Urban deer: Rats, Bambis, stunning photo subjects

A copyedited manuscript in need of final review left no time for nature in the backwoods this past week. But nature’s mom literally brought the wild to my back step, which brought to mind one of the oldest and most emotional environmental issues I’ve ever written about – urban deer.

A mama doe has chosen my garden gate as a safe place for one of her newborn fawns to bed this year. On Thursday, a little speckled one spent 12 hours in a curl 15 feet from the back porch, while mama was off doing what she does in the panoply of deer delights that is the Bryan Park Neighborhood a half mile from Kirkwood Avenue.

That, in turn, afforded an all-day wildlife photo opp unlike any I’ve ever had. As the day progressed, the fawn’s response to a zoom lens-toting biped evolved from motionless ball to acceptance via eye contact, a consent to be photographed in a photog’s worldview. It also conjured up the phrase “rats with hooves.”

My first exposure to urban deer was in my Herald-Times reporter days in the mid-1990s, when I read a New York Times Magazine article of that very name about deer in Philadelphia and other major metro areas. I still recall the incongruent image of a white-tail standing beside a suburban Philly 7-Eleven dumpster. A 1993 Times Magazine piece about the subject was headlined: “ABOUT LONG ISLAND; They May Be Cute, but They Can Also Be Pests.”

My takeaway from the first piece was that urban deer are widely considered pests that ruin neighborhoods by destroying backyard landscapes, spreading disease and colliding with cars. An internet search for “rats with hooves” did not produce that particular Times article. But it did return multiple links using the phrase and echoing the sentiment.

“Since I'm supposed to write about business, not vent about wildlife, let me show you some numbers about how appallingly expensive rats with hooves are in terms of dollars and human lives.” a Washington Post business writer pontificated in a 2010 column titled “Deer overpopulation taking economic toll.”

A 2012 report from the Bloomington Deer Task Force echoed that point: “Many – but certainly not all – residents have reached their carrying capacity for deer. Much of the resident concern with deer abundance is localized to the southeastern quadrant of the City.”

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources Division of Fish & Wildlife published an “Urban Deer Technical Guide” that outlines strategies for communities to deal with urban deer. The undated document, which refers to data from 2011, suggests the DNR believes “hunting can address most problems and is the preferred solution for communities.”

The DNR guide also acknowledges the emotional aspects of the subject: “Deer and deer management may be some of the most controversial topics city leaders encounter due to the polarizing opinions that deer raise with members of the community.” Some believe community residents must adapt and live together peacefully with the deer. Others “want their numbers drastically decreased by any means possible.”

The rat v. Bambi conflict has played out locally through the years. I’ve watched friends and allies become mortal enemies over the issue. No public post on the issue goes unchallenged, mine included.

The southeast Bloomington deer herd has its origins on the Tarzian Estate east of Bryan Park, the city’s largest public park. The deer escaped in the late 1990s when the property was developed and named for them – Deer Park.

Over the past decade or so, I’ve watched the southeast herd expand rapidly, from an isolated side-street encounter with a silhouette east of the park on a late-night dog walk to an all-day, face-to-face with a babe this week. I’ve had as many as six in my yard at once. Four once spent an entire afternoon laying in my yard, each strategically placed with views of all avenues of ingress. Sometimes they visit weekly.

Personally, I’ve learned to live with and enjoy them, since I installed an 8-foot deer fence around my vegetable garden a few years ago. I’ve captured some stunning photos of them.

But I still wonder when Bloomington will reach its carrying capacity for urban deer and dread the day, politically speaking.

In the meantime, Thursday’s was my most intimate white-tail encounter yet. My first instinct was that the fawn had been abandoned, perhaps was ill. A hand clap and shout proved she (maybe he) was breathing. And a call to Wild Care and feedback on Facebook quickly informed that such behavior is normal, for moms and babies alike.

Newborns’ scent glands are undeveloped, so mothers have no qualms about leaving them for 12 hours or more. And the babies do curl up and play dead for defense.

After I approached and photographed the fawn from maybe five feet, she jumped up and disappeared behind the massive bush that blocks most of my back yard from neighbor view. She had the legs of a deer and a body the size of a smallish dog. A half hour or so later she returned to the gate and recurled.

By early evening, she listened and watched as I scooted ever-closer with my 80-400 mm Nikkor zoom trained on her eye from 10 feet, maybe less.

Among the deer facts I learned was that mothers return around dusk and that the fawns should not be startled. On cue, just as I decided to not grill out while the baby was still there, mom returned, and the pair wandered off down the utility easement in back.

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