Thursday, April 07, 2011

Oh, deer

As I approached the meadow from the woods this morning at sunrise four deer were grazing there. Their ears perked up at my footfalls, but they cautiously went back to their nibbling.

It was lovely to see them there, but they might as well have been horses or cattle. Nothing notably special, that is. Then, as I put down my backpack to fetch my camera, they decided it was time to bolt. Off they went towards the woods on the other side of the meadow, grand jetes across the grass, their vertical white tails flagging. Few living things, I thought, are so beautiful as a white-tail deer in flight. At least outside of the Bolshoi.

And this within a few hundred yards of my New England village.

Which reminds me of something I wrote for the Globe back in 1988, when the Humane Society of the United States was considering the use of contraception to address the growing problem of white-tail deer in urban and suburban environments. I mused about how Felix Salten's classic animal story might have been different had the author lived in our more technologically sophisticated time.

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Old Stag: "Bambi, I think it's time we had a little talk."

Bambi: "Why, Old Stag? You've taught me all you know about the ways of the forest."

Old Stag: "Not quite, my son. It's time we talked about the birds and the bees."

Bambi: "The birds and bees? I often talk to Magpie, Jay, and Owl. They tell me lots of things. I know all about the birds and the bees."

Old Stag: "Hmm. That's not what I had in mind. It's -- uh -- how should I put it? Well, I've noticed that you don't play with Thumper the rabbit so much anymore. You seem to be a lot more interested in your little doe friend, Faline."

Bambi: (Blushing.) "Uh...I...uh. Faline's always been my friend."

Old Stag: "Yes, I know. But you see, Bambi, there comes a time when a boy deer and a girl deer get interested in each other in a different sort of way. And when a boy deer and a girl deer get interested in each other, then pretty soon there's going to be a little fawn or two."

Bambi: (Shifting restlessly.) "Gosh, Old Stag. Couldn't we talk about this at some other time?"

Old Stag: "No Bambi, it's important to talk now. There have been too many baby deer lately. In some places the herds are getting too big for the woods. In the last twenty years the number of deer in Massachusetts has increased from 6,000 to 40,000. And He -- you know who He is -- is concerned that we pose a danger to motorists. In some areas of the state the number of vehicle-deer collisions has doubled or tripled. And to health. Ticks that live on our bodies cause something called Lyme disease, which is getting to be a problem in certain coastal areas of New England. Not to mention the damage we cause to crops and gardens. One way He tries to keep our numbers down is to issue more licenses to hunters for the taking of deer."

Bambi: "What's a 'hunter,' Old Stag? Is that when we hear the terrible thunder and one of us dies?"

Old Stag: "That's right, Bambi. Your mother was killed by a hunter. And your little friend Gobo. Surely, you don't want Faline to be killed. Or yourself. So you have to think about responsible sex."

Bambi: "Responsible sex?"

Old Stag: "Yes. Contraception. It means being careful not to make a baby. It's easy. Just ask Faline to go see Him at the Deer Contraception Clinic. He will surgically implant a hormone capsule in her body. The hormone will suppress ovulation -- uh, keep Faline's body from making the eggs that become babies. The capsule is designed to release the hormone into her body over a period of several years. Or He might inject her with microcapsules of a fertility-suppressing substance."

Bambi: "Gee, it sounds expensive."

Old Stag: "Maybe so. But animal rights advocates will urge governments to pay for contraceptive programs. They point to growing public revulsion to the killing of deer for sport. Hunters will likely oppose such programs. They will emphasize the impracticality and expense of contraception. And many wildlife management experts agree. They say that hunting is the only efficient and cost effective way to regulate populations, and in the long run safest for humans and in the best interests of deer. There is also the worry about contraceptive substances making their way into the food chain.

Bambi: "But what if Faline wants a baby?"

Old Stag: "Then you had better be prepared to watch out for Him when He comes with his gun.

Bambi: "Golly, Old Stag. One way, Faline loses her chance to have a fawn. The other way, one of us loses life. What kind of a choice is that?"

Old Stag: (Rolling his eyes impatiently.) "Then just say 'No.'"

Bambi: "But that's not fair, either. I love Faline."

Old Stag: "No one said life was fair, Bambi. What you must never forget is that He is in control. Remember what Squirrel said when the oak tree in the meadow was chopped down: 'He can do anything. He's all-powerful.' We can only hope that He will consider our welfare. And in the meantime, we must learn to live and be cautious."