Deer Wars and Death Threats

On a hot afternoon in late August, a member of a specialized strike team, carrying a custom dart gun, drove to Fresh Kills, a piece of land on Staten Island that had once been a quiet estuary of streams and swamps and, after that, for nearly fifty years, the world’s biggest landfill—the dumping ground for the nation’s largest and densest city. Now the dump was capped and the land atop it was hilly, covered in tall grasses that host goldfinches and kestrels, and it was in the process of being converted into New York City’s newest public park. The strike team, which takes on the nocturnal schedules of its targets while working, had been baiting the area with kernels of dried corn every night as part of an ambitious and controversial project: to sterilize ninety-eight per cent of the male deer on the island.

The darter parked his car where it wouldn’t be visible from the bait site. “Deer don’t like abrupt change,” Dane Stevens, a wildlife biologist who was leading the team, explained. “You don’t want to change the carpeting the day that it’s supposed to come to the house.” Stevens was working on behalf of White Buffalo, an unusual conservation nonprofit that the city had contracted for the sterilization project in 2016. It had been a difficult summer, Stevens told me, with lots of rain and ever-shifting winds. The former meant abundant natural food, making the bait corn less interesting. The latter meant that, even when deer did come, Stevens couldn’t always send in one of his darters. To be allowed in the city, the dart guns carry approximately the firepower of a paintball gun and aren’t legally considered guns at all. The shooters had to get within twenty yards of their targets to make a hit; if the wind changed and snitched on them, the animal could end up permanently wary.

At Fresh Kills, the wind had finally stabilized, and the team’s game camera had shown a young buck eating the bait corn at the same time every evening for a week. The darter was in place well before the buck was due to arrive. He erected a camouflaged tent that would serve as a blind and readied his darts, which carried a payload of xylazine and Telazol, as well as a VHF transmitter. The yearling, graceful and dark-eyed and still so young that it was living alongside its mother—“Think of it as a teen-ager who’s about to get kicked out of the house,” Stevens said—approached the corn on schedule, and the darter took aim at the large muscles of one of the animal’s thighs. The shot was good. Because of the need to stay silent, the protocol was for the darter to send a message to Stevens by WhatsApp. The message started the clock on a tightly choreographed operation.

Once a deer is darted, the drugs take fifteen minutes to work, and the darter then uses a VHF receiver to find where the buck lies snoring. Often, this is in deep brush; at other times, the buck loses consciousness in a cemetery or an industrial park or near a soccer field. Whatever the location, that site becomes an operating theatre, and Stevens has to insure that a team veterinarian, equipped with a headlamp and a bag of sterilized supplies, can make it to the spot, through city traffic, before the buck metabolizes too much of the anesthetic.

At Fresh Kills, a vet arrived, readied his instruments, and laid out a blue paper sheet. He made a three-fifths-inch incision in the deer’s scrotum, then pulled out the pampiniform plexus, teased out both of the vasa deferentia, and removed a one-inch section from each of them. To be sure that nothing would grow back, he cauterized the incisions and closed them off with titanium clips. Then it was time for a few quick stitches, the placement of ear tags to show that this particular buck, like nearly two thousand other animals before it, had been crossed off the team’s to-do list, and, finally, a shot to reverse the effects of the xylazine.

Before long, the buck opened its eyes, twitched its ears, and raised its head. Then it climbed to its feet and walked into the night, leaving behind two crucial inches of tissue. The vasectomy itself took just five minutes. It was everything else about the team’s mission that was more complicated.

Our world is in the midst of a crisis of biodiversity. The U.N. estimates that at least a million species are at risk of extinction, many within decades, and warns that we keep speeding them toward oblivion by converting more and more of the world’s natural spaces into human ones. Already, we’ve significantly changed three-quarters of the planet’s land and two-thirds of its oceans, squeezing out untold numbers of wild creatures.

Yet there’s a small subset of animals that are doing remarkably well. Known as synanthropes, these are the tiny minority of wild animals—not livestock or pets—that have adapted to thrive in the places that humans like and are forever building more of. City pigeons—the descendants of rock doves, birds that roost on steep cliff faces—are a good example. After the birds were partly domesticated as food and messengers, they learned to nest in the crevices of buildings and to eat our trash, and their numbers followed our skyscrapers upward. Other familiar examples include opossums, coyotes, raccoons, rats, wild turkeys, Canada geese, and crows. Some researchers have observed the latter using cars to crack walnuts, timing the stops between traffic-light changes in order to slip the nuts underneath the tires. Other birds have learned to line their nests with cigarette butts, whose residual nicotine keeps mites away. Some urban populations—such as lizards, whose toes are becoming more grippy, the better to climb glass and concrete instead of trees—seem to be actively evolving to live in the habitats that we’re creating. Mice in Central Park have developed genes that allow them to metabolize fatty foods and rancid peanuts; mountain lions that live near the Seattle exurbs have shifted their predation from ungulates to rats, opossums, and raccoons. Studies have shown that many synanthropes are actually more successful—living at greater densities and achieving larger body sizes—in urban and suburban landscapes than they are in the wild.

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On a hot afternoon in late August, a member of a specialized strike team, carrying a custom dart gun, drove to Fresh Kills, a piece of land on Staten Island that had once been a quiet estuary of streams and swamps and, after that, for nearly fifty years, the world’s biggest landfill—the dumping ground for…

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