Culling wildlife has a bad name right now. The unpopular British badger cull, taking place over six weeks and targeted to kill 70% of badgers, divided Britain. While the culling of badgers, done to try to prevent the spread of tuberculosis to cattle, was condemned by conservationists, the Board of Directors at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington Ontario made a unanimous decision to dispatch a number of native white tail deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in December 2013. While some groups are cheering this cull of deer populations on the RBG grounds, to philosophers of animal rights, the culling is an Orwellian atrocity – “speciesism” in action. And this is conservation in favour of – lilacs. The deer are eating some of the prized lilac collections on the sprawling, 2,700-acre RBG, which draws about 200,000 paid admissions a year. Its yearly revenue is just under $12 million.
The decision to kill the deer was made unanimously by the board of directors, without apparent consideration given to humane means to deter deer from the plants. Ironically, their Facebook photo album hosts several pictures of deer and fawns on the RBG property. Even more ironically, the RBG acquired some reindeer to give the appearance of Santa’s reindeer for their “Breakfast with Santa” event during December’s “Winterfest,” while across the way and out of site they were having deer shot with crossbows. Ample photographic evidence also exists to show that signage posted on the property prohibits hunting – or “harvest,” a euphemism that predominates in all their communications. All this adds up to some pretty dodgy ethical dilemmas for the RBG.
People living adjacent to the property can walk out their front door and see a good size deer grazing on the front lawn or moving across the driveway. Welcomed and enjoyed by many in the community, the deer are now widely perceived as threatening and unwelcome. Their behaviour is foreign, their ways uncivilized. They eat too many of the wrong plants. The Walt Disney frame has faded and given way to favouritism of decorative plants over living animals. As they became more comfortable grazing on the delectable herbaceous flowering plants at the RBG, the RBG became a lot less comfortable with them. It’s no wonder that gardeners in charge don’t know what to do. They seem to think that killing deer is the same thing as weeding a garden.
In a press release earlier this week the RBG stated that it is “one of Canada’s most important botanical gardens, distinguished by a first class horticultural collection.” This distinction has become threatened by what the RBG says is an out of balance population of deer in the park.
That being said, this cull is a deadly farce decided by people with no knowledge of deer or wildlife and no interest in such. There is some fencing protecting the lilacs but it appears that they also do not want to spend money to expand and properly maintain a fence and so think arbitrarily killing local deer will solve the problem.
The deer population in the area IS thriving, as the “natural” mechanisms of population control in predator-prey relationships are admittedly not available in this area. The reintroduction of large predators, such as wolves or mountain lions, is not a viable option here, for reasons having to do with the human population nearby. Coyotes exist, but while they are adept at picking off small pet dogs and cats, they are useless when it comes to deer.
But deer population management by human intervention is precisely what puts the us on the ethical hook. Some people oppose the deer hunt on Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) land near Hamilton Ontario because they don’t like hunting period. Some people oppose the deer hunt on RBG land because they think it is dangerous to hunt so close to a populated area. Others don’t mind the deer hunt to cull deer but think the hunt should be open to non-natives and not just the Haudenosaunee. It seems possible that other non-native hunters will soon express an interest in hunting on RBG lands.
Those of us who focus on the individual life and interests of deer, and who have objections to killing them for frivolous reasons, now come to the fore and raise genuinely difficult questions about the ethical justification of the hunt. There is, or ought to be, an ethical prohibition against causing undue pain and suffering for any animal without sufficiently strong reasons to do so. There are humane and non-lethal methods of deer population control; those should surely be attempted. Despite what the RBG believes about an overpopulation of deer, the photos in this blog show that the deer are in good condition and are not starving, which would be definitive proof of overpopulation. It is alleged that there are 260-300 deer within 800 hectares or 3 deer per hectare.
Some of us question the moral right of human beings to decide what other species are permitted to inhabit a given area. First deer, then what is the next animal to be targeted – groundhogs, gophers, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, voles, or rabbits? Rabbits also eat flowers and plants that we value, such as pansies, petunias, day lilies and……lilacs.
