Let’s Rethink an Unethical Deer Cull

Ever since I decided to take a gap year and defer my matriculation at Swarthmore College, I have made a point of following campus news online in order to maintain a sense of connection with the school. Over time, I’ve begun to take the College’s evident spirit of justice, awareness, and activism—its “ethical intelligence”—for granted.

I was therefore alarmed and caught off guard when I learned of the Board of Mangers’ decision to hire a sharpshooter to manage the Crum Woods deer population. The hunting was scheduled to begin this December, but it would be an ongoing process without end in sight. I recognized the “profound” threat that the deer posed to the balance of the Crum Woods ecosystem, but killing over 20 deer per square mile of forest in this year alone seemed far out of line with my own sense of morality. Concerned, I decided to investigate why my future alma mater had ruled out the non-lethal alternatives.

Perhaps the College partook in the belief that its solution was humane; I soon learned otherwise. In order to have any effect, a sharpshoot must exclusively target adult, female deer. This means mothers, and, for every doe killed, an average of one fawn is left behind. Like any other mammal, does nurse their young, and fawns count on living with their mothers for anywhere from one to two years. To call sharpshooting humane is to overlook this basic relationship, this bond that we as humans hold sacred among our own kind. An untimely death will always take its toll upon the living, especially when the victim is a parent.

For the College to reject the non-lethal alternatives to sharpshooting, these options would thus need to have drawbacks at least equivalent to the sum total of this great loss of sentient life and the suffering that it would leave in its wake. Yet my research yielded contraception as a viable, conscionable alternative lacking comparable disadvantages. According to one report,

“The small home range size and strong site fidelity of urban female deer suggest localized management using immunocontraception is theoretically possible in suburban communities, and immunocontraceptive vaccines offer significant promise for wildlife management.”

The most serious problems cited are that GonaCon, a promising new immunocontraceptive, is currently available only on an experimental basis and that population reduction by attrition is slow. But the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the United States Department of Agriculture expects GonaCon to be commercially available in the imminent future, and if the College has already taken over five years to act, surely a short delay cannot constitute a justification for mass killing.

More to the point, the Crum Woods, as a whole, are not yet in a critical condition. Multiple times in his 2007 lecture to local community members, Bryon Schlisser of Natural Resource Consultants, Inc. commented that Swarthmore College had decided to take up deer management at a much earlier stage than most of his other clients do. Confident in the fundamental health of the forest, he went on to say, “I think you’ll find recovery here may be very quick…” An independent study confirms that, “The deer population in the Crum Woods is not at levels seen in other parts of the region, but… deer are impacting the long-term health of the forest.”

Sharpshooting would only deserve any serious consideration if the Crum Woods ecosystem were more immediately threatened. Contraception could admittedly take up to a decade to produce results; but, if specific floral species require fencing and other mitigation and restoration techniques in the meantime, then so be it.

The fact remains that sharpshooting is unnecessary, unwarranted, and unscrupulous, and I do not see how an institution as forward-thinking and upstanding as the Swarthmore College I thought I knew could endorse it.

There is some chance that contraception and any other non-lethal ancillary measures will collectively fail. There is some chance that lethal means will prove the only solution. But there is also some chance that sharpshooting will fail; despite their high fee, ($100-$350 per kill), professional sharpshoot contractors can and do make mistakes. A documented phenomenon called “reproductive rebound” could even lead the deer population to increase in size (see “An assessment of deer hunting in New Jersey,” a 1990 paper by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and Energy).

The reality is that no one knows for sure which techniques will work and which ones won’t. But we do know that contraception will allow the deer to live out their full lives in peace, while sharpshooting will cut dozens of lives short and leave many others in the lurch. It is our moral obligation to make an honest effort to employ immunocontraceptive vaccines in the Crum Woods before we resign ourselves to this ghastly cull.

It’s not too late to rethink and reverse this unethical decision, but the clock is ticking…