I am happy the Harlem deer is dead. It’s a shame the deer didn’t die sooner.
If you’re not familiar with what the Washington Post calls “the saga of a single-antlered deer in Harlem,” well, we can start with the choice of that word saga, which evokes epic narratives and burly pagans and longships slaloming through the fjords—stories, however romanticized, of humans doing human things. This was a different sort of story. The Harlem deer was a white-tailed buck who somehow wound up at Jackie Robinson Park in Harlem, where the deer was spotted a couple weeks ago. Things were fine, mostly. The locals gave the deer a name. Two names, actually: “J.R.,” for the park, and “Lefty,” since the deer was missing a left antler, as you can see in the above image from CBS New York. Then the deer left the park, and the police were called to catch the deer, since the mammal posed a threat to human safety due to its kind’s tendency to run into cars.
Then the city had to decide what to do with the deer. There were no good solutions. Transporting the deer was going to be risky and expensive, and would likely result in the deer’s demise. Euthanizing the deer was the humane choice, city officials concluded.
Pro-deer advocates, apparently a thing, rallied behind the deer, and eventually state officials stepped in to oversee its relocation to safer pastures. Essentially, at this point, the Harlem white-tailed deer had become the symbol of the power struggle between New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who lives for dumb stuff like this.
And then the deer died, presumably due to the considerable amount of stress it had experienced in a short period. This guaranteed that discussion of the deer would continue for days as its spirit ascended to whatever viral-beast heaven is home to the souls of Harambe and Cecil the Lion.
Like I said, I am relieved and glad that the deer is dead. The East Coast is overpopulated with deer. A smaller deer population is better for deer and for people, too. Overabundance means that many animals will suffer due to lack of adequate food and habitat. It’s possible that food and habitat scarcity (due to overpopulation) is what forced this deer into Harlem in the first place. This is not a great life for a deer. They don’t have great access to food or habitat here.
So of course the deer should have been euthanized. When we talk about healthy populations, we’re talking not about the individual health of all the members but about the population’s ability to sustain itself by reproducing. Deer are definitely sustaining themselves, as the grilles of many rural Chevrolet Silverados can attest. The species could stand to lose this individual.
I want the scarce government resources allocated toward animals to be aimed at making populations as healthy and sustainable as possible, not to helping certain celebrity individuals survive. On those grounds, in part, New York state policy is appropriately skeptical of deer relocation:
Capturing and relocating deer is difficult and expensive. Costs range from $110 to $800 per deer captured, depending on the method used. Efforts become less efficient as deer numbers decline and deer become more wary. Capture and relocation is also stressful to the animal. Injury and loss of some deer during capture and relocation efforts are common and can be significant, and the long term survival of relocated deer is often low. Personnel handling deer are exposed to potential physical injury from the deer and to accidental exposure to the immobilization drugs. Another serious constraint on capture and relocation programs is the availability of release sites to receive the captured deer.
And then, brusquely:
Permits are not issued to relocate deer to the wild because acceptable release sites are not available and because the poor chances for deer survival do not warrant the risks.
Cuomo, though, broke with his state’s policy to try to save the deer. That’s because the deer had gone viral in the way that animals do when they wander adorably over to our column on the taxonomic table. Humans have evolved to be very good at recognizing and empathizing with individual animals and quite bad at understanding population-level dynamics. There was now sentiment for Cuomo to gin up by inserting himself into the fate of the deer, and so public resources were expended on this individual that would’ve been better used on, say, habitat restoration in Jamaica Bay.
And for what? Ultimately, a deer that could have been euthanized ended up dying in a more painful way, because humans went blundering into nature and made all the usual mistakes. There was a saga here, but it was still just one about humans doing human things.