The RBG people believe that they can “alter the behaviour” of the deer that remain so that they return to natural foods and leave collections material alone.” To the deer, lilacs ARE natural food! They cannot associate the hunting of their members with eating lilacs or ‘tresspassing” on 2,700 acres of RBG property. They can’t distinguish between “safe” and “unsafe” plants, and they typically do not migrate from one area to another. In fact, many of the deer were known to residents and considered semi-tame.
Animals such as deer can only rely on mechanisms developed over time through evolution, which assists prey animals in their constant struggle against predators. As a result of the improved vigilance effect, prey animals are able to detect predators over time via evolution of morphological strategies, but they cannot spontaneously “learn” to stay away from the RBG plants. Unless you eradicate every living thing from a wide area when you disturb it, species will colonize that disturbed area as fast as possible. They will take advantage of opportunities the other colonizing species provide in relationships parasitic and commensal and endosymbiotic, fill every emerging niche in the developing biotic landscape of the disturbed area. All complex systems – an ecosystem is a complex system – have a tendency to seek stable states. What is a “stable state?” It’s a set of conditions that lasts for a relatively long time – it is a population that is not in a state of disequillibrium such as that caused by hunting.
Six Nations Complexities
The cull really had nothing to do with a traditional hunt by the Haudenosaunee. It was not initiated by the Haudenosaunee but by the RBG, and only out of concern for lilacs, not for providing sustenance to others. However, criticism of the hunt and bow hunting specifically has led to some cries of racism and even favouritism. Favouritism because only natives were invited to participate in a hunt that some felt should have been open to others, and racism because hunting critics have inevitably drawn in Six Nations people as part of the criticism of the hunt.
I have to admit, one of my first thoughts was that the RBG asked the Haudenosaunee to hunt exclusively, not only because of treaty issues, but because it would make the board of directors “bullet proof” to criticism. In fact, all ideas and traditions must be open to criticism regardless of origin and without charges of racism in order that we not shield intrinsically harmful ideas from criticism. Just as it is not wrong to criticique Chinese consumption of elephant tusk or rhino horn (albeit these are endangered animals), neither should criticism of the eating of bear paw or shark fin soup subject us to cries of “racism.” It is not wrong to criticize hunting by any person or group. And, unlike a person’s racial or cultural characteristics or gender, beliefs can be argued for, tested, criticized, and changed.
For me, the issue is not whether the Haudenosaunee hunters say the 1701 Albany (Nanfan) Treaty gives them the right to hunt on that land forever. In 1701, 20 chiefs from the Five (later Six) Nations Haudenosaunee Confederacy surrendered their beaver hunting grounds, including land in what is now the U.S.A. and land in what is now southwestern Ontario (including RBG land), to the British Crown. Many of the back and forth arguments about the hunt have degenerated into discussion of whether the Treaty is even valid. Some Six Nations people have even said that the Six Nations Haudenosaunee never surrendered land in southern Ontario. Such a defense is rather irrelevant when it comes down to excusing cruel practices to animals – and bow hunting is cruel. On rare occasions, the claim of the right to bow hunt has come across, to me, as a sort of ethnic narcissism – whereby some individuals in the discussion appear to hold the opinion that they possess exclusive identities that are superior to other cultures and should therefore be immune to criticism.
Indigenous right or not, no one will succeed in convincing me that bow hunting done to protect lilacs is an appropriate expression of values. I don’t believe that any hunters have come forth and shown definitively that their survival depended on this hunt, which of course was designed (badly) to defend a flowering plant.
Bow Hunting – Next to Trapping, the Most Inhumane Way to Kill a Wild Animal
An invention of the Stone Age, still alive in the 21st century, bow hunting is clearly a very cruel way to torture and kill animals without regard for their pain and suffering. Bow hunting is, next to trapping, the least humane way of killing animals. Before you support a “wildlife” or “conservation” group, ask about its position on bow hunting. Most conservation organizations endorse hunting at some level, or at least do not oppose it.
