Ravenous deer are spared by peace talks

Posted: Tuesday, July 22, 2008

You spend time, energy and money on landscaping and flowers, on making your home a respite, a retreat. Then the deer come along and eat it all up. This happens again and again, and finally you go to the state and get yourself a wildlife damage-control permit, which means you can call up the man with the bow and arrow and have him come sit in a tree and take out the offending pests.

This is, according to your worldview, either a simple matter of maintaining a reasonable balance between man and nature or a grievous abuse of man's power over the rest of the animal kingdom.

It's the sort of thing you can disagree about. But John and Carmela Peterson never imagined that their effort to save the landscaping outside their suburban Great Falls, Va., home would result in all this: a letter from legendary TV game show host Bob Barker, pleading with the state of Virginia to liberate the deer "to tread their little path to the few remaining woods," and a statement by Ingrid Newkirk, founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, stating that there is hardly "anything more selfish, callous and cowardly than shooting a mother deer."

John Peterson was, in the view of some of his neighbors, preparing to kill animals who had as much right to tramp around Great Falls as the people who live on the area's two-acre lots. "None of us are farmers," says Martina Caputy, whose yard is adjacent to Peterson's. "We're not dependent on crops or anything like that. This was a senseless slaughter of the deer."

She rang up Barker, long known for lending his celebrity to animal-rights causes. From his California home, Barker dashed off a letter to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, waxing poetic about how the Great Falls deer "walk along an ancestral path that leads them to and from their sleeping place" and warning that if the state doesn't come on down and stop the hunt, "the children will be catatonic, the neighbors will be up in arms, the fawns will be orphans and the does will be dead" - all "for the sake of a few flowers."

PETA's press operation leapt into action as well, alerting The Washington Post to the story and offering "an exclusive."

The state would not be swayed. In fact, says conservation officer Joe Landers, thinning the herd would be a public service. Landers inspected the Peterson property Wednesday and found "a lot of deer damage. His landscaping and garden were chewed down to nothing."

In fact, John Peterson says, "hunting was never our first choice." They tried deterrents, even considered a fence, but that would have required a variance from the county, which recommended that he try hunting. Peterson had hired the hunter several times before, resulting in two kills, both of which were donated to feed the homeless. (As it turns out, the Petersons are longtime PETA supporters; Carmela Peterson once donated her car to the group.)

Although most kill permits are granted to nurseries, vineyards and farms where deer damage threatens people's livelihood, Landers says this permit was more than justified. (He adds that it's not clear whether hunting really shrinks the population: "It does not take long at all for the herd to bounce right back.")

"The herd in Northern Virginia has gotten to the point where the population is almost unsustainable," the officer says."

"You've got to be kidding," Carmela Peterson responded when I told her that PETA and Barker were busy issuing news releases about her back yard. Assured that animal-rights people are not remotely the jesting sort, she got very quiet. But the Petersons met with neighbors, heard their concerns and decided that, as John says: "This is a real problem - at times, we've had 11 or more deer in our yard - but harmony with your neighbors is very important. We're not going to do the hunt."

Actually, wildlife managers in many states endorse thinning the herd, and Peterson would have been entirely justified in charging ahead. But putting good relations with the neighbors first is a rare enough gesture these days that it ought to be celebrated, even if it does mean kissing the landscaping goodbye.

• Marc Fisher is a Washington Post columnist.

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