Not since Walt Disney's "Bambi" has the native American white-tailed deer had so many friends.
Yesterday, those for and against The National Zoo's planned deer hunt on its Blue Ridge exotic game preserve filled Rayburn House Appropriations Subcommittee Room B-308 to argue whether the hunt is necessary. And everyone, of course, professed to having the interests of the deer at heart.
"There's no difference between shooting a deer and eating it than eating a McDonald's hamburger," said Robert McDowell of the National Bowhunters Education Foundation, which favors the hunt. "Our wildlife should not be victims for unscientific, romantic and misguided notions about wildlife management."
"The zoo has failed for many years to adopt a rational plan for deer management on this property," charged John W. Grandy of the Humane Society of the United States, which opposed the hunt. "The only rational goal is to call off the hunt and get the deer out of there once and for all."
Zoo officials testifed that the hunt is necessary because an estimated 1,000 head of white-tailed deer pose a health threat to the preserve's exotic herds as well as eating the alfalfa grown on the 3,300-acre tract that is used by the zoo to breed many exotic and endangered animals. The white tail deer were trapped inside the preserve when it was fenced several years ago and now are multiplying at a rate of several hundred a year.
The hunt "would not be a disorganized, shooting free-for-all involving hordes of hunters milling about," said Chris Wemmer, curator of the zoo's Conservation and Research Center near Front Royal, Va. "Rather, it would be . . . a finely tuned, professionally designed culling in which deer would be taken . . ."
Yesterday's hearing was called by Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-Ill.) after an outcry over the hunt from members of the Friends of The National Zoo, a fund-raising group that supports the zoo. As chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Yates holds the Smithsonian's pursestrings. His approval is critical if the hunt to go forward as planned on Nov. 15.
"This whole issue just provides a fishbowl forum for people who are opposed to hunting, period," Jack Berryman of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies told Yates's subcommittee.
Cleveland Amory of The Fund For Animals faulted the Smithsonian Institution, which runs the zoo and predicted a backlash among the organization's backers. "There isn't a reader of Smithsonian Magazine who will want to continue to read the magazine if this hunt goes on," Amory told Yates' subcommittee.
Rep. J. Kenneth Robinson (R-Va.) told the subcommittee that hunters in his district wanted the hunt and farmers and orchardists viewed with alarm the suggestions of some conservationists who want to drive the unwanted deer from the preserve into surrounding lands.
The zoo held its first hunt last year, during which about 125 deer were killed. This year an estimated 400 hunters have received permits for the hunt. The zoo's original plans included rifle and bow hunting, but zoo officials said yesterday that bow hunting had been canceled because Virginia's bow hunting season will be over by the time Yates's committee decides whether to approve the hunt.
Hunt opponents said yesterday that deer drives or selective hunting by sharpshooters would be preferable to a public hunt, which they argue would not solve the problem but merely prolong it. "It's just like shooting fish in a barrel," said Front Royal hunter Forrest W. Tripplett. "And the deer will come right back over the preserve's fences."
Zoo officials have said that those alternatives are too expensive and impractical, as well as engendering resentment among many area hunters.
Yates initially expressed interest in alternatives to the hunt such as driving the deer from the zoo property or tranquilizing and relocating them in the nearby Shenandoah National Park. But after more than four hours of testimony Yates was less sure.
"I'm torn," he said, reading aloud mortality rates for deer relocated in New Mexico and Florida. "I'm troubled by the fact that it seems almost impossible to get them out of this place," he said, referring to the preserve.
Yates reminded witnesses that the Smithsonian's first responsibility is to the exotic animals.