In a tiny trailer parked near Loch Raven Reservoir, a 2-year-old doe draped in blue surgical cloth sleeps on her back as a veterinarian opens her belly. Less than an hour later, the deer is stepping back into the safety of the woods, the latest patient in an experiment in wildlife management that doesn't involve arrows or bullets.
In all, 32 does are sporting surgical staples where white fur used to be and tags in their ears marking them as the initial group in a three-year research project to see if spaying can help keep the suburban deer population in check. It is the first experiment of its type in Maryland and one of just a handful being carried out in the country.
Over seven days earlier this month, a small team of professionals and volunteers tranquilized, captured and removed the ovaries of does to ensure they can no longer add to a growing population that has upset the watershed ecosystem.
Volunteers with the nonprofit Wildlife Rescue Inc. will track 15 members of the tiny herd outfitted with radio collars to see how the animals respond and if they can detect a change in deer mortality or density.
"This is not about stopping hunting," says Enid Feinberg, who helped arrange the experiment. "There are places where hunting is not appropriate but controlling the deer population is needed. We have to be looking for something else."
Feinberg has sidestepped the controversy surrounding other projects by using private funds and private property.
Trying to balance suburban sensitivities and subdivision densities against the need to control the deer population dates back decades. For every motorist tired of running a deer slalom course there's a homeowner who delights in seeing a backyard decorated in does and fawns.
Maryland is in the second decade of a management plan that was formulated as the deer population began climbing toward 300,000 and residents started complaining about their close encounters. Insurance industry statistics show there are 30,000 deer/automobile collisions each year in Maryland, resulting in $78 million in damage. The Maryland Farm Bureau reports that deer damage to crops in 2009 was $7.3 million.
Mostly through hunting the Department of Natural Resources has brought the population down to an annual average of 230,000.
"We've made significant progress in the rural areas," said Paul Peditto, director of the DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Service. "The real challenge remains, what do you do in the suburbs, where in some areas deer are at exorbitant levels and I'm not sure there's a way to solve that. But we're not afraid of learning new things."
The $50,000 spaying pilot has made for some strange bedfellows. Feinberg is an animal welfare advocate who has carried out a tireless campaign against what she sees as a state bureaucracy that is too quick to use hunting as an answer to deer problems. The professional she hired is Tony DeNicola, a biologist with a doctorate and a national reputation as a deer sharpshooter. The money is from the estate of Gerda Deterer, an animal rehabilitation expert who died in 2009. And the DNR — Feinberg's frequent adversary — approved the effort.
"Tony and I are on opposite ends on certain issues," is the way Feinberg describes it. "Paul and I, too."
But for this, they have agreed to work together.
All in a day
Feinberg steps out behind her house with a bucket of corn and calls for deer that sit just out of sight below the ridge. She strategically arranges lines of corn not far from a toolshed with the window open. Inside, his air rifle loaded with a tranquilizer dart, DeNicola crouches.
Fawns and does approach cautiously and stop by the bait, their tails and ears flicking at sounds perceived and imagined, their muscles twitching for a quick getaway.
DeNicola raises the gun and fires, a pow of compressed air discharges and the deer scatter. Twice more over the course of 40 minutes he fires.
In total darkness, he and two volunteers search for the downed deer with a radio antenna. If the darts stayed in the deer, homing devices will bring DeNicola to their side.
Each deer is loaded on a sled and then a small four-wheel drive for the quick ride to the trailer and Dr. Steve Timm, a Wisconsin veterinarian who has done more than 100 deer spayings.
The deer are shaved outside and then brought to the operating table, where Timm cleans away loose hair with an ancient Dust Buster. Hooves are tied down, the belly is cleaned with antiseptic and the operation begins.
About 20 minutes later, with shiny staples marking the white flesh like railroad tracks, the doe is moved onto a stretcher and placed by the woods. DeNicola administers a reversing drug, and within minutes, the deer is up and moving.
"It's amazing," says Feinberg, who grew up not far from Loch Raven and has pushed Maryland officials hard for trials of non-lethal methods for herd control.
The state has been receptive, approving a 1996 experiment conducted on the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg and the Humane Society of the United States that involves darting the captive herd with contraceptives. It also approved a similar research effort in 2004 at the fenced-in campus of the Federal Research Center at White Oak, just outside the Capital Beltway.
But those programs involved continued human intervention. Feinberg was looking for the next best thing.
"We have to move forward," is a phrase she uses a lot.
She kept coming back to spaying.
In July 2007, Cornell University began a five-year, $500,000 deer management plan that used hunting and surgical sterilization to reduce the campus herd by 75 percent. On a 1,133-acre portion of the central campus, 77 does and fawns have been sterilized. On a patchwork of 2,544 outlaying acres, hunting is permitted and 181 deer of both sexes have been killed.
The results will be out next spring, but critics have dubbed the experiment as "Spay and Slay" and consider it a waste of money.
In 2009, the wealthy St. Louis suburb of Town and Country decided to go a similar route and hired DeNicola's company, White Buffalo Inc., to kill 112 deer and spay another 100 at a cost of $150,000.
When Deterer, founder and president of Wildlife Rescue Inc., died and left a portion of her estate to the group, Feinberg saw the spaying program as a way to honor her memory. Then she put her efforts into getting DeNicola to accept the challenge and the DNR to approve it.
"This is an idea that deserved an opportunity to get a fair shake in a field setting," says Peditto. "There's no one better in the business than Tony DeNicola, and it's not costing the state a nickel."
But DeNicola, no stranger to the sensitive nature of such projects, required Feinberg to go door to door and get neighbors to sign off before he made a commitment.
Spaying deer is expensive and labor-intensive, says DeNicola, a rugged man with a square jaw and close-cropped hair. White Buffalo can sterilize five to seven deer a day vs. shooting 10 to 15 a day.
"But I don't decide if it's too expensive," he says. "I get the recipe down in the field and let others decide how to apply it."
Feinberg resorts to biological math to explain how spaying will be cost-effective in the long run: If 32 does are prevented from giving birth during an eight-year reproductive cycle, that's 256 fewer fawns. (Her permit actually allows for 50 deer to be spayed, so DiNicola will be back at some point.)
If she can prove spaying is a viable option, she's confident there are many suburbanites who would donate money to a sterilization program rather than rely on hunters. Three Baltimore-area veterinarians have already been trained.
"You find a way to educate," she says. "You build a volunteer army."