A Federal Agency’s Birth Control Program … For Deer
Jul05

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. 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...

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