Inside Philly’s Stealth Hunts to Take Out Deer and Protect Our Parks

We haven’t destroyed deer’s habitat; we’ve perfected it. Left unchecked, the local deer population would wreak havoc on the city.

philadelphia deer

For two decades, the city has been waging war on the Philadelphia deer population. | Photo illustration by Jamie Leary; photograph of Philadelphia by Meredith Edlow for Visit Philadelphia; deer by Rey Kamensky/iStock/Getty Images

During the long, cold nights from December to March, highly trained individuals enter Philadelphia’s most popular parks armed with state-of-the-art tools and shoot-to-kill orders.

It’s not exactly a secret. But it’s not really publicized, either. These professional sharpshooters have been on the same mission for more than 20 years: to target and remove deer.

It’s a mission that just might be key to the city’s ecological survival — to say nothing of the deer themselves.

Live in these parts long enough, and you have a deer story. Or two.

There’s that time about 3 a.m. on the Northeast Extension when the driver in front of me hit a deer and I couldn’t swerve without killing myself. Drove right over the animal and tore out the lower bumper and fog lamps on my car. I was coming home from the Vet. Earlier that night, the Phillies had beaten the Braves to advance to the 1993 World Series. Two K in bodywork. Talk about mixed emotions.

Or how about that other time on the Northeast Extension about 20 years later, at 5:30 a.m., on the way to the airport with my wife and three kids in the back seat? Pitch-dark. Saw it way too late. We hit the deer doing about 50 mph, and the thing came up over the hood and slammed into the windshield. The front end of the car was obliterated. Twelve thou to reconstruct. (Thanks to a neighbor’s help, we made our 7:30 flight to Orlando.)

What about a few months ago when the dog vomited on the family room rug and I was like, “Who the hell fed her black beans?” But it wasn’t black beans. It was deer poop. Drooling, vomiting and diarrhea all day that Sunday. Trip to the vet: $175.

Cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching. I have my stories, you have yours.

What you may not know is that these types of encounters have a technical term in wildlife-management and ecological circles: conflict. As in, those were three official deer-human conflicts. (Sure, the dog ate the poop, but the human cleaned up the mess.) And those types of conflicts lie at the heart of the ongoing and sometimes beautiful, other times not-so-much relationship between people and wildlife in high-population settings.

The question of how to coexist with other species is never far from the city-dweller’s mind: toilet rats, cockroach infestations, trying to dodge pigeon shit in the City Hall portals. Suburbanites spend countless hours and dollars attracting the good birds to the feeders while keeping those greedy squirrels out. And anyone who has ever tried to eat a hoagie on the beaches of Margate knows the rage-terror of being dive-bombed by entitled seagulls.

But deer present a particular problem. The white-tailed variety are ubiquitous in our area and cause a significant amount of damage to native flora, landscaping and motor vehicles. Over the past 19 years, an average of 192 people in the United States died per year due to “animal collisions.” Americans file about 1.5 million deer-related collision claims annually, and State Farm ranks Pennsylvania third in the nation for deer-car collisions.

The deer are plentiful even in the city limits, to the point where the population needs to be “managed.” They multiply. Not like rabbits, but 80 percent of pregnant does produce twins. Another six percent have triplets.

Sadly, this beautiful, graceful, cute-as-hell forest furbaby that means no harm causes incredible harm — and an even bigger public-health threat than crushed fenders. Philadelphia’s green spaces are an essential part of the city’s character, and left unchecked, deer would fundamentally damage them — as well as the other creatures that call our parks home.

It’s tempting to think deer are only in urban centers because we’ve destroyed their natural habitat. As we build more townhouses and apartment complexes in what used to be the far suburbs, deer are pushed out, forced to scamper on the Blue Route and eat your grandparents’ zinnias when they’d rather be running free in the woods.

But that’s not true, unless by “natural habitat” you mean that a long time ago, there were virgin forests and meadows where, say, Ardmore stands. What’s more accurate is that wildlife — animal or plant — is like water. It finds the cracks in our concrete and blacktop and seeps in. If you let it, it’ll take over.

“We think of cities as places where wildlife doesn’t belong. But of course, that was never true,” says Seth Magle, director of the Urban Wildlife Institute at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. “Animals are very clever. They find the niches and the resources we leave behind. Raccoons figure out how to open our trash cans. Rats or squirrels to us are just part of the background. Whereas deer or a coyote, which are common, tend to get people’s attention.”

Here in Philly and the suburbs, we haven’t destroyed deer’s habitat; we’ve perfected it. “There’s very little in the way of natural predators,” says Ian Gereg, former vice president for animal well-being at the Philadelphia Zoo. “But we’ve also taken out other limiting factors, like starvation. When we create these habitats of forest edge, grassy lawns, well-planted gardens, we’re really creating an abundant and reliable food source. And we wonder why they’re eating our bushes.”

