Mystery ‘Deer Science’ Theater: Cull backers skew debate

By now, virtually everyone on campus knows that the College plans to carry out in January a repeat “bait and slaughter” of the great majority of surviving deer on the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve (VFEP). This is despite the fact that the current deer population compared with that in January, 2010, just before the initial kill was performed, is down by approximately 50% according to fecal pellet count and infrared flyover estimates. Of the 32 to 41 deer now estimated to be on the 527.5 acre VFEP, the intent is to leave fewer than 10 alive.

The November 5 and 10 information sessions held by the Vassar Farm Oversight Committee, open to members of the College and Poughkeepsie communities, were Vassar’s efforts to avoid the public relations fiasco that transpired at the time of the January 2010 slaughter. Back then, The Poughkeepsie Journal criticized the College for failing to give adequate advance notice to area residents living in the immediate vicinity of the VFEP. Tens of angry letters to the editor were published. And the College, in a front page Journal story on Jan. 7, 2010, falsely claimed that the shooting by White Buffalo, Inc. would not start until the following week, when in reality it commenced that same night.

The following are some of the things that I learned from attending the Nov. 10 information session. Making presentations and answering questions were four Oversight Committee members: Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources and Associate Professor of Chemistry Marianne Begemann, Biology Professors Meg Ronsheim and Lynn Christenson, and Preserve Manager Keri VanCamp. If I’ve gotten anything wrong, I hope they will correct me.

I had assumed, probably along with most readers of this column, that the private hunting option for holding down deer numbers after the initial White Buffalo, Inc. slaughter ended had been scrapped. This option was first suggested in the Oversight Committee’s June 12, 2009 “kill the deer” Memorandum. Boy, was I mistaken. Among those in attendance at the session were four hunters, three of them dressed in full camouflage regalia, and all hoping for permission to share in the fun. They seemed delighted to have learned that Vassar’s renowned liberal values weren’t so liberal after all, at least not when it came to animal rights. Joining them was Bill Conners, the Fishing and Hunting columnist for the Journal, who stressed that everyone in the room liked animals, regardless of their position on the deer cull issue. (Unfortunately, he failed to distinguish between those who liked their animals alive and those who liked them dead.) The Bow-and-Arrow spokesman from the hunter ranks (no, not Paul Ryan) revealed that he had been in communication with the Oversight Committee during the past 2+ years, making the case that his species of hunter could regularly take care of Vassar’s deer problem for free, and that arrows have only a limited range and are highly accurate (honest). Professor Begemann confirmed that this contact had, in fact, occurred, and added that while New York State law presently prohibits bow hunting during the January period favored by the College for killing deer, she intended to keep the conversation going. I assume that the archery “conversation” she has in mind will not be about the virtues of recursive versus compound bows in future Olympics competition.

In response to an attendee who maintained that killing is an act of mercy for deer who otherwise would starve during the winter, Professor Christenson pointed out that deer in the VFEP area have been in good physical condition during previous winters. Ms. VanCamp added that the deer enjoy a “good life” before being shot in the head. Professor Ronsheim did not add her previously expressed view that the deer, even fawns, enjoy a good death as well: “…killing the deer in this way is actually one of the most humane options…the sharpshooter only killed deer if he could kill an entire social group, leaving no fawns without their mothers and no one deer without the rest of its social group” (Miscellany News, Jan. 28, 2010).

I had anticipated that most pro-cull support from the Poughkeepsie community would come from those afraid of Lyme disease. Indeed, a man who said he had contracted the illness brought up the issue. In response, I mentioned the work of Richard Ostfeld, Senior Scientist and Animal Ecologist at the nearby Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, who is arguably the leading scholar today studying the etiology of the illness (Lyme Disease: The Ecology of a Complex System (Oxford University Press, 2010)). In attacking the Lyme disease rationale used by the village of Cayuga Heights, N.Y. to justify its own planned, but now jettisoned, deer kill, Mr. Ostfeld has written that on the basis of his own two decades worth of research and that of others, there is little to no relationship between numbers of deer and the prevalence of the ailment. (Check out his affidavit at; while you’re there, you can read similar testimony by Tamara Awerbuch of the Harvard School of Public Health, based upon her own independent work.) Oversight Committee members simply would not acknowledge Mr. Ostfeld’s conclusions, not surprising in light of what they say in the FAQ that is contained on the VFEP website: “High densities of deer are correlated to higher incidence of tick borne diseases.” Perhaps the Lyme disease experts on the Oversight Committee have themselves done research on the topic, which they might want to share with the rest of us. In the meantime, I am reminded of the expert pollsters working for Mitt Romney who ever-so-effectively were able to refute Barack Obama’s expert pollsters over who was going to win the election.

If you’re interested in learning how the decision to slaughter the deer was made, the answer lies with a special six-person sub-committee of the much larger Oversight Committee, which reported its recommendation to the Senior Officers of the College earlier this year. There was no opportunity for any kind of outside input. The parent Oversight Committee is one of the many so-called “ad hoc” committees that have proliferated on campus; however no elections have ever been held to fill positions. An email to faculty soliciting interest in serving was sent out in late August 2008, not mentioning the deer issue as one that the committee had been, or would be, considering. More than four years have now passed without a further request for volunteers, who might have been able to open up the Committee to a fresh array of viewpoints, especially in the wake of the 2010 deer kill. Any surviving members of the old Soviet Politburo must be green (red?) with envy.

Finally, I learned a vital lesson at the session about how to be a deer “scientist.” In response to ethical objections about the inhumane nature of deer culling, the fact that many neighbors of the VFEP have grown very fond of the Vassar deer that sometimes wander into their yards, etc., you say with your most sanctimonious game face: “It’s a complex issue.” And then you tell White Buffalo, Inc. to start blasting away at its baiting site.

—Richard Born is Professor of Political Science at Vassar College.

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