Eat Tulips and Die

Lynn Gorfinkle would not, if she were stranded on a desert island with only a rabbit, eat that rabbit in order to survive. She does not take issue with those who would or do kill for subsistence, but she thinks that modern-day American sport hunters – especially deer hunters – are morally deficient and probably “hung like hamsters.” Actually, she would argue that “sport” is an inappropriate metaphor for an activity that involves – by her telling of it – scent-lock jumpsuits, night-vision scopes, and camouflage toilet paper. “Is this fair chase?” she asks. “I don’t think so. This is war!”

Lynn has volunteered to take me on a tour of an unlikely hot-spot in what she would describe as the ongoing American war on deer: Ridgefield, Connecticut, a bedroom community two miles from the New York state line. Ridgefield’s 24,000 human residents still outnumber its deer by more than eight to one, but the deer have been steadily gaining on them for at least the past ten years. Swelling deer numbers have led to more deer-vehicle accidents, more damage to gardens and landscaping, and growing concern that deer, by carrying ticks, are helping spread Lyme disease. But lately, humans have started to fight back. Hunting has become a widely accepted deer-management strategy in Ridgefield, both on private land and, starting this year, in state and local parks.

Lynn wants to convince me that this is a mistake. When I meet her in a grocery store parking lot one sunny fall afternoon in the middle of deer season, she hands me a manila folder containing maps of Ridgefield and admonishes me to make sure my car doors are locked. I climb into her fire-engine red Jeep Cherokee, which smells vaguely of cats, and we head off to see some of the parks in the process of being opened to hunting. As we drive, she points out hunters’ cars parked along the sides of the road. She recognizes some of them because she has taken pictures of their license plates. With others, she admits, she is just making educated guesses based on type of vehicle, bumper stickers, and what, if anything, she can see inside. “They like those big Suburbans, and cars with dark windows,” she says.

Lynn thinks that hunting in Ridgefield is not just immoral but also unsafe. There are houses everywhere – 258 per square mile, according to U.S. Census data – and Ridgefield residents – with a median household income of $107,351 – are the sort of upper-middle-class people who like to walk, run, and ride their bikes in whatever open space remains. Public land that is opened for hunting does not necessarily get closed to these other uses. When we pull into the parking lot of Bennett Pond State Park, which has allowed deer hunting with bows for the past year, there are three kids playing tag in the grass. “Hey kids,” Lynn says, “don’t end up like shish-ka-bobs.” But the Jeep’s doors are still unopened, and if the kids hear her warning through the windshield, they’re not paying attention.

Lynn has been an animal-rights person since before she can remember. She grew up riding horses in Fairfield County, and in the fall, when she knew that hunters would be in the woods, she would tie bells and ribbons to her horse to scare animals into hiding. Now approaching 60, she teaches African drumming classes for a living, but she spends much of her time volunteering with animal-rights organizations, including a group called CT-NAB (“NAB” stands for “no arrows or bullets”), which she co-founded.

As we walk into the woods, Lynn stops from time to time to catch her breath and listen for deer. “Where are you, deer?” she says aloud at several points. But the deer, if they’re in earshot, don’t understand our good motives. Eventually, after coming across a puddle bigger than either of us wants to cross, we turn around and head back to the parking lot.

We’re in the Jeep, getting ready to drive off, when Lynn notices two men getting out of a Saturn SUV. “I’ll bet you they’re bow hunters,” she says. “I can almost smell it from a mile away.” I crane my neck, but I can’t even see the men. “I’ll tell you what,” Lynn says. “We’ll change our vantage point.” She starts her engine and drives forty feet across the parking lot so that we can have a better view. Sure enough, the men, who have gone behind the car to change into camouflage, are hunters. We watch as one of them grabs his bow and walks off across the meadow where the children had been playing an hour earlier. The other one stays by the car for a few minutes.

