Ann Arbor — October 14, 2015 at 12:48 pm

Ann Arbor City Council member suggests retaliation against Humane Society for their advocacy against proposed deer cull


The Humane Society of Huron Valley has been actively attempting to stop a proposed $90,000 deer cull in Ann Arbor (read their Guest Post on the topic HERE) and that’s not sitting well with at least one member of the Ann Arbor City Council. Kirk Westphal is suggesting that the city no longer utilize the HSHV’s animal control services.

The move looks very much like retaliation against a group he disagrees with.

Council Member Jane Lumm, who has led the charge on council for both the deer cull and the contract funding for animal control services, said some council members are questioning the contract “because of how the Humane Society has become so antagonistic and combative and hard to work with.”

Lumm said there are “kind of sidebar chats” about canceling the Humane Society contract, though she’s not advocating for that.

[Kirk] Westphal said on Friday he’s interested in exploring alternative options for providing animal control services given the Humane Society’s actions.

“I think this misinformation campaign has raised questions about who we’d like to partner with and what our options are,” he said.

Humane Society President Tanya Hilgendorf issued a statement on Friday defending her agency’s advocacy against killing deer.

In addition to caring for unwanted, neglected and abused animals, Hilgendorf said, another mission of the Humane Society is to educate elected officials and the public on animal welfare issues. In some instances, she said, the agency’s knowledge and expertise compels it to advocate for or against a given public policy.

“These types of advocacy efforts are a key component of public discourse and the democratic process,” she said.

“We are dumbfounded that publicly elected officials would make threats to discontinue partnering with a well-respected provider of essential services simply because that organization exercised its free speech rights to disagree on a specific public policy. We don’t engage in contracts for service in exchange for our silence.”

I contacted Westphal to ask what “misinformation” he is referring to. “The major issues of misinformation I see include HSHV’s inferences of danger to people and pets and claims that the issue is only about damage to private landscaping,” Westphal told me. “The facts as I understand them are that there has not been one documented case of an injury to a human or pet in the history of professionally-managed culls nationally, whereas people do die every year in deer-vehicle collisions, people have been injured already in the Ann Arbor area by deer crashes, and a pet was severely injured a few months ago by a protective doe in its own yard. So, one is much more likely to get hurt by crashing into a deer than anything having to do with a cull.”

“As to environmental damage, there are certainly many ‘hot spots’ of deer activity on private property where deer are wiping out plants that have been untouched for decades and leaving feces that renders yards unusable,” Westphal continued. “Homeowners are not able to defend their yards because of fencing laws, which would just move the problem to their neighbors anyway. But the larger issue for me and some others is that there are natural areas within the city that have already been depleted of all native tree saplings. Research indicates that this will get worse unless the population is managed. I’m not willing to sacrifice the future of our parks and natural areas and the other animal populations they support.”

“The claim that there are other ‘effective methods’ is also unfounded,” Westphal said. “I believe there is one study regarding a herd of deer on an island where contraception was deemed effective. However, decades of research demonstrate culling to be the only option to effectively manage deer populations, not to mention contraception is not approved for use in Michigan at this time. Council did direct staff to experiment with other methods in addition to the cull, so we’ll try to help the body of research in this regard.”

The issue of safety with regard to shooters operating in areas surrounded by residential neighborhoods has certainly been brought up in the discussion. And it’s not just the HSHV. In discussions I’ve had with Ann Arbor residents, it’s the first thing that’s brought up. “Those neighborhoods around the parks have a LOT of houses,” one woman said. “That seems dangerous to me.” For safety reasons, State law restricts the use of explosives and firearms within 450 feet of an occupied residence. Proponents of the cull, however, say that a cull will be “unsuccessful” if they cannot violate that 450 foot law.

But the vast majority of the pushback from HSHV has actually centered around whether or not Ann Arbor does, in fact, have “too many deer”, a topic covered on their website (not affiliated with another group From the HSHV’s Deer Population page:

Ann Arbor conducted two aerial surveys to count deer, costing the City $2,200 each. The February 10, 2015 survey counted 116 deer, including 32 who were on the border or outside of Ann Arbor. The March 6, 2015 survey counted 168 deer, which included 91 deer who were on the border or outside of Ann Arbor. According to the 2010 US Census, the city of Ann Arbor is 27.83 square miles, with 4,093 people per square mile.

