From hunter to the hungry: Fairfax County’s surplus deer are re-purposed

The field was barren, all dead grass and half-frozen mud until two weeks ago, when copious amounts of yellow corn mysteriously started to appear on the ground. Fairfax County police poured it there, creating an oasis of food for herds of hungry deer.

Now, as dusk descends, Master Police Officer Bob Swartz appears, dressed in camouflage and carrying a .308 sniper rifle. When he shoots, he rarely misses.

Swartz is on his last sharpshooting mission of the year at Bull Run Regional Park, a 970-square-acre forest at the county’s southern edge. The county’s biologist estimates this park contains 400 deer per square mile — an area that in the wild would sustain about 15 animals.

Short on food and space, the swelling deer population is a threat to man and nature alike. Animals leap in front of cars speeding along nearby I-66. And they have upended the ecosystem by gobbling some plants to the point of extinction. Something must be done, the county says; in this forest, the deer have no natural predators. What they have instead is Swartz.

“I try to do it as humane as possible,” says Swartz, a stocky man of great experience and enviable eyesight. A hunter since he was a teenager, he views population reduction as a job that must be done.

Not everyone agrees. When Fairfax first proposed sharpshooting Bull Run deer in 1998, animals rights activists objected, and members of the public pushed back, citing safety concerns. A quarter of Montgomery County residents surveyed logged disapproval for the county’s plans to shoot deer in more urban areas like Chevy Chase, a project that began in February. Plans to shoot deer in Rock Creek Park in the District were put on hold all season by a lawsuit saying that the National Park Service should explore other ways to cull herds; the suit was thrown out last week.

Swartz steps into a lift that raises him 18 feet in the air; he pulls a camouflage ski mask over his head. He gazes through night goggles that sharpen the outlines of objects emitting heat.

Three objects with shoehorn-shaped ears spring into Swartz’s vision. They form unmistakable silhouettes.

The deer killed tonight are about to embark upon an improbable journey from the rapidly expanding exurbs to the nexus of a rapidly changing city. It’s a journey they will start as a suburban menace and end as an urban solution — albeit a temporary one. In between, they will connect the lives of a police officer and an ex-convict, a butcher and an artist, a poor man and his soon-to-be wife. Disparate people in a disparate region, where city and country collide and — sometimes — connect.

Swartz pulls the trigger.

When he shoots, he doesn’t miss.

Collecting the kill

In the distance, Forrest Higginbotham’s BlackBerry buzzes.

“Swartz has downed six so far,” he reads aloud. “It’s time for us to go collect.”

Higginbotham, the animal control officer who coordinates this operation, had been driving his pickup truck through the park with two volunteers, telling tales of wrangling feral pigs and removing pythons wrapped around car motors — animal control adventures from other seasons.

But, each winter, he’s consumed with deer control programs. He works with the parks department to figure out how many hunts are feasible in a given area and what type should take place. There are managed hunts where private citizens shoot the deer with guns or with bows and arrows; the former were responsible for 119 and the latter for 711 of the 986 deer the county harvested in the past fiscal year. Sharpshooting accounted for 156 of the kills.

In the past fiscal year, the management program increased the number of deer it killed by 20 percent. The county’s biologist says that has helped regenerate native plants. It also helped reduce the number of deer-vehicle collisions in Virginia, where insurance data estimate motorists have a 1 in 102 chance of hitting a deer.

Higginbotham and his volunteers think the small but vocal minority of county residents who say shooting is inhumane — and advocate using birth control instead — are too sentimental.

“It’s all about the circle of life,” he says as he drives to the field to pick up the deer carcasses. Sometimes to maintain the natural order, you must interfere.

The sniper sees the truck pulling into the field. “There are three over there, and there’s one by the trees,” he announces as the men pull out their flashlights.

The volunteers step over mud puddles coated with ice. Small orbs of light sway side to side as the men search for a slain animal.

Finally, one catches the head. Its big eyes are open, tongue jutting out the mouth. It weighs about 100 pounds. Its fluffy gray coat is stained by blood from a single shot to the neck.

