Ethics on the Edge: The Government of Deer in Not Quite Urban Places

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I am an elected member of a five-person governing board of the Village of Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. Hastings is: (1) on the banks of the Hudson River—very wide, very beautiful; (2) on a commuter light rail line to New York City—very convenient; (3) exceedingly expensive in terms of real estate prices, rent, and property taxes—very risky in a churning economy, but a very good investment in the long term; and (4) a safe place for children with very good schools.

Last, but not least, Hastings is very green, both environmentally and ethically and politically. A municipality of two square miles, it devotes about twenty-three percent of its area to dedicated parkland and undeveloped woodland. Suffice it to say that the Tea Party does not flourish here, and “plan” is not a four-letter word. We have multiple plans and codes and, in keeping with New York state law, tight regulatory control over land use and development. The notion that we are responsible for the proper and sustainable conservation management of our activities and our ecology is not questioned in Hastings. The only discussion is about how best to fulfill that responsibility.

Ten miles to our south some very rich people live in cramped quarters in Manhattan. Ten miles to our north some very rich people live in grand houses on 20-acre estates. We don’t feel like either of those places: we are no longer rural (since about say, 1850) but not quite urban either. A recent article in the New York Times reported that trendy young professional couples with young children residing in Manhattan and Brooklyn have discovered Hastings. They seek a place where they can find tranquility without going into a coma; where they can find action without too much stress. They seek lots of trees and hiking trails that have good cell phone service. The landscaping of residential Hastings displays a culture of  what, to paraphrase the economist Thorstein Veblen, might be called conspicuous gardening.

Neither urban nor precisely suburban, in Hastings we like living on the edge. We are not the only ones. There are about 8,000 human beings living in Hastings and maybe (nobody really knows) 500 or more white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Refugees from the North, the deer are fleeing the loss of their former habitat to subdivision and sprawl, and they have been impelled to move into unfamiliar areas by an increase in their own population brought about in part by a decline in the popularity of hunting in upstate New York. They are newcomers in the last ten years, and they are changing our local biome. They are also posing some edgy ethical dilemmas.

They remind me of the title character in Flannery O’Connor’s powerful story, “The Displaced Person.” At first an object of curiosity, the deer are now widely perceived as threatening and unwelcome. Their behavior is foreign, their ways uncivilized. They eat too much of the wrong things; they carry the insects that carry the microbes that cause serious Lyme disease; they endanger the human beings who kill and maim them with their cars. Conspicuous gardening is under siege. Invasive plants fill in behind the browsing herd. The understory of our parks and woods is manifestly in decline and unhealthy.

The deer story in Hastings is certainly not unique or isolated. It is a growing problem throughout North America.[i]  But it is local and particular in the sense that it is not simply following a generic script. We are writing our own narrative, guided by our own distinctive sense of place and how to care for it.

Living in these parts, it is striking and unusual to have a close encounter with a large animal. Horses and cattle and bears are to our north, but not here. Squirrels, birds, raccoons, skunks, feral cats, dogs being walked, the occasional rat sighting—these are the familiar creatures of our everyday life. No doubt the deer were here quite a while before lots of people began to notice them. But as their numbers grew, their profile in the community rose. At first there was a certain aura about these encounters. You would walk out your front door and see a good size deer grazing on the front lawn or moving across the driveway. They were wary and skittish then, but came quite close.  As they bounded away if you moved toward them, the fluidity and grace of these animals were wonderful to behold.

Later, the Walt Disney frame began to fade and gave way to something more disturbing. The attitude of many of my constituents turned bitter and hostile toward the deer. Part of this reaction surely was caused by the sheer number of animals and the physical devastation of the browsing done to shrubs and flower beds. But it was also due, I think, to the change and adaptation of deer behavior to human presence. As they became more comfortable with us, we became less comfortable with them. Yet the term “wild” does not seem to fit. Rude is closer to the mark. There is no hunting here, and truly no reason for them to fear creatures slightly smaller than themselves. They blink at our shouts and gesticulations. They give us a look and then return to what they were doing, blasé and nonchalant. They seem to say: “We have moved in, so deal.” Signs forbidding trespassing have no effect on them. A friend of mine put up some mesh fencing to protect his bushes, and a doe promptly placed her new fawn in the netting for safe keeping while she worked the neighborhood that afternoon. It provided good camouflage.

