The National Zoo refused yesterday to cancel its controversial plans for a public deer hunt on its 3,300-acre exotic wildlife retreat in Virginia, despite protests from wildlife protectionists and angry rumblings from some members of the zoo's own volunteer and fund-raising support group.
Zoo officials met with members of the Virginia game commission yesterday morning in response to outcries from wildlife protection groups and Front Royal, Va., residents opposed to the November hunt. "We haven't had any evidence to cause us to change our plans," said David Challinor, assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, which operates the zoo. "It's clearly a no-win situation."
Meanwhile, some members of the Friends of the National Zoo, a group accustomed to promoting the zoo, were drafting a protest resolution to be presented at a FONZ meeting Thursday night.
"I feel like I've been conned," said member John Rochford.
Zoo officials say the hunt is necessary because the white-tailed deer herd within the 8-foot fences surrounding its Conservation Center in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains has increased to 1,000 and poses a health hazard to the zoo's exotic game herds and alfalfa crop.
Four efforts during the last two years to drive the deer out of the refuge have been unsuccessful, according to center curator Chris Wemmer, and such drives are not considered humane after spring fawns are born.
"We've tried deterrence, we've considered fencing our crop, we've tried driving--this is our last resort," Wemmer said.
"We've got an overpopulation problem here. The controlled hunt is the most humane solution, unless you want to see a lot of starving deer this winter. These protectionists do not understand deer biology and the particulars of this situation. We're damned if we do, and damned if we don't."
The hunt plans call for about 400 permits to be issued to zoo staff and local bow and rifle hunters for a controlled hunt over about 2,000 acres. The zoo hopes the herd will be reduced by one-third, a prospect that had wildlife groups fuming yesterday.
"In addition to legal pressure, we're going to try to put on high-level congressional pressure to stop this thing," said John W. Grandy of the Humane Society of the U.S.
"I'm a hunter, but you won't catch me hunting in there," Front Royal resident Charles Yates said. "It's a disgrace. It"s like shooting fish in a barrel." Yates said he and more than 400 other area hunters signed a petition opposing a hunt that was allowed last year, and would do so again. As for the starvation argument, Yates says, "there's no hunting in the Shenandoah forest next door, and I don't see any deer starving there." Zoo officials counter that the zoo property has few of the natural predators that help control deer numbers in natural forests.
Animal lovers are not convinced, however. "Shame on the zoo," said wildlife writer Ann Cottrell Free, a founder and active FONZ member. "Protectors of animals, and yet they are organizing a hunt for sport on their own sanctuary." Free predicted that many FONZ members and Smithsonian Associates would be moved to cancel membership.
The Smithsonian's Challinor said the zoo's decision was not "immutable. I'm sitting back and taking the heat. But our first responsibility is to our herds of exotic, and expensive, game.
"The greater the white-tailed deer population, the greater the threat of disease. I look on deer and cockroaches as all God's creatures for better or for worse. There's no joy in this."