by LEN LEAR

Lee Hall, of the Friends of Animals-Pennsylvania (from left); Matt McLaughlin, of South Jersey; Christine Posey, of Fort Washington; and Mary Ann Baron, of Chestnut Hill, members of the new Chestnut Hill-based organization, Philadelphia Advocates for Deer, want to remind area residents that the annual slaughter of deer by hired killers is still continuing in the Wissahickon Valley. (Photos by Len Lear)

Although it has been going on out of the public eye and with virtually no publicity for years, the annual slaughter of deer has been continuing for 12 years in Wissahickon Park, the section of Fairmount Park that cuts through Chestnut Hill.

In September of 1998, the Fairmount Park Commission (now called the Department of Parks and Recreation) voted to start killing the overwhelming majority of deer in the park.

An aerial survey showed at the time that there were about 180 in the Wissahickon section of the park, and FPC announced its intention to have about 150 of those deer shot to death. (In June of 1998 an ecology professor, Thomas Eveland, said in a speech at Springside School that killing deer was an example of poor park management.)

A sharpshooter was hired, and the killing began in February of 1999. (The euphemism “cull” is routinely used by those who endorse the killing because “cull” sounds relatively benign; it’s similar to casinos using the word “gaming” instead of “gambling.”)

There were protests and publicity at first, but they pretty much disappeared after the first year or two. The killing has gone on every year, however, and has spread to the Pennypack Park and the Cobbs Creek areas in addition to the Wissahickon Valley. Curfew signs go up every year about late January and come down about late March. The curfew signs at park entrances warn residents not to enter the park in the late night or early morning hours.

Intent on reviving the issue, however, is a new organization called Philadelphia Advocates for Deer (PAD), led by Chestnut Hill residents Mary Ann Baron, the group’s president, and Bridget Irons, long-time animal rights advocate. The group has been holding picket demonstrations, the last one on Oct. 23, in front of Sovereign Bank in Chestnut Hill, to inform local residents that the killing is continuing unabated.

“There is nothing in the press anymore,” said Irons, “and the curfew signs never say why they want people to stay out of the park. Our goal is to raise consciousness. Many people who live in Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy think the park is so beautiful, which it is, but they do not know it has been turned into a killing field! The pro-kill camp counts on a public that accepts the status quo without question so that they can steamroll over the deer year after year.”

“There is a way for us to co-exist with the deer,” added Baron. “What is needed is the will to do the right thing. We went to a meeting of Friends of the Wissahickon, and we heard the deer referred to as ‘rats with hooves.’ And these are people from Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy who are supposed to love animals. If this was about dogs and cats, they’d be going crazy. But when it comes to the deer, a large group of people are so attached to their gardens, even to the point of silliness, that they don’t care how many deer are slaughtered.”

Virginia Roberts of Flourtown indicates her opinion about the killing of deer to passing motorists and pedestrians at the top of the Hill.

Friends of the Wissahickon (FOW), a non-profit organization that supports many educational programs in the park, had hired a consultant, Brian Shissler, of a company called Natural Resource Consultants, to study the impact deer were having on the park’s vegetation and to recommend a solution. After his study, Shissler recommended that the killing begin.

Both FOW and the Fairmount Park Commission agreed that most of the park’s deer should be killed, and FPC obtained approval from the Pennsylvania Game Commission (whose funding comes largely from hunting licenses) to hire sharpshooters from the Department of Agriculture to start killing the deer, and the killing has resumed every year since then.

PAD emphatically disputes the findings of the Shissler study. “A proper deer study was never done,” said Irons. “Soil chemicals were never studied. Their so-called study was so filled with speculation. They admitted there was little they knew about deer ecology, and they told us it (the killing) would be a one-time thing. Obviously that was a lie. The people who did their so-called study were clearly chosen because the Fairmount Park Commission knew they would recommend lethal means. They clearly had no intention of having a truly objective, scientific study done.

“I myself have been in park many times in violation of the curfew. One time we watched a truck going up the hill to a huge bait site. Then we heard gunshots and then deer crying out. It was horrible. Later a Fairmount Park commissioner told me that I was mistaken, that I must have been hearing cows at the Saul School. Can you believe that? I’ve even seen the hired killers kill a deer outside the park, near a private house and playground in Roxborough. I followed their truck, but when they saw me, they took off.”

Although PAD’s ultimate goal is to stop the killing, they realize that will not happen anytime soon because the killing is carried out in secret, there is no groundswell of public opinion against it, and no local public officials have been willing to take up the cause. So for now they are merely trying to educate the public and mobilize public opinion.

We tried to get a response from FOW to the charges by PAD. Last Friday Denise Larrabee, public relations spokesperson for FOW, wrote, “I have forwarded your request for a statement to our director, Maura McCarthy.” Later in the day Larrabee wrote, “Maura has asked me to forward your request to the gentlemen who head our committee that deals with this issue, Bob Wallis and David Pope, which I have just done.” We tried again on Monday to get a reply from Wallis and Pope but did not hear back from them.

For more information, contact PAD at maryannbaron3@yahoo.com or 215-432-7292; or Friends of Animals at philly@friendsofanimals.org