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A Federal Agency’s Birth Control Program … For Deer

Once upon a time, I was a full-fledged chemist doing postdoctoral research at the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Md. Like any other postdoc, I have fond memories of leaving grad school, being paid a little more, and having more control over my research. And of course, I have warm recollections of leaving work in the wee hours of the night … and having to wait for the family of deer surrounding my car to move off so I could drive home.

Tagged deer on the NIST Gaithersburg campus. Credit: Brett Young/NIST

Tagged deer on the NIST Gaithersburg campus. Credit: Brett Young/NIST

That ISN’T the typical postdoc experience, you say? Okay, fine. But it is at NIST. Most folks who work on the Gaithersburg campus have similar deer encounters pretty regularly.

In this week’s issue of C&EN, I wrote a Newscripts column about the wild horse and donkey overpopulation problem in the western U.S. The National Research Council recently released a report suggesting ways of managing the animals. One proposed solution is to give the critters birth control.

This brought me back to my days at NIST. I vividly remember being told during my postdoctoral orientation that I would encounter a lot of deer while on campus AND that the lab was dealing with the situation by giving the animals birth control. At the time, I laughed at what I thought was a reasonably silly situation.

While I worked at the agency between 2006 and 2008, its campus was home to approximately 200 deer. Today, the population is probably a little less than that—around 150 or so, says Michael E. Newman, a spokesman for NIST. But in the mid-1990s, about 300 deer resided on the grassy campus with its ponds and wooded canopies.

“That’s crazy for a campus that’s only a square mile,” says Allen T. Rutberg, director of the Center for Animals & Public Policy at the Cummings School for Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

First of all, a tract of land that size can’t provide enough nutrition for that many animals. And second of all, when the population gets that large, animal-human interactions don’t usually end well: In the 1990s, when the deer population was at its peak on campus, it wasn’t uncommon for about 25 deer to be killed annually in collisions with vehicles on and adjacent to the NIST campus.

During rutting season, “we even had a few cases of male deer seeing a reflection and jumping through windows” into labs, Newman says.

I’m particularly thankful I missed those days. It’s one thing to see a doe with its fawns cuddling under the trees as you leave work. It’s quite another to come face to face with a sexually aggressive deer while cleaning your glassware.

When writing my Newscripts about wild horses, I got to thinking that I actually didn’t know much about the NIST deer program aside from the fact that it existed. So I set out to learn more.

Originally the National Bureau of Standards, NIST moved its campus from downtown Washington, D.C., to what was then rural Maryland in 1966. The agency wanted more space for its facilities. And it wanted a buffer between its buildings and the hustle-and-bustle of traffic and daily life so that scientists could carry out sensitive measurements undisturbed.

Imagine getting stuck in a dark laser lab with this guy. Credit: Brett Young/NIST

Imagine getting stuck in a dark laser lab with this guy. Credit: Brett Young/NIST

Although the Gaithersburg campus is surrounded by a tall fence (about 8 feet high, I think), deer managed to get onto campus (and still do). Whether they jump the fence or bypass it by walking in through one of the many security gates, the problem is that they usually stay. Just as the campus is a buffer for scientific measurements, it’s also a safe zone for the deer.

At the height of the NIST deer problem in the 1990s, the Humane Society of the United States established an office near the campus. Tufts’ Rutberg, who worked for HSUS at the time, says the organization noticed NIST’s deer situation and contacted the agency. Turns out HSUS was in the right place at the right time.

NIST had been struggling with what to do about the deer population, Rutberg says. The agency had weighed its options—hunting was one of them—but concluded that most methods weren’t practical for a secure campus where scientists often worked around the clock. HSUS was interested in testing some birth control vaccines for animals, so a partnership took shape.

Rutberg says HSUS began tagging the NIST deer in 1994 and administering a vaccine—porcine zona pellucida (PZP)—in late 1995. PZP is derived from pig ovaries and prevents pregnancy by blocking the attachment of sperm and egg.

In the early years, Rutberg says, it didn’t take too much time to administer the two or so PZP injections the female deer needed each year. “We could dart the deer [with rifles] from 20 to 25 yards away,” he says. The problem, he quips, is that the animals got smart. These days, HSUS staff have to dart the deer from 40 yards away or more. “They recognize you,” he explains, so they run as soon as they see HSUS coming.

Despite the wiliness of the deer, the NIST birth control program has been a success, Rutberg says. After all, it brought the animal numbers down from 300 to about 150. But, he adds, the population has since plateaued. Because new deer find their way onto campus each year (deer that haven’t been vaccinated or tagged), fawning rates are holding roughly steady.

Still, the silver lining is that the vaccine works. And now, Rutberg adds, he and others are testing a more advanced version that only needs to be administered once every two to three years for use at NIST and other places. “It’s a PZP vaccine supplemented with controlled-release pellets,” the Tufts scientist says. Veterinary researchers are currently trying to design a dart that can deliver this novel concoction successfully.

So it seems there’s a lot of science behind birth control for deer (and horses and donkeys). Maybe it isn’t so silly after all.

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