A deer that lived between I-395 and Van Dorn Street in Alexandria touched lives


Deborah Williams, who lives on North Van Dorn Street in Alexandria. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist May 7

When it was clear that the deer was dead — struck by a car — someone in the crowd of onlookers who had gathered suggested that maybe it could be taken to a butcher, its meat given to the poor.

Deborah Williams would have none of it. To her, this was not some random roadkill. This deer was different. For eight years, the doe had survived in a seemingly inhospitable corner of Alexandria, spending most of her time living in a narrow stretch of woods between Interstate 395 and Van Dorn Street, cars whizzing by on either side.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Many people had their own private names for the deer. Some called her Baby. Some called her Bonnie. (The doe’s brother, Clyde, was killed on 395 years ago.)

Deborah called her Sweetheart.

“This deer is like a sister, a member of someone’s family,” said Deborah, a Department of Defense retiree who lives in Parkside. “These people in this community have grown to know this deer as someone other than just a deer running up and down the street. Could you take your sister to the butcher’s and eat her?”

Instead of turning Sweetheart into sausage, Deborah and two friends loaded her lifeless body into a car — a tiny Fiat 500, amazingly — and drove west, out Interstate 66 and then onto the Dulles Greenway. They buried her in the sort of bucolic setting the deer had never seen.

Deborah would have preferred that the deer had experienced the country while living. That was the hope — that the deer could be given a new life far from Shirley Highway.

But is it animal control’s responsibility to run a wildlife witness-relocation program for urban deer?

The deer had long been a neighborhood favorite, often greeting passersby along a fence.

Said Deborah: “Every morning she would walk up and down North Van Dorn behind the fence and people would get to know her at the bus stop and wave at her.”

Some people, Deborah said, would feed the deer apples and carrots.

The deer would sometimes disappear for a month or two, but she always came back.

“She was lonely,” Deborah said. “That’s why I think she got attached to the neighborhood so much.”

Recent Virginia Department of Transportation construction along 395 started shrinking the sliver of green the deer called home. People began to worry about her.

“She was getting spooked by big equipment,” Deborah said. “It got to be a real cat-and-mouse kind of game. We were tying up holes in the fence so she wouldn’t get out.”

Deborah contacted Alexandria animal control and Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF). She said she didn’t get much response until WJLA (Channel 7) did a report on the deer. And that’s when the messy interaction between deer and humans became a messy interaction between what you might call deer lovers and deer realists.

Shooting a 200-pound deer with a tranquilizer dart is not easy. What’s more, the drugged deer can run into traffic. So DGIF biologist Kevin Rose set up what’s called a box trap.

Some deer lovers thought a spooked Sweetheart could injure herself if she was trapped while no one was around and so tampered with the trap, Deborah said.

In an e-mail, Kevin wrote: “There is valid concern that a deer in a trap may injure itself, which is why it was monitored closely at a significant expense to DGIF.”

But after the trap was vandalized several times, DGIF gave up and removed it.

On the evening of April 4, Deborah saw a commotion in front of her house on North Van Dorn. A vehicle had struck the deer. Though the car was severely damaged, the driver was uninjured. The deer was not so lucky.

A week later, 50 people attended a memorial service for the deer at Fort Ward Park. If you drive on North Van Dorn Street, you can see remnants of posters and bouquets people put up in honor of the deer. “RIP BONNIE” is spelled out on one fence.

“People sometimes think I’m a crazy person,” Deborah said, “but I never realized how much that deer affected people in this community.”

But their love may have contributed to the deer’s demise. It is illegal in Virginia to feed deer. By providing a steady source of food, residents may have been preventing the deer from going elsewhere to seek it.

Wrote Kevin in an e-mail: “The death of this deer was partly due to the actions of well-meaning citizens and partly due to the inevitable interaction between wildlife and development.”

As Joseph Seskey, Alexandria’s chief animal control officer, put it: “Wildlife needs to be wild.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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