Late one afternoon, my son Spencer and I drive north on Old N.C. 86 in Orange County, a two-lane blacktop that winds through the gentle Carolina Piedmont. The road is dotted with landmarks — a pasture of grazing Belted Galloway cows; the green push mower balanced above the Ace Mower Repair sign; the clean, sturdy skeleton of an old tobacco barn. We slow to a rubbernecker's crawl near our favorite landmark, "deer central," a grassy corridor carved out of a tangle of loblollies, oak and kudzu. The combination of mowed lawn and wood's edge makes this spot an accidental mess hall for local white-tails.
As daylight fades, dozen or more creatures stretch their heads to the ground and gnaw. An old Native American saying goes something like this: "A leaf falls in the forest. The eagle sees it, the bear smells it, the deer hears it." But these deer behave more like regulars at a watering hole than shy, alert herbivores, not even bothering to look up or life their tails like warning flags as our car drives by. No longer the skittish creatures of yore, these are 21st-century deer, suburban, aloof and adaptable as cockroaches to life in the homo sapien fast-lane.
After making a quick head-count (14!), we pause to admire the velvety sheen of their coats, graying as winter approaches. Then we continue our drive home and our ongoing debate: deer versus human, animal rights versus property rights, Bambi versus the four-legged, disease-spreading landscape binger. Spencer knows where he stands: "Look how innocent they are."
He tells me about the time he and a friend saw a herd of deer dart across a field as gun shots blasted through the afternoon quiet.
"Who could shoot a deer?" my son wondered aloud to his friend.
"Who could not shoot a deer?" replied the friend. "Look at what they do to our roads." During rutting season, this very stretch of Old 86 turns into a mosh pit of colliding cars and deer. Nationally, hundreds of thousands of accidents a year are attributed to deer.
"Look at what we do to their habitat," my son said to his friend, "subdivisions, malls, roads that cut right through their habitat." He recently returned from a trip to the local hardware store with a package that looked like a TV dinner on a giant Popsicle stick. "Grampa's Deer Sucker: So good it should be illegal," the label boasted. Field-tested, irresistible and made by secret recipe, it guaranteed that "Deer keep coming back."
"You've gotta be kidding," said his mother the gardener.
"I'm creating a safe haven," my son explained matter-of-factly. "Deer need a place to get away from it all."
The stresses and strains of deer life are much on his mind. The stresses and strains of gardeners and farmers and drivers are not. Deer may multiply, according to his worldview, but we're the ones who divide and develop and drive.
As we drive home, I remind Spencer that deer love suburbia, whish is by its very nature a vast Grampa's-Deer-Sucker scape. William McShea, a wildlife biologist, describes deer as "an edge species, and the world is one big edge now." Drawn to areas where woods meet clearings, deer consider our privet hedges, vegetable gardens, and rose beds to be a giant all-you-can-eat buffet. Healthy suburban diets and more restrictive hunting laws have made deer such prolific breeders that their population is estimated to be larger today than it was when the first Europeans came to America. How growing numbers of humans co-exist with growing numbers of white-tails has become a hot-button issue in neighborhoods everywhere.
The developer of an affluent community south of Chapel Hill created a maelstrom over a proposal to thin the deer population by allowing bow-hunting in the wooded areas surrounding the village. Pro-thinning and pro-deer factions sprang up overnight, each side branding the other. It became a contest between "Barbarians" and "the Petting Zoo Crowd." One Petting Zoo activist even dressed as the grim reaper and picketed the village's shops. The hunt was called off.
When the mayor of Princeton, N.J., hired sharpshooters last year to kill the town's burgeoning deer population, a group of protesters armed with camcorders set out to track down the gunmen and document their bloody mission on film. After several angry encounters with the "thinners"-for-hire, a half-dozen defenders were arrested and charged with "hindering the lawful taking of wildlife." The New York Times described the affluent deer activists, dubbed the Princeton Six, as "the Chicago Seven meets Town and Country."
The tension between thinners and defenders only intensifies as suburban living absorbs more and more countryside. We landscape, deer gorge. We drive to our deer-gnawed subdivisions, deer run into our cars and our cars run into them. Soon neighbors divide into interventionists and the laissez-faire. One group of the former ilk thinks of these four-legged creatures as marauding giant squirrels – invasive, destructive, messy, carriers of Lyme disease. But try to push that on generations who shed tears over Bambi. Deer thinners consider their greatest challenge to be the demystification of "Bambi," the heart-tugging tale of the orphaned fawn that they believe unofficially shares deer policy everywhere. In the eyes of the thinners, we are a nation duped by a Disney cartoon.
"One person's Bambi, another person's mutant squirrel," I say to my son as we stop at one of three new traffic lights installed last year on the edge of town. Look at how much a single deer consumes, I argue — 5 pounds of grass, plants, and bark a day. Do the math. Spencer concedes that each deer eats more than a ton of vegetation each year, some of it from our gardens and yards. "That's a problem, but it's our problem," he insists, "not theirs."
As we approach our neighborhood, I wonder about solutions to a problem in which one person's innocent is another's modern-day locust. I wonder about a debate framed by a long-lashed cartoon icon on one side and barbarians on the other. I wonder if my son remembers watching me cry over the stubbly remains of devoured tomato vines and bean stalks, which we thought our careful fencing had made deer-safe. I wonder about the fear even the most suburban of does much experience as the drone of chain saws and bulldozers inches closer and closer to her carefully guarded fawning cover.
"Just look at them, Mom," urges Spencer. "Who could kill a deer?" A chronic side-switcher in this passionate debate, I admire the sureness of my son's views. I admire how his reverence of nature trumps the practical, how his appreciation of animal life earns it a hallowed place in the developed and divided ecosystem of suburbia. Save for the blue-white illumination of distant halogen lights at the mall, the evening sky is dark as we pull into our drive.
For a moment, I picture the sated crowd at "deer central" quietly disappearing tino the evergreen thicket for the night. Here on the edge, where woodland meets clearing, where pasture meets suburb, where suburb meets town, how can you not root for Bambi? How can you not pray for barbarians at the garden gate?