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Bambi Must Die 

The efficient killing of invasive deer is being fought by concerned animal activists in Marin. But who's looking out for S.F. venison connoisseurs?

Wednesday, Mar 21 2007
Sitting at a German restaurant near the S.F. opera house with three gravy-covered strips of meat in front of me, a glass of darkish beer to my right, and San Francisco's worldly, insightful food columnist Meredith Brody to my left, I imagined one way this near-perfect evening might have been improved.

My venison medallions might have been better if they were from local and wild deer, rather than what they were: thawed from the freezer after being shipped all the way from New Zealand.

Not to say these weren't delicious — sweeter than beef, and much leaner, without the toughness one associates with fatless steak. But had they come from a fresh, local carcass of fallow or axis deer — a type of meat the Bay Area will soon be swimming in — the culinary consensus is that my cutlets would have been more delicate, tender, and with a touch more gaminess than the flown-in, farm-raised variety in front of me.

Meredith's venison sausages were nice, too — lightly spiced, firm outside, tender inside. But again, if only the deer had been harvested from among the thousands of exotic pests whose voracious foraging is now wreaking environmental havoc upon the Point Reyes National Seashore, I have to believe the sausage would have been tastier.

The National Park Service recently put the finishing touches on a plan to eliminate over the next 20 years an estimated 2,250 non-native fallow and axis deer left over from what had been a mid-20th-century private Marin County hunting resort once owned by a San Francisco physician.

By political necessity it's a deeply flawed plan. It will involve greater expense, worse cruelty, more killing, and the application of a greater dose of scientific stupidity than would have been necessary, if not for the confused relationship to environmentalism suffered by some very vocal residents of Marin County.

Point Reyes' exploding exotic deer herd consumes forage needed by native species such as black-tailed deer and tule elk. But a misguided "animal-rights" version of environmentalism — which says it's OK to allow an ecosystem to be destroyed in the name of preserving aesthetically pleasing invasive species — will cause the coming extermination to take much longer than need be.

Another defect of the extermination plan: Despite what may be the greatest harvest of home-grown fine venison in local history, none of the Point Reyes meat will end up with S.F. diners. Because of the political sensitivities involved, the deer will most likely be fed to raptors at a wildlife recovery center, and be cooked into unrecognizable stew in North Bay soup kitchens.

As a result, San Francisco venison plates such as those Meredith and I ordered last week at Suppenküche will remain more expensive, and less tasty, than if they'd shared some of that bounty with San Francisco, the Point Reyes exotic deer's vaterland.

Among the politics and science driving the upcoming Point Reyes deer plan, most peculiar is a Fort Collins, Colo., group of well-meaning animal Josef Mengeles, who are helping create a pharma-boondoggle to placate coastal Bambi lovers. Mengele was the Nazi official who conducted flawed research into efficient killing and sterilizing.

But before I delve into the government pharmaceutical lab, the deer contraceptive developed there, and how the federal government plans to pointlessly tackle, inject, and temporarily sterilize Marin County deer over the next two decades, I should probably explain how the government arrived at such a place.

It all started with Millard "Doc" Ottinger, a San Francisco physician with a private hunting resort near Inverness. The San Francisco Zoo suffered a surfeit of fallow deer, native to Europe and the Mediterranean, and axis deer, native to India and southern Asia. So during the 1940s and '50s, Ottinger bought 32 of the animals. When Ottinger's ranch was incorporated into the Point Reyes National Seashore during the early 1970s, the hunting stopped. The deer continued to propagate. In 1976, the park began assigning park staff to shoot deer, meaning a couple park hires stumbled into a sportsman's Valhalla.

From 1976 to 1994 rangers shot 3,000 of the animals, according to Natalie Gates, research biologist at Point Reyes National Seashore.

But it wasn't a perfect paradise. According to Capt. Cindy Machado, director of Marin County Animal Services (a department that in other counties might be known as "animal control"), the rangers didn't always hit their mark.

"A lot of deer were being shot in the neck, the hip, the rumps," said Machado. "There were at least 10 incidents that I remember ... It was literally a bloodbath."

Machado pressed the Park Service to hang up the rifles. At that time there were an estimated 700 exotic deer in the park.

Now, Gates tells me, there are now some 2,000 fallow deer in Point Reyes, and at least 250 axis deer.

