Robert McCartney
Robert McCartney

Kill the deer, but please go without me

Perched uncomfortably on a small metal seat attached to a tree 15 feet above the ground in a patch of suburban woods Thursday, I was just starting to think that this second attempt to personally witness a deer’s demise was going to be another bust.

So far, squirrels and a fox were the only animals that I and my companion, bowhunter Gregg Brown, had seen. We were in the center of a small grove surrounded by spacious homes in McLean just outside the Beltway shortly after dawn. Brown was sitting three feet above me on another side of the tree. Both of us wore camouflage from hats to ankles.

Then the deer walked up, appearing suddenly on our left. A button buck, a male too young to have grown antlers. As it ambled by, about 10 yards from the tree’s base, Brown quietly stood, picked up his Mathews-brand bow from a stand and prepared to shoot a green-feathered arrow.

I paid close attention so I could remember every detail. My wait was about to pay off. I was going to see the worthy cause of suburban deer control in action.

It didn’t happen. The deer veered away from the tree. Brown sat down.

“No clear shot. Branches in the way,” he whispered. “If he’d turned right instead of left, we would have had a different situation.”

Although I missed a chance to see a kill, I learned something in those few seconds about myself. In the brief interval between seeing the deer and its disappearance into the trees, I felt an unexpected surge of sympathy for the animal.

Even after a total of about three hours of chilly anticipation, including during a previous outing when no deer appeared, I found myself in that moment hoping that Brown wouldn’t shoot. I was suddenly distressed by the vivid prospect that I was about to see the deer take an arrow through its lungs, run haltingly for 40 yards or so and die.

The fact, which I hadn’t appreciated before, is that I lack a hunter’s temperament. This was my first time going after anything bigger than fish, and it wasn’t appealing.

I’m not anti-hunting. It’s a sport with millennia of tradition. I would be a hypocrite to oppose it, given how much I relish eating steak and bacon.

The cold truth is that while I’m quite comfortable being at the top of the food chain, I prefer that somebody else spill the blood necessary to keep me there.

When I later described my reaction to Brown, he nodded, smiled slightly and said, “It’s not for everybody.”

We non-hunters should be especially grateful for hunters when it comes to killing deer, whose excessive population growth in the suburbs poses several problems.

Deer collide with cars. They carry ticks that spread Lyme disease. They despoil flower gardens and shrubbery. They threaten the woods themselves — and their own food supply — by denuding shrubs and plants below the forest canopy.

“Once the understory is gone, the forest is functionally gone,” a Fairfax County government biologist said.

The deer concentration in Fairfax should be about 15 to 20 per square mile, but some places are estimated to have more than 400 per square mile. Other suburban counties, such as Montgomery and Loudoun, are also struggling with an overabundance.

“We’re trying to get more hunters out in the woods. Obviously, we can’t introduce wolves again,” said the Fairfax biologist, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified because he wasn’t authorized to be quoted by name.

That’s why we need people such as Brown. He hunts six days a week, except when it rains. He’s one of about 100 volunteer hunters working for Suburban Whitetail Management of Northern Virginia.

The nonprofit organization kills deer at the request of homeowners, businesses and local governments. The group has killed more than 550 this year in Northern Virginia, including about a dozen in the woods where we sat in McLean.

Brown’s group, and others like it, supplement the work of police sharpshooters who kill deer on county parklands in managed hunts.

Brown, 53, who retired from the mortgage finance industry three years ago, said he hunts partly for sport but also as a public service. Suburban hunting, which tends to be on small lots with little opportunity to track the deer or take long shots, isn’t especially fun.

“Most of our members look at it more for what it is: reducing the deer herd. Most of us go elsewhere for the recreational type of hunting,” Brown said.

Bowhunting has critics but is practical. It’s quieter than using firearms and less likely to injure bystanders. Also, the use of firearms is tightly restricted in Fairfax.

Opponents such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals condemn bowhunting as inhumane, saying too many deer survive being shot and are then tormented by arrows carried in their flesh. Brown said his group consistently kills 19 out of 20 deer that it shoots.

The critics “don’t have any supporting evidence that it’s cruel,” he said. “Death is death. There’s no answer to that.”

Critics also say contraception should be used to control the deer population, but both the Fairfax and Montgomery governments say that’s unworkable right now. The only drug approved for use on deer can be administered only by capturing the deer and injecting them by hand, which is too costly to do with a large, wild population.

Given all that, I’m happy to see the hunters head out. They’re helping to manage a serious problem. Just don’t make me watch.