In 2014, the city of Ann Arbor was inundated with complaints from residents who were concerned about the growing deer population. Their grievances, which included landscaping damage and deer-vehicle collisions, prompted the city to vote to handle the situation with four years of culling.

The Ann Arbor Non-Lethal Deer Management — an organization of residents who are concerned with the well-being of the deer population in the area — held a special event Sunday afternoon at the Creature Conservancy where attendees could learn of ways to protect the lives of the cervine wildlife from the culling and interact with live deer.

Lorraine Shapiro, president of the Ann Arbor Non-Lethal Deer Management, explained that the white-tailed deer are losing their habitats in the city and are being crowded out due to developments and urban sprawl. Shapiro believed that sterilization of the animals is a more ethical way to manage the deer without ending their lives.

“I feel it is inhumane to kill animals who are completely innocent,” Shapiro said. “They’re being punished for living basically. This past winter, we were able to have the city agree to a plan where they would do culling and deer sterilization.”

The non-lethal surgical sterilization method, a procedure in which the deer’s ovaries are removed, turned out to be quite successful as an addition to the 2017 deer management efforts: 54 deer were sterilized in a week, and all, with the exception of one deer who perished due to non-surgical related reasons, survived and returned to the wild.

Non-lethal methods of population management, such as sterilization, face many barriers, however. Though the operation is almost 100 percent successful and relatively quick, lasting only about 20 minutes, the deer must be given painkillers and antibiotics, and they must be monitored before being released back into the wild, according to a PowerPoint presentation given at the event. Thus, the price to sterilize a deer is around $1,200. By comparison, it costs approximately $450 to shoot a deer. 

The group acknowledged the financial burden posed by more humane efforts and emphasized that one of their goals is to minimize the role of culling by offsetting the cost of nonlethal routes. This past winter, they contributed over $12,000 to the city of Ann Arbor to help fund the ovariectomies.

Despite the financial assistance and support of many animal activists, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources permitted the surgeries to take place with a stipulation: the ovariectomies had to be done in the context of a research project.

According to the group’s treasurer, Sabra Sanzotta, this non-lethal method of deer management was not acceptable to the city unless there was another reason for doing so — in this case, scientific studies.

“What we hope to do is find ways to make those sterilizations more acceptable and more widely applicable, and they don’t always have to be done under research prefaces,” Sanzotta said. “(We hope) to promote birth control methods, as well.”

One of the birth control methods Sanzotta referred to is PZP, a vaccine that, when administered to a female animal, causes antibodies to form that prevent fertilization from occurring in that creature.

Numerous roadblocks have prevented this non-lethal avenue from being explored in the Ann Arbor deer management efforts. The contraceptive was recently licensed by the Environmental Protection Agency to help control wildlife populations, but because it is still classified as a pesticide, many harbor opposition towards its usage. Shapiro expressed hope that its usage would become widespread and widely accepted in coming years.

Leaders from the Ann Arbor Non-Lethal Deer Management organization also outlined ways for volunteers to make a difference and aid efforts to protect the lives of the deer in Ann Arbor. 

Beatrice Friedlander, president of the Board of Directors of Attorneys for Animals — a nonprofit organization of legal professionals who advocate for animal rights — attended the event to lend her support and meet the deer. Friedlander, a retired lawyer, said it is important to be practical in the realm of animal advocacy and to avoid dogmatism.

“Compromise (becomes) a bad word,” Friedlander said. “While it is important that we maintain our standards and ethics… it’s important to live in the real world and work with others. I’ve been involved in animal issues for 25 to 30 years…I had a dog (in law school) and I developed such a strong relationship with her; I think that made me realize how important animals were and how mistreated they were.”

Though residential complaints brought the matter to the city’s attention and sparked the culling practice back in 2015, there were many residents who morally opposed the killing and the trouble it posed. In 2016, many Ann Arbor parks were shut down to accommodate the culling efforts, to the dismay of residents who questioned the ethics of the cull and the inconvenience of closed parks. Sixty-three deer were euthanized that year.

“We decided to take a pragmatic approach,” Shapiro said. “We can save a bunch of deer through sterilization. Maybe we have to put up with culling at the moment.”

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