Deer Attacks Puzzle Wildlife Officials

A rash of attacks by male deer has prompted California wildlife officials to warn people to try and keep their distance from the wild animals.

The attacks, two against people and three against neighborhood pets, are most likely fluke incidents, officials say. However, the gorings could also be a sign that as residential areas expand, wild deer are becoming more accustomed to people and less fearful of them.

"What happens is these animals get more comfortable around people and people start to think of them like Bambi and often don't realize they can be dangerous," said Steve Martarano of the California Department of Fish and Game.

The male deer that attacked Ron Dudek, 73, on Sept. 25 as he was picking tomatoes in his garden was likely caught by surprise, says Martarano. The 6-foot-tall buck charged out of a patch of shrubbery and gored Dudek in the face before running off. Dudek was rushed to the hospital where he received 220 stitches for the wounds. Three weeks later he died from a pulmonary blood clot resulting from the encounter.

In another attack further north in the state, a couple in Covelo were attacked while watering a friend's vegetable garden. Martarano says the woman was gored in the arm after the animal had pinned the man to the ground with its antlers. When the woman tried to scare off the animal with a piece of plywood, she was gored in the arm. The man was shaken, but not hurt.

And in Orinda, male deer have attacked neighborhood dogs, killing one and seriously wounding another.

"We've never had any problems with our many local deer before," said Dee Pearce, whose 10-year-old dog Kermit, an afghan-golden mix, was killed by a buck that gored the dog in the head. "This seems to be an odd year around here."

Pearce says her dog did not bark before or during the encounter with the deer. And three hours after the deer gored her dog, it gored another dog, an elderly black Labrador retriever that lives across the street from Pearce. That dog survived. Later, the buck faced off with a third dog in the neighborhood, a Jack Russell terrier.

"I saw the buck put its head down like he was about to attack him," said Louis Pimentel, owner of the terrier, Willie. "So I put my camera down and took my dog inside."

Crowded and Dangerous?

Wildlife biologists say all of the attacks are unusual, but could also be a sign that deer populations are getting crowded and too accustomed to human neighbors and their pets.

"I've never heard of a deer seeking out and attacking dogs," said Todd Smith, editor-in-chief of Outdoor Life. "Most deer are deathly afraid of dogs and they're afraid of people."

Smith points out that male deer act unusually aggressive this time of year since the animals are entering what is known as the rut. This is when bucks are completely focused on breeding and wander for weeks looking for females, often not eating.

"They're fighting for dominance among the females, they're not eating a lot. They become increasingly aggressive," he said.

It could be that the rut season, combined with increasingly cramped territory could be behind the unusual attacks. Pearce says she has noticed more deer this year in her neighborhood, which she describes as a "woodsy suburb."

"This year the deer are thriving," she said. "We have at least four bucks in our immediate area as well as many doe and yearlings. There is lots of competition in a small area."

Deer herds throughout the United States have increased exponentially in recent decades, although around 1900, deer had been nearly wiped out. Restrictions on hunting and programs for trapping and relocating deer helped the population rebound beginning in the 1920s. Meanwhile, people have been building homes in areas that may have once been deer habitat.

"We have more white-tailed deer now than we have ever had in the history of the country," said Smith. "So it's not surprising we're having more encounters. When deer and people meet, stuff's going to happen."

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