Shooting Bambi's Mom

A gourmet environmentalist shares his favorite venison recipes

It was silent in the woods, but something horrible happened every day. Once the crows fell upon Friend Hare's small son who was lying sick and killed him in a cruel way. He could be heard moaning pitifully for a long while…Another day a fox tore to pieces the strong and handsome pheasant.

It took Walt Disney to turn this into a cartoon. Disney had been horrified by hunting since he was a small child, when his brother shot a rabbit for the family dinner table. In Disney's 1942 movie, Bambi became a frolicking youngster, and the mother deer had huge eyes and a voice that sounded like somebody's mommy's. Gone was Salten's version of nature, bloody in tooth and claw. Disney replaced it with giggly rabbits and songs about raindrops. The only killers in the movie are human hunters.

The movie has been called the best anti-hunting propaganda ever produced. It served the admirable purpose of rallying the public to protect disappearing wildlife at a crucial time in our history.

Jerry Cooke says the deer population continues to increase, even as its habitat shrinks.
John Anderson
Jerry Cooke says the deer population continues to increase, even as its habitat shrinks.
The Kerr Wildlife Management Area keeps the 
population at one deer for every ten to 12 acres.
Courtesy of Bill Armstrong
The Kerr Wildlife Management Area keeps the population at one deer for every ten to 12 acres.

But that time has passed, and we are left with what wildlife biologists call the Bambi syndrome: the tendency to think of wild animals as people in bunny suits, hopping around in the forest. The anti-hunting movement continued to gain strength in the last half of the 20th century, and deer hunting has declined. Which is too bad, in the view of many biologists, because what we need now are more deer hunters.

Over the past century, the deer population has grown, slowly at first, and then exponentially. Now, there are now some four million deer in Texas and 30 million in the United States -- more than when Columbus landed, and more than at any time in our history. I called Dr. Jerry Cooke, a wildlife biologist at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, to help me understand this astonishing fact.

"Between 43 and 63 million bison once maintained an enormous grassland in the middle of our continent," Cooke explained. "When the bison disappeared, the landscape changed. We think of animals adapting to their habitats, but in fact, habitats also adapt to their inhabitants." Without the soil disturbance caused by the huge herds of bison and the naturally occurring fires that once kept woody vegetation in check, the grassland savannas of the Great Plains disappeared. In the farmlands and ranches that have replaced them, white-tailed deer have proliferated.

Contrary to popular belief, the white-tailed deer is not an animal of mature woods. It does best in a habitat where open land is bordered by brush or timber, like in the ranchlands and farming areas. Though they can eat a wide variety of foods, white-tailed deer have an uncanny ability to select the most nutritious ones available. To the chagrin of farmers, they will ignore browse in favor of cultivated crops.

The growth of the deer population was further aided by the disappearance of their natural predators. Wolves and bears are now rare in Texas, and so is a tiny insect that once held the deer population in check even after those predators became scarce.

The screwworm fly (Cochliomyia hominivorax) lays its eggs in open sores and the umbilicus of newborn animals, causing sickness and death in livestock and wildlife. After a federal program eradicated the screwworm fly in the 1950s and 1960s, the Texas cattle industry boomed -- and so did the deer population.

Wolves, bears, the screwworm fly and human hunters were once the four major predators of deer. Now only hunters are left.

To see the havoc that deer can wreak on an ecological system, just visit the Texas Hill Country. There, native deer are eating themselves out of a habitat, devouring acorns and oak seedlings so fast that the oak forest is failing to produce new trees. The Spanish oaks eventually will be replaced by prickly pears and cedar thickets.

"When population increases beyond the carrying capacity of the habitat, mortalities should increase," says Cooke. "But the acorns in the Spanish oak forests provide a huge nutritional boom right before the reproduction season." As a result, the deer continue to increase as the ecology continues to collapse.

Upscale Hill Country resort communities such as Horseshoe Bay and Lakeway consider their deer a plague. Parks and Wildlife officials recommend a population density of about one deer per ten to 12 acres. It's not uncommon to find five to ten times that many deer in Hill Country subdivisions.

"Three years ago we had 3,000 deer on 6,000 acres here at Horseshoe Bay," says Tom Engler, manager of the Horseshoe Bay Property Owners Association. "It's not just that the deer are eating everybody's landscaping and tearing up the golf courses -- which they are," he says, "but we also had over 300 car accidents caused by deer here in 2000." Insurance officials estimate the average cost of each deer-motor vehicle collision at $3,000.

Parks and Wildlife has helped Horseshoe Bay, Lakeway and other subdivisions where hunting is impossible to thin their deer herds by relocation. The "Triple T" (trap, transport and transplant) program allows permit holders to trap deer and ship them to areas where they are wanted, such as Mexico.

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