I’m no fan of hunting, although I can sometimes accept arguments in favour of it if it truly is for subsistence purposes and if it is accurate – preferably accomplished by a marksman with a gun. But there is really no sure way to kill an animal instantly with a bow. Unlike bullets, arrows loop while in transit. Whereas a gun hunter takes dead aim at an animal, an archer must estimate the distance from the target and adjust the shot to compensate for the trajectory of the arrow. Animals commonly jump on hearing the release of the arrow—they reflexively move some distance before the arrow reaches them from wherever they were at the time of the shot. According to experts, animals can completely evade an arrow at a distance of 15 to less than 20 yards, which means they can also partially evade the arrow and become wounded.
The inaccuracy inherent in bow hunting is demonstrated by professional archers. Olympic class-archers hit the “bulls eye,” – the centre of the target – even under ideal conditions when the target is not moving and unobstructed – only part of the time. Therefore, I maintain that bow hunters are quite aware that their hunting will virtually always cause slow death as they wait the recommended time – up to 12 hours, for the animal to die. Blood trails on the site provide definitive proof that bow hunted animals do not drop where they stand. Deliberately causing pain and suffering to innocent animals is incomprehensible, yet, bow hunters frequently find enjoyment in these cruel acts. I reject the “culture” argument put forth repeatedly during conversations about the hunt.
A report summarizing 24 studies of bow hunting demonstrated that there is little chance that deer die instantly when struck, but more typically bow hunters have an average 54% wounding and crippling rate. For every deer killed and dragged out of the woods, another one is wounded and runs off only to die hours, days or even weeks later, all the while in pain, defenseless against further attacks by natural predators. Therefore, if only 7 deer were killed (recovered) as the RBG has stated, we can perhaps conclude that as many as half dozen additional deer were injured and unrecovered, to die later somewhere on the grounds, perhaps now attracting coyotes. I do hope that the people living in the Short Hills community near the RBG are keeping their cats and dogs indoors during a period of increased scavenging…….
A 1988 report to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks indicated that of 2,370 bow hunters who shot an elk with an arrow, only 49% actually retrieved the animals hit –1,161 elk, whose last hours or days of their lives were probably spent in agony before succumbing to a painful and prolonged death, likely from peritonitis or infection within a week or two later.
Another population study found that of 22 deer shot by archers (using traditional archery only – no cross bows) 11 were recovered by the hunters, resulting in a 50% wounding rate (deer shot but not recovered)
“The rule of thumb for bow hunters has long been that we should wait 30 to 45 minutes on heart and lung hits, an hour or more on a suspected liver hit, eight to 12 hours on paunch hits, and that we should follow up immediately on hindquarter and other muscle hits, “to keep the wound open and bleeding. ” ~ Glenn Helgeland – Fins and Feathers Winter 1987
There is clearly some psychological disconnect in those who display so much aggression and violence against animals, and who feel the need to kill innocent and defenseless animals (and very inaccurately I might add) – over an issue with lilacs of all things.
Population Dynamics of Deer (or why hunting won’t accomplish the desired outcome)
The board of directors at the Royal Botanical Gardens claim that the deer population in that area is too high and that is why they are eating the lilacs. People who run Short Hills Provincial Park have said that the deer population was in the range of 300 deer but should be in the range of about 50. According to whom? The deer that have been photographed appear very healthy and seem to be flourishing. Overpopulation is a biological implausibility, since too many deer will lead to starvation and population die off. I don’t believe anyone from the RBG or any other group has provided any sort of photographic evidence to counter the photographs of healthy deer that the protesters have provided.
Basic biology dictates that animal populations do not just grow exponentially out of control. Population ecology and Darwinian theory tell us that animals will always produce more offspring than will naturally survive. Surplus offspring are produced due to limiting factors such as the availability of food and space will impact survivability as will the existence of disease and predators. Exponential growth of a wildlife population is virtually impossible because an unlimited supply of food and the complete absence of biological enemies occurs very rarely in nature. Once a herd has reached its “carrying capacity,” there may be some animals that cannot be sustained, and the result is zero population growth.