Species typical behavior: The deer settled in; we formed committees. In 2009 a long-awaited report of a study group created by the Town of Greenburgh (of which the village of Hastings is a part) dramatized the damage and danger created by the burgeoning population of deer.[ii] It recommended expensive measures to ascertain the number and movement patterns of the local herds. The culling approach it favored for our local circumstances was to lure deer with bait into an isolated area and then have professional marksmen shoot them from elevated blinds. Bow culling was ruled out because of its potential for creating too many incidents of wounded animals that would have to be tracked down, and rifle hunting by ordinary citizens was not considered safe in our densely populated residential setting.

The release of this report and ensuing open meetings on the topic increased public attention to the issue. (Videos of many of these meetings from 2009 to the most recent one in May 2013 are available online at A few months earlier, a new mayor and two newly elected trustees (myself included) had taken office after a bitterly contested election campaign against a slate representing an opposing political faction in the village. We took office with a mandate to get things done, and the deer question was one of the first salient issues to confront the new regime. It would not have been my first choice of problems to attempt to solve.

Familiar lines began to be drawn. Some were concerned about the economic costs of counting and culling. Bids in the $25,000 range were received from outfits that would do a deer census. That was a non-starter, and we have opted for volunteers who will keep a record of the deer they see in particular areas and their movements. Also the professional culling was going to be quite costly, perhaps on the order of $1000 per animal. We might need to kill nearly 100 deer repeatedly over several years running in order to have a lasting impact on the deer population, we were told. Those kind of numbers did not work well for our operating budget and property tax rate even then; now, thanks to New York State, local municipalities are under a 2 percent tax levy limit each year. This is a rule that fiscal reality makes hard for local governments to obey, but that anti-tax sentiment makes hard for local politicians, like me, to defy.

I digress. Back to the deer. We heard from many homeowners who demanded action to protect their landscaping investment and its beauty. On that aspect of the problem, there was an interesting twist. Not only were the ornamental plantings at stake, but the character of our neighborhoods was changing for the worse in another way also. Numerous homeowners were installing large wrought iron fences and other kinds of barriers. Many of us were dismayed to see a once open and inviting streetscape in residential neighborhoods turning into a series of fortresses.

Public health and safety goals were powerful arguments in favor of deer population control. Hastings is infested with ticks that transmit Lyme disease, and deer serve as important hosts in one crucial part of the ticks’ life cycle. Too many residents and family members have suffered from a severe, disabling form of Lyme, and their public testimony was compelling. Another argument in favor of culling was to reduce traffic accidents involving deer.

Counterpoints to each of these considerations were also raised by those opposed to lethal culling. Gardeners can use repellants and can alter their planting in ways less attractive and palatable to deer. Deer culling alone is no guarantee of a significant reduction in the incidence of Lyme disease, because other vectors may arise in the absence of deer. Direct mitigation measures on ticks and rodents, plus continuing human education and precautions, were proposed as ethically better and more effective ways to prevent Lyme. Regarding traffic safety, reflectors and barriers can be installed at points on busy roadways, and driver vigilance and traffic calming measures can be stressed, which would not only reduce deer accidents but increase traffic safety more generally.

Standing behind this point-counterpoint in the public discourse, however, was what I perceive to be the master theme of our debate. In an interesting way it identifies a tension within the conservation community itself. That is the tension between the ethical objections to lethal culling as a form of responsible deer management, on the one hand, and ecological concern with the degradation of biodiversity caused by excessive browsing and its long tem consequences, on the other.

The “natural” mechanisms of population control in predator-prey relationships are not available to us in this area on the edge. The reintroduction of large predators, such as wolves or mountain lions, is not a viable option here, for reasons having to do with the needs of those animals as well as human considerations. (Coyotes have arrived, but, while they have been adept at picking off small pet dogs and cats, they are useless when it comes to deer.)

