“I want to report a crime against nature,” the soft, tremulous voice whispered over the phone line. “That’s not really my beat, sister,” I told her. “I think you need the sex-abuse unit at Metro police. Hold on, while I look up the number for you.” I sighed and began to flip through the blue pages.
“No, no, I mean Nature with a capital ‘N.’ ” She was almost sobbing now. “They’re going to kill Bambis at Cheekwood.”
“Look, lady, it’s late, and I’m tired.” And it’s a full moon, I thought.
The voice took on a harder edge. “Well, I’m sorry I bothered you. I heard you’ve got a lot of dogs and cats. I thought you might also care about deer. I guess I was wrong.”
I glanced around my office. Henry the tabby sat on my desk pawing a paper clip. My dogs, Raymond and Sophie and Fiona, sprawled at my feet, staring up at me with expectant eyes.
I took a deep breath. “OK, you’ve shamed me. Tell the story.”
“Evidently, there are deer eating the precious plants at Cheekwood,” the voice hissed. “I heard a rumor that they’re talking about inviting in some archers to ‘exterminate the brutes.’ I don’t know if you’re aware of how cruel bow-hunting is, but I’d be happy to send you some information.”
I had a vision of orange-vested Rambos stalking whitetails through Leslie Cheek’s boxwoods. I imagined dowagers munching on their salad specials while watching the slaughter of the innocents through the large glass windows of the Pineapple Room. I gave the caller my fax number and hung up.
The next morning I called Bob Brackman, director of botanical gardens at Cheekwood. Brackman confirmed that a family of deer has indeed been noshing on “hostas and water lilies and the berries on the trees. These deer are hungry herbivores,” he said, “they’ll eat anything.” He explained that the deer dilemma is being “cautiously examined” in the light of Cheekwood’s mission. “We’re not a zoo,” he said, “and I’m responsible for the plant collections here.”
Brackman said he and his crew have tried some repellents to keep the deer off Cheekwood property, but to no avail. “I sent my secretary to all the beauty parlors in the area because I heard that the scent of human hair scared them off. We’ve also tried pepper spray on the foliage they eat, as well as noisemakers. Nothing has worked. They know we’re a good food source.”
According to Brackman, the deer family has grown since it was first spotted several years ago. “Last year we had three,” he said. “This year it’s seven. One of them is a 12-point buck. The rest are does and fawns, although I’ve seen the beginnings of horns on a baby buck.”
Brackman emphasized that his primary concern is safety. “Recently, one of our gardeners was out checking our perimeter fencing and came between the 12-point buck and his herd. The buck charged her.”
Sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Fall is the time of the year when bucks and does a-wooing go. According to Ben Layton, deer biologist with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), the rutting season peaks in October and November. “That’s when there’s the most movement among the herds, and when you see a rise in deer-vehicle collisions,” Layton said.
Testosterone excess is not a problem typically encountered at Cheekwood, and administrators are struggling to find a course of action. “We’re exploring all our options and expect to reach a decision within a week or two,” Brackman said. “We’ve been talking to the state about tranquilizing the does and moving them to state property. But that’s not possible until they set up a licensing system for private deer removal. In the meantime, we’re looking for a clean kill on the buck.” He confirmed that the “clean kill” might mean using a bow and arrow. Guns, although less likely, are also a possibility. “In my mind, using guns makes it appear more like a sport,” Brackman said. What he did not say is that guns also have the capacity to fracture a few windows in the surrounding neighborhoods.
Critterphiles claim that bow-hunting is neither clean nor humane. Articles in publications such as The Animals’ Agenda cite studies showing that archers cripple as often as they kill, causing the wounded animals to suffer a slow and painful death.
George Buttrey, TWRA’s big-game biologist for Middle Tennessee, explained that, when it comes to using a gun or a bow and arrow to kill deer, the difference is one of efficiency. “In general, the bow and arrow is not as accurate because you have to be closer to get the job donethe typical range is 20 to 25 yards. With a rifle or a shotgun, on the other hand, the average person can usually kill at 50 to 100 yards.”
