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A wild creature's demise vs. the rules of man


Melanie Moore discovered more than a dead deer in her back yard in the neatly landscaped Glen Elyn neighborhood last weekend. She also found out that living close to nature can be a disarming experience.

Mrs. Moore's brick colonial home sits on 1 1/2 acres in Pleasant Prospect, a swatch of suburbia that was cut from woods and farmland off Hess Road more than a decade ago. Behind her house, less than 50 feet from her deck, her back yard becomes a heavily wooded area and stream bed that is home to everything from cardinals to foxes. It's a virtual wildlife observatory.

Last Sunday, two neighbor boys picking wild raspberries behind the Moore house discovered a dead deer beside one of the trails that her Mrs. Moore's husband, Thomas, had cut through the woods for family and friends to use.

"I couldn't even get close to it. It spooked me," said Mrs. Moore of her first reaction to the idea of a deer dying on her property.

But Monday, when she tried to have the animal removed, she was in for even more surprises.

Her first call was to the Harford County's animal control office. An employee told her that the office handles only those problems involving small, domesticated animals such as dogs and cats.

Mrs. Moore called the county health department, but was told that, unless a resident or pet has come into contact with a wild animal that is a health risk, health officials can't get involved either.

She was referred to the state Department of Natural Resources. But DNR workers told her they don't remove dead deer from private woods.

The state and county highway departments said they couldn't remove dead animals from private property, either, only from public roads or rights of way.

Mrs. Moore called the county executive's office, but officials there only reiterated county regulations and referred her to a private company that farmers and horse breeders call to haul away dead cows and horses.

The Baltimore rendering plant that recycles animal fat and bone agreed to come onto private property to retrieve the deer. But an employee said it would be taken away only if it were on the front lawn, where it could be easily hoisted by a winch into the company's truck. And the company wanted $100 to haul it away.

"It's extremely frustrating," said Mrs. Moore.

Eric Willem of the environmental division of the Harford County Health Department said he gets a complaint about a dead animal "every two or three months."

Usually, he said, the animal is in an area where state or county highway workers are authorized to pick it up. Otherwise, he said, he refers calls about wild animals to the Department of Natural Resources.

But DNR officials said they can't retrieve every deer that dies on private property. After all, they said, death is part of nature.

"Deer do die in the woods all the time, and they do decompose," said Marilyn Mause, DNR's regional wildlife manager for Central Maryland. In fact, she said, in the rare case when DNR does agree to remove a deer from private property -- if it's in someone's front yard or in an urban area where it could be a health threat -- workers usually just take it into a woods to bury it or to let it decay. They advise rural residents to do the same.

"People find deer on their property and think it's a health hazard," said Ms. Mause. "But it depends on how far it is from the house and if it's in woods, and if it's in an area where you can smell it. It's a judgment call on our part."

She said that people in growing counties such as Harford that once were chiefly rural have had DNR phones ringing off the hook in recent years with queries about wildlife. The regional office, which deals with people in Baltimore, Harford, Carroll, Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne's counties, gets about 3,000 calls a year, she said.

For that reason, DNR and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have set up an information hot line with three people working phones eight hours a day to handle nuisance calls about wildlife.

Ms. Mause said 15 percent to 20 percent of the calls are about deer and in many cases people ask about injured or dying animals.

"People like to have songbirds and pretty things in their back yards, but they have to accept that animals die and that groundhogs are part of nature and that we have a high deer herd in Maryland," she said. "People have to learn to live with wildlife."

Mrs. Moore said she's photographed deer in her back yard many times, and has several shots of them in early morning hours crossing the street into her neighbors' yards.

"But I've never had one die on my property," she lamented.

Mrs. Moore said that, by midweek, the decomposing deer made the prospect of removal even worse because she felt she didn't have protective clothing or the knowledge about handling wildlife -- dead or alive -- to move the body.

"My main concerns were, how did it come to die there and would it attract other animals or have a disease that could harm the children. It's got me very upset," she said.

She says she has told her daughter Erin, 11, to stay out of the woods.

Ms. Mause of the DNR said most dead deer in suburban areas have been struck by cars.

Deer can run a long time after being hit and can end up collapsing and dying far from the road. She suspects that's what happened to the animal found in the Moores' back yard.

Ms. Mause said deer will organically break down, and turkey vultures, crows and flies are all part of the natural process of decay. How long decomposition takes depends on such environmental factors as heat.

She suggested to Mrs. Moore that pouring a bag of commercial " powdered lime on the animal would speed decomposition and reduce the odor from the decaying animal.

That's what Mrs. Moore eventually did. By the time she found neighborhood volunteers to help drag the deer out of the woods, it had decomposed to the extent that she was persuaded to let nature takes its course on her property.

She took the advice of wildlife hot line workers who told her that, with the help of the powdered lime, the decomposition should be complete in about two weeks.

"I'm satisfied now that I've done all I can do about it," she said at week's end.

"I'm just sorry I got such a runaround before I got help."

The wildlife hot line, (800) 442-0708, is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

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