That leaves the other large predators of the white-tailed deer, human hunters. But deer population management by human intervention is precisely what puts us on the ethical hook. Those who focus on the individual life and interests of deer, and who have objections to killing them, now come to the fore and raise genuinely difficult questions about the ethical justification of deliberate human action. They remind us of the ethical prohibition against causing undue pain and suffering for any human being without sufficiently strong reasons to do so, and ask why that same rule should not also apply to all other sentient creatures. If there are humane and non-lethal methods of deer population control, those should surely be attempted. (Hastings deer are not starving; we are serving them a salad buffet.) Another form of this viewpoint questions the moral right of human beings to decide what other species are permitted to inhabit a given area. Rather than merely “charismatic mega-fauna,” deer are admirable animals not only for their physical grace but also for their social and behavioral attributes.[iii] The more one learns about them, the more difficult it is to think of them merely as pests to be controlled—a trope favored by many speakers at our public meetings. Is the killing of the deer really the only way to mitigate ecological damage and biodiversity loss?

Nonetheless, deer population growth and its unchecked ecological effects are serious and real, and local government officials shouldn’t turn a blind eye to them or ignore their obligations of environmental trusteeship and stewardship. Absent natural predation as a check on deer populations, the correct ethical course seems to me to be a combination of non-lethal population control combined with human behavioral adaptation.

In Hastings we have rather stumbled and groped our way toward that course of action. It has taken us now almost four years and some false starts, and the journey is not yet finished. After running up against some walls, we have now charted a course that might lead us through this maze. The story of our journey may be pertinent and instructive for other communities.

Faced with the clear public demand that village government do something, we began making inquiries in 2009 with the NY state DEC and discovered that culling by hiring trained professionals with firearms was essentially precluded for us. The DEC must issue a permit for controlled culling that requires the agreement of all homeowners within a 500-foot radius of the proposed shooting (this also applies to the use of vertical bows and crossbows); one holdout can veto the project. We determined that only a tiny area of our village would not be subject to that requirement, and it is so small that it would not be a viable space for an effective cull. It seems clear to us that it will be very difficult to find a sizable area where we could obtain unanimous consent from adjacent homeowners.[iv]

Having ruled out culling by firearms, as the Greenburgh Town report had recommended, we were told that the state DEC would grant us a permit to cull deer using a method known as “netting and bolting.” Individual deer are captured in a net and held down while a pneumatic device kills them with a powerful blow to the head. This is used under more controlled conditions in commercial slaughterhouses, but has numerous inhumane consequences when used under field conditions with netted animals.

After receiving a new round of public comments on this approach and after a great deal of soul searching, we came to the conclusion that netting and bolting would not be an acceptable culling method in Hastings. The intrinsic ethical objections to the procedure, particularly the suffering inflicted when the animal’s death was not instantaneous, were obvious. The logistics of such an operation would be difficult and problematic. It would be done in a rather remote, unpopulated location, to which deer would be lured. The public would have to be kept out, including the media, for photographs and videos of the procedure are extremely upsetting. But could that actually be done, legally? Probably not. And even if it could be, at what cost in public trust and domestic tranquility would it be done?

What’s more, the annual expense was significant, approximately $1000 per animal, including disposal of the carcass. With any method of culling, shooting or net and bolt, we knew that it was not a one-time intervention. To have a significant effect on the deer population, culling of a large number of deer would have to be done annually for at least several years. If the community were not willing to follow though in this fashion, the initial expenditure would be for naught because the deer population would rebound in a relatively short time. Based on our understanding of community values and sentiment, we concluded that Hastings would not support annual culling with net and bolt techniques for a sustained period of time. Public opposition would grow, and tax dollars would be paid to a private firm for little or no long-term benefit to our ecosystem or to the village as a whole.

We turned next to non-lethal approaches to deer population control using injectable contraceptive methods.[v] That is where we stand poised today. Over the next three to four years, Hastings will be working in collaboration with the Humane Society of the United States and Dr. Allan Rutberg of the Tufts-Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. This will not simply be a population intervention; it will be a carefully designed field experiment that will contribute to the growing body of knowledge concerning immunocontraception approaches to deer control.

