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Deer Feeding is a Risky Business

by Jeanne Woodford, President, Woodford Wildlife Refuge

White-tailed deer: beautiful wildlife or voracious pests? Whatever your perspective, if you live in the South Jersey suburbs, deer are among your closest neighbors.

Visitors to Cedar Run Refuge love to see our white-tailed deer. It's especially interesting to observe the Pine Barrens' largest mammals in late summer when the males' growing antlers are covered in velvet.

Deer-lovers often set up feeding stations so they can see these beautiful animals at home. Unfortunately, that isn't a good thing to do. Feeding deer can bring risk to your family and neighbors and can be bad for the animals, too.

Since deer carry ticks, luring them into the yard with food can expose humans and pets to disabling illnesses such as Lyme disease. And, since deer are browsers, bringing them close always results in landscape damage. Neighborhood gardeners will not be happy when "your" deer devour their flowers, shrubs and vegetables.

Although it seems that feeding deer will help them get through harsh winters, it can actually be harmful. Lettuce and table scraps don't provide proper nourishment and bread fills them with empty calories. The bacteria and enzymes in white-tails' digestive systems change with the seasons and some foods, including hay, can't be properly digested in winter. Deer pellets spoil readily, releasing toxins that may actually poison the deer.

Bringing deer close together at a feeding station also spreads diseases like bovine tuberculosis and mange among the herd. And larger, stronger animals will dominate the feeding area, depriving others of food.

Attracting deer to your neighborhood by feeding also damages the adjacent woodlands. Since the deer are concentrated, they browse too heavily on the undergrowth and saplings, destroying new growth and the habitat it provides for other wildlife species.

Most of all, feeding deer accustoms them to the presence of humans. As they loose their wildness they become more vulnerable to hunters, collisions with cars and predation by free-running dogs. At the Refuge, we take in many maimed white-tails and they are very tough to save.

So, do feed the birds, but leave the deer to their own resources. You'll be doing your neighbors a favor and will protect your backyard habitat for all the wild creatures that also call it home. And when you do spot a beautiful white-tail, it will be a special reward, not a routine experience.

To see one of Cedar Run Refuge's resident white-tails, click on the Wildlife Gallery button on our website,