Deer, like many animals, have the ability to adjust their reproductive activities to be in harmony with their environment. The compensatory rebound effect is the principle result of culls that don’t work and never will. For this reason, hunts are a great tool for the bow hunters because they ensure that, in subsequent years, there will be even more deer to hunt. The result is rather like the hydra effect, which sometimes occurs when cutting off the head of a mythological creature or banning an internet troll – dozens more heads, trolls and sockpuppets subsequently appear.
The increased likelihood of multiple births after a hunt has also been confirmed, partially because hunting simply decreases the competition for food among the animals that survive a hunt. A study conducted by the Department of Wildlife and Range Sciences, School of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida sampled deer from five separate sites: three hunted and two non-hunted. The study found that the incidence of twins being born to a pregnant doe was higher on hunted land than on non-hunted land. The study found “[m]ean number of fetuses per pregnant doe was greater on hunted…than on nonhunted sites…Incidence of twinning was 38% on hunted sites and 14% on nonhunted sites. No twinning was observed among pregnant fawns or yearlings from non-hunted areas, whereas…18% of the pregnant yearlings and…33% of the pregnant fawns from hunted areas carried twins.” (“Reproductive Dynamics Among Disjunct White-tailed Deer Herds in Florida” Journal of Wildlife Management (1985)).All of this helps explain why, even after decades of hunting, deer numbers usually remain flat or actually increase. Deer are highly prolific, and when their numbers are reduced after hunts, the remaining female deer will often have given birth to multiple fawns who will now have higher survival rates and earlier onset of sexual maturity. The end result is a quick “bounce-back” in numbers. The well-fed doe may also reproduce at a younger age (and thus produce more fawns during her lifetime), and the incidence of birthing twins or triplets increases. And so the lilacs will not be saved and the blackened image of the RBG and its inhumane bow hunt will continue.
But as hunters continue to reduce populations, making more food and cover available to the surviving animals, nature cannot run its course and the potential for overpopulation arises. In a recent study, “Harvesting Can Increase Severity of Wildlife Disease Epidemics”, the authors use mathematical population modeling to show that hunting causes increases not only in disease prevalence but also in total host population size due in part to increased birth rates. They conclude that “...the demographic plasticity of [certain] animal populations confers them with a remarkable capacity to recover from control, and such a response to culling can actually increase the supply of susceptibles to …disease.” (Marc Choisy and Pejman Rohani, Institute of Ecology, and Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Disease, University of Georgia, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society, (2006)).
The reproductive benefits to white-tailed deer of greater nutrition have been well documented. In an early study, half the yearlings (young deer) studied were deprived of an adequate food supply while the other half was well fed. The poorly fed yearlings did not breed at all undoubtedly, because inadequate nutrition prevented their sexual maturity. However all the well fed yearlings bred. The study found that the well fed yearlings were “over 2.5 times as productive as poorly fed yearlings.” In addition, the 25 prime-age, well fed does studied produced 45 fawns while the 22 prime-age under fed does, produced only 30 fawns making the well fed does about 32% more productive than the under nourished ones. (“Reproductive Patterns of White-tailed Deer Related to Nutritional Plane” by Louis Verme, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal of Wildlife Management (1969)).
The abstract for another study which is focused on crop pests but is also applicable to deer begins “There are potentially many situations in which creatures will be subject to infrequent but regular culling. In terms of controlling crop pests, some farmers may only be able to afford to apply pesticides occasionally. Alternatively, pesticides may be applied only occasionally to limit their unwelcome side effects, which include pesticide resistance, chemical poisoning of agricultural workers, and environmental degradation. In terms of conservation, some species (such as the red deer in the UK) may be culled occasionally to maintain balances within their ecosystem. However, in this paper we discover, as the culmination of an exploration of adult-stage culling of a creature with juvenile and adult life stages, that, in certain circumstances, regular but infrequent culling will, perversely, increase the average population of the creature.” Note that as with the inevitabe population decrease, the downside (and there always is one) in this study was increased pesticide resistance and the unintended consequences of chemical poisoning for workers.
