Enid Feinberg steps into her northern Baltimore County back yard each morning hoping to catch a glimpse of deer frolicking in the woods nearby. She's delighted when they form a buffet line for the corn she sets out. When they feed, they'll also get a gentle swipe of insect repellent.
Tom Reynolds has another approach toward deer - at least the ones that eat his vegetables. He kills them when he can.
"They're like rats," says the Reisterstown farmer, who has a permit to shoot 10 deer a year to help protect the crops on his 70-acre spread. "If you see one, you have a hundred."
When talk turns to deer, feelings can run strong. These days in Baltimore County, where some are calling for a managed hunt to thin the herd, lines are being drawn: Are you willing to go the extra mile to spare the lives of deer? Or are you ready to bring in the sharpshooters?
The white-tailed deer, big brown eyes and all, evoke passionate responses from animal lovers. But others see them as trespassers when deer chew on a prized azalea, and as threats to life and limb when their habit of straying onto roads causes the family car to swerve.
And any discussion of hunting involves another hot-button topic - guns.
"It's emotionally driven," says Geoffrey Munro, a social psychology professor at Towson University.
"You've chosen your side," he says. "When it affects your own property, money and time you've put into it, it becomes even more personal for you."
Mary Ellen Balchunis-Harris, a political science professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia, says deer control also touches on several highly charged political issues. "You've got a NIMBY issue - not in my back yard. You have concerns about hunters and weapons," she says.
Fueled by concerns about Lyme disease and the health of watersheds that provide drinking water for most people in the area, competing petitions are circulating among neighborhood groups in Baltimore County. One group says sponsor a hunt. Another calls for nonlethal solutions to deer management, such as injecting them with contraceptives.
Baltimore County Republican Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, whose largely rural district has become the hotbed for the issue, has found himself distributing both petitions.
"I've never gotten the range of calls I've gotten on this issue," he says.
If the question of what to do about the deer is a sensitive one, it might be because, as the councilman says, "everybody loves Bambi."
Looking for alternatives
Enid Feinberg isn't a vegetarian. She says she doesn't free lobsters from restaurant tanks or go around waving banners to "save" whales or the rain forest or anything else.
But the 50-year-old marketing manager, who lives on 14 acres in Phoenix near the Loch Raven Reservoir, says she has had to care for one too many deer that have been wounded - but not killed - by hunters.
"When you've had poachers on your property and then deer convulsing, dying at your feet, you'd get pretty mad, too," she says, explaining why she formed a group called Marylanders Against Deer Mismanagement and is circulating a petition that asks local officials to find alternatives to hunting for controlling the deer population.
"I don't think the majority of people are in favor of massive slaughter of animals," she says.
Instead, she says, county and state officials should allow residents to use contraceptives for the deer on their private properties. She also says that studies have shown that reflectors along roads frequently crossed by deer reduce accidents.
Feinberg and her housemate, Lierra Lenhard, have long fed corn to the deer. This month, they set up a feeder with rollers soaked with pesticides to swab the necks of the deer as they eat. The feeders can eliminate ticks, which can carry Lyme disease, on deer in a 50-acre area, according to the Ellicott City-based manufacturers.
At $400 for a feeder, plus the cost of corn and chemicals, it's not a cheap fix. But, says Lenhard, "It's worth it."
Damage to ecosystem
Tom Reynolds says he's a farmer, not a hunter.
But he has a permit from the state Department of Natural Resources to shoot deer out of season on his farm. He says deer have eaten acres of his hay and pumpkin plants, and trampled some fields so badly that the vegetation dies.
He says he has seen damage to smaller trees from deer browsing at nearby Liberty Reservoir. Reynolds, a 42-year-old father of two, says it's all he can do "just to hold onto my little chunk of land."
"For me, it's a survival issue," he says. "It's them or me."
The idea of controlling the population through killing might not appeal to everyone, but it is safe and effective and "it doesn't cost taxpayers anything," says Steve Huettner, past president of the Maryland Sportsmen's Association and a Glen Arm resident.
"People get all worked up and emotional about hunting, with this vision of hunters as knuckle-dragging Neanderthals," Huettner says. "But we're doctors. We're lawyers. We're plumbers. We're teachers. And we're the first true conservationists."
"Deer are cute," he says. "But it's gotten to the point where it's destroying the diversity in the ecosystem."
An emotional issue
Part of the reason so many people get hot under the collar when the issue of deer come up is because they are frustrated, residents say.
Steve Weber, a Carney-area farmer, says he has tried everything from spreading discarded human hair around his crops to tying little bags of "municipal sludge" onto his peach and apple trees to keep the deer away.
He has spread peanut butter on electrical wires to protect his strawberry plants, only to see a herd of deer trample the wire. He has used soap and what he calls "zoo doo." It only works for a little while, he says.
And don't tell Weber it is as simple as planting crops that deer don't like. "Give 'em a chance, they'll acquire a taste for it," he says.
"I don't think we can shoot our way out of this problem," Weber says. He's going to erect an 8-foot fence around his 100-acre vegetable and fruit farm.
Paul Peditto, director of the state Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife and Heritage Service, says managing mammals such as deer and bear "is emotionally charged and socially complex."
"It's pretty straightforward biologically to manage these populations," says Peditto, adding that education and nonlethal strategies are important. "At the end of the day, you have to remove some of these animals from the landscape."
Contraceptives for deer are not approved by the Federal Drug Administration for widespread use, he says, though he says they are being tested at two federally owned properties in Montgomery County.
"For whatever reason, people think we have some magic bullet in the desk drawer that we're not using," he says. "That's not the case. ... We're not all about hunting and fishing. We manage thousands of plants and animals that no one can fish or hunt."
Mare Cromwell, executive director of the Prettyboy Watershed Alliance, a local conservation group, says she is concerned about how charged the deer issue has become.
"I think one of the problems," she says, "is that people are just being swayed by emotion and not the scientific data."