“I think we’re making him nervous,” says Lynn. “Maybe he’s reconsidering the whole thing.” But eventually he locks his doors, walks behind us to take a look at Lynn’s license plate, and starts into the woods. After ten yards, he breaks into a run.

“What the hell’s he doing?” Lynn yells. “I think he’s suffering from some hunter’s brain disease. What does he think he’s going to accomplish by running?” I decide right then that I need to learn more about hunter behavior – and, in particular, about what makes Ridgefield hunters tick.

We’re CT-MAB,” says Joe Tucker, gesturing at himself and his friend Bob Mitchell. Having just spent a morning hunting with Joe, I immediately understand what he means by the acronym: “more arrows and bullets.” Joe is holding a copy of the previous week’s Ridgefield Press, in which CT-NAB, Lynn’s anti-hunting organization, has taken out a full-page ad. The ad tells the story of a whitetail deer that was hit by a hunter’s arrow but lived another ten months before dying from its wounds. It has, along with other pieces of newspaper, been lining the floor Bob’s walk-in cooler, soaking up the blood of deer that met more sudden ends.

Joe and Bob, along with their friend Dan Beyer and Joe’s brother Chris, have formed an organization to promote deer hunting in Ridgefield. The organization is called Whitetail Solutions, rather than CT-MAB, but it does seem to operate on the premise that more arrows and bullets would be a good thing. When I meet Dan in the Ridgefield Boys’ and Girls’ Club parking lot and get into his Dodge pickup, his first order of business lies in convincing me of the seriousness of Ridgefield’s deer problem. “Here’s some deer devastation,” he says, pointing out some chewed-over bushes as we get out of the truck to inspect one of his hunting sites. Later, as we’re driving down another street, he points towards a big house on a corner. “This is John,” he says. “He spends his weekends fixing his deer fences. He’s got a beautiful home but he feels trapped, like he’s in prison.”

In addition to plant damage, the men of Whitetail Solutions see deer-vehicle collisions as a big concern. “The deaths caused by deer, it’s phenomenal,” Joe tells me on another occasion. “I mean, people worry about sharks…”

Whitetail Solutions has a website, as well as a MySpace page. The MySpace page lists hunting, fishing, and teaching kids about the outdoors under “interests” and Gladiator and The Patriot under “favorite movies.” It plays the song “Something to be Proud Of,” by the band Montgomery Gentry, as background music. The song is built around a father’s advice to his grown-up son:

No need to make a million just be thankful that you’re working

If you’re doing what you’re able

Putting food there on the table

And providing for the family that you love

The official website does not have any background music. It aims not to win online friends but landowners’ permission to hunt. It gives brief bios of the four men who make up Whitetail Solutions and talks a bit about the services they offer. Anyone can get a free consultation, it says, but not every property is suitable for hunting. In these cases, Whitetail Solutions will work with the landowner to develop a non-lethal deer management plan, which usually incorporates deer fencing, repellents, and deer-resistant plantings. Whitetail Solutions gets a small commission on the deer-management products it sells; the money helps cover expenses, since it is against Connecticut law for hunters to charge for their services.

Of course, some properties do make the cut. On these properties, after they’ve gotten permission from the neighbors, the four hunters of Whitetail Solutions go to work. They put up elevated shooting platforms, called tree stands, that allow them to stay out of the deer’s line of sight. They also set up automatic feeders – big buckets, placed on tripods, that drop a certain amount of grain pellets each day at dawn and dusk. The idea is to condition deer to come near the tree stand during prime hunting hours. The combination of feeders and tree stands allows the hunters to get much closer to the deer than they otherwise would, ensuring that they can take chest and shoulder shots that are likely to bring quick death.

Once the deer are killed, there is the question of who gets the meat. The word has gotten out that the men of Whitetail Solutions are dependably good shots, meaning that there now any number of groups clamoring for a portion of what they bring in. They provide the meat for annual game-dinner fundraisers of the Seymour Fish and Game Club and the local American Legion chapter. They also donate venison to the Connecticut Food Bank. They’ve been giving away so much meat lately that they haven’t always had enough for themselves. “I raised my kids on venison,” says Joe, “but I’ve had it only once or twice this season.”

