Vassar College’s winter deer cull, a population management project on the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve (VFEP), during which deer are systematically hunted for the purpose of protecting ecological safety, has been met with heavy criticism by both Vassar students and neighboring citizens. Despite a month-long campaign and legal action, the proposed program was carried out for the third time, much to the chagrin of many Poughkeepsie residents, who argued that the killings showed a lack of respect for local wildlife and municipal laws on the part of the College.
The culls, conducted by management professionals from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), have aimed to monitor and periodically reduce the nearby deer population, which many argue is the healthiest solution to the issues the VFEP’s animal and plant populations face in times of a deer surplus. In an official press release posted on Dec. 18, the College asserted, “Five years ago Vassar began a long-term deer management program at the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve to protect the health of that ecosystem. The overabundance of deer there is causing significant ecological damage. The management program includes monitoring the size of the deer population and periodically culling its numbers.”
Many, however, have questioned the legitimacy of the College’s claims to the cull’s environmental benefits for the VFEP. In an emailed statement, co-leader of the Vassar Animal Rights Coalition (VARC) Rockwell Schwartz ’15 said, “Other towns in New York have chosen non-violent alternatives, such as experimental use of immunocontraception. There is no reason a progressive institution like Vassar should not abandon old, ineffective, and violent shootings and take part in the future of ‘population management.’”
The College announced its decision to conduct another cull on Dec. 18, notifying students and neighboring residents and businesses of its intention to begin the culling in early January. The announcement was met with significant outrage from surrounding communities, and local protests were held on Jan. 3 and 25, where signs denouncing a perceived lack of respect for Poughkeepsie residents by the College and condemning the use of “bait and shoot” hunting techniques were held by incensed citizens.
Many took to alternative mediums to express their grievances, particularly the Internet. An electronic petition to Poughkeepsie Mayor John Tkazyik, Poughkeepsie Town Supervisor Todd Tancredi and Vassar College President Catherine Hill said, “The deer peaceably travel in small families throughout our area, and do not belong to Vassar College. The deer population was stable before the college arrogantly began a campaign of repeatedly baiting them with food, whereupon sharpshooters would pick them off—a practice that even hunters find unsportsmanlike and cruel.” (Change.org, “Stop the Deer Killing at Vassar College Farm,” 01.03.15)
Vassar College Director of Media Relations and Public Affairs Jeff Kosmacher, however, said, “We see [the need for culling] in the decimation of saplings and other vegetation, specifically the saplings, because of which, if we don’t do something about this we will have a generation of trees that have no next generation of trees to succeed them.”
He went on, “We work with the USDA Wildlife Services. These are professionals who do nothing but work on animal population control projects. They have a spotless, 10-year record. There’s never even been a hint of any public safety concerns, so we’re reassured that, given the need to do something, we’re working with the best possible people to get the job done.” (The Poughkeepsie Journal, “VIDEO: Protesters call on Vassar to halt deer cull,” 01.03.15)
Those opposing the College’s decision to continue culling deer populations on its 527-acre farm and ecological preserve, having failed to make noticeable progress through local and student activism, attempted to pursue legal injunctions against the cull. Those who brought forward the charges against the College did so under the accusation of violation of a Town of Poughkeepsie noise ordinance, as well as a City of Poughkeepsie ordinance prohibiting gunfire.
Poughkeepsie police also came under fire for allegedly ignoring noise complaints made by people close enough to hear the gunfire coming from the VFEP on the nights of the culling. Town of Poughkeepsie resident Mary Schwartz, who is of no relation to the Vassar student mentioned above, commented, “The city’s and town’s efforts to allow Vassar College to violate local law is all the more offensive, considering that the specific ordinances at issue are specifically intended to protect the safety and health of the public.” (The Poughkeepsie Journal, “Judge clears way for Vassar deer cull,” 01.25.15)
Poughkeepsie authorities responded to such contentions by declaring that the cull would not be challenged because the USDA, a department of the federal government, oversaw the planning and execution of the shootings, their authority superseded those of municipal ordinances.
Despite being unsuccessful in preventing this winter’s cull, local groups such as Save Our Deer and VARC, will continue their efforts to organize events and educational opportunities surrounding potential culls in the future, and are hopeful that members of the Vassar community will join them in opposing the killings. Rockwell Schwartz remarked, “The school has spent well over $150,000 on these unnecessary killings. The local governments are willing to ignore their own laws to let our school violate them, which speaks to a widely recognized issue with Vassar’s place in Poughkeepsie. The list goes on and on. If anyone does not think this is an issue worth caring about, learn more.”