One by one, the men heave animals into the pickup truck. Thud. Thud. Thud.

Later that night, they will cut through the bellies and excise the insides, then toss the carcasses into a large refrigerator.

Nine bucks and nine does are slain this night, between Swartz and another sniper.

Higginbotham attaches the icebox to a pickup truck.

In the morning, the exurban home at Fairfax’s southern edge will be a memory for the crew. The bloodied deer would be transported to the polished sanctity of a suburban strip mall.

‘Good, old-fashioned hard work’

The artist’s life: eyeing carcasses and turning then into something delectable.

“I’m from here, went to Annandale [high school]. I tried lots of things after that, like the culinary stuff,” he says. “But this is the only thing that really appealed to me.”

Kane Saxton is 23 years old and lanky.

Seven years ago, Saxton asked the owner of Springfield Butcher for a job. Mike Preast, a second-generation butcher with kids who aren’t interested in the trade, was happy to pass the tradition on to someone younger. They work toward the end of a camel-colored strip mall in Springfield, where floors are impeccably polished and the speakers hum with light pop hits.

In the back, the officer and his volunteers are pulling dead deer into Preast’s meat locker, leaving streaks of blood behind. This is the only butcher shop in the county that agreed to process the meat for free.

“Seemed like the right thing to do,’’ Preast said, shrugging. “Otherwise it would go to waste.”

Saxton tightens his apron around his thin frame and asks for a knife.

“Extra-sharp,” he says. Alone in the freezer, he begins to carve.

“It’s just good, old-fashioned hard work, and there’s not a lot of that now. You know, hard work? Like not on the computer. ”

First, an incision in each of the hind legs. Then, one by one, each carcass is hung on metal hooks. He peels off the skin like a bandage.

“You feel this sense of accomplishment when people look at you and say, ‘You do that?’ You did all this work.”

His white apron is turning red.

“I’ve never been hunting. I just can’t see myself hurting an animal.”

He saws off the head.

“My passion is art, you know. I still do paintings. But it’s hard to be discovered and you still got to pay the bills. But one day, I want my art hanging on people’s walls.”

What hangs on the wall before him is surreal. It looks nothing like the creature that was prancing in the forest a half-hour’s drive away. It is venison. Deep red, lean and raw.

At the butcher shop, venison ranges from $10.99 to $30.99 a pound.

But Preast is going to give the meat away.

Delivering the protein

Before he and a co-worker ferried meat from the suburbs to the city, the ex-con ferried people on Metrobuses.

But now Keith Lemons is just happy to have a job. Two mornings after the deer arrived at Springfield Butcher, Lemons and a co-worker drove to the shop. The venison was chopped and wrapped tightly in Saran Wrap, stuffed into 25 paper bags. It was an easy pickup.

The two drive past the Washington Monument, then muscle through downtown Washington’s morning traffic. They slow down as they approach their destination in Shaw, near a massive hole in the ground where luxury condos with rooftop pools are promised.

Across the street, a different world. There’s a barbershop with a faded sign, a shuttered wing shop and a line of homeless people at a food pantry. That’s where the deer meat is going: from the hunter to the hungry.

Lemons pulls into the alleyway behind Bread for the City. It is 10:30 a.m. A flurry of people are filing through the front entrance. They are out of work, vets, elderly. This is the place they arrive to receive donated food to make at home.

The organization’s nutritionist begged Hunters for the Hungry, which receives venison donations from Springfield and other butcher shops throughout Virginia, to stretch its borders and give to the D.C.-based organization. Securing sources of protein is always their biggest challenge, especially one as lean and pricey as venison.

“It’s real popular,’’ said Lemons, short and bald with a big smile. “A lot of people who come here are from the country, so they know what to do with it.”

Lemons would never knowingly eat deer (“Maybe if I didn’t know what it was,” he said), but he’s thankful that delivering meat gives him a second chance.

