I used to be charmed by the idea of backyard urban wildlife habitats. As a lifelong birdwatcher and environmentalist, it seemed like a good idea at first. But after nine or ten years of watching the increasing number of urban deer in my neighborhood, I think differently.
I’m all in favor of encouraging habitat for the small things: birds, bees, butterflies, and bats, upon whose presence many other things depend. The larger mammals—skunks, raccoons, foxes and opossums—are acceptable in lesser numbers. But I’m utterly opposed to urban deer. Not only are they causing countless thousands of dollars citywide in damages to yards and vehicles, they’re also a sign that Nature is horribly out of balance.
Because mature does frequently bear twins, the urban herd doubles itself about every three years. There simply isn’t room for all of these deer. We need some checks and balances here.
This problem is exacerbated by people who invite the beautiful little spotted fawns to come right up and nibble food out of a human hand. That’s great fun while the fawn is small. But flash forward two or three years to when Bambi is suddenly a grown stag with antlers, overwhelmed by aggressive hormones during the fall rutting season. Imagine an aggrieved homeowner going outside to shoo the stag away from the garden, only to be turned upon by a 110-pound animal that’s armed, dangerous and completely unafraid of humans.
This is NOT a good scenario. Deer can and do kill people every year. People in my neighborhood (including me) have been menaced on repeated occasions by pawing, snorting bucks. A small dog was killed by an angry doe near here just a few years ago. Having semi-tame large wild animals in such high concentrations within city limits is a very bad idea.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard the words “But we’ve taken their habitat away”, I’d be rich by now. Folks, this is a fact: never in the state’s history have there been as many deer as today. Far more deer live in Indiana today than in the early 1800s when this area was first settled, and their current overpopulation has nothing to do with habitat destruction. Apex predators in the old days (bears, cougars, wolves, and human hunters) kept the deer population within reasonable and sustainable bounds. Today their ever-increasing numbers are forcing them to colonize suburbs and cities where they feast on landscaping as though it was a never-ending salad bar. This is not Nature at her best. This is instead an indication that something is terribly wrong.
Even though a dramatic cull would certainly benefit the entire ecosystem, the very word enrages the deer-defenders. There’s no arguing with someone who is emotional and angry. (In fact, as an aggrieved gardener it’s all I can do not to be snarky and angry right here in print.)
There is a widely shared misconception out there regarding Nature. The deer-defenders believe that a system without apex predators is one that’s in harmony and equilibrium. But in fact it’s the opposite. An illustration of this attitude: a kindly and civilized person on my street sent a friendly email to all the neighbors requesting that they keep their cats indoors because they enter her backyard habitat and stalk the creatures she is trying to harbor. (She also provides water for the deer in a basin in her front yard.) But any miniature ecosystem that banishes predators can never be a viable or valid system. Every ecosystem in the world, be it desert, jungle, or the Arctic Circle, has predators to keep the system in balance. Without predators to kill the slow and the weak, the whole ecosystem falls apart. A backyard “habitat” that banishes all predators is simply a pretty picture with a frame around it, a nicey-nice idea of what constitutes an ecosystem, not the real thing.
Why should gardeners who are simply trying to live ecologically and sustainably be held hostage by animal populations that are wildly out of balance? Why should dangerous wild animals range freely through yards and streets without fear? Why should walkers be threatened by stags on public sidewalks? Why should the entire ecosystem of perennials, shrubs, tree seedlings, birds, small mammals and insects be adversely impacted by unsustainable numbers of herbivores?
The city needs no more “backyard habitats” if the result will be even higher numbers of destructive cervids rummaging for decreasing amounts of food in people’s yards.