Deer sterilization: Compassion, sport, need, science collide

CINCINNATI (AP) – The lights were dim inside a small garage beside a modest house on a Clifton street on a recent December weeknight.

A neighbor had donated the space, which usually houses her mother’s artwork.

This evening it served as a surgical unit.

People spoke in hushed voices, cautious not to disturb the wild animal on the operating table.

A young whitetail deer, born this past spring, lay propped up on its back in a V-shaped wooden cradle, snoring.

Under anesthesia, her tongue hung out, her eyes covered with a piece of cloth.

Medical equipment beeped her vitals.

She and 40 other does that live in the Cincinnati parks of Mount Storm and Rawson Woods had their ovaries removed over a six-night period in early December.

It was the first surgical sterilization of whitetail deer in Ohio history, but only one of several research studies like it currently being conducted in the United States.

Some consider the method extreme. Others find it immoral.

But a growing number of wildlife and environmental officials are beginning to consider it just another tool in the toolbox for deer management.

Getting it to happen in Clifton was no small feat. There was a lengthy debate. There were protests. The group that eventually won the argument dedicated the better part of a year of their lives to it and raised more than $40,000 to pay for it, becoming more aware of a swirling chorus of viewpoints and values along the way.

Surgical sterilization raises issues of science, compassion, social order, practicality, tradition, sport and need. It often comes down to heartfelt views on animal rights, sustainability, affordability and public safety.

This story began when two women discovered Cincinnati Parks, in an effort to control the deer population, was considering a bow hunting program in their neighborhood. It made them ask: “If you can be kind and compassionate and solve the problem, why would you not be?”

What they learned in pursuit of that answer is far more complicated than one might think.

Not all that many years ago, most people thought surgical sterilization a crazy idea, says Anthony DeNicola while at a meet-and-greet the second night of the Clifton Deer Fertility Control Pilot Program.

Wildlife managers and scientists were all looking for the easiest, most humane and cost-effective way, DeNicola explained. The early focus had been on hormones – deer birth control. Problem is, said DeNicola, that method still only works for 2 to 3 years.

And because venison exists in many human diets, it is problematic.

In Ohio, for the most part, hunting programs have worked to manage deer herds in rural areas, according to Brett Beatty, wildlife management supervisor at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

A lot of those county deer populations “have decreased, or leveled off,” Beatty said. “The hard one to put a thumb on is the urban counties.”

In urban and some suburban settings, managed kills relied on sharp shooters or bow hunters to help stabilize herds, Beatty said. Cincinnati began actively managing deer in some city parks in 2007. The first two years it used Cincinnati Police sharpshooters.

For the last six years, bow hunting has been allowed on some park properties. Since 2007, the program has taken 1,066 deer. It has reduced the herd a bit. If hunters don’t keep the animals, the meat is donated.

If the parks stopped its management programs, numbers are predicted to climb back to 2007 levels within three years.

“So we’ve come back to the idea of surgery,” DeNicola said. “It’s the only thing, so far, that’s permanent.”

Cell phone in hand, DeNicola, founder of the nonproft White Buffalo Inc., waits for a call.

With the blessing of Cincinnati Parks and Ohio Department of Natural Resources officials, he made the trip with his wife and a truck full of equipment. Joining him were veterinarians and a colleague from White Buffalo.

DeNicola is a leader in surgical sterilization programs in the United States, working with Cornell University and other institutions to test the theory in various locations as a viable solution to deer management.

Using Google Earth and working with volunteers in the neighborhood, he learned as much as he could about the Clifton neighborhood herd. Flyovers showed between 30-50 deer, but that was considered to be a low count.

The premise is sterilization only works because female deer tend to remain near a particular area. Especially if there are no natural disturbances, like this part of Clifton, one square mile.

“The deer just in the park here, they maybe wander from the edge of the park, maybe a quarter-mile,” DeNicola said. “They’ll spend their whole life in that spot. That’s how they survive, because they know the area intimately, they know the predators, humans, roads, dogs.”

For weeks leading up to the program neighbors had donated their properties as baiting stations, where corn was placed so the animals would know to find it.

Over six nights, White Buffalo darted does with tranquilizers, hauled them to the surgical unit for removal of their ovaries. Hours later, the does would be released on quiet residential lawns.

