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Block Island struggles with deer

Many say large numbers threaten residents' health

By Richard Morin, Globe Correspondent, 10/05/97

BLOCK ISLAND, R.I. - Pamela Glen was playing a game of hide-and-seek with her mother and 5-year-old granddaughter in her back yard last Sunday when a deer suddenly leapt from the bushes. The fast-moving 100-pound buck kicked Glen in the right side of her head, sending her to a mainland hospital with a fractured cheek bone and a nose broken in three places.

''I didn't even see it coming,'' said Glen, who needed several dozen stitches. ''I guess we scared the deer and it was just trying to get away.''

Although Glen says the accident was a fluke, others believe it illustrates the point they have been making for years - the deer, they say, are endangering the health of Block Island residents. But it is not just physical encounters with deer that island residents are buzzing about. Some are far more concerned about Lyme disease - deer carry ticks that transmit Lyme disease and other illnesses.

''Most everyone on the island has had Lyme disease or knows someone who has had it,'' said Dr. Peter Brassard, a Block Island resident who has studied the disease and treated hundreds suffering from the debilitating illness. ''If there were no deer, we wouldn't have a problem.''

In the previous nine years, the island has averaged 40 to 45 cases of Lyme disease a year, according to Brassard, who has teamed with researchers from the University of Connecticut to track the disease on the island.

Over the last decade, Block Island has struggled with whether it should kill all of its deer in the interest of protecting public health. The deer have been so abundant in recent years that some island residents have taken to erecting 8-foot-tall fences around their gardens, treating their flowers and bushes with deer repellent, and trying to scare the animals away.

''I live in the middle of 24 acres of land. Between the deer eating my garden and the dog rolling around in it, I gave up on my garden,'' said Martha Ball, a member of the town council.

Block Island didn't always have a large deer population. The state reintroduced deer to the island in 1968 at the request of Block Island's hunters. Prior to bringing over four does and a buck on the ferry that year, Block Island had not seen deer since well before the turn of the century. With mild winters, acres of low-lying brush in which to hide, and no natural predators on Block Island other than man, the deer have thrived.

Up till now, Block Island has dealt with its growing deer herd by turning to local hunters. The hunting season has been lengthened and once-stringent permitting procedures have been loosened. But hunters say it is virtually impossible to safely hunt on Block Island with a shotgun. The proximity of houses and large tracts of land where hunters are not allowed provide deer a safe haven.

Recently, the town council voted to lower the deer herd to 10 per square mile on the 11-square-mile island. But how and when they will thin out a herd estimated to be as high as 1,000 strong remains unclear.

Town officials are considering everything from sterilizing the deer with chemically treated salt licks to hiring a Connecticut-based company to eradicate the entire deer population with sharpshooters.

''We went through this same thing four or five years ago,'' said Dr. Brassard. ''I served on a deer committee then, and we recommended that the deer be eradicated in the interest of public health.''

But anti-hunting sentiment killed the committee's recommendation, and the deer herd kept growing. ''So we're back at it again,'' Brassard said.

Although most island residents don't want the herd eliminated, there is a growing faction that does.

''They may be cute and nice to look at for the tourists, but they are a health hazard,'' said Gail Heinz, ticking off the names of friends and neighbors who have had Lyme disease. ''I say we eradicate them all.''

Chris Blane, a member of the newly appointed deer advisory committee, disagreed. ''Some people wouldn't care if you shot them with a bazooka. But what's next? Are we going to kill all the crickets because they are noisy?'' Blane said.

Strangely enough, many island residents who have suffered chronic bouts of Lyme disease, including Pamela Glen's husband, Stewart, don't want to see the deer herd eliminated.

''Life knocks you around and you go with the flow,'' he said. ''Plus, I don't want to see the deer go.''

Despite her run-in with the buck, Pamela Glen agrees. ''I realize there needs to be some control, but killing them off is not the answer,'' she said.

Phyllis Holmes, Pamela's mother, says it's time for something to be done with the deer.

''What if that deer kicked my 5-year-old great-granddaughter?,'' Holmes said. ''She would be dead.''

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This story ran on page B07 of the Boston Globe on 10/05/97.
© Copyright 1997 Globe Newspaper Company.