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Nothing new under the Shelter Island sun: 100 years ago a massive effort tried to cull deer herd

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES/STOCK A deer and her fawns.

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES/STOCK A deer and her fawns.

“High-powered rifles will begin to bang on Shelter Island, New York, with the coming of the first light Monday, and the slim red deer, charming to city dwellers, detested by farmers and gardeners, will begin to fall.”

That was the lead sentence in a wire story carried around the country 100 years ago this week. The article went on to describe New York State’s response to complaints from farmers about crop damage caused by the Island’s 200 or so free-roaming deer, descendants of animals imported in the 1890s for private game hunting.

“There was absolutely no way out of it,” New York State Conservation Commissioner George DuPont Pratt said of his decision that was reported in papers as far afield as Honolulu.

Commissioner Pratt called for 35 state game wardens to gather here where, led by the state’s top sharpshooter, Division Chief Protector Byron T. Cameron, they would kill every deer they could sight.

Now it’s estimated more than 1,000 deer inhabit the Island. The more things change …

Pratt’s plan prompted outrage from animal lovers around the nation and from sportsmen who hated to see game wasted. “Little did a few of the people of Shelter Island realize that they would stir the pulse of the state and the nation when they applied to get rid of some of the wild deer which were damaging crops,” the Suffolk Times reported.

With thousands of protest letters and telegrams swamping his Albany office, Pratt issued a reprieve and, ignoring expert advice that deer could not be herded, ordered they be rounded up. “Plan to slaughter 200 deer is dropped,” the New York Evening World reported. Wardens, working with dozens of volunteers, would beat the underbrush along the Island’s southeastern peninsula and drive the deer onto isolated Mashomack Point. From there, they would be corralled, roped and crated for live shipment by train to an upstate park.

Hotels in Greenport and Sag Harbor filled to capacity with would-be volunteers, spectators and “movie men,” whose newsreels would be seen in theaters around the country.

Early on May 5, the beaters formed a line between Foxen and Nicoll’s creeks. The wardens hoped to gently persuade their skittish quarry to cross the Mashomack peninsula and pass through a boundary of rough cedar posts they had placed at narrow Sachem’s Neck. Once the deer were through, a fence would be strung to contain them.

CHICAGO DAILY TRIBUNE This photo posted May 14, 1916 on the front page of the Chicago Daily Tribune had the caption: ‘Under the auspices of state game wardens, the annual deer drive was held at Shelter Island, L.I., for the purpose of re-stocking public parks and game preserves. This is one of the season’s events at Long Island.’

CHICAGO DAILY TRIBUNE This photo posted May 14, 1916 on the front page of the Chicago Daily Tribune had the caption: ‘Under the auspices of state game wardens, the annual deer drive was held at Shelter Island, L.I., for the purpose of re-stocking public parks and game preserves. This is one of the season’s events at Long Island.’

Instead, the animals were harried through “a tangle of cedar and pine scrub, bayberry bush and thorn briar, by 70 men yelling and horn blowing and whistle screeching behind them,” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported. Panicked deer bolted. Some leaped over the beaters and escaped behind them. Others charged into the water where they were chased by a flotilla of motor boats carrying lariat-swinging men. Among them was Broadway cowboy Will Rogers, who, during a break, posed for the newsreels with a fawn (marking the future film star’s first motion picture appearance.)

The cameras and spectators, including “a touring car crammed with city folk who had never seen a deer,” added to the chaos, prompting the New York Sun to call the roundup, “The most astonishing event which has ever taken place on Shelter Island.”

By nightfall, just 25 deer had been driven onto Mashomack Point. Working by campfire light, the wardens erected a funnel-shaped fence and large corral into which the deer would be forced the next day.

But when the morning fog lifted, half the deer had swum away. Leaving it to the men in boats to capture the swimmers, the wardens drove the rest toward the pen. One doe flung herself at the fence and dropped dead of a broken neck. When a buck got hung up on a post, the men cut its throat rather than sounding a startling rifle shot. In the water, some deer drowned. Others had their lassoed necks snapped when brought alongside the boats.

The duress to the animals in the name of protection inflamed Islanders who petitioned the state to end the roundup and prompted this assessment in the Suffolk Times: “Officers of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Association said that no fault could be found with the way the wardens were conducting the work except that the entire process was inhumane.”

Pratt called off the supposedly bloodless hunt. Just six bucks survived to be transported to a park in Utica. Eight captives died, most of fright and one when its crate slipped during a rough ferry crossing.

State officials blamed Islanders for the disastrous result, saying the locals had exaggerated the crop damage, resented the help of outsiders and sabotaged their efforts.

“Residents even chased some of the deer over to Big Ram via the golf links at Dering Harbor to prevent the wardens getting them,” a report said.

Islanders were cast as yokels. A ferry operator, the New York Times wrote, refused to allow movie cameras onboard saying they “waren’t no fitten things.”

Pratt said the fiasco cost $3,000 (others estimated it at $20,000) and he called upon animal lovers to contribute. Many thought that Francis Marion Smith, the “borax king” who had brought deer to the Island to establish a fenced game park at his estate, should bear the burden. Early on, he wired from Oakland, California, he “would gladly defray part of the expense.” Later, advised by lawyers, he rejected responsibility, even though deer were unknown here before he imported them.

In words that remain true today, the New York Times, summed up frustration over the roundup this way: “Surely American ingenuity is not to be foiled by a handful of deer.”

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