If watching Bambi isn’t scarring enough for you, try listening to white-tailed deer being shot and killed every single winter.

Mary Ann Baron, co-founder of animal rights group Philadelphia Advocates for the Deer and Mt. Airy resident, told Billy Penn that residents who live near the city’s deer-infested parks struggle when Parks & Recreation starts their annual cull.

Per Baron, the sounds of helicopters and gunshots and the sight of carcasses being hauled away in trunks is enough to make children living near Wissahickon Valley, Fairmount or Cobbs Creek parks unable to sleep.

Baron has also received letters from Roxborough, Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill residents who have PTSD, she said, that describe how the blasts are trigger trauma. She has been testifying against the cullings in public hearings since their launch in 1999.

But the deer management initiative is considered a success, according to Barry Bessler of Philadelphia Parks & Rec, which oversees the program. (The kills are mainly carried out by USDA Wildlife Services staff.) Collisions with cars are down 70 percent since the cull started, he said, and the over-population that was threatening native flora has been kept in check.

Furthermore, Bessler explained, the creatures don’t die in vain — meat from the cull is used to feed Philadelphia’s hungry.

[Ed note: It is not bloody or especially graphic, but be aware there is a photo of a decapitated deer below.]

A professional cull

Bessler is currently policy and compliance director for Parks & Rec, but he was the chief of staff for the Fairmount Park Commission when the initiative began two decades ago. Since then, he has tracked how the practice has affected both deer and human communities in the area, he said.

The annual cull, formally referred to as the “professional deer management project,” began in the late 90s when studies, paid for by Friends of the Wissahickon and conducted by Natural Resource Consultants, showed that forested areas of Philly’s park system were being “over-consumed” by the rising deer population.

Bessler affirmed there is no aspect of the project that could be considered a hunt. It’s executed by wildlife biologists and professional sharpshooters, he said, who remove the animals they target, and if advocates come across decapitated carcasses — which Baron has documented with photos multiple times — it’s not because of the official cull.

A decapitated deer spotted in Fairmount Park this month Credit: Mary Ann Baron

“Safety is our paramount concern,” he said. “Every deer that is taken in our project is immediately — underline, bold, italics, can’t emphasize this enough — removed from the location where it is killed.”

The depopulation has achieved a significant reduction in the number of automobile collisions with deer, he said, estimating that there were about 200 accidents per year in the area in the 1990s, and now there are only about 50.

Another significant part of the project? Social responsibility.

The PA Game Commission requires that all counties that receive a special permit to authorize the seasonal culling practice donate every ounce of meat yielded from the kills to local food banks. Per a report by Metro Philly last year, 7,000 pounds of meat were donated as a result of 324 deer removed in the 2017-2018 season.

Last year, the Heinz Wildlife Refuge near PHL Airport approved a plan to start their own cull, this one via a controlled hunt.

Still, there are folks — like Baron and her group — who believe that there are better, more ethical ways to control the white-tailed deer population in Philadelphia.

Nonviolent depopulation alternatives

After a public hearing at City Council in 1994 was called to examine the effects of the deer population and explore solutions, the Friends of the Wissahickon did a survey and observed 159 deer in the park. Four years later, legal culling was approved.

While calling the practice futile, due to the “rebound effect of deer populations” and their high reproductive rate, Baron did note that, when she first became aware of the cull, supporters stressed that it would only take about a year for the wildlife to be managed.

Twenty years and 3,793 dead deer later, the method has not proven to be 100 percent effective.

Baron has been involved with deer advocacy groups for almost a decade, and in 2010 co-founded Pennsylvania Advocates for Deer. The group now has about 30 to 35 active, regular members, she said, who support the use of nonviolent deer depopulation methods, such as natural selection.

Their choice predator? Philly’s coyotes. 

“There are cities that have accepted the urban coyotes as a result of coyotes losing their indigenous habitats and their deer population has decreased. They’re not having large amounts of poachers coming in to kill the deer,” Baron said.

PAD has hosted workshops that discuss other alternatives, such as installing solar-powered deer deterrent systems with sound-waves to protect vegetation; adding more slow signs and speed bumps; roadside animal detection systems; and dash light reflectors to decrease automobile collisions.

City officials are unconvinced any of those would work.

“What I know about non-lethal means of removing deer,” said Parks & Rec’s Bessler, “is that if it has any opportunity to be effective, it would have to take place in a controlled area, in a controlled space — which is the exact opposite of what we have in our parks in Philadelphia.”