Letter to the Editor: Deer Aren't the Culprit in Fighting Lyme Disease

A letter to the editor from Barbara Metzler.


The following letter to the editor is in response to the May 22 Weston Patch article:

To the Editor:

Killing deer does not help to prevent Lyme Disease. In fact, killing deer can increase the chance of people getting Lyme Disease for several reasons. Yes, ticks feed on deer, but if they don’t have deer to feed on, they feed even more on humans and dogs, raccoons and striped skunks, etc.

More importantly, if ticks don’t have deer to feed on, they spend more time on mice and thereby increase their chances of becoming infected, since mice cause the infection. It’s the mice that infect ticks. Dr. Rick Ostfeld, an ecologist in Millbrook, N.Y., said that a reduction in biodiversity limits other animals that the ticks may feed on.

Therefore, if we kill off other wildlife such as deer or foxes, the ticks will then feed mostly on mice, increasing their chances to become infected with Borrelia Burgdorferi. Dr. Ostfeld also said that cases of Lyme increase when there are no deer to attract the ticks and the ticks therefore land on people. Yes, the people from "conservancies" want ground cover in the parks. This merely causes more ticks, since the mice will be there due to the ground cover!

In areas in the Mendhams in New Jersey, where I live, where the deer ate the low-lying vegetation, the Centers for Disease Control researchers could not find many ticks. There were not many ticks because the mice left the area since there was no ground cover! On the other hand, in the Mendhams, where people had fences and deer could not enter, there was lots of low-lying vegetation, BUT there were also many, many ticks due to the low-lying vegetation!

Dr. Steven E. Schutzer, an Allergy and Immunology specialist at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in N.J. and other New Jersey researchers did a three-year study during which they staked out areas of countryside and measured the number of ticks per square foot. Areas with thick ground cover (more than ankle-deep) averaged 23 times the tick populations of areas with sparse or low-lying vegetation. Areas with heavy vegetation had an average of 108.8 ticks per 100 square feet, whereas areas marked by less vegetation and open ground had an average of only 4.6 ticks per 100 square feet. The reason? Mice need dense ground cover to feel secure.

"Mice have three principal requirements to inhabit an area: variety of food, nearby water, and ground cover, which is extremely important for protection, whereas open space is dangerous," wrote Schutzer and colleagues in a letter published in the Lancet, the prestigious British Medical Journal.

The favorite habitat of the tick is actually the coats of mice: where mice congregate, so will the ticks. In the Lancet, Schutzer offered this rule of thumb: "when one could see the bare ground from a standing height, the area was not favorable for mice and we did not find signs of mice inhabitation or tick abundance."

That carrier — the one most likely to bring Lyme-infected ticks in contact with human beings — is not the white-tailed deer, but the white-footed mouse according to doctors at UMDNJ. There is a misconception among most people that deer are the culprit. But no; it's really the mice.

Factors for acquiring Lyme disease include: participating in brush clearing activities from June through August, and the presence of birdfeeders, woods or rock walls on residential property. Mice and ticks find themselves at home in lawns and hedges and often hide in plants such as pachysandra. The disease moves into suburban backyards in part because the infected ticks are attracted to birdfeeders, as are Lyme-carrying birds and small mammals. Ticks are found on 49 bird species, and at least 30 species of mammal.

If moral or financial reasons aren't enough, there is the fact that hunting simply does not work as a sustainable solution to reduce or even control the deer population due to the principal of reproductive rebound. According to many documented studies, deer conceive multiple embryos, but the number of fawns born is directly related to nutrition and herd density. When herd density is temporarily reduced through hunting, there is reduced competition for food and the number of twins and triplets born actually increases. Studies even showed that after a hunt, surviving females produced enough offspring to not only replace those killed, but enough to actually INCREASE the size of the herd. This is reproductive rebound.

So, for moral reasons, financial reasons and the practical reason that hunting is an archaic, barbaric and ineffective method, I urge people to explore non-lethal means of controlling the deer population.

Deer are gentle and magnificent creatures that make states a special and charming place to live. I'm sure that there are complaints about our deer, but please know that many people want to be with the deer!

Many studies have shown that deer populations stabilize on their own if they are left alone. The population may rise 30 percent, but it will then drop 30 percent — as long as there is not hunting.

Thanks for reading,

Barbara Metzler,
Brookside, N.J.


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