Deer have significant impacts on woody and herbaceous plants. So, the mere existence of a garden setting is irresistible to them, and regardless of the number of deer present, they will always be attracted to areas where herbaceous plants are in abundance. Even if most of the population of deer were killed, the remaining deer will still be attracted to the same plants due to their preferential browsing habits, so the logic of the RBG again fails.
Now that we can see that hunts cannot work because they allow for the same and greater numbers of deer in the subsequent year, what will? Unfortunately for the RBG, all the humane methods of controlling deer are either costly or labour intensive or both. The key to successfully living with wildlife is for the RBG and residents to understand that deer are here to stay. Once they overcome their initial resistance and take steps to protect valued plants, as they started to do in the past, “deer-proofing” will quickly become a normal part of life in deer country. I live on the edge of an arboretum that supports a large number of rabbits. I’ve found rabbit nests in my backyard as well. You’d suspect with an arboretum, the rabbits would stay there because there are so many food choices and the absence of people. But again, with preferential browsing habits, the rabbits have an acquired taste for buds on ornamental shrubbery in the development where I live. To that end I have installed a sprinkler with an attached motion sensor. The downside (and there always is one) is that occasionally a neighbour walking a dog late at night gets a startling spritz of water. But perhaps unlike the RBG Board of Directors, the neighbour has learned from the somewhat negative experience and has modified his behaviour………
The Humane Society receives calls from people all around the US who are outraged by the prospect of deer kills in their communities. They suggest that communities should first do objective public surveys to define and assess the nature, scope, and location of the particular deer problem so solutions can be tailored to particular sites. Then a community should develop a comprehensive plan using applicable non-lethal methods, along with setting up a robust data collection and evaluation system to monitor if deer damage mitigation strategies are achieving set goals, and adapt the programs accordingly.
The non-profit population management group White Buffalo have launched surgical sterilization programs in several US towns. The project examines the effectiveness of humanely reducing the herds by sterilization. The process begins with shooting does with tranquilizer darts, which are equipped with a tracking device so the deer can be found after they are shot. Tranq’ed deer are then then taken to the city’s police headquarters, where a surgical table is set up and the ovaries removed in a procedure that takes less than 15 minutes. In two weeks, a team captured and sterilized 137 does, out of a total population of about 230 in just 1.84 square miles. This year, they found only 12 unsterilized does, Meanwhile, about 15 deer have died — from natural causes, car accidents or wandering into a hunting area — without being replaced. Within a few years there will be about 50% fewer deer without any hunting involved.
Animal activist and conservationist Anthony Marr offers a solution of his own, “the quantitative buck/doe separator.” The idea is simply that if the bucks and does cannot physically get together, they cannot mate. The objective is to control how many does in the local population that will not be impregnated. Once this number has been determined – by a biologist – the device would be constructed to actualize this number. The buck/doe separator is simple but requires fencing as a prerequisite. It is nothing but a small piece of land ideally half-woods/half-pasture contained by deer-fencing punctuated by baited inward one-way gates. These gates should be wide enough for a doe to go through, but not a buck with wide antlers. Thus, only females can enter and their number can be monitored. Once the desired number is reached, the one-way gates would be locked. The bucks would go looking for accessible does somewhere else. Plus, the does in the enclosure need not stay there forever; only during the rutting season.
There are also repellent sprays on the market for existing plants the deer might be nibbling on. Repellents work by reducing the attractiveness and palatability of treated plants to a level lower than that for other available forage. Of course the downside is that they must be frequently applied, especially after rainfall. This is unlikely to be a viable option that can be used on 2,700 acres, although it would be a definite possibility for hobby gardeners and homeowners.
