Deer are in the headlights these days, maimed along the nation's roadways and nibbling away at suburban gardens. Now they're closing in on one of America's poshest addresses -- New Jersey's Short Hills Mall, home to high-end stories like Cartier and Coach -- and local officials are striking back.
On Jan. 29, Essex County will send sharpshooters into South Mountain Reservation, a 2,000-acre swath of woodland that sits smack in the middle of tony towns like Maplewood, Milburn and the Oranges for a month-long deer kill.
New Jersey is no stranger to marauding wildlife. In 2004, the state shot more than 328 black bears in one season after widespread reports of the animals invading backyards.. It was the first such hunt in more than three decades, and environmentalists say development is to blame.
Suburbanites from Massachusetts to Minnesota have taken similar action as deer populations find feeding grounds in new subdivisions, causing traffic accidents and carrying ticks that can transmit Lyme disease.
Meghan Berry, a 27-year-old New Jersey graduate student, collided with "an absolutely gigantic" deer while driving one night. After killing the deer, she was traumatized by the fur it left behind on the demolished car.
Days later, a deer plunged into the swimming pool at her New Egypt, N.J., home, damaging the pool cover and nearly drowning.
"I consider myself an environmentalist, and I love animals and am very much against hunting," she said. "But when you consider the quality of life of deer living in the suburbs and getting hit on the highways, it's unsettling to see the two worlds colliding. We are killing them because they are in our way. But I can see that population control is necessary."
Deer Problems Nationwide
Other cities are struggling with similar problems. Last year, Kansas City, Mo., had bow hunts for the first time in two public parks. Alamosa, Colo., allows hunting by bows and shotguns on a city-owned golf course until Feb. 28.
In New Jersey, trained marksmen will work two full days a week during daylight hours, and the reservation will be closed to the public. Sharpshooters who finish eight shifts will be rewarded with 40 pounds of venison. The rest of the meat will go to the needy, said county officials.
"It's a safety program," said county executive Joseph DiVincenzo. "It's not something I want to do, but something I have to do. There are too many deer, and it's inhumane what happens to them."
But some opponents of the play say the wildlife reservation is so close to civilization that the deer hunt endangers citizens and their pets. Less than a mile from the shooting range are not only million-dollar homes but a dog park, Girl Scout camp, zoo and skating arena.
Carol Rivielle, a 60-year-old retired teacher from West Orange, N.J., whose home is only one block from the reservation, has led the fight against the hunt, urging deer contraception instead of bullets.
"They're bringing violence into my community," she said. "I object to the killing and cutting up of deer and the danger it puts people are in."
But advocates say deer are a greater threat to humans. Although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration does not specifically track deer collisions, it recorded 14,574 crashes with animals that resulted in injuries in 2006. Another 17, 701 crashes occurred when drivers swerved to avoid an animal. And a recent report in USA Today pegs the number of incidents even higher, estimating that more than 1 million motorists are involved in accidents with deer each year.
Accidents … and Disease
In Minnesota, deer-car collisions injured almost 500 people and killed three last year, according to the Star Tribune, which described the animals as "fertile, ravenous and thickheaded -- especially around a highway."
Many other communities worry about Lyme disease, which is transmitted to humans by the bite of infected black-legged ticks. Deer are an important part of the tick's life cycle.
Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium and, left untreated, can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous system.
About 93 percent of all Lyme cases occur in 10 states -- Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Wisconsin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were 64,382 cases reported nationwide between 2003 and 2005.
In Connecticut, where Lyme disease was named for the town where it was first identified, a citizen coalition urges the state to kill deer, saying they are a health hazard.
"It's something whose time has come," Georgina Scholl of the Connecticut Coalition Against Lyme Disease, told The Associated Press.
But complaints like the ones lodged in New Jersey are not uncommon. Animal protection activists vow to fight any efforts to kill deer in Connecticut.
Do Deer Hunts Prevent Disease?
Just last December, students at Goucher College outside Baltimore petitioned against the school's plan to thin a deer population that had surged to 200 on its bucolic campus. Over the holidays, after student protests died down, professional bowmen killed 62 deer.
"Once the kids understood the facts, it really petered out," said Kristen Keener, the college's director of media relations.
Deer get trapped in Goucher's gated 287-acre campus, and the only exit is through a four-lane highway.
"Once the deer get here, there is no place for them to go, and they stay and have babies," said Keener. "Unfortunately, we find deer in the gullies by the road."
College officials were concerned about car collisions and destruction of landscaping but more alarmed by five confirmed cases of Lyme disease at their health center. Six to 12 other students had "suspicious bites."
"A lot of people think it's a dubious line between Lyme disease and the number of deer," said Keener. "But because we are a college, we have respect for the health and well-being of 1,450 kids. It's a risk the college is not willing to take."
But Lyme disease experts and animal advocates say hunting down deer does nothing to prevent the spread of Lyme disease. Both the Wildlife Protection Network and the American Lyme Disease Foundation have opposed hunting deer as a means of combating the disease.
"There is a lot of misinformation about Lyme disease," said Dr. Eugene Shapiro, a pediatrician and Lyme specialist from Yale University, who blames horror stories on the Internet for scaring parents about the disease.
"I tell parents to get an Internet-ectomy," he said. "You live your life and there is a lot of risk out there, but Lyme disease is treatable and curable."
Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue and a characteristic skin rash. Doctors treat the disease with antibiotics.
Deer are only a part of the tick's life cycle and are not infected with Lyme disease, according to Shapiro. During the winter, adult ticks feed on deer and mate. In the spring, ticks lay eggs and die. Larval ticks are born uninfected but attach themselves to white-footed mice and other small mammals, acquiring the bacteria. In the nymph stage, ticks are most likely to transmit the disease to humans. Jumping from mammal to mammal, including deer, the cycle starts again.
"Just reducing the numbers [of deer] is highly unlikely to affect the disease," said Shapiro, who said some scientists are exploring immunizing mice, who are the real carriers of the disease.
Wildlife Birth Control
The Humane Society of America also opposes hunting and recommends birth control programs for deer to control population. Killing deer to prevent disease is "inefficient and misguided," according to Laura Simon, field director for the Humane Society's urban wildlife program. "It won't work."
Studies in states like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania have shown that when hunters kill off deer and there is ample food, the animals "rebound" with twins and triplets, according to Simon.
The Environmental Protection Agency is currently testing an immunocontraceptive vaccine called GonaCon that is designed to be used as a wildlife management tool. It could to be available next year.
Humans make the deer problem worse by building roads and houses in their habitats, and giving deer more fodder by mowing vegetation on roads and using salt on winter roads, according to Simon. "Road maintenance practically brings deer to the roadway," said Simon.
For deer damage in suburban yards, she suggests planting landscaping deer don't like to eat -- daffodils instead of tulips -- or using sulphur-based repellents.
"I think there are things we can do to live with deer," she said.
Still, many who have had encounters with deer say they support the hunting programs.
When it comes to deer, Alexander James, who grew up in New Jersey, is twice shy. As a child, he was treated for advanced Lyme disease with intravenous antibiotics. Years later, he was riding in a car that was ramrodded by a deer. The impact on the passenger door threw his arm off the rest, before the animal limped away and died.
"I felt the full force of it hit the car," said the 26-year-old educator. "Deer are certainly not an endangered species."