Animal rights and wrongs: drawing a line between wilderness and the garden

Living adjacent to a federal wildlife refuge has its pros and cons. On the plus side, we take comfort in knowing that there will never be ski slopes or condominium clusters in our view. And we take pride in thinking that our own conservation efforts add to those next door. We would feel far more beleaguered if our 100-acre parcel were a tiny wooded island in a vast sea of development.

But there are also drawbacks. Wildlife refuges are intended to be sanctuaries. The problem is that their occupants don’t always remain inside. The boundaries of this one are clearly marked by blue-and-white metal signs inscribed with the flying goose logo of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But there is no fence just a century-old waist-high stone wall marking the 4,000 feet of property line that we share. No one has mended the wall in generations, and many of the lichen-covered rocks have been toppled by falling tree trunks or heaving ice, leaving the wall of little use but to surveyors as a sight line through the deepening woods.

The deer, porcupines, beaver, and snowshoe rabbits that have multiplied as the open fields have reverted to forest can’t read the signs. Neither can the foxes, woodchucks, skunks, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, moles, voles, mice, and birds that also leave the refuge at will. Walking, stalking, waddling, hopping, jumping, running, tunneling, flying, gliding–the traffic is heavy. Even the moose are back. Seeing one of these long-legged, large-kneed beasts lurching through the alders like some misplaced camel is a naturalist’s delight.

To a gardener, however, it is another matter. I’ve seen what a newly planted asparagus patch looks like when a moose has walked through. I’ve had my raspberries flattened by hungry porcupines reaching for the tender cane tips. Deer have devoured half of every head of cabbage down the row and rubbed all the bark off the stems of my hybrid elderberries with their antlers. They have chewed the buds off my apple trees and the tops off my overwintering parsnips. The corn that the crows missed, the raccoons got. Woodchucks eating squash, mice eating potatoes, squirrels eating peaches, beavers cutting down trees to build their dam–name the bird or beast, and we’ve probably had trouble with it.

Judging from my bookshelf, insects, nematodes, and slugs are the principal foes of gardeners. Not here. Yes, I have my share of trouble with Japanese beetles and cutworms, corn borers and cabbage-root maggots. But the damage done by these insects is modest. Even when there’s the potential for it to become serious–say with tomato hornworms–there’s time to respond after you first notice that leaves are disappearing. With vertebrates, however, it’s a different story. A single woodchuck can tuck away an entire planting of pea seedlings in a single meal. Raccoons can trash ripening grapes overnight. By the time I discovered that there was a porcupine in the orchard, my |Montmorency’ cherry looked like someone had been cutting firewood from it.

I am not the only gardener facing these problems. In Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey the deer herd is huge, and residents are discovering that there is nothing that a hungry deer won’t eat. (“Rats with antlers” is how Princeton resident and writer John McPhee refers to them.) Blackbirds annually cause an estimated $35 million in damage to corn nationwide, and raccoons have become so ubiquitous that they now even steal tomatoes growing in containers on city rooftops. The squirrels that bedevil bird-feeders are just as much a headache for some gardeners. When venison, squirrel pie, and coonskin caps were in fashion, there were fewer of these animals around. Now in our eagerness to embrace wilderness, animal populations have boomed, and we are facing the consequences.

Despite the increasing seriousness of vertebrates as garden pests, most books devote scarcely any space to how to control them. I suspect the reason is simply that compared to controlling insects and other invertebrates, we have yet to develop many satisfactory solutions. With insect problems we can choose between resistant varieties, cultural practices, and biological controls. With bigger animals the choices too often seem to be between doing nothing and reaching for a gun.

The do-nothing approach has its charm. As a teenager and a determined naturalist, I put the rights of animals first. I thought that by planting more beans than we needed I would be able to feed both wildlife and my family. But I soon learned otherwise. The concept of sharing with another species may well be unique to our own. At least I’ve never detected it in any animal I’ve dealt with, certainly not the raccoons tearing through the cornstalks or the birds gorging on sweet cherries.