And how. Deer are browsers, which means they feed on leaves, woody stems and fruit (as opposed to grazers, which eat low-lying grasses). They come in and take a bite of everything. Once they find something they like, they go to town in that entire vicinity. And they do it all day. So if we left the deer alone to just be deer, within a few years our city parks would be overrun with invasive plant species the deer don’t like, while other areas would be stripped bare. “We’d be left with large, mature canopy trees with nothing beneath them,” says Dhan Parker, an environmental scientist for Philadelphia Parks & Recreation.

Here in Philly and the suburbs, we haven’t destroyed deer’s habitat; we’ve perfected it.

That would create an even more destructive chain reaction. In hilly areas, lack of vegetation causes erosion. No new trees or vegetation grows, so old trees eventually come down from weather or disease and won’t be replaced, because deer eat all the new saplings. Meanwhile, thousands of species that rely on the vegetation for food and shelter are at risk.

“Without native plants, native insects have nothing to feed on,” says Parker. “So they’re absent, and then birds who feed on insects don’t have food to rear their young or places to nest. That entire layer of the forest is completely lacking because of the high pressure of the deer browse.”

Oh, and there’s the small detail of the deer eating themselves out of house and home; eventually they run out of food, and there’s nowhere for them to go to find more, because other deer have already eaten everything else.

The bottom line is, if you want a healthy, thriving urban green space, you have to control the deer population.

Hence the guys with guns.

Deer management is a game of statistics. To keep the deer from causing damage that the local ecology can’t recover from, you have to know 1) how many deer you have; and 2) how many deer you should have for a healthy environment.

“In Philadelphia parks, we estimate we have 50 to 60 deer per square mile,” says Parker. “The state game commission says the ideal number for southeastern Pennsylvania would be eight to 10 deer per square mile. So we’re five to six times higher than what the forest can sustain. This large population outpaces the regeneration of the native vegetation.”

Enter Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, which runs the deer-management program, including the annual “cull” (it’s never referred to as a “hunt” by anyone involved) in tandem with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Philly is far from alone in getting help with deer. APHIS’s 2019 report shows operations across 41 states, resulting in more than 8,200 white-tails taken nationwide.

The first Philly deer cull was in 1999. The goal then, as now, was simple: to reduce the number of deer per square mile in the city and, by doing so, reduce the number of deer-human conflicts and deer-related damage.

Joseph Albanese, an outdoorsman and writer, worked as a USDA sharpshooter for several years in management programs on Long Island and within New York City. His description of techniques is very clinical, because that’s what the operation is: a group of professionals working for the public good. (APHIS doesn’t make its current team available for interviews; however, the agency did confirm most details of the program.)

“Some assume we’re just bloodthirsty thugs intent on killing animals, and that really couldn’t be farther from the truth,” Albanese says. The folks on the ground with rifles aren’t just hunters; they’re professionals trained in “deer removal in sensitive areas,” according to APHIS. Shooters must pass weapon safety and proficiency tests before serving and must recertify every year.

philadelphia deer

The Philadelphia deer cull takes place across nine different parks. | Photo illustration by Jamie Leary; skyline photograph by Valentin Prokopets/Getty Images; deer by Boris SV/Getty Images

Philadelphia’s deer cull takes place across nine parks covering 7,600 acres, or nearly 12 square miles. (Just for fun, that’s about 5,800 football fields.) Sharpshooters use high-velocity rifles with muzzle suppressors to dampen the noise. Albanese and his team employed .243-caliber rifles; the suppressors took the noise level down to that of about a .22. “It’s quieter, but not quiet,” he says.

The program sets up in areas designed for heightened safety — for example, at a bait pile of cracked corn with a hill as a backstop to absorb the rare missed shot. In some instances, Albanese’s team used mechanical lifts to create an instant “deer stand,” so any shot taken would be aimed downward into the ground. Point being: “It’s not a small decision when you pull the trigger. Everybody takes it very seriously.”

Unlike hunters, the sharpshooters rely on head and neck shots to take an animal down. Shooters use frangible rounds — the technical term for bullets that disintegrate on impact. Those rounds are chosen as a safety measure to eliminate ricochets, and they also spread inside the deer on impact and raise the chances of instant death. “A hunter will typically aim for the vitals — the heart and the lungs — but you have a greater potential for gut-shooting the animal,” says Albanese. “That’s not a good situation for anyone. You’ll probably recover the animal, but it could cover some serious ground before you do. Maybe even through someone’s backyard.”

Thanks to the smaller but more lethal target zone, if you miss, you miss, but if you hit? The animal is usually dropped in its tracks and immediately removed from the park. Since the program’s inception, there hasn’t been a single safety incident, according to Parks & Rec.