Of the 41 does sterilized, all but two awoke from the anesthesia. One showed signs of having a previous disease. Neither appeared to have died from the surgery. Necropsies were ordered on their bodies.

Each doe is expected to have one fawn per year, so this should begin to reduce the number of deer in the herd, DeNicola said.

ODNR has approved the research project for three years, so DeNicola will be back each fall.

If it works, fewer and fewer will need to be sterilized each year until it is determined the right amount of deer exist. That number hasn’t yet been determined. The Clifton Deer nonprofit group is working on making it at least a five-year project.

If it works.

After the long week was over, Bob Rack, his wife Chris Lottman and neighbor Laurie Briggs sit in Rack and Lottman’s sun room in Clifton, sipping coffee.

The three of them spearheaded this effort, for the deer that graze outside their windows.

They did the research for the project’s 70-plus page proposal, lobbying neighborhood, city and state leaders for approval. They raised more than $40,000 for the program’s first-year costs and incorporated a nonprofit to oversee it all.

“It was just such an emotional roller coaster,” Briggs said, her bare feet resting on the coffee table. “And so much more physically exhausting than we imagined.”

There were protests in Clifton. Those who preferred immuno-contraceptive sterilization and some bitterly opposed to DeNicola, because he is also a sharpshooter. Ultimately, the community council gave it a vote of confidence.

But a lot of questions remain about appropriate measures of deer control, says Gary L. Comer Jr., an ODNR District 1 assistant wildlife manager, who helps communities find solutions in the Columbus area.

For one, is it affordable? The cost the first year of sterilization is roughly $1,000 per deer. Though programs like one in Maryland have been able to reduce the cost by more than half over a four-year study by organizing and training volunteers.

Clifton’s program cost $975.61 per deer. DeNicola thinks there are around 100 living in the area and that the program sterilized 90 percent of the adult does.

Also to be considered, Comer said, is that sterilized deer live longer and there are still questions about how their social and reproductive behaviors might change with fertility control.

What’s clear is that neighborhoods, like Clifton, are apparently reaching their thresholds for the amount of damage and danger (mainly collisions with vehicles) caused by whitetail deer, Comer said.

He and other wildlife officials in the state eagerly await the results out of Cincinnati, Comer said.

Some communities reaching that threshold of acceptance are not keen on the idea of a “perpetual kill cycle” in their backyards, said Stephanie Boyles Griffin, senior director of Innovative Wildlife Management & Services at the Humane Society of the United States based in Washington, D.C.

“It requires communities to continue to kill animals year after year in order for (culling programs) to work,” Boyles Griffin said. “It will reduce the deer population, but it may not reduce the impact of deer on communities.”

The Clifton project was supported by the Humane Society with a $20,000 grant.

Doing nothing is considered by some to be the most compassionate way, but the Humane Society doesn’t agree, Boyles Griffin said. Ecological and financial damage is too great to be ignored, she said.

With the first year under their belts, Rack, Lottman, Briggs and their neighbors have started fundraising for year two.

They think back about how the community banded together.

“It was extraordinary,” Lottman said. “We had such a diverse group.”

There were University of Cincinnati biology, environment and social work student-volunteers. One student, earning her doctorate in reproductive biology, made sure the ovaries were delivered to the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens for another study that might help endangered deer species around the world one day.

“We will take the eggs and hopefully mature them in vitro, instead of in vivo, to find the best reproductive technique” in petri dishes, said Corrina DeLorenzo.

Hunters with the city’s bow program helped haul animals from the woods. Visitors from Cincinnati Police, ODNR, the Humane Society stopped by. Neighbors volunteered their properties for baiting and recovery sites, not to mention the garage-turned-surgical-unit.

It’s been emotional.

Briggs said it really hit her when the coffee machine for the vets broke. She brought over hers to the surgical unit.

The medical staff whispered and a veterinarian technician rested her hand on the doe.

“I’m standing there holding the coffee maker and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh,'” Briggs said. “It was such a visceral, emotional reaction, and as I was walking back, I mean my eyes were tearing.

“It wasn’t just exhaustion but to see these people coming together, just that hand on this beautiful creature’s chest,” Briggs continued. “The enormity of the task and the responsibility and what humans owe to nature, you know, the nature we take for granted so often and destroy so often.”

Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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