To be practical for suburban and urban deer management, a contraceptive should induce long-acting effectiveness with a single treatment, be deliverable remotely, and be relatively inexpensive. Previous studies have shown that the porcine zona pellucida (PZP) vaccine dramatically reduces pregnancy rates in treated female white-tailed deer. It can stabilize and gradually reduce deer populations over limited areas.[vi] PZP cannot enter the body through digestion and has no adverse health effects for either deer or for humans, who might unwittingly consume the venison of treated deer. However, earlier PZP deer studies employed vaccines that require two initial shots and annual boosters to achieve full effectiveness, which increases stress on treated animals, poses technical and logistical challenges, and limits the scope of potential management applications. In Hastings we will be using the standard form of PZP supplemented with timed-release long acting PZP pellets. Therefore annual booster injections will not be necessary; longer intervals between the dosing of individual animals will be possible.

This method has been used by Dr. Rutberg and his team successfully on Fripp Island, South Carolina.[vii]  The Fripp Island study gives us confidence that PZP injection in this combination will be effective for one to three years after an initial injection. New York, like some other states, requires permanent tagging of deer receiving contraceptives, so capture and hand-administration will be used for the initial tagging and injections. This will require anesthetizing the deer via rifle-fired dart. Once tagged, however, deer will not have to be subdued again but can receive later boost injections by dart.

The specific experimental questions that the project in Hastings will test are: (1) Do remotely delivered boosters consisting of PZP/FIA emulsion plus PZP/QA-21 pellets provide longer-lasting contraceptive efficacy than do remotely-delivered boosters consisting of the PZP/FIA emulsion alone? And (2) What will be the effects on fawn production and population growth of PZP contraceptive treatments in an open suburban population of white-tailed deer?

Previous research suggests that female deer in environments like ours in Hastings have limited geographic mobility. Therefore, there may be limited in-migration of females who have not received PZP. It remains to be seen if this approach can produce significant population control in a relatively open environment such as ours.

If this is successful here—using methods that do not require hand administration of annual boosters—a practical, affordable approach to non-lethal deer population control for urban edge communities like Hastings across the country will be one step closer. And this will take the ethical edge off of a serious problem and a thorny predicament.



[i] J. Sterba, Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks turned Backyards into Battlegrounds (New York: Crown, 2012); S. DeStefano, Coyote at the Kitchen Door: Living with Wildlife in Suburbia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

[ii] J. Padawer and C. Altman, White-Tailed Deer in Greenburgh, Westchester County, NY: A Comprehensive Review of Deer Overpopulation Problems and Control. July 2009. Available at

[iii] For more on this topic, see Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, The Hidden Life of Deer: Lessons from the Natural World (Harper Perennial, 2012).

[iv] See New York Sate Department of Environmental Conservation, Management Plan for White-tailed Deer in New York State, 2011-2015. Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources, Bureau of Wildlife, June 2011. Available at

[v] For additional information on non-lethal approaches, see

[vi] J. W. Turner, I. K. M. Liu, et al., “Remotely delivered immunocontraception in captive white-tailed deer,” Journal of Wildlife Management 56(1) 1992: 154-157; R. E. Naugle, A. T. Rutberg, et al., “Field testing of immunocontraception on white- tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) on Fire Island National Seashore, New York, USA,” Reproduction Supplement 60 (2002): 143-153; A. T. Rutberg, R. E. Naugle, et al., “Effects of immunocontraception on a suburban population of white-tailed deer Odocoileus virginianus,” Biological Conservation 116(2) 2004: 243-250; and A. T. Rutberg and R. E. Naugle, “Population-level effects of immunocontraception in white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus),” Wildlife Research 35(6) 2008: 494-501.

[vii] A. T. Rutberg and R. Naugle, Testing the effectiveness of one-shot immunocontraceptives on white-tailed deer at Fripp Island, South Carolina. 2011 Progress Report to SC Department of Natural Resources, 2012. Available at


  • Bruce Jennings

    Bruce Jennings is Developmental Editor for Humans & Nature Press Books and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature where he engages in research, writing, public speaking, and consulting. He is the editor of the Center’s journal, Minding Nature.

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