As it turns out, relying on sport hunters can also help control the deer population. The state game commission divides Pennsylvania into “wildlife management units,” or WMUs; the city and parts of Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Bucks counties comprise WMU 5D. For perspective, licensed deer hunters harvested about 9,200 deer in 5D during the 2019-2020 season. Add in WMU 5C, which includes parts of Chester, Montgomery, Bucks, Lehigh, Berks and Northampton counties, and you get another 22,000. That’s more than 30,000 deer removed from the area just from sport hunting. That’s a big help.

Inside city limits, hunting is a trickier proposition, though places like the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum now offer permits to urban hunters in order to reduce the deer population and expose city kids to an experience they might not otherwise get.

The Parks & Rec annual deer cull has averaged about 300 deer per year over the past five years. That, combined with the sport harvest in surrounding areas, has been enough to hold the population down, according to Alain Joinville, a department spokesperson: “The program has markedly reduced deer numbers in many park areas in support of the program’s overall goal to allow for a diverse, healthy, naturally regenerating urban forest.”

As far as actual deer numbers in the WMUs and the entire state, Bret Wallingford, a deer biologist for the state game commission, points out that looking at sheer totals isn’t a useful benchmark for population management. Instead, Wallingford and the game commission measure a WMU’s needs by classification: Is an estimated population stable, increasing, or declining? If it’s increasing, the game commission will use formulas to determine whether to take action, such as issuing more hunting licenses for the next season.

Area 5D is currently stable, suggesting that sport hunting and the city’s annual cull have been effective in preserving the local ecology. One side benefit: All deer meat from the city’s cull is donated to local food banks. And it’s a lot of meat — 8,600 pounds from the 2019-2020 program.

Reaction to this type of wildlife management is, not surprisingly, mixed. Despite the fact that individual people — maybe you, reading this now — tend to have an affinity for deer and may wince at the thought of an organized lethal takedown, the region as a whole tends to agree that the deer population needs to be managed. Over the past 10 years, the game commission has done surveys of the general public and of deer hunters, and approval scores for managing forest health and deer-human conflict come in between 80 and 90 percent for both — and get this: General-public approval scores are higher than those from hunters.

The debate emerges when we start talking about which methods work best. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is against lethal methods and advocates a more comprehensive deer-management program (which includes avoiding planting certain species deer like to eat). And over the years, Philly residents have voiced their displeasure with different parts of the program, questioning everything from the closure of the parks at night to the concerns about safety. They take issue with the noise — not to metion the cruelty. Local groups such as Philadelphia Advocates for the Deer have spoken out against the annual cull, citing all these issues. Two central questions lie at the heart of these objections: Aren’t there non-lethal ways to control the deer population? And if so, why not use them?

Answers: “Yes,” and “Because the one with the most potential isn’t quite ready for prime time.”

That method would be contraception. An “immunocontraception” vaccine has been developed and found effective in clinical trials. It’s basically a shot that activates a doe’s immune system against sperm. The HSUS, which helped fund the vaccine effort, has worked on several deer population studies (on Fire Island in New York and at other sites in South Carolina and Maryland) and found the vaccine — known as porcine zonal pellucida (PZP) and sold under the brand name Zonastat-D — kept does from reproducing for up to three years after the first dose, reducing the population and maintaining a healthy deer herd as well as safeguarding local flora. The vaccine is cousin to one used for decades to control wild horse and burro populations and has been approved by the EPA.

But the vaccine still has research hurdles to clear, particularly regarding long-term usage. “We’re pretty close to publishing some information on some of the big projects that have been going on for five to seven years now,” says John Griffin, senior director of urban wildlife programs for the HSUS. After that, individual states would have to approve the vaccine’s use. Then, localities will have to build their own management programs to administer the vaccine to does. A vaccine-based program would most likely be more complex than a cull. According to Griffin, the vaccine requires two spaced-out doses in the first year plus annual boosters later on. You’d still need professional boots on the ground to sedate an animal, vaccinate it, tag it so everyone knows it received a shot, and track it down later for the next dose, usually administered remotely with a dart.

So PZP is non-lethal and effective but still has cost and time inefficiencies to iron out. More tech is on the way as well. For example, years from now, it may not be necessary to sedate and tag animals; facial recognition technology will be able to identify previously vaccinated does. (If you had “facial recognition tech for deer” listed before “flying cars” on your list of 21st-century breakthroughs, congratulations.)

This is one possible future of deer management, and, Griffin says, we’re talking “years, not decades” from now. As for the here-and-now, the parks system uses another non-lethal method that doesn’t do anything to help deer overpopulation but does allow specific wooded areas to grow undisturbed: exclosures (the opposite of enclosures) constructed from eight-foot fencing, to keep deer away from vegetation. “You can just look inside and outside the fence and see the thousands of new stems of trees and plants that are emerging inside,” says Parker, of Philly Parks & Rec. “Outside, it’s just a completely bare landscape besides maybe a few little shrubs that are unpalatable to the deer. We have more than a thousand of these exclosures all over the city.”

The exclosure concept is also writ large smack in the middle of Fairmount Park: at the Philadelphia Zoo. “One of the things that we see at the zoo, because we do have a perimeter fence, is our ecological diversity remaining strong because we don’t have to deal with deer,” says Gereg. “Our native plantings are really encouraging other wildlife to take hold, particularly migratory birds and some other animals that use our space seasonally. They have more opportunities because we have those restrictions.”

Even though keeping deer out of certain spaces does work, it ultimately can only be one cog in the wildlife-management machine. After all, you can’t fence off every park in the city, especially not a city like Philadelphia, with such a wide and expansive park system. As far as the current program’s effectiveness, when you figure cost and feasibility and its 20-year track record, Albanese spells it out: “A cull is simply the most efficient way to manage the deer herd.”

No matter what method the city uses and may one day use, the deer population has to be managed. Property-damage savings aside, there’s a much bigger reason: The people of Philadelphia need all their green spaces to be lush and healthy, since that helps enhance their own health. Gereg mentions our collective “nature deficit disorder” and the fact that we don’t spend enough time outdoors. (Unfortunately, envying the outfield grass at Citizens Bank Park doesn’t count.)

Research extols the mental and physical benefits of exposure to all manner of natural phenomena, from tall trees to flowing streams to, yes, grazing deer. One recent study — and there are many — found that people who spend two hours or more per week in nature report greater health and well-being than folks who don’t. Other studies show results like positive connections to nature and physiological responses including reduced stress and lowered blood pressure. Point being: We need our green spaces. The Japanese have shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.” We have Wissahickon Valley Park.

The city has no plans to stop or alter its deer-management strategy. Humans aren’t going anywhere. So the conflict will always be there. But so, too, will the small wonders of living so close to the wild, and the almost primal thrill of watching a deer dart across a park path on your commute home from your office job (back when we used offices, of course).

“As we live in more urban and suburban environments, these intersections with wildlife are really highlights of our day,” says Gereg. “Seeing a deer ends up being a conversation at the dinner table. Having a wild turkey cross in front of you becomes something you mention to your neighbors. To have a red-tail hawk swoop down in front of you or see a brood of mallard ducklings cross the path — that really highlights our disconnect with nature. There’s a whole bunch of really great wildlife-watching to be had right next door. That’s why parks like Fairmount are so important.”

So what’s the right path forward when it comes to human-deer relations? “As far as what’s legitimate conservation, that’s not something that can be scientifically answered yes or no,” Magle says. “That’s something we have to decide as a society. We should have detailed conversations between city planners and landscape architects and urban residents and scientists about what urban wildlife populations look like and how are we going to manage them? And what are we going to do when new species that we didn’t expect show up in the city?”

He uses Austin, Texas, as an example. Bats freak out most people, and Austin wanted to eliminate its bat infestation — until a conservationist named Merlin Tuttle helped the city understand just how valuable the creatures are. Bats have had a complete PR turnaround since the 1980s. “People there understand how beneficial bats are to the environment,” Magle says. “Tourists come to watch them emerge from underneath the bridges. So we can actually change the way we think about species. That’s happening with coyotes in Chicago. Most of the time, they’re not hurting anybody, and they might be helping us out with our rats and mice. You’ve got to look at these different animals and ask: What do they really do? What’s the cost benefit of removing them?”

Speaking of cost benefits, one area that can change people’s tunes about wildlife is property values. Research has shown that in urban areas with wildlife and green spaces, homes can become more valuable. “Having close access to nature increases property values,” Magle says. “And we know that animals are a part of healthy nature, so it’s a multi-step logic chain. Wildlife should be a part of government decision-making and codified in the way we incentivize different projects. Because animals are here to stay in our cities.”

The annual taking of 300 deer from city parks at this point seems like a fair trade-off, given the environmental alternative. Few people want to see a deer deliberately killed, even in the name of public health. But it’s necessary. One day, we may not have to send in a band of highly trained, highly armed individuals to control the deer population. But until then, one last bit of perspective could help our gut reactions that always seem to favor cute furbabies: Though deer are beautiful, graceful and captivating, left unchecked, they’ll destroy the parks that Philadelphians enjoy. Now, substitute “spotted lanternfly” for deer. You don’t change the truth of the sentence, but who weeps for those damn lanternflies?

Published as “Wild in the Streets” in the March 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.