Buttrey disputed the animal-rights advocates’ assertion that arrows always kill more slowly. “If you hit the heart and lungs with an arrow or a gun, death is pretty instantaneous,” he said. “On the other hand, a gun is much more effective if you hit the head or spine, because an arrow depends on hemorrhaging to kill.”
Buttrey’s comments called up images of slaughter that I had hoped to forget. I remembered sitting in a darkened classroom looking at slides of exquisite relief carvings from seventh-century B.C. Assyria. The reliefs were hunting scenes. I recalled icons of a lion with an arrow sticking from his shoulder and blood running from his mouth, of a dying lioness, her spine riddled with arrows, dragging paralyzed legs along the desert ground. I swallowed the bile rising in my throat and asked Buttrey what Cheekwood could do about its deer.
Buttrey said that the only effective way to keep deer out of Cheekwood is fencing. Apparently, the institution’s current perimeter of six feet of chain link topped by two feet of barbed wire is clearly inadequate. “A deer can sail right over 8 feet,” he said. “At John C.Tune airport they’ve put up a 12-foot fence to keep the deer off the runway.”
Because Cheekwood lies next to Warner Parks, I contacted parks superintendent Bob Parrish to see if his territory was also experiencing problems with deer. “We routinely see deer in the parks,” he said, “but I’m not aware of any complaints about their impact on public use, either as a threat to visitors or as damaging park property.” Parrish also said that, while he had done no quantitative study of the deer population in Warner Parks, “we’ve seen no evidence of overpopulationof emaciated deer or over-browsing of foliage. We share many common missions with Cheekwood, but on this issue I guess we’re coming from a different place.”
Ray Eaton, the manager of the Warner Parks’ Harpeth Hills golf course, said he regularly sees deer tracks on his greens, adding that deer will damage newly planted saplings by skinning the bark and eating the buds. “But I like seeing themthey’re prettyand the golfers do too. [The deer] are worth more than they hurt,” Eaton said, “and they’ve got rights too.”
Biologist Buttrey pointed out that the presence of deer in suburbia is a relatively recent phenomenon and that humans, not deer, are the invaders. He noted that by the early 1900s, deer had been almost entirely killed off in the state of Tennessee, except for a few small remnant herds. State conservationists reestablished them at their previous numbers in the late ’40s and early ’50s for sport hunting. At that time most of Middle Tennessee was rural. Now it’s mostly suburban. “The deer were there, and then we built houses in the middle of them,” Buttrey said. “So they’re eating the flowers in the yards, and people are complaining. But the state has very little land to remove them to that is not already populated with deer.”
The Belle Meade neighborhood, where Cheekwood lies, has its own special deer history that goes back to the days of Belle Meade Plantation. William Giles Harding, son of the plantation’s founder, occasionally picked up orphaned fawns and raised them by hand. In 1833 or 1834, Harding and his father established a deer park at the plantation that in time grew to a herd of several hundred. Cheekwood administrators would do well to note that the deer park’s fence was 14 rails high.
By the 1850s, 14 buffalo grazed among the park’s deer, and elk from the Northwest and Indian water oxen were also subsequently imported. The deer park became an unofficial public picnic grounds for Nashville day-trippers, even during the Civil War. In 1887 President Grover Cleveland paid a visit to Belle Meade and called the deer park and its herd a “splendid sight.” When roads were first constructed through the deer park, with the subdivision of the plantation in 1906, the deer were bought by the state for $600money raised by public subscriptionand were turned loose.
Like Cheekwood, the Belle Meade deer park was the scene of “incidents” during the rutting season. Gen. Harding himself was charged by an irate buffalo, and a notorious elk named Tommy more than once treed visitors who came between him and his cows.
These days, Belle Meade prefers its animals domesticated behind invisible fencing, roaming free in the Warner Parks, or cast in bronze along the Boulevard’s median. And Cheekwood’s deer family is making problems for its botanical operations.
Cheekwood president Jane Jerry said the buck hasn’t been spotted on the grounds recently, but she warns that “as the herd grows and becomes more and more tame, the problem will just keep recurring. We’re really looking for a thoughtful and humane solution.”
It may be archery season on the deer-hunting calendar, but Buttrey’s advice to build a big fence seems the soundest option. “It doesn’t really do any good to kill two or three,” he said, “because other deer will just turn up in their place.”
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