A couple of years ago, when the exotic deer population was estimated at just over half the current level, they were reported to be eating a ton of forage a day, causing black-tailed deer to go hungry. Some officials believe foraging by the densely populated deer wipes out ground-nesting birds. The exotic deer also carry Johne's disease, which is deadly to native tule elk.

Park officials have now developed an extermination plan designed to preserve native species, while making gestures to placate locals who oppose killing deer.

Prominent among these locals is Elliot Katz, who runs the national group In Defense of Animals out of Mill Valley.

"Someone who goes and shoots a deer shouldn't themselves be reproducing," Katz said, by way of expounding upon his group's philosophy. "They need to hold off on any killing, certainly at the minimum, and look into an alternative solution."

That's where the aforementioned well-meaning Mengeles come in. In order to satisfy the demands of activists such as Katz, the Park Service plans to shoot only a portion of the exotic deer. The rest will be kept alive so that park officials can exercise a bogus "humane alternative" that involves capturing them with nets dropped from helicopters and injecting them with a special contraceptive drug. One problem: Field tests show the drug won't reduce the Point Reyes deer population in any meaningful way.

GonaCon, a contraceptive designed to work on mammals, is the marquee drug of the National Wildlife Research Center, a U.S. Department of Agriculture in-house pharmaceutical lab in Fort Collins, Colo. The Center develops poisons and contraceptives designed to reduce pest populations in areas of the country where local culture doesn't include hunting — they're applied coastally, in other words. Due to citizen concerns about poison, traps, or shooting, for example, Santa Monica officials recently tried out GonaCon on squirrels.

When it comes to deer, tests in Maryland showed that from day one it left one-third of does fertile. After a year, the fertile portion was up to half. By four years, deer reproductive switches are all back on.

At Point Reyes, this means that in order to stop a doe from reproducing during her typical 20-year lifespan, she needs to be constantly captured and re-injected. So do her 1,100-or-so cousins. It's important never to miss any animals, because unchecked their populations can double in three years. This doomed experiment will cost the park $210,000 per year.

Shooting the deer, meanwhile, costs one-tenth that. And it works.

The capturing and injecting isn't exactly humane either: The Audubon Society denounced the contraception plan as unnecessarily stressful on the animals, saying they should all be shot.

"You have to capture them under drop nets or with net guns from helicopters, put a radio collar on them, and ear tags, and release them. That takes between 20 and 30 minutes per animal, and costs between $1,500 and $3,000 per animal. We don't know whether it works," said Gates.

Nonetheless, Machado, the Marin County dogcatcher instrumental in stopping the park from culling deer in 1994, is convinced contraceptives are the best option.

"We want to help the park become 100 percent nonlethal, however we can do that," Machado said. "The best nonlethal method is to look at how contraception might be used. I'm speaking out of my league. But I know scientists are routinely looking at this."

She recommended I speak with Jay Kirkpatrick, director of the Science and Conservation Center, a Billings, Mont., nonprofit.

Kirkpatrick said contraception drugs were developed to curb tame, suburban, pest deer, and are of no use in eliminating the Point Reyes exotic herd.

"One of the difficulties is where you try to extend this technology for situations where it was never intended," he said.

While this may be bad news for the deer, whose slaughter will be drawn out for decades, bad news for the park budget, which will spend a fortune on scientific play-acting, and bad news for native park species such as black-tailed deer, whose forage will be devoured for a longer time than necessary, it might be a boon for Steve Boyer, executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Marin County.

His San Rafael soup kitchen has been the traditional ending place for surplus Marin County wild game, which is usually stretched by cooking it into stews or other prepared dishes. A park representative told me Boyer will likely be one of the venison recipients.

"There isn't any food that's too good for the people we serve," noted Boyer.

I have no argument with that. But I do take issue with delicate, sweet, lightly gamy fallow deer venison being turned into stew.

And it was San Francisco Zoo animals that spawned the 60 tons of nutritious, tasty venison about to fall in Marin County. Shouldn't at least some of it come back across the bridge?

I've heard plenty this past week about animal rights. What about fine diners' rights? If too few out there are willing to speak up for science, for ecology, or common sense, how about standing up for deliciousness?

About The Author

Matt Smith


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