The Deer Wars Part 1: The Deer Slayer

When suburban deer numbers become intolerable, and no other solution seems tenable, some call Dr. DeNicola, the eminent deer sharpshooter.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

As suburban deer populations surpass tolerable limits, more and more communities are turning to sharpshooters to control deer numbers. When they do, several types of people clash. There are the homeowners whose tulips have been eaten and cars have been wrecked (they're the fed-up ones). There are the animal-rights activists (they're the ones with the protest signs and lawyers). There are the politicians (they're the nervous ones). And then there are the sportsmen (they're the ones on the sidelines, wondering why they weren't put to use).

Consider what happened last winter in Princeton, N.J. The dramatic fight over which solution would be best to control the town's burgeoning whitetail herd is a classic example of what is happening in urban areas all over the country.

More than 300 deer had been hit by automobiles in the 17-square-mile Princeton Township in the previous year, and Princeton's mayor, Phyllis Marchand, was up in arms. Something had to be done. The herd's population had climbed to nearly 100 deer per square mile, prompting some residents to refer to the animals as "rats of the night." A deer had jumped through a barbershop's plate-glass window; another had smashed through a windshield, landing in a child's lap, bloody and kicking. And all the while some residents were putting piles of corn out for the deer, naming them like pets and gathering to form the Mercer County Deer Alliance, a group whose sole mission was to protect the deer.

Yes, a fight was brewing.

"The problem," says Marchand, "was that every solution was distasteful." Like many suburban mayors, Marchand found herself between what she saw as two "fringe groups": environmentalists and hunters. One side said, "You can't kill them. It's inhumane. Trap-and-transfer is the way, or immunocontraception," ideas she quickly dismissed because they are expensive, impractical and often fatal to deer due to stress. She then turned to the other side and heard, "No problem, open the season and we'll come and shoot them." That, too, was out of the question, according to the Princeton Township Council. Hunters were not the sort the council wanted around. Besides, they said, "This is suburbia. We can't have bullets flying around. Someone will get hurt."

"Both groups are outsiders," says Marchand. "Though there is some hunting done on private grounds in the township, there aren't that many hunters in Princeton. Even most of the environmentalists were from out of town. They just came to protest."

Still, the mayor had to take action. "Lives were being lost in deer/car collisions all around the perimeter of the township," says Marchand. "It was just a matter of time before someone died within the township's limits. And that wasn't our only concern. A few people had contracted Lyme disease, and we heard that some towns were being sued for not acting when they knew there was a problem."

Then she found an easy way out. Marchand heard about a deer sharpshooter with a perfect safety record who had quietly and professionally helped many other mayors in such a fix. The City Attorney, however, told her there was a glitch. State law regulated hunting and forbade the special hunt that a sharpshooter would need. Marchand simply retorted, "Then we'll change the state laws."

A year
As soon as she had the permit in hand, Marchand called Dr. Anthony J. DeNicola, president of White Buffalo, a nonprofit company in Connecticut that specializes in sharpshooting whitetails, and beseeched him to make it to Princeton in the next few months. "You'll have the complete cooperation of our police department," she sai DeNicola said he'd fit them in.

Now the date for the fight was set.

The Sharpshooter
DeNicola is a man whose intensity and mastery of his field overwhelm everyone who crosses paths with him. His resume includes a master's degree from the Yale School of Forestry and a Ph.D. from Purdue. He lectures at Yale and has run sharpshooting programs in a dozen states. He's had protesters spit in his face while calling him "murderer" and "Bambi killer." He's been sued five times for doing his job (though he has never lost). At the other end of the spectrum, he gets at least two applications a week from hunters who want to join his team.

What most people aren't prepared for, however, is DeNicola's ability to go from a sharpshooter who can kill 300 deer in two weeks to a scientist who is at the forefront of his specialty and knows it. His square jaw, high-and-tight haircut and very Type-A personality give him the look of a U.S. Marine Corps drill sergeant, but close your eyes and listen and you'll hear the professor with the Ph.D.

While being interviewed for this article, DeNicola answered the phone and found himself speaking to a member of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). By this reporter's count it took him three minutes to change the discussion from argumentative to instructive. He ended the conversation by recommending some of his recently published research papers, and the HSUS man politely said, "Thank you." And while DeNicola was being photographed for this article a whitetail he had tranquilized with a dart for research purposes went into cardiac arrest. DeNicola gave it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation but failed to save its life. The photographer, who has been everywhere from El Salvador to Yonkers, went away astounded.

When asked if he was worried about the controversy raging in Princeton, DeNicola simply said, "The animal-rights activists are repressed by me, because when I'm present, they can't muddle the facts. And I know the plaid-shirt, rural crowd just as well