The Dark Side Of Bambi

I blame Walt Disney, really, I do. When my mother took me and my sister Maxine to see “Bambi,” I sobbed so loudly during the forest fire that the manager asked her to remove me from the theater. To this day, I use the words “deer” and “Bambi” interchangeably, as in “Bambi alert!” if I see one while driving. When I see a dead deer on the highway, the tug at my heartstring has Bambi’s name on it.

Don’t mistake me: I am not against hunting. Since man has decimated many of the deer’s natural predators (wolf, coyote, mountain lion), it is our responsibility to manage the population. I would much rather see a freezer full of venison chili than starving animals chased down by feral dogs in heavy snow. By reading interesting factoids posted on the wall of Center at Audubon, I know that deer were virtually non-existent around 1950. Oh, how times have changed. Numbering near 350,000 in New York alone, they are now officially viewed as a pest, responsible for billions of dollars in agricultural damage as well as 50,000-plus accidents on the roads of both New York and Pennsylvania each year.

As impressive as those numbers are, I would not be having this “hart-to-hart” talk with you had it not impacted me personally. Let me introduce myself; I’m a gardener. For 25 years the deer and I lived in harmony, but a collision of events – one neighbor fencing in his lot full of tasty rhododendrons, deer population growth and an absent dog next door – has been a recent recipe for disaster. For the past three summers the deer have mowed down my flower gardens like a buzz saw. Coral bells the size of basketballs disappear overnight. Gargantuan hostas are reduced to stems. And a collection of both day and Asiatic lilies that should produce more than 500 blossoms over the course of the summer? Last year I saw six flowers. I don’t even know what two new day lilies look like because the deer have eaten every bud they’ve ever produced.

So you know I was excited when I read about the possibility of a DEC deer hunt in the city last year. (Did I neglect to mention that I live in the city of Jamestown? That I’ve had as many as 22 deer in my yard at once?) I viewed the hunt in Celoron as successful, and dreamed of seeing a day lily bloom. But then, the inevitable happened: an adorable 10-year-old wrote a letter to the editor begging the City Council not to kill Bambi, and the hunt is off. Curse you, Walt Disney!

If you think ideas abound at Disney Studios, try talking to gardeners about their deer solutions: human hair, coyote urine (I couldn’t make this up), and a variety of homemade concoctions that vary from the bizarre to the toxic. One neighbor swears by a brew involving hot sauce and Mr. Clean. I want to deter the deer, not poison them. A PBS special tells us deer don’t have particularly good eyesight, and recommends placing poles in your garden at random intervals. I don’t want to put their eye out; I see deer coming through my yard wearing eye patches. Liquid fence, invisible fence, real fence: barriers are the only reliable solution to the problem. We had a gardener on the Secret Gardens tour who compromised with the wildlife: Elsie securely fenced in a portion of her garden, but the rest was left to chance. A tour gardener living in Gerry tries bribery: He plants a field of corn for the deer, hoping to distract them from more than 150 varieties of hosta, one of their favorite targets. Deer are edge dwellers, and my block dead ends into a forest. I recognize it’s not so much that the deer are in my yard, but that I’m in the deer’s backyard. Can’t we all just get along?

Always on the lookout for great gardens, one of last summer’s detours brought a Lakewood garden to my attention. Stopping recently when I saw the gardener out, I was treated to a tour. To my astonishment, he is in the process of recreating his garden by eliminating those plants the deer come looking for; more than 100 hostas had been given their walking papers. He is experimenting with what deer will and won’t eat, and plans to make his garden deer proof by making it completely unappealing to them.

This was an epiphany for me. Obvious, maybe, but it had honestly never occurred to me. Finding what deer won’t eat (I’m currently trying lavender, a White Flower Farm recommendation) that is also low maintenance for the aging gardener can prove challenging, but it’s worth a try. So I guess lily giveaway at my place next year? Either that or hey, deer hunters, my address in Jamestown is …

Merle Szydlo is an Audubon volunteer who edits the newsletter, organizes the Secret Gardens Tour, and mourns her mutilated garden. Check out this year’s tour on Saturday, June 29. Details available on the Audubon web site.

Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails and Bald Eagle, Liberty, viewing are open from dawn to dusk. The Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sundays when we are open at 1 p.m. Call 569-2345 or visit jamestownaudubon.org for more information.