It became clear that I couldn’t hope to harvest much of anything unless, like gardeners of old, I reached for a gun. This was a.22 caliber that had belonged to my father as a boy. At short range it was, and still is, effective, but you have to be close to the target–at least I do. I also began bombing woodchuck burrows with poison gas cartridges that I got from the hardware store. These cardboard tubes contain a mixture of sulphur, charcoal, red phosphorus, ammonium nitrate, and sawdust. You punch holes in one end with a nail, insert a fuse, light it, and stick the sputtering bomb as far down in the woodchuck’s burrow as you can reach. Then you quickly cover the entrance with a sod to hold in the toxic gas as the smoke bomb erupts.

When I couldn’t find either the animal or its lair, I set out live traps baited with broccoli for woodchucks, dried cat food or sardines for raccoons. At first I transported all the animals I caught 10 to 15 miles away before releasing them. I thought this was more humane than using steel-jaw traps. It is, but I was missing the point of using live traps. Such traps are better, not because you can relocate what you catch, but because you can release the cats, dogs, or chickens you inadvertently snare. Transporting and releasing a wild animal is tantamount to killing it, because displaced animals have difficulty establishing themselves in unfamiliar terrain and may well be deposited in a place that already has an abundance of the species. Indeed, a number of states have made it illegal to transport trapped animals off of one’s property. This leaves the gardener to choose between drowning, gassing, shooting, or simply letting the varmint go again on one’s own land.

Lest all of this make me sound too bloodthirsty, let me hasten to add that I am not one of those people who stops their car every time they see a porcupine crossing the road and gets out to club it in order to protect the forest. That’s precisely the sort of knee-jerk behavior that created a need for wildlife refuges in the first place. Nor am I a deer hunter, though I wear an orange vest each fall for my own safety, and I rather admire the man who hunts here every year with bow and arrow. The four deer he has killed in 15 seasons of stalking seem an honorable extension of ancient indigenous hunting practices. But, in general, I believe that we humans are far less sophisticated managers of wildlife than the wildlife itself.

Wolves will probably never return to these hills, but the landscape continues to change so rapidly that it’s impossible to say what the ultimate distribution of wildlife will be. In the last few years, I’ve begun to hear coyotes howling at night–an eerie sound even more out of place than the appearance of moose. The coyote, along with the opossum, is an example of a species that has expanded its range, in this case moving east from the arid grasslands and deserts of the West into the territory once occupied by wolves. Coyotes are opportunistic feeders with a taste for everything from meadow voles to white-tailed deer, and they may prove a far better means of controlling the number of woodchucks than I could ever hope to be.

When I was in graduate school, I had a professor named William Drury, who was an ornithologist and the author of two laws of animal behavior. Drury’s first law was, “An animal is presumed to be smart until proved stupid.” Drury’s second law stated the converse, “People who study animals are presumed stupid until proved smart.”

These are laws that I have come to live by. How could I set out to shoot every raccoon I see, or bomb every last woodchuck hole without knowing how many individuals there are out there, what natural enemies they face, and whether they are limited by food or competition? We need to “quantify the influence of both abiotic and biotic factors on population numbers of target species and their predators and competitors.” That’s how the authors of a recent report on the future of vertebrate management in California agriculture put it. That’s a fancy way of saying we gardeners should go light on the shooting, trapping, or poisoning until we know more about the nature of our problem.

In the meantime, I garden not by force, but by fence. I am like a zoo horticulturist faced with the task of mixing plants and animals, only instead of fencing the animals in, I fence them out. Before we sow the first peas each spring, we plant the fence around our vegetable garden. It’s a four-foot-wide barrier of one-inch chicken wire. The bottom edge is buried or bent outward, and the fence is tied with baling twine to skinny poles spaced eight feet apart. The top foot we leave untied, so it will roll back on an animal trying to climb over.

This is a flimsy, wobbly fence, easy to put up and take down and put away for the winter. Putting this fence up anew each year has proved to be much easier and faster than it sounds. Two people can erect 300 feet of it in a day. It keeps out rabbits, woodchucks, and other an animals of similar size. It’s important, though, to put the fence up before the animals start feeding. Otherwise you’re erecting a fence in a game trail, and animals will go through almost anything to get to where they know there’s food. Even deer seem to respect the fence. They don’t start grazing on the winter rye I have sown as a cover crop or the over-wintering parsnips until we’ve taken the fence down, rolled it up, and put it away in the barn.

