Gardening and animal rights: not always a great fit


If you need a group to get things stirred up, real good, and real fast, one could hardly do better than PETA. Here in Buffalo, for example, our local zoo is up to its neck in accusations of polar bear mistreatment, largely spurred by PETA, who has put pressure on the USDA and other oversight groups. (Of course PETA is against zoos, period.) For the last week, the polar bear issue has been a leading story on almost every media outlet here. For what it’s worth, I’m in agreement with PETA on this—our zoo is inadequate for housing polar bears, and a lot of the other large mammals they have.

And now, a bunch of riled-up PETA members has picketed the Detroit News, reacting to—and this is the unusual part—a garden advice column. Picketing a garden advice column. I just had to repeat that phrase, because it’s not something that happens too often. In his column on Saturday, garden writer Jeff Ball advocated the humane disposal of such “pest animals” as raccoons and deer. Here’s the offending excerpt:

The best way to get rid of pest animals is to hire a local wildlife removal company. They come in, trap the critter, and remove it safely for a fee. For a list of available companies go to Michigan wildlife removal. If you insist on handling the problem yourself, you need a proper cage trap that is properly baited. And then you need a method for disposing of the animal in a humane fashion, usually by drowning or dispatching with a gun.

Shocking? Yes, at least to me. I can’t imagine pointing a gun at a deer or raccoon in a trap. Of course, I doubt I’d hit them if I did; I’d probably shoot my own foot off or, at best, blast myself a nice hole in the ground, suitable for planting small bulbs. I do appreciate that this is offered as the option of last resort.

And it cannot be denied that these animals are considered pests by many gardeners, with considerable justification. I spend a lot of time with suburban gardeners during Garden Walk helping them figure out ways to foil deer and rabbits. I must say, however, even with all the deer we have, I have never heard any gardener speak of shooting them. (Hunters are another story.)

Here’s another Buffalo animal story: we have a woman known as the deer lady, whose feeding of deer in a park near her has gotten her jailed at least once. She looks upon it as a deeply-felt charity and has attained somewhat of a martyr persona. Deer are a problem in Western New York, but only, of course, because development has taken away their former predators. [Thanks for the edit, Chuck B.] There is a “bait and shoot” program here where professional sharpshooters lure the deer into a large area, and then shoot them—only at certain times of the year. I’ve never heard gardeners advised to do so before.

If I had this problem, I’d be looking into the repellants and fencing options (also mentioned by Ball) that other gardeners have tried with some success, and I’d make sure I had a secure garbage bin, such as the locking “totes” we use in Buffalo. Hauling out the artillery wouldn’t be on my list.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. First, I’d bet solid money on the fact that “trap and shoot” refers to the smaller animals like raccoons, not deer. I would imagine that in New York, as in most states, shooting deer out of season is against the law, and most areas have laws about discharging firearms in neighborhoods. States regulate the who, when, where, and how of deer killing quite closely. Shooting one in a trap (if you could find one) in your backyard in August will probably get you in a fair amount of trouble with state game laws.

    Second, deer are a “problem” – i.e., there are too many of them for the available habitat – because of BOTH the loss of habitat and the decline of predator species. Deer reproduce like a prey species; when there are not enough natural (or human) predators to keep things in ecological balance, they overpopulate.

    Too many deer increases their risk of disease and decreases the overall health of the herd. It also puts a serious hurt on forest ecosystems; too many deer means too much eating of young saplings, which means decline of the woods (especially slow-growing species like oak, which don’t recover quickly from deer nibbles).

    In other words, deer “problems” reach a lot further than hosta damage in the front yard. They’re a really cool species, with an important role in the ecosystem. But they can also cause tremendous damage to a forest – which in turn can harm a lot of the other animals that hang out there.

    Like most things related to the natural world, it’s an ecosystem thing, and looking at only one piece can lead to a lot of damaging choices.

  2. Deer are an interesting problem. Human development has not taken away their habitat. They are one of the critters which thrive because of human development. If I recall correctly, biologists have a name for animals that prefer the marginal areas — woods near fields, for instance — and deer are a prime example of this phenomenon.

    I’m fairly certain that deer are more plentiful today than they were at any time in the last 1,000 years.

    Human development has increased their preferred habitat, driven off their natural predators, and opened up considerable winter grazing opportunities.

  3. To say more about my animal-hugger tendencies, I’ve given money to the Humane Society, but PETA? Not gonna happen. In my ‘hood their most prominent presence is a very creepy, intimidating guy who goes everywhere with a dead fox hanging from a trap and shoves it in your face. Even in your kids’ faces.

  4. I wonder if that garden writer has really shot animals in a trap, or is just blathering on paper about something he doesn’t really know much about? Shooting game one’s own property? No mention of a hunting license, deer season, and laws regarding how close one can be to a human dwelling while hunting? It sounds like something that wasn’t thought through properly.

    The concept of “disposing” of a mammal as though it were a piece of trash or a bucket of weeds is also quite bothersome. Call it mammalian bias if you like, but there’s something just not quite right about shooting mammals with the same cavalier attitude one might have to hosing aphids off of a rosebush. Hunting for food, okay. Killing a mammal because it nibbled your begonias and then throwing it away, not okay. What a waste.

    A sturdy fence would be a better solution.

  5. Talking of the balance of nature, humans have no predators either, which puts us on a par with deer – overproducing and doing a huge amount of damage to the environment.
    My first question was about what happened to the results of all that baiting, trapping and shooting. I haven’t eaten racoon, but if there is a deer cull taking place I sure hope that someone is getting a freezer full of venison dinners – delicious.

  6. I’m not quite sure why I’m wading into this debate, but I was just about to write that deer are more plentiful now than when the early settlers were here, that they actually prefer human habitats with their smorgasbord of tasty landscaping plants and deer corn and a dearth of predators. But then I saw that Peter Hoh had already written it. So I second his comment.

    Human development has indeed created the deer problem in suburbia, but not by taking away their natural habitat. Rather by giving them MORE habitat and no predators.

  7. I have a goose and a duck that raccoons and oppossums would consider a yummy snack, so they are on my nimby list. However, the thought of trapping and shooting them turns my stomach. There are so many options available that animal assasination seems cartoonish. Jeff Ball should have given his suggestion a bit more consideration before he published it as advice. Hopefully, his readers are smart enough not to follow such idiotic advice.

  8. Rural inhabitants are just thrilled when city brethen dump box trapped critters on their property because they don’t want them but cannot kill them. Just what a farmer needs more corn stealing coons and squirrls. No easy answer.

  9. For me, a lot of this is about surburban sprawl and bad planning, which creates huge economic problems for many regions.

    Certainly, there is no easy answer, and Jeff Ball is not the only one advocating humane elimination of the deer problem. As I said, we have had bait and shoot here for years. The populations are huge.

    As for the smaller animals, there are many solutions that fall well short of blasting away at them. I think we’re going have to figure out how to live in the same habitat with some of these creatures.

    Doug Tallamy had an interesting response to this, in addition to other questions I posed. I will be posting that interview next week.

  10. As an animal-hugging, animal rights advocate I resent the path PETA has taken. They had everyone’s attention. They worked to educate society about the welfare of animals and how that was related to our own welfare, but now it has become all about the outrageous headlines. I recently watched a biography of Ingrid Newkirk that made me cringe. The bullying clown antics make headlines for the wrong reasons. When the message is overshadowed by questionable publicity stunts it’s clearly time for restructuring. PETA already had the recognition factor working for it, now it has become a joke. What a waste.

  11. You’ve NEVER heard of a gardener who wanted to shoot