These indicate Ann Arbor has 3-6 deer per square mile.

This data is in sharp contrast to cull proponents’ statements on their website where they claim “recent aerial studies have shown the density in Ann Arbor to be up to 76 deer per square mile.”

Westphal’s argument about parks also strikes me as nonsensical. Yes, deer eat shrubs and saplings. But, in addition to recreational opportunities, we have parks to maintain a habitat for wildlife. I don’t understand how intentionally slaughtering deer who live in the parks aligns with that obvious goal. In addition to this, Westphal’s statement directly contradicts a study commissioned by the City Council which explicitly states, “City parks, including City golf courses, have not had vegetation damage by deer.”

It’s worth noting that the same study suggests that deer-vehicle collisions are not on the rise and, if anything, are decreasing. In Jackson County, where they have had a deer cull for 9 years, deer-vehicle collisions are still some of the worst in the state. In an ironic twist, Rochester Hills conducted a one-day cull and were forced to stop when a deer flushed by the hunters ran out into the road and was struck by a car. Last year there was only one reported injury in Ann Arbor due to a deer-vehicle collision when a driver sustained a small cut on his elbow. And, despite Westphal’s claim that “people do die every year in deer-vehicle collisions”, there hasn’t been a deer-vehicle collision-related fatality in Ann Arbor in over a decade.

I get that there are reasonable people on both sides of the argument but threatening retaliation against the HSHV because they are advocating on behalf of animals (that’s their purpose, after all) is a totally inappropriate response. I truly hope that the Ann Arbor City Council does not go down that path.

Here is the full statement released by the HSHV regarding Westphal’s talk of retaliation:

We’re dismayed by this threat of retaliation. Our mission is to support all animals in our community through providing award-winning services to all of Washtenaw County. In addition to core services, we offer—at no expense to the City—safe harbor for pets of victims of domestic violence and house fires, free pet food assistance, medical care assistance, low-cost vaccines and spay/neuter surgeries. No City dollars are being used on advocacy; efforts toward educating the public on this issue are funded solely by specific donors concerned about the deer in Ann Arbor.

According to the article, Council Members are questioning our ethics. We are in full compliance with the code of ethics of national animal welfare groups and nonprofit associations; in fact, to not speak on behalf of animals due to a separate financial/service agreement would be unethical.

As a nonprofit that serves the public, we are committed to transparency, and if we have offered any misinformation we would appreciate the chance to correct it. We believe the truth is all that is needed to make the case that this is a wasteful, ineffective policy. (Our website has a prominent button asking for improvements—as yet, we have received only things to add to it.)

Of course, HSHV is not the sole voice in this cause, and suggestions by some Council Members that HSHV is to blame for all communication expressed over their controversial decision is highly disrespectful to the other independent organizations and thousands of individuals concerned about Council’s decision to use taxpayer money to kill healthy deer. One of those groups, the Global Conservation Group, collected 14,000 online signatures opposing the cull.

We believe misinformation is being spread about the threats of deer in the community in order to justify killing them. According to public health officials, there haven’t been any cases of locally contracted Lyme disease, and Washtenaw County is not currently at risk. Police reports show the rate of deer-vehicle collisions in Ann Arbor has been declining. An aerial survey conducted by the city this past year found 168 deer in areas in and around the city. The group of concerned citizens seeking a cull asserted Ann Arbor had over 1,500 deer and wanted to kill 250 of them. When data returned showing 168 deer, they revised the number to cull, but insisted in their “recommendations and expectations” to the City that a cull was the only acceptable solution.

Given that the Ann Arbor-specific data provided by the City indicate that Ann Arbor has neither an emergency situation nor an over population of deer, we’re perplexed that City Council has chosen to cull before trying any other solution to address these citizens’ needs. Though the handful of staff who have volunteered evenings and weekends, working with many other concerned volunteers, Board members, and residents on this, would prefer to spend their time on other matters, it is our obligation to provide public education and advocacy when we believe animals are being unfairly targeted and a poor policy decision has been made.

City Council members have also expressed fatigue over the discussion of deer, and we can only hope that this is a sign that they, too, believe City resources should be directed to more productive matters.