“Run quickly, run!!! It’s Man in the forest. We have to run cause he’s gotta gun.” I respond to my four year old’s urgent plea, by dashing through the living room, cardboard antlers firmly fixed on my head. I am Bambi’s dad, eternally brave in the face of danger. We finally make it to the bathroom slamming the door, panting hard, but safe at last. I brush the fallen antlers out of my face. Bambi now lives in our house.
Bambi was first released in 1942 and then rereleased about every nine years after that. This timing insured that the movie thoroughly indoctrinated each new crop of baby boomers. Now it is available on video. I first saw Bambi in 1957. I can’t forget the raging forest fire set by careless hunters and the terrified animals fleeing. The hunting sequence resembles a scene from Rambo ‑‑ guns blazing at any animal that moves. Humans are never actually seen in the movie but their evil presence is an ominous undercurrent.
The animation is superb and visually stimulating. And what a storyline ‑‑‑ the painful loss of a mother, the bonding of the youngster to his father, the victory of good over evil, and a happily‑ever‑after ending. Mr. and Mrs. Bambi move to the suburbs in the forest and raise twins every year. It is a fine hour of entertainment and it’s popularity after 40 years is testimony to its timelessness. But according to wildlife biologists the movie’s anthropomorphic attitude toward deer and its negative portrayal of hunting continues to warp the public’s concept of proper deer management.
Hey Walt, where are the predators? What about starvation and disease? Why isn’t Bambi aggravated by flies and why isn’t he constantly biting at parasites ? Of course, who wants to pay five bucks to see fleas, ticks and round worms? “Bucks”, by the way, is short for buckskins. The hides of animals, often deer, were used in lieu of money during the frontier days. Davey Crockett killed and wore deer and he was considered an all‑American good guy. Disney even made a movie about him.
In 1976 at a dock in Sausalito the local television film crews were waiting. There was a rumor that a cargo of death was on the way. They were right. Fifty deer that had been killed on Angel Island were unloaded from a State Park boat. Their bloodied carcasses splashed across the evening news that night. This was an outrage! The Park officials were supposed to be in charge of protecting the wildlife not slaughtering it. The Bambi syndrome raised its ugly head throughout the Bay area.
Angel Island has always had deer but the resident Coast Miwok Indians guaranteed that the population never got high. Immigrant deer swam across Racoon (sic) Strait from the Tiburon peninsula and replaced those the natives ate. After the Miwoks were wiped out the US Army controlled Angel Island for over one hundred years. You can be sure that the officers regularly dined on venison.
It wasn’t until 1964 when Angel Island became a state park that the number of deer began to increase. The Island is only one square mile and this isn’t enough habitat to support a mountain lion ‑‑‑ the major predator on deer. For three thousand years the only control on herd size was man. The State Park forbids public hunting and the deer population grew dramatically.
The herd soon exceeded the carrying capacity of the island; the deer became weakened by starvation and disease. Hungry deer begging for food often besieged Park visitors. People were nearly mugged by deer for their lunch. So officials decided to increase the overall vitality of the deer by reducing the size of the herd. This is the standard management procedure. The State Park admits the hunt was poorly organized; the deer were improperly killed and dressed. And no one reckoned on the television crews.
The Coast Miwok and the US Army had kept the number of deer in check but when Angel Island became a State Park, hunting was prohibited. The deer population exploded. In 1976 the park decided to reduce the herd. Fifty deer were shot. The transported carcasses were met by television crews in Sausalito. The bloody scene was broadcast across the Bay area that evening.
The public’s response was immediate and visceral. The Park Rangers were cruel and viscous. The deer should be allowed to live and even be fed if necessary. Welfare deer. The State Park had erred, they backed off and soon the island was overrun with deer again.
By 1981 it became clear that something had to be done. Several options were proposed. Introduce coyotes….too bloody. Allow hunting by the rangers…..run Bambi run. Capture the deer and airlift them off the Island to safety…..too expensive.
Against the better judgment of most wildlife biologists but under intense pressure from the San Francisco Chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), the State Park (and the Department of Fish and Game) captured and transported 215 deer from the Island. They were tagged and then released in the Mendocino National Forest.
After just three months 50% of the deer were dead and by the end of the first year only 30 deer remained alive. The total cost was $100,000. The project was a dismal and expensive failure. You can not remove an adult deer from its environment, place it in a new one and expect it to survive. The deer starved, wandered out in roads and were hit by cars, and actually walked into hunting camps looking for handouts. This was not prevention of cruelty to animals.
By 1984 the deer were overrunning the island again. The SPCA then started a sterilization program. They captured female deer and implanted birth control devices. But they kept catching the same does over and over. Another expensive failure.
Public hearings on the continuing deer problem began in 1985. One serious proposal was to introduce coyotes to the island. But the vision of Bambi being devoured by evil coyotes was too much for the SPCA and the general public. The State park had tried everything proposed by the SPCA; they had all failed.
Finally a consensus was reached. Angel Island rangers could reduce the herd by periodic hunting. Biologists estimate that a herd of 200 deer is the carrying capacity for Angel Island. Now the deer are more vigorous, healthier and never beg from the public. The venison is donated to St. Vincent de Paul to feed the hungry. The hides, hooves and antlers are saved and used in interpetive naturalist programs all over the state. Like the natives before them, the rangers waste nothing of the deer.
What can be gleaned from the Angel Island experience? First, that it is critical the public be informed and consulted when a government agency proposes a radical shift from current policy. In our pluralistic society it is important to listen to many points of view; it broadens our perspective.
While we should always have compassion for other living beings, we must view animals in an broader ecological context. Bambi is not a human being with antlers. Whether we like it or not, human beings are now in charge of this world and in many ways we play God. We are not prepared for this role. The best we can do is observe how natural ecosystems function and try to duplicate them in our managed public lands. If the natural predators that once controlled a population of animals is gone, then we need to rectify that loss. In some cases this may be by hunting. Regardless of how you feel about hunters and hunting, it is often much crueler to the animals to allow their population to rise, checked only by starvation and disease. We need to balance our hearts with our minds.