PRINCETON, N.J. -- The wayward buck died at high noon. It bolted from an alley behind a luncheonette onto the busiest street in this tweedy college town and smack into a passing car. The accident was over in an instant, another statistic for the township's deer officer.
But the aftershocks for this cosmopolitan community have just begun. Princeton broke the mold in 1972 when it became the first of many New Jersey towns to ban hunting with firearms. Town leaders had expressed concern about safety and about the right way to treat deer in a civilized society.
Last year, however, more deer died here on the fenders of cars than from bullets, and not one had made it all the way to bustling Nassau Street. Faced with the constant threat of dangerous collisions, an epidemic of crushed flower beds and half-chewed shrubbery and the murky fear of Lyme disease carried by deer ticks, many people here have begun taking a hard look at support for the unfettered freedom of a herd that has overrun the township.
"It's enough already," said Michelle Calvert, manager of a local clothing store. "When I drive at night, I have to go about 10 miles an hour. I've had a dozen close calls in the last year. It seems like every other night we hear the screech of tires at 4 a.m. In the morning, there's another dead deer by the side of the road."
Princeton has become a focal point in the complicated and increasingly familiar suburban world where animal-rights activists clash with developers and parents worried about hunting safety and Lyme disease confront wildlife officials eager to reduce the herd.
Nearly 200 deer died here in car accidents last year, far more than in any other town in the state, and the resulting tension is eroding the township's historic decorum.
"We have an annual bow and arrow hunt," said Allen I. Rowe, associate director of the Institute for Advanced Study, where people such as Albert Einstein have come to think big thoughts on 640 acres of wooded land. "It causes some controversy and debate. People say it's cruel. But what are we going to do -- put timber wolves in the woods?"
That approach was given serious consideration a couple of years ago, according to Rowe, as were sentimental discussions of lions and coyotes. Then it was pointed out that wolves, while enjoying a good deer, also have a demonstrated sweet tooth for dogs, cats and children. "You can't just capture them all and take them to another place," Rowe said. "Who would want them?"
There has been a fusillade of blame. Nina Austenberg, regional director for the United States Humane Society, primarily faulted state wildlife officials, who work under some of the nation's most liberal hunting laws and do nothing to force hunters to shoot only at female deer. That would reduce the herd over time, but many hunters prefer bucks as trophies because of their ornamental antlers.
"If the Fish and Wildlife people would actually manage the game as they are supposed to do," she said, "we wouldn't have this problem. But they make their living off of deer. They want a smaller herd about as much as diaper companies want fewer babies."
Wildlife management officials, who frequently confront public sentiment against hunting, said they wish only that they could wave a wand and make the problem disappear.
"Many communities face similar pressures of development now," said Robert Lund, a supervising biologist with the state Fish Game and Wildlife Department. "We believe that, in many cases, there is a solution. Wherever deer . . . can be safely hunted, we strongly recommend it. We feel at least some of Princeton could fall into that category.
"The issue is really simple," he continued. "Do you want to control the deer or not? If you do, the only real option is hunting. The only other significant agent of death is the car."
But ideal solutions seem to crumble when people become involved. Like many other municipalities with similar problems, Princeton has grown rapidly over the last 20 years. What were once perfect fields for hunters now hold condominiums filled with toddlers.
A vigorous animal-rights movement also has emerged in nearly every corner of the nation. Nowhere is that more evident than in Princeton, one of the country's semi-official bastions of tolerance and learning.
"These animals are a natural resource," said Karen Cotton, a local woman who has become active in seeking a nonviolent resolution to the deer crisis. "They belong to all of us, not just to hunters. They are feeling. They have nerves, and they are sentient. We can't be pressured by sportsmen and wildlife officials into accepting common cruelty."
Cotton and others in Princeton consider bow hunting barbaric and expressed hope that new forms of birth control for deer may help to thin the herd.
Increasingly, however, people in this oasis of intellect and reflection have started calling for blood. The herd, which has grown to 1,200 from fewer than 200 at the beginning of the ban, has adapted nicely to suburbia. The deer take sanctuary in a few large parcels of land. Bow hunting is still legal, but it requires a skill and tenacity rarely seen among this town's donnish and diffident residents.
"We have a problem, and we have to face it," said Dona Schneider, a former Princeton Township environmental commissioner still active on the town deer committee. "We need to kill deer. There are only so many ways you can do that. You can kill them with cars or with arrows or guns. But some of them have to go. I want people out there at 5 a.m., dedicated and deadly, ready to kill."
The town has become obsessed with the animals. Police are required to have special high-frequency deer whistles on their cars, and many other residents have bought them. The ultrasonic whistles rely on air rushing through a two-inch tube. At speeds greater than 30 mph, they emit a tone audible to deer but not to humans.
"They only work up to a point," Cotton said. "It's worth noting that no cars in Princeton kill more deer than police cars."
Hearings will be scheduled later this year on the deer issue, according to newly elected deputy mayor Ellen Souter, who called it one of the area's most "genuinely distressing problems." Ask five people what to do, and you are likely to get five answers. All will be loud.
"I know there are a few people who love those adorable little creatures so much they can't bear to see one hurt," said John Kuser, associate professor of forestry at Rutgers University and head of Princeton's deer committee. "But in time, the deer will take over this city. It's going to end up like a Hitchcock movie. Sometimes, I feel like I have to remind people that I pay taxes here and the deer don't."