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Deer Heaven

Humans invented suburbia, but it is deer who may be its most enthusiastic residents

The deer population is flourishing amid suburban sprawl.
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By Liza Mundy
Sunday, April 26, 2009

The deer in question is a doe with whom Ferebee has a long-term relationship, of sorts. Six years ago, he shot her with a dart containing a chemical that temporarily immobilized her, then put a leather collar with an attached radio transmitter on her. Since then, he has checked in with her periodically, tracking her movements to learn more about the secret lives of deer living so close to humans.

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Though deer are becoming almost as ubiquitous in the suburbs as squirrels and rabbits, there is a great deal that biologists and wildlife managers don't know about how they dwell among us. Ferebee's effort is part of a wave of inquiry: How do deer understand human activity, navigate traffic, reproduce in populated areas? Are they becoming, in some fundamental way, a different animal than deer living in the wild?

But Ferebee's friendship with the doe in Rock Creek Park may be over: This morning, the collar began sending him the "mortality beep," indicating that it had been lying motionless for a long period of time. Not, when you're talking about deer, a good sign.

Ferebee gets in his truck and heads along Oregon Avenue in Northwest Washington until he sees a grassy clearing near the police stables where he darted the doe. Over the years, he often would see her in this area, browsing for food in the company of others, most likely her fawns and adult offspring. Sometimes at night, though, he would see her poised on the edge of Oregon Avenue, as if preparing to visit the neighborhood nearby.

And sure enough, today the beeps lead him into the part of Chevy Chase that borders the park, a world of basketball hoops and recycling bins and landscaped yards. He stops the truck near a little park on the grounds of the Episcopal Center for Children. In front of the park are a new sidewalk and retaining wall. Behind the wall is soft, backfilled dirt bearing the unmistakable imprint of hooves. Oddly, the beeping is coming from the dirt. Ferebee prods the backfill with a digging bar and comes up with the collar, broken and crusted, the yellow tape he put on to identify it still attached.

"It's a weird place to find it," Ferebee says.

Ferebee thought he knew this deer pretty well. In the past eight years, he has tracked five radio-collared does in all, and learned, among other things, that some spend more than half their time outside Rock Creek Park's boundaries. Their overall ranges vary: Some dwell within a quarter-mile radius, while others meander a bit farther, covering two miles. One doe pretty much lived in the neighborhoods around 16th Street NW, browsing in yards and bedding in gardens. Over time, two of Ferebee's does were hit by cars, and one--the yard-dweller--had to be euthanized because of an injury. Another slipped out of her collar. This doe is, or was, the only one with whom he remained in contact.

Ferebee had always regarded this one as a homebody. He knew she sometimes ventured into town but did not think she came this far. "We must be five or six blocks out of the park," he says. Which raises a whole bunch of questions: How did the collar get here, and how did it get buried? Is the doe's carcass buried, too? Could she have been hit by a car and removed by some other authority? Or did she slip the collar, which was designed to break away eventually, and return to the park?

And what are his chances of answering any of these questions? It's early February, which means the doe still has the grayish coat that deer display in winter. If he can spot her in the next month, he might recognize her by a bare patch around her neck where the collar rubbed the hair off. But soon she will grow the reddish-brown coat of summer, the neck hair will fill in, and the mystery of her fate will never be solved.

But even if he doesn't find her, one thing is clear: This deer had a more adventurous life than Ferebee had imagined.

***

When Ferebee first came to work in Rock Creek Park in 1991, it was a big deal to see even one white-tailed deer, the most common kind in North America. "You could go weeks without seeing one, and when you did see one, it was a significant thing," he says.


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