There is at least one body part that nobody seems to fight over: the deer’s front teeth. These get taken out and placed in white envelopes that are labeled and left in Bob’s deer cooler. Eventually, they get sent to the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, which uses them to analyze the overall health of the deer herd.

But who are the Ridgefield residents pushing for more deer hunting on public land and allowing groups like Whitetail Solutions to hunt on their own property? “I don’t think that there are masses of Ridgefielders clamoring for the right to hunt,” Margaret Eustace says. “We’re all too busy with soccer.” She goes on to explain that while she doesn’t support hunting in general, and has never really interacted with hunters in the past, she has given Whitetail Solutions permission to hunt on or near her land. For her, it was ultimately a question of health: she has two children, ages seven and twelve, and she is worried about Lyme disease, which is endemic to Connecticut and spread by ticks that live primarily on deer. Her seven-year-old daughter has gotten Lyme disease twice. Both times the family doctor has managed to catch it early and treat it with antibiotics. But the disease, if left untreated, could have caused permanent joint problems similar to rheumatoid arthritis.

Margaret, in her reluctant acceptance of deer hunting, has gone through a thought process that is being recapitulated millions of times across suburban America. When humans move into deer territory, bulldozing open space to make room for subdivisions, or when deer move into human territory, drawn by the good browsing that suburban yards offer, conflict is inevitable. Damage to landscaping, deer-vehicle collisions, and concerns about deer-transmitted diseases combine to lead suburbanites towards hunting – or to having other people hunt for them.

Ridgefield has been no exception to this national trend. At a town meeting on May 31 of this year, Ridgefield residents voted 531 to 194 to allow hunting on municipal land. The vote came after a report by the town’s deer committee, which met for ten months to study options for managing deer in Ridgefield. Of the committee’s 18 members, 17 signed off on a report endorsing hunting as a way of keeping the deer herd in check. There was one dissenter, a forty-something mother named Gwen Thaxter. She filed a 98-page minority report, which she claims to have worked on for longer than her master’s thesis.

Gwen Thaxter has a blaze-orange vest, given to her by a neighbor, that is printed with the words, “Don’t shoot. I’m a woman!” She also has two sons, ages seven and nine. She recently took them to see the movie Open Season, in which a bear and a deer team up to outwit a bumbling (yet sinister) hunter. She is married to an inveterate carnivore and says she cooks meat for her husband and sons, but she very rarely eats it herself. She is a devout Catholic who dislikes the Sierra Club because of its emphasis on human population control.

Gwen considers herself a firm believer in animal rights, but she says that her reasons for casting the sole dissenting vote on the final report of the Ridgefield deer committee go beyond the personal or the ideological. She approached her work on the committee with an open mind, she says, but was soon turned off by her fellow committee members’ willingness to settle for conventional wisdom over scientific rigor. She recalls how Os Schmitz, a professor at the Yale School of Forestry, gave a talk to the committee recommending that they conduct an ecological survey of Ridgefield before making any decisions. His reasoning was that if the deer committee sought to restore ecological balance to Ridgefield, they ought first to figure out what that ecological balance was. The committee ignored Schmitz’s advice, which to Gwen is evidence that hunters and their allies are looking not for facts but for “an excuse to shoot.”

I meet Gwen at the Starbucks in downtown Ridgefield. The venue was her choice. As we talk, she begins to explain to me that the deer committee’s willingness to jump to conclusions is a symptom of a broader societal tendency to ignore other creatures and the natural world. Things would be different, she says, “if people took the time to really see what’s going on around them. But our society has become a society of convenience.” She knows few people in Ridgefield who are curious about the natural world, much less concerned with its preservation. Most of them just want nature to stop bothering them. As Gwen puts it, “if something’s eating their tulips, they say ‘kill it.’”

