A hotly debated environmental issue goes on trial this week. New York’s notorious “Deer Lady” faces criminal charges of breaking the state’s feeding ban. Some states, including New York, have imposed bans hoping to stop the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease. The fatal brain disease has been found in deer and elk as far east as Wisconsin. But many animal activists say they don’t understand the need for feeding bans. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, Joyce Kryszak followed the “Deer Lady” into the park . . . and to the deer:
A hotly debated environmental issue goes on trial this week. New York’s notorious Deer Lady
faces criminal charges of breaking the state’s feeding ban. Some states, including New York,
have imposed bans hoping to stop the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease. The fatal brain disease
has been found in deer and elk as far east as Wisconsin. But many animal activists say they don’t
understand the need for feeding bans. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, Joyce Kryszak
followed the Deer Lady into the park . . . and to the deer:
Anita Depczynski is almost deer-like in appearance herself. The sixty-three year old retired
cleaning woman, now arthritic, is spirited, but a bit timid moving. And her big brown eyes peer
skittishly at those who recognize her in the park where she still goes to feed the deer.
“Are you the Deer Lady?”
“No, I’m not.”
This shy, relative newcomer to animal advocacy tries to avoid the attention the year-long case has
focused on her. Still, Depczynski isn’t easily frightened away. About a dozen deer, many she
calls by name, make their way across the snow covered path to greet her. They huddle around as
the Deer Lady scatters corn near her feet.
“Faline, that’s enough now, because I don’t have much. See? You can’t come in here with this
little bag like this – forget it.”
Depczynski faces up to forty-five days in jail if found guilty of breaking the state’s feeding ban.
But Depczynski says she won’t stop. As we trudge along the cold, windy nature trail, she
suddenly stops to explain. Depczynski says the deer living in this park would starve without her.
“I’m afraid about going to jail…but I have to stand my ground. Many people before me have been
Depczynski says people were feeding the deer in this park, long before she arrived. But she says
most have been intimidated to stop, or else deny they still do because of the new feeding ban.
Most of the park visitors we meet say they support Depczynski. And most say they don’t
understand what Chronic Wasting Disease and the feeding ban are all about.
Despite the confusion, wildlife experts say the feeding ban is necessary. They say it’s part of the
effort to stop the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease. The disease hasn’t hit this part of the world
yet. But the bans are intended to prevent the introduction of Chronic Wasting Disease. Experts
say the bans help discourage deer from artificially congregating together. And that’s important,
because it’s believed Chronic Wasting Disease could be passed along through deer feces and
urine. Wildlife expert Joel Thomas says he knows Depczynski and others think they’re helping.
But Thomas says this isn’t a Disney movie. And he says feeding wildlife, especially deer, is
never a good idea.
“It sustains them, and that’s all it does. And in the long term, it really upsets herd health when
people get involved with feeding them. We feed deer the wrong things, we feed them at the
wrong time, we feed them for the wrong reasons. So, they’re just not a species that benefits from
that type of human intervention.”
And Thomas says there’s scientific evidence suggesting that the well-intentioned meddling could
do a lot more than throw off the balance. He says it could encourage the spread of Chronic
Wasting Disease and devastate the North America’s deer population.
“If the deer are left to browse, and live their lives, largely without this type of artificial
concentration that we provide with feeding, then any kind of disease – Chronic Wasting or
otherwise – that enters into an animal population, won’t be spread so fast so severely. It’s a health
check, if you will. It’s kind of like a fire wall.”
But the Deer Lady, Anita Depczynski, says that’s an imaginary firewall in this case – and in many
other suburban areas. She says generations of the same deer have been congregating in her park
and being fed by residents for years. She says they’re trapped here, surrounded by houses and
highways. And she says when they have to go looking for food, the results are heart wrenching.
We saw that, first hand, a little while later on the trail.
“Oh no, look he’s wounded? Look at his leg, it’s infected…I know, they told me about her
yesterday. Leave her alone. I don’t want her destroyed. See what happens?”
The yearling stood shaking on three legs in a thicket along the trail. Her fourth leg was ripped off
below the hip, presumably by a car. The DEC came later that day, and put her down.
Depczynski says the deer was another casualty of the state’s feeding ban. But wildlife expert Joel
Thomas says it’s nature taking it’s course.
“Not all animals are intended to survive in a population. It’s population dynamics, it’s biology, it’s
nature, it’s the way the planet spins.”
And Thomas says to interfere with that is to risk the spread of diseases – such as Chronic Wasting
Disease – that could wipe out an entire species. But Depczynski believes New York is over-
reacting to a disease that is still many states away.
“If I thought I was harming wildlife, I’d be the first one to stop.”
Wildlife experts say convincing people like Depczynski is the biggest challenge in their fight
against Chronic Wasting Disease. Because they say, by the time the presence of the disease is
obvious, it’s already too late.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Joyce Kryszak.