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Deer Make the Worst Neighbors

Like many of us who choose to live in the suburbs, deer want a nice, safe neighborhood, with great food and plenty of privacy. For one particular doe and fawn, that neighborhood happens to be my backyard.

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By
Ronda Kaysen
, New York Times

Like many of us who choose to live in the suburbs, deer want a nice, safe neighborhood, with great food and plenty of privacy. For one particular doe and fawn, that neighborhood happens to be my backyard.

Sure, they are quiet — come to think of it, I have never heard them make a sound. And the little one covered in Bambi spots sure is cute. But let’s face it, they are rude neighbors. When I ask the mother to leave by, say, pounding on my kitchen window with a spatula, she stares back at me blankly and pees.

Sometimes, she deposits her fawn in my shrubs for the day while she runs off to do whatever it is deer do with their time when they are not devouring my marigolds. I am not a free baby sitter, but she seems to think I am. And the fawn is under the impression that we cannot see her, even as my children crouch, perplexed, to get a better look at the little speckled creature crushing my lamb’s ear.

I have tried using subtle hints to let them know I want my space, like spraying my foliage with an organic concoction that smells like sour milk and claims to repel deer, but actually only repels people who like to sit near flowers. Sometimes, they take a hint and venture off — I imagine them taking long strolls in the nearby nature preserve, another suburban selling point.

No sooner have they left, though, when another mother shows up. How do I know she is not the same one? A hint: this one has twins.

You would think I live far out in the country, in some area of thick woods and wild mountains. But no, I am only 20 miles from midtown Manhattan in New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the country.

Blake Smith, who moved from Brooklyn to West Orange, New Jersey, 13 years ago with her husband, Tim, 49, can see the Empire State Building from her back deck, but it is the deer that take her breath away.

“They’re like these mystical creatures,” she said. “They’re like unicorns.”

More like shameless interlopers. A few weeks ago, a deer pushed its way into Blake Smith’s screened-in porch to get ahold of some potted hibiscus. Smith, 45, an associate director of digital at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai, had moved the pots inside so they would not become deer salad.

So much for that. Smith gave up and put the pots back outside. “I told them, ‘Have them, just eat them. Just please don’t eat my watermelon,'” she said.

Smith knows these deer well. They are members of a herd that has lived in a vacant lot behind her house for years, with a doe that the family named Limpy for her uneven gait. Perhaps because they have been neighbors for so long, the deer listened to her about the watermelons and so far have left them alone. The hibiscus they ate.

Whitetail deer are a source of suburban awe and angst. They were hunted to near oblivion in the late 19th century, but their numbers are back and they are seemingly everywhere. New Jersey does not even know how many whitetails call the Garden State home, since government estimates are based, morbidly, on the number of deer that hunters kill each year, which hovers around 50,000. In areas where hunting is prohibited, like my backyard, no one is tracking the herds.

“It’s really hard to get a population estimate, especially in a fragmented, densely populated state like New Jersey,” said Brooke Maslo, an assistant professor of ecology at Rutgers University.

Homeowners grapple with fascination and irritation simultaneously. These graceful, delicate creatures can startle you with their presence, just before they poop on your front lawn. Step out for an evening run and you might encounter a few trotting alongside you on the road, barely fazed by your presence until they hop away, vanishing into the landscape.

Hardly a month goes by without someone posting a video on a local Facebook group of a deer encounter — from banal ones, like a herd resting on a driveway, to the awe inspiring, like a doe giving birth to triplets in someone’s garden. One neighbor recently shared a video of two bucks fighting in the woods behind her house. Standing on their hind legs, the animals swatted at each other with their skinny front legs in a scene straight out of Animal Planet, or maybe “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.”

But deer are also a nuisance. Their bloating carcasses pepper the roads and highways, grim reminders of the dangers suburban life poses for both the animals and the drivers who collide with them. We blame them for spreading Lyme disease with the ticks that hitchhike on their hides, although they may shoulder more criticism for this health problem than they deserve. And they occasionally turn up on the evening news for, oh, say, breaking into someone’s house or getting their head stuck in a bowl.

Live outside the city, and you should expect to encounter wildlife — not just squirrels and raccoons, but foxes, rabbits, coyotes and groundhogs, which inhabit the shadows around our homes and lend a bucolic, and sometimes murderous, quality to a suburban existence. (The fox in my neighborhood has occasionally taken out some of the smaller wild neighbors, leaving their remains for me to remove.)

Deer capture our imagination because of their sheer size. They are the biggest creatures around — unless, of course, you live near something bigger, like bears. Just ask Jen Dahl, 40, a high school teacher who lives in Rockaway Borough in Morris County, New Jersey, where bears roam and mostly dig through her trash. A few years ago, a bear family took over a backyard pool in the neighboring town, an incident that went viral on social media. And two years ago, Dahl’s son, Christopher Ryden, then 4, spotted a mother and two cubs in the yard when he was home with his grandfather.

“I yelled ‘Grampy! Grampy! There are bears outside!'” the young Ryden, now 6, recalled.

Dahl was at work at the time, but a neighbor texted her a picture of the bears casually strolling up her driveway, like good friends paying a visit. Dahl’s father, Jack Dahl, 72, scooped up the family’s Chihuahua before the bears got a hold of it and rushed his grandson inside.

Jack Dahl called police for assistance, but was told unless the animals posed an imminent threat, there was nothing to be done, except, of course, to post the incident on social media.

And so the family did what most of us do when our wild neighbors take over: They sat inside and watched in fascination as the cubs and the mother climbed a tree and hung out until they got bored and moved on to someone else’s yard.

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