I’m reminded of something Lynn told me earlier: “It seems to me that if you are offended by animals doing what is natural to them – eating, browsing around – then maybe you should consider living in a city somewhere.”

If there’s one point of agreement between Ridgefield’s hunters and anti-hunters, it’s that suburbia has claimed an ever-growing swath of southeastern Connecticut. If there’s a second point of agreement between them, it’s that this expansion has been, on balance, a regrettable one. Joe Tucker tells me that every year he loses one of the few remaining pieces of rural land that he hunts on when he’s not in Ridgefield. Large tracts are valuable as development sites, and the temptation to sell out is just too great. “People realize, ‘I don’t have to work again for the rest of my life,’” he says.

Perhaps even more regrettable than suburbia’s physical expansion has been the widespread adoption of suburban values. “I think,” Bob says, “that everybody’s so engrossed in what’s around them these days that they don’t stop to think about what the land was doing before they got there.” He sees hunting as his chance to slow down and pay attention to nature, to reestablish his connection with the non-human world.

But what sort of connection to nature can you get by looking at it through a set of crosshairs? I decide that the only way to find out is to get up in a tree stand myself. Joe volunteers to take me hunting one morning, if I’m up for it. I won’t be able to carry a bow – I’d have to pass a hunter safety course to do that – but I’ll be able to observe from a few trees away while Joe waits and watches and – perhaps – makes a kill.

Joe and I meet at 4:30 in the morning at an all-night gas station. We step inside to buy coffee and breakfast buns, then drive off to the hunt site, a small piece of water-company land in the floodplain of a small creek. When we get there, Joe hands me his flashlight – he can find the way in the dark. We walk along though the woods, picking our way around puddles left by the previous night’s rain. We reach a tree with steps leading up to a stand. Joe motions that I should climb it and continues to another tree some thirty yards away.

I sit in the tree stand, watching the moon come in and out of the breaking clouds. As time passes, the shadows on the puddles below me become less defined, and the sky begins to turn from black to gray. The birds start to wake up and join the crickets in their singing. I wait in nervous anticipation – does this mean that the deer are waking up, too?

But for the next sixty minutes – the day’s prime hunting hour – no deer come by. The traffic becomes more frequent on the road 200 feet behind us. A school bus passes, then another. Squirrels run around the deer feeder, eating the grain that has dropped out of it according to schedule. The sun crests the horizon, setting a nearby yellow maple aflame.

Finally Joe gives up the chase. He stands up in his tree stand and starts to climb down. I do the same. As we walk back to his truck, he apologizes for our bad luck. Usually he at least sees deer, he says, “and if I see them, I’m happy.” He asks if he really did see me dozing off in the stand at one point. I mumble something about sleeping less than two hours the night before and being very grateful that I had been tethered to the tree with a safety harness. He never falls asleep while hunting for deer, he says. It makes him feel too excited, too energetic, too alive.

Also, his cup of coffee was bigger, I think to myself as I watch him pour a large volume of yellow liquid out of a plastic bottle he kept with him in the stand.

“Never drink from a hunter’s Gatorade bottle,” he says.

If there’s a war on between humans and deer, then I have clearly failed as a front-line correspondent. Perhaps, I tell myself, I would do a better job reporting from a command post, somewhere a bit removed from the field of battle. And so, on November 15, the opening day of Connecticut’s shotgun-hunting season, I show up at the back entrance to Hemlock Hills, the first Ridgefield town park to be opened for hunting due to the vote at the town meeting last May. My intention is to witness – from a parking-lot perspective – the historic first day of hunting on Ridgefield’s municipal land.