He spent five years in prison after being convicted on fraud charges, landing a job here after completing a skills program for the formerly incarcerated. Behind him are the vestiges of his old life. The 70 bus grumbles along Ninth Street — it’s the route he used to drive.

His dream is to return to the bus, although it’s unlikely. He at least wants to be good role model for his colleagues and the 5-year-old he helps raise in Anacostia. “We have deer there, too,” Lemons said. “In Southeast. They are moving into urban areas.”

He enters the distribution center where canned vegetables are stacked high and loaves of bread occupy a corner. Lemons places packs of deer meat in a small plastic tub, between a bin of turkey franks and another of raw chicken, ready to be chosen.

“What is that?” a woman asks. “Deer? Uh-uh. I’ll take chicken.”

“I’ll try it,” says another woman, coincidentally wearing a sweater with reindeer on it.

“I just love it,” says a man in glasses. “If you cook it right, it tastes just like beef.”

A meal to share

His name is Charles Whitley. He is 51 years old, thin. Seven months ago, he was fired from the job that enabled him to move out of the homeless shelter. Now he lives three blocks away. He put two pounds of venison inside a brown bag. He has big plans for it.

Whitley walks past a candy-colored collection of renovated rowhouses with expensive cars parked outside. His place is in the alley behind them. He climbs up the stairs above a garage into a makeshift efficiency apartment that can hardly hold his queen-size bed.

“Things are still tight right now, so I don’t have much,” he says.

It is spotless but stuffy, crowded with boxes packed with clothes and legal documents. A collection of baseball caps hangs on thumbtacks pushed into the wall. The bathroom door is unhinged, held up by tape. A towel covers his window, which looks out on a neighborhood richer and whiter than he ever could have imagined. This isn’t the Northwest Washington he grew up in.

As the city changed, life has gotten harder, the Wilson High grad says. Three years ago, he started bouncing between friends’ houses and homeless shelters. It took him two years to find a $9-an-hour job churning gourmet ice cream.

His rent was $600 a month, but his landlord wants $900 now. The lawyer-less Whitley’s been battling him about the rent increase in court, but he knows it’s just a matter of time until he loses the fight and some young professional snaps up the chance to live here.

“I know it’s not just me; it’s happening to a lot of people,” he says. “D.C.’s comin’ up.” He tries not to resent his city’s success, despite the fact that he may be a casualty of it.

“I spent so many days going to court, trying to find a lawyer, doing all these things that they laid me off” from the ice cream job, he said. His voice starts to tremble. “Now I’m back at square one.”

He plans to share the venison. Seven months ago, Whitley was waiting for a bus when he caught the attention of a North Carolina woman named Patricia White at a bus stop. She is unemployed, too, because she hasn’t been able to secure money and training for a license to do home care in the District.

But they fell in love, so he asked her to move in. She said yes. They’ll be married soon.

Tonight, he wants to cook a special dinner. It is Valentine’s Day.

He brings out the meat.

The night before, he soaked it in water and salt. Earlier that day, he sprinkled it with spices he pulled out from his doorless cupboard. He chopped up some carrots and potatoes and stuffed it all into the oven they use at night to keep warm. The aroma perfumes the house. Whitley’s Uncle Billy has asked if he can join them, and his nephew can’t deny him a meal.

That evening, Whitley places the meat, well-done and tender, on a small wooden table. He pulls up a chipped wooden stool held together by tape. Uncle Billy takes the office chair with torn cushions. Patricia decides to stand. There’s no more room in the kitchen.

One bite is enough.

“I’m sorry, I can’t do it,” she says. “It tastes good, tastes just like roast. But I can’t get over the fact that it’s deer. I like them too much.”

Her fiance and his uncle continue eating. The conversation doesn’t stay light for long.

“We don’t have nowhere to go, baby,” Whitley worries. “We could be kicked out any day.”

“Don't worry,” she says, “we’ll make something work.”

Uncle Billy tries to change the subject. He reminds them that in tough situations — though they may not understand how or why — blessings can appear. The latest is the meal in front of them.

“The deer meat is delicious,” he says. “The Lord provides.”

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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