Raccoons, however, can climb any woven-wire fence. The only way to stop them is with an electric one. Electric fences deliver thousands of volts at a pulse that lasts only a thousandth of a second or so. Getting shocked is startling to gardeners, children, pets, livestock, and wild animals, but all will survive the experience. A warning sign hung every 200 feet is required by some states and will alert anything that can read. I surround the garden where I plant my corn and squash with two wires one four inches above the ground, the second four inches above that. A good fence charger can be had for $50, and the power that it consumes is too little to register on most electric bills. For posts I use white fiberglass rods three-eighths of an inch in diameter, and to each I attach two yellow plastic insulators that tighten to the rods with a screw thread. Since the rods themselves do not conduct electricity, the insulators are redundant. They can be slid up or down the rod, however, making it possible to move the wires in order to trim under them with a string trimmer. Grass growing up in contact with the wires could otherwise short out the fence. With this arrangement it isn’t even necessary to turn the power off.

I have never had trouble with deer in the corn, but those who have report that a single strand of electrified wire 24 inches above the ground will keep deer away. The trick is to rub the wire with a cloth that has been smeared with peanut butter. In this case, however, one should definitely turn the fence off beforehand.

If I lived where there was a particularly high density of deer–some parts of the country have 100 or more per square mile–I’d have to put up a far more substantial fence. Woven-wire fences have to be 10 feet high and can cost $4 per linear foot to erect. High-tensile electric fencing has emerged as a less expensive alternative. Where deer densities are low to moderate, a seven-wire fence, with the wires eight inches apart, works well. Where deer densities are moderate to high, a seven-wire fence with the fence angling outward is a better alternative. In this case the fence is only four feet high but approximately six feet wide with the wires a foot apart. Using high-tensile wire allows the posts to be spaced as much as 60 feet apart, and such fences cost only $1.50 and $2.50 per linear foot respectively. The initial cost for such a fence may still seem high, but many gardeners have found that the security the fence affords their gardens is more than worth the price. Plans for the various types can be gotten either from suppliers or local cooperative extension services.

Most of my own orchard is surrounded by a six-foot-high sheep fence, but I protect the three older apple trees in the backyard by hanging bars of soap from the ends of their branches. Deodorant soap still in the wrapper (I use Dial) has so far discouraged deer from browsing within a three-foot radius of each bar. Eggs and water sprayed on tree branches is also said to work and “putrescent egg solids” are listed as the active ingredient in at least one big-game repellent. Human hair, hot-pepper sauce, bone tar oil, and the fungicide Thiram have also proved repulsive to deer. But the success of repellents depends on how frequently they are applied, on the number of animals in the area, and on how hungry they are.

Fences–large or small–are a sure bet. I protect the bark of young fruit trees with minimal fencing–cylinders of quarter-inch hardware cloth or spirals of plastic prevent the voles from chewing the bark of young fruit trees in the winter. In the summer plastic netting over the blueberry bushes, grapevines, and even the two sour cherry trees keeps birds from eating all the fruit. The black polypropylene net with three-quarter-inch mesh comes in widths of 13 and 17 feet, and sections can easily be laced together with baling twine or short twigs to make larger pieces still. For support I use a scaffolding of posts and wires. Because polypropylene will eventually break down in sunlight, when the net is not needed I roll it up on a long wooden pole and store it indoors.

The netting, the chicken wire, and the electric fence do an admirable job of keeping wildlife where I want it. Now and then a bird or two finds its way into the blueberries or a woodchuck tunnels under the vegetable garden fence. Last summer a raccoon used an overhanging pine branch to drop in on the corn.1 don’t begrudge these animals their attempts to reach the fruits and vegetables I am raising. But that doesn’t mean I have become a pacifist. Being a gardener means raising crops and defending them too. I don’t like bombing the woodchuck burrow that has suddenly appeared under the cucumber foliage, or shooting a porcupine that I discover chopping off the branches of one of my pear trees. But in good times and bad these are the plants that I watch over. It’s my job to step in and blow the whistle when animals get out of bounds.

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