Tom Belote, former co-chair of the Ridgefield deer committee, is stationed in the small dirt parking lot by the time I arrive. He is standing next to his red Nissan pickup truck, which has vanity plates that read “TOSCA” – in honor of his favorite opera, he explains. On the hood of the pickup, Tom has spread a satellite map of Hemlock Hills, which enables him to keep track of where the hunters are positioned. Next to the map is a half-drunk bottle of diet citrus green tea and a box containing official-looking orange tags. Tom, as the hunt manager, is responsible for tagging deer as the hunters bring them out of the woods.

It isn’t long before several more trucks pull into the parking lot, one of them bearing a deer shot on the far side of Hemlock Hills. It’s a magnificent specimen – a several-year-old buck with a well-developed set of antlers – and we gather around to admire it while Tom goes to get a tag. But for a small bullet hole near its shoulder and its tongue hanging out of its mouth, the deer looks to be sleeping. Someone stuffs the offending tongue back into its mouth so that a photographer from the Ridgefield Press can snap a picture. “They’re beautiful animals,” he says as he fiddles with the tongue. “They’re very nice. Tasty, too!”

For a long time no more deer arrive. Finally a hunter comes walking out of the woods. He carries a shotgun across his back, and his face and pants are smeared with blood. “Got a butterball,” he says, by which he means a young, antler-less buck.

“You’re wearing it,” someone retorts. Another hunter, eying the blood somewhat jealously, asks if he had to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the deer.

I wonder to myself what Lynn Gorfinkle or Gwen Thaxter would have thought upon witnessing such a scene. But animal-rights activists are nowhere to be found. The closest thing to protest comes from a woman who wanders by while walking her dogs, sees the signs announcing that Hemlock Hills will be closed for a month to allow hunting, and gets in an argument with Tom Belote.

“And you feel good about killing animals?” she says towards the end of their exchange.

“It’s not a matter of killing animals. It’s a specific species that’s destroying the ecology.”

“It’s about people who don’t want deer eating their flowers!” she says, and walks away.

In the end, it’s hard to know who’s right: the hunters, with their repeated references to the balance of nature, or the anti-hunting activists, with their concern for the fate of individual animals and their calls for peaceful coexistence. One thing’s for sure: there is a specific species destroying the ecology of places like Ridgefield, and it’s not deer. Humans are steadily expanding their footprint on all of Connecticut, where 7,000 acres of farmland – as well as a somewhat smaller amount of non-farm open space – get converted to suburban use each year. On a national scale, a U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that suburban sprawl consumed 29.9 million acres between 1982 and 1997. During this time period, in which the U.S. population grew by 17 percent, the country’s developed land area grew by 47 percent.

Most people, when they think of the American Dream that has been so successfully propagated in our popular imagination, envision a happy family, a well-paying job, and a nice house in a quiet suburb. This dream does not involve interacting with wildlife, or nature in general, except perhaps in packaged form on weekends and vacations. One of the perks of modernity is that it allows us to get beyond the struggle for existence that characterized most of human evolution, which is another way of saying that we no longer have to interact with the rest of the biosphere on a daily basis. When the biosphere refuses to become irrelevant – when deer start browsing on shrubbery or jumping in front of cars – it’s understandable that modern-day Americans would want to figure out how to make it leave them alone.

Whatever animal-rights activists can say about hunters in Ridgefield, or elsewhere, they can hardly accuse them of wanting to be insulated from nature. It would be hard to find anyone with a deeper sense of Ridgefield as a place – as a physical, biological, and geographical entity, rather than just a location for certain neighborhoods and businesses – than Dan Beyer of Whitetail Solutions. Dan and his fellow hunters may have a particularly consumptive hobby, but it is consumptive in a hands-on, and possibly restorative, type of way.

Serious deer hunters spend a huge amount of their time immersed in, or at least thinking about, the natural world and its interconnections, and only the smallest fraction of that time actually shooting deer. There’s a reason, as fishermen tend to say, that they call it fishing rather than catching. There may also be a reason why they call it hunting rather than just killing.

Comments