I do wonder exactly how many other gardens the RBG contacted before arriving at the conclusion that lethal means were to be used as a “last resort.” The Butchart Gardens store in Victoria, BC, offers a book on “Deer Proofing Gardens.” The Wildlife Education Coalition, which works to resolve human-deer conflicts, also offers several solutions to deer-resistant gardens, including a list of deer resistant plants evaluated by Rutgers University. I realize that a large commercial garden such as the RBG is not going to redesign itself to feature only deer-proof plants, but since they are looking to spend $20 million on a new rock garden, but why would they not consider many of the plants found to be deer-resistant?
Call to Action
The protest against the Royal Botanical Gardens is ongoing. We need a concerted effort to document and give RBG photographs and the numerous alternatives to killing deer. The province and federal governments have already committed to $14 million in funding for their new rock garden, so a continually strong presence is required to discourage subsequent hunts. And if you think this is a lot of money for a rock garden, don’t vote for politicians who spend taxpayer money in this fashion. Tell them why you won’t vote for them too. And tell the RBG why you think this is an excessive request, especially in light of their behaviour towards deer. While I love gardens and have enjoyed the RBG in the past (prior to finding out they’re killing deer) It does seem like there are a lot of expensive non-necessary projects sucking up tax dollars while many streets in the area have potholes bigger than Volkswagens.
Ask who pays for liability insurance for the bow hunters. The park was closed, but bow hunters are quite capable of injuring themselves – who is liable? Inviting more hunting into the community results in increased exposure for the town to liability for hunting-related accidents that are due to town-sponsored deer culls that could exceed the town’s insurance limits. There are currently several lawsuits pending that relate to deer culls in the US. The town and individual homeowners should be made aware of the potential for liability when deer cullers are invited in.
The protest group encourages that communications be sent to the CEO, Communications Manager, Board of Directors of the RBG, but also to many other people including the Ministry of Natural Resources and the media. The hunt was seriously under-reported by the media, despite being contacted. Perhaps RBG pays to advertise in the Spec and that’s why the issue went underreported.
There are several courses of action suggested. Up until a few days ago, it was possible to review the RBG on Facebook. So that avenue no longer exists after they saw their former 5 star rating plummet to 3.5 stars. You can still leave polite comments explaining to the centre why you have evaluated them, and they will no doubt be removed. So, we suggest the following options, including posting on various other social media platforms where the comments cannot be removed and will live forever on the internet:
In addition to blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, use Instagram and Tumblr to get the graphic message out. Use the Twitter hashtags #RBGCanadaDeerKill and #deeroverlilacs. Add pics to your reviews or statistics about bow hunting.
Mark Runciman is the CEO of the Royal Botanical Gardens. You can reach him and the other BOD as follows:
http://www.rbg.ca/governanceatthegardens for Board of Directors
Mark Runciman, CEO
905-527-1158 Ext. 221
Councillor Brian McHattie (who is on record committing the taxpayers to provide part of the $20 million funding requested for the RBG rock garden), responded to questions and complaints with the following:
“The deer issues being dealt with by RBG are part of a larger, regional issue. Wildlife population management is a provincial responsibility under the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR). Royal Botanical Gardens approached the Haudenosaunee Wildlife and Habitat Authority (HWHA), representatives of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council, because of their relationship with Dundas Valley and Ontario Parks (Short Hills). The HWHA has experience instituting deer harvests that may help manage deer populations.
So, in summary not an easy solution but one that was taken for the benefit of the RBG plant collections. I know they are committed to doing a very limited hunt (ends shortly) this year and reviewing the experience thoroughly before taking any next steps.”
You may email him at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
Tys Theysmeyer, biologist and head of natural lands at RBG is on record that “cull will have to continue.” He needs to be formally challenged and asked to provide evidence of “research and efforts” truly made by RBG to effectively manage and protect any threat to plants, especially necessitating a deer cull.
You can email Tys at mailto:email@example.com
(Graphic) Aftermath of the Hunt
(Photos by various protesters and other conscientious objectors)