res­i­dents in their strug­gles with the an­i­mal world. Whether it is go­phers bur­row­ing in Moose Jaw parks or moose me­an­der­ing through Mi­ramichi, it is up to res­i­dents to be re­spect­ful while mit­i­gat­ing the prob­lem.

Take Greater Vic­to­ria, at the south end of Van­cou­ver Is­land. They have a lot of deer, par­tic­u­larly in the invit­ing sub­ur­ban com­mu­ni­ties that clus­ter around the cap­i­tal city. Oak Bay, for in­stance, a syl­van town with a pop­u­la­tion of 18,000, is over­run. If you’re from some­where else, you might be charmed by the idea of Bambi strolling by; what a treat, to spot a deer from the back­door. Hav­ing deer for neigh­bours, how­ever, is a chal­lenge. They can do ter­ri­ble dam­age to gar­dens and orchards in their quest for food; their gen­tle aura be­lies a vo­ra­cious ap­petite, and their agility and quick­ness can get them into and out of tight spots.

This is about more than in­con­ve­nience. Both hu­mans and deer are be­ing in­jured. Col­li­sions be­tween cars and deer have tripled re­cently with the deer pop­u­la­tion in­crease, an in­ad­ver­tent and trau­matic culling at­tested to by a surge in in­sur­ance claims. Pedes­tri­ans too are re­port­ing wor­ri­some clashes: in the fall of 2016 (rut­ting sea­son) a woman out jog­ging in another Vic­to­ria neigh­bour­hood was sud­denly charged by a 90-kilo stag with a full rack. She sus­tained mi­nor in­juries but the re­sult might have been much worse. Even more con­cern­ing as a health issue, deer bring with them ticks car­ry­ing Lyme and other diseases; Vic­to­ria has among the high­est in­ci­dences of Lyme disease in B.C.

For all th­ese rea­sons and to vary­ing de­grees, most Vic­to­ri­ans agree this is a se­ri­ous issue their gov­ern­ments need to ad­dress. And they want to be hu­mane about it. The mu­nic­i­pal­ity has tried adding fences, road signs and lower speed lim­its, as well as wildlife cor­ri­dors. In a move that di­vided the com­mu­nity and sparked protests, Oak Bay con­ducted a cull in 2015, trap­ping and killing 11 deer.

It was fol­low­ing that con­tro­versy that late last year, Oak Bay pro­posed “im­mu­niz­ing” the lo­cal herd with a con­tra­cep­tive, hu­manely re­duc­ing the deer pop­u­la­tion to a safe and man­age­able num­ber. It has worked else­where — a 17-year project on Fire Is­land in New York re­duced the deer pop­u­la­tion to ac­cept­able lev­els with­out “lethal con­trols,” that is with­out hunting them. The B.C. gov­ern­ment nixed fund­ing for the ini­tia­tive in De­cem­ber 2016 but agreed in March to cover half of a $40,000 study for ra­dio tags and sur­veil­lance cam­eras to as­sess the issue and de­ter­mine whether im­muno­con­tra­cep­tive serum would solve the prob­lem. The study is un­der­way now.

While it is still too early to see if this seed money will be fruit­ful and per­haps mul­ti­ply into a full-on cam­paign, the fact that the wildlife-con­trol con­ver­sa­tion has turned to con­tra­cep­tion is yet another sign of the way at­ti­tudes are changing.

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