Dose the deer, don’t kill them

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To the Editor:

I have lived on the Vineyard since 1979, and am recovering from my fourth bout of Lyme disease. I want to say this before I share all the information I have learned recently. I and many people I know on the Vineyard who have had Lyme agree — Lyme disease is a fact of life.

I choose to live here, have pets, and walk these woods every day, so getting Lyme is a risk I take. Knowing the symptoms, taking them seriously and having a Lyme-savvy doctor is crucial. I read that a 5,000-year-old frozen man found in the mountains between Austria and Italy most likely had Lyme. This disease has been around probably longer than we have. Killing our beautiful deer is not the answer, for they are as much a victim as our dogs, cats, raccoons, squirrels, skunks, birds, and ourselves.

If we want to be smart about this, we need to look at the entire picture. It is far more complicated than “culling,” which is killing our deer. Every action has a reaction, so any and all measures taken need to be well thought out. In the 1300s, the first plague outbreak in London was thought to be caused by the cats. Most of the cats were culled/killed, and we know how the story goes: it was the rats (whose population was controlled by the cats) who were the carriers of the disease. So without the cats, half of London’s human population became infected and died.

The absolute true villain in this epidemic is the white-footed mouse, whose population is out of control due to mild winters and too few natural predators. This white-footed mouse carries the bacteria that infect the Lyme tick, which is also called the black-legged tick, but every creature in the wild has a part in this epidemic. In fact, Canada, which now has Lyme, traces its outbreak to their migratory birds. Birds now are being recognized as an important host for the Lyme disease–causing bacteria. Deer do not carry the bacteria, nor have they ever; they are simply the largest mammal in the wild that adult ticks feed on.

There are integrated approaches being made with devices known as four-poster deer treatment bait stations. These devices are feeding stations which apply acaricides to a deer’s neck when the deer reaches in to feed on the corn. This treatment has been effective in Rhode Island, and in my opinion is brilliant and far more humane. Possibly in three to four years, we could effectively break the cycle of the Lyme tick with the help of our deer.

The notion that deer are nocturnal and that’s why we don’t see them is false. Deer are crepuscular animals, which means they feed and move at dawn and twilight, which is why hunters hunt in those hours. I used to see these magnificent creatures every day years ago when I walked in the woods in the morning and evening. Now I rarely see them, and I frankly do not believe the numbers that have been reported, nor do a lot of people.

Most of the infected ticks that come into our yards and beaches are spread by rodents, other small mammals, and birds, not deer. I am convinced these tiny ticks can just blow around with the wind, and even if there weren’t any deer, they’d just get on a nything else that moved that had blood. Also, adult ticks can live a long time without a host. The amount of time is debatable.

The deer and the white-footed mouse have the same diet: acorns, nuts, berries, and seeds. So logically, by decreasing the deer population, you are increasing the food supply for these mice, who carry and spread the disease, so more deer, less food for the mice. There is a term, mast years, which directly relates the bumper acorn crops to the rise of Lyme disease, and boy, was there a bumper crop last year.

This mouse can have four litters a year, so obviously most litters have been surviving with all the food available. This is what I believe to be behind this year’s rise in Lyme cases. So far this year I have only seen a small amount of acorns.

In my animal-loving, nature-adoring opinion, we should enlist the deer’s help by using the four-way bait stations — something the Land Bank could organize, and private landowners who allow no hunting (bless them) could also do. The deer don’t have to be dosed year-round, so hunters, be quiet. The biggest problem to solve is making a serious dent in the mouse population. You can’t just throw poison out into the woods; what an environmental disaster that would be!

I am listing all the websites I have found to be the best, the most progressive and informative on the subject. One interesting fact on the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies site was this: “intact nature protects us; it’s only when we chop it up and make it uninhabitable for predators like the hawks that we increase risk. What we have found is small forest patches, 1 to 2 acres, are the riskiest places for Lyme disease, and that’s where we put our houses.”

Look at all the building going on here, all the displaced wildlife; it’s no wonder we have the situation we have and people think taking the deer out is the answer? The big reality is that this is another climate-change problem, and we humans are to blame. So dose the deer, don’t kill them. For more information go to entomologytoday.org (informative on the white-footed mouse and the life stages of the Lyme tick); tickencounter.org (information on the four-poster); caryinstitute.org (“The scary truth about Lyme”).

Lorraine Parish

Vineyard Haven