Ellen Roberts wants to rid her Baltimore County neighborhood of deer. "If I could import some wolves, I'd do it," she says.
Les Pahl Jr., a farmer in the county, has to chase hungry deer from his fields. "It's not only what they eat. It's what they trample down," he says.
Another county resident, Patsy MacDonald, once loved to spot deer while horseback riding. "But just in the past couple of years [they've multiplied] like cockroaches," she says.
Despite 46,000 kills a year by hunters, the state's deer population numbers at least 150,000, with the biggest growth spurt coming in the last decade.
And many of the deer live in the metropolitan area where they dine in farm fields and back yards, collide with cars on country roads and possibly contribute to the spread of Lyme disease by playing host to the deer tick.
Lyme is a bacterial infection that originates in mice, is spread by the deer tick and can cause arthritic, neurologic and cardiac problems in humans.
For MacDonald, deer ceased to be cute and harmless when she found a deer tick on her baby girl and had to have her treated with antibiotics to ward off the disease. "I have a friend who is permanently crippled by it," MacDonald says.
Roberts, too, associates the overabundance of deer with Lyme disease. She says her husband, Bill, is being treated for a confirmed case of it.
A decade ago, when the Robertses moved to Wakefield, a comfortable residential outpost in the forested Loch Raven Reservoir watershed, the deer that occasionally visited their apple tree were "a curiosity."
"They ate the apples . . . and that was the end of it," Ellen Roberts says.
Since then, the deer population "has gone bananas," she says.
"They have eaten good sized trees, killed so many shrubs it's impossible," she says. "A neighbor had a bill for $6,000 two years ago to replace all her foundation plantings."
Now the neighbor has an electric fence in back of her yard to keep the deer away.
The animals also are a road hazard, Roberts says. She struck and killed a deer on Seminary Avenue 18 months ago, and spent $250 getting the front end of her car repaired.
Deer have cost Les Pahl a lot more than that.
Pahl, 35, owns a 135-acre vegetable farm in Granite, Baltimore County, that is hemmed in by Patapsco State Park on one side and a Christmas tree farm on the other.
In spring and summer, when the vegetables are ripening, it's prime deer country. Two years ago, they caused an estimated $13,000 in crop damage, Pahl says.
In spring, the deer eat his newly transplanted collards, kale, cabbage and broccoli. Later, they turn to the cucumbers, cantaloupes and watermelon, then to the string beans and tomatoes.
"Then they run across the field, 15 or 20 of them, and whenever they step on a plant, anything that's in bloom or developing fruit, the whole plant dies," Pahl says.
Fruit that must look attractive on his retail road stands is bruised, and trampled vine plants die and clog the picking machines.
For home gardeners, crops lost to deer can be replaced at the supermarket.
But "this is our livelihood," Pahl says. "We count on this to make our payments and pay our bills. It's an altogether different ballgame."
Pahl doesn't mind having deer around. When his family bought the farm in 1975, deer damage was "very minimal . . . It was just a pleasure to see a couple of them."
But in 1989 the damage was so severe that he had to ask the state Department of Natural Resources for help. He was granted permission to kill 32 deer through that summer.
He allowed "mostly police officers" to hunt on the property and managed to kill about 25 deer.
"It's helped," Pahl says. Last summer, damage was "minimal," perhaps $2,000, and he was permitted to kill only five more deer.
But Pahl said the red tape and the hunting itself is time-consuming and often conflicts with summer farm chores. He'd rather not have to bother.
Last summer he purchased a propane cannon to scare the deer away. That helped, but he's been told the deer will get used to it, and neighbors have complained about the noise.
Hunting in nearby Patapsco State Park during the fall and winter would solve the problem, he believes, but for now, it's illegal.
"I've really felt the state should change the laws for us, or give some kind of assistance," he says. "I'd like them to open Baltimore County state parks to bow hunting or shotgun."
Deer have also become abundant in Brooklandville, just north of the Beltway.
When Patsy MacDonald first moved there 11 years ago, she would spot an occasional deer while riding her horse.
"I thought, 'Oh, how neat!'" she says.
But the deer have multiplied alarmingly, and her fondness for them has turned to worry.
"They are everywhere," MacDonald says. "Last year I saw two deer on Greenspring Avenue. They had been hit by cars but they were not dead. They were still thrashing around. Then I talked to someone else . . . who totaled her car after getting hit by a deer."
"Then last summer, the deer had gotten so bold and would come right up to our house," she says. Her dogs began chasing them, and were killed by a car. She replaced the dogs, but "the end result is we can't let the dogs out anymore unattended."
The last straw was finding the deer tick on her baby daughter.
Others share MacDonald's concern about the role of deer in the spread of Lyme disease. In fact, the explosive growth of the deer population in Maryland during the 1980s has been accompanied by an even more dramatic increase in Lyme cases.
But scientists say the rising number of deer is just one possible factor in the spread of disease-carrying ticks. The deer tick "can survive on other hosts -- raccoons, dogs, other large mammals," says Nancy L. Breisch, extension entomologist at the University of Maryland at College Park.
"Even if we eliminate every deer in the state, there will still be deer ticks, and there will still be Lyme disease," she says.
Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium that resides in two small rodents -- deer mice and white-footed mice. The bacteria are transmitted to people by the bite of the deer tick, an arthropod no bigger than the period on this sentence.
In its adult form, the female deer tick needs to consume blood from a large mammal before it can lay its eggs. It prefers deer, but will settle for smaller mammals.
The first symptoms of Lyme disease may include a reddish, expanding rash at the site of the bite, headache, fever, chills and aches.
The illness can be treated with antibiotics. But if left untreated, it can lead to significant cardiac, neurological and arthritic problems.
The number of confirmed cases of Lyme disease reported in Maryland has increased from just 4 in 1981 to 226 in 1990, says Jack Grigor, Maryland public health veterinarian. Confirmed cases have nearly doubled each year since 1986.
It's not clear how much of the sharp increase is real, and how much is a reflection of increased awareness and reporting by doctors.
Additional research is planned. For now, the role of deer in the spread of Lyme disease is unclear.
Until more is known, the "best bet" for avoiding Lyme disease, says Breisch, is to take steps to avoid exposure, learn to recognize symptoms of the disease, and seek medical treatment if symptoms appear. Some tips:
* Avoid thick woods and dense brush from April to October, when ticks are active.
* Wear light-colored clothing to make detection of ticks easier.
* Use tick repellents containing permethrin on clothing.
* Tuck pants legs into socks or tape them to boot tops.
* Make frequent "tick checks" and remove ticks promptly with fine tweezers. Use an antiseptic on the bite site.