Bambi Must Die

The efficient killing of invasive deer is being fought by concerned animal activists in Marin. But who's looking out for S.F. venison connoisseurs?

Sitting at a German restaurant near the S.F. opera house with three gravy-covered strips of meat in front of me, a glass of darkish beer to my right, and San Francisco's worldly, insightful food columnist Meredith Brody to my left, I imagined one way this near-perfect evening might have been improved.

My venison medallions might have been better if they were from local and wild deer, rather than what they were: thawed from the freezer after being shipped all the way from New Zealand.

Not to say these weren't delicious — sweeter than beef, and much leaner, without the toughness one associates with fatless steak. But had they come from a fresh, local carcass of fallow or axis deer — a type of meat the Bay Area will soon be swimming in — the culinary consensus is that my cutlets would have been more delicate, tender, and with a touch more gaminess than the flown-in, farm-raised variety in front of me.

Meredith's venison sausages were nice, too — lightly spiced, firm outside, tender inside. But again, if only the deer had been harvested from among the thousands of exotic pests whose voracious foraging is now wreaking environmental havoc upon the Point Reyes National Seashore, I have to believe the sausage would have been tastier.

The National Park Service recently put the finishing touches on a plan to eliminate over the next 20 years an estimated 2,250 non-native fallow and axis deer left over from what had been a mid-20th-century private Marin County hunting resort once owned by a San Francisco physician.

By political necessity it's a deeply flawed plan. It will involve greater expense, worse cruelty, more killing, and the application of a greater dose of scientific stupidity than would have been necessary, if not for the confused relationship to environmentalism suffered by some very vocal residents of Marin County.

Point Reyes' exploding exotic deer herd consumes forage needed by native species such as black-tailed deer and tule elk. But a misguided "animal-rights" version of environmentalism — which says it's OK to allow an ecosystem to be destroyed in the name of preserving aesthetically pleasing invasive species — will cause the coming extermination to take much longer than need be.

Another defect of the extermination plan: Despite what may be the greatest harvest of home-grown fine venison in local history, none of the Point Reyes meat will end up with S.F. diners. Because of the political sensitivities involved, the deer will most likely be fed to raptors at a wildlife recovery center, and be cooked into unrecognizable stew in North Bay soup kitchens.

As a result, San Francisco venison plates such as those Meredith and I ordered last week at Suppenküche will remain more expensive, and less tasty, than if they'd shared some of that bounty with San Francisco, the Point Reyes exotic deer's vaterland.

Among the politics and science driving the upcoming Point Reyes deer plan, most peculiar is a Fort Collins, Colo., group of well-meaning animal Josef Mengeles, who are helping create a pharma-boondoggle to placate coastal Bambi lovers. Mengele was the Nazi official who conducted flawed research into efficient killing and sterilizing.

But before I delve into the government pharmaceutical lab, the deer contraceptive developed there, and how the federal government plans to pointlessly tackle, inject, and temporarily sterilize Marin County deer over the next two decades, I should probably explain how the government arrived at such a place.

It all started with Millard "Doc" Ottinger, a San Francisco physician with a private hunting resort near Inverness. The San Francisco Zoo suffered a surfeit of fallow deer, native to Europe and the Mediterranean, and axis deer, native to India and southern Asia. So during the 1940s and '50s, Ottinger bought 32 of the animals. When Ottinger's ranch was incorporated into the Point Reyes National Seashore during the early 1970s, the hunting stopped. The deer continued to propagate. In 1976, the park began assigning park staff to shoot deer, meaning a couple park hires stumbled into a sportsman's Valhalla.

From 1976 to 1994 rangers shot 3,000 of the animals, according to Natalie Gates, research biologist at Point Reyes National Seashore.

But it wasn't a perfect paradise. According to Capt. Cindy Machado, director of Marin County Animal Services (a department that in other counties might be known as "animal control"), the rangers didn't always hit their mark.

"A lot of deer were being shot in the neck, the hip, the rumps," said Machado. "There were at least 10 incidents that I remember ... It was literally a bloodbath."

Machado pressed the Park Service to hang up the rifles. At that time there were an estimated 700 exotic deer in the park.

Now, Gates tells me, there are now some 2,000 fallow deer in Point Reyes, and at least 250 axis deer.

A couple of years ago, when the exotic deer population was estimated at just over half the current level, they were reported to be eating a ton of forage a day, causing black-tailed deer to go hungry. Some officials believe foraging by the densely populated deer wipes out ground-nesting birds. The exotic deer also carry Johne's disease, which is deadly to native tule elk.

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