December 1, 2021

Healthy deer just look hungry

Concern for herd well-meaning but unnecessary

Valerie Puma/staff reporter

Sarah Michaels, of Cortland, feeds a deer Monday at the Cortland Waterworks. Michaels said she was concerned for the herd’s health, but city officials said recent inspections show the herd is healthy and well-fed. Volunteers put out about 200 pounds of food for them every other day.

Sarah Michaels has always cared for the city of Cortland’s deer, but when she saw injured fawns and skinny deer this fall, her care turned to concern.

“I never can remember, all the years I’ve lived here, where they looked like they did this year — all their little ribs sticking out,” Michaels said Monday. “I just know they’re not getting enough to eat, because I have never seen the stags kick and buck at the other deer like that, they’re so hungry.”

However, volunteer Mike Dexter said people shouldn’t worry about the herd being hungry, because he feeds them about 200 pounds of corn and deer pellets every other day. Dexter is a former waterworks employee and has volunteered as a caretaker of the deer for nearly 50 years.

“The state’s agriculture department is there to regulate the herd we have,” Dexter said. “The deer are well taken care of, they’re tested and tagged to keep track of them, but the herd is as regulated and taken care of as they’ve ever been.”

A Sept. 22 inspection by a state State Department of Agriculture and Markets veterinarian determined the herd was healthy, said Police Chief Paul Sandy, who has been the volunteer steward of the deer park since 2010.

Still, Michaels has lived around the corner from the waterworks for nearly 35 years, feeding the wild herd through the fence on a regular basis. She said she doesn’t believe the deer should be held in captivity, especially when they’ve eaten most of the vegetation in their enclosure.

The herd, which consists of about 40 deer, lives in a fenced enclosure of about 12 acres near the waterworks on Broadway — a city tradition since the 1950s.

“They’re fed every day,” said Matthew Wethje, the city’s chief water systems operator. “A lot of times, people think the deer don’t look as good as they should — but I can assure you that the herd is inspected by the state and if they ever say the deer are unhealthy, then the city would take action.”

As the deer enter rut season, a time of breeding, the caretakers tag them to distinguish individuals to help monitor for disease and other research protocols, Sandy said. He also sent samples to the state to test for Chronic Wasting Disease and expects to have results for the inspection and samples by the end of the year.

“But we need to get the tagging done before the rut, because during the rut they get a little wild and they get dangerous at that point,” Sandy said. “People will start seeing deer with injuries in the near future.”

Earlier this month, Michaels saw a fawn with an eye injury and suspected it was because of an older deer kicking the young ones away from the food.

During the fall and winter, stags will often fight each other, and sometimes the stags can get hurt when chasing the does, Sandy said. If a deer has a cut, volunteers can give it antibiotics and monitor progress using its tag.

“It does get rough, but that’s nature and we can’t stop it,” Sandy said.

“These animals aren’t domesticated. Yes, they know when the dinner bell rings, but they’re wild animals that follow their natural instincts.”

The social pecking order of the herd means the eldest, most experienced deer get to eat first, but Sandy said they give enough food that even the last deer to eat still has plenty.

“I always appreciate everybody going and seeing the deer because that’s what they’re there for, but I want to caution them to only feed them natural things that deer should eat,” Sandy said.

Dexter recommends fresh fruits, vegetables and berries, oats and deer pellets, and limiting how much bread you feed the animals since it’s not found in nature and isn’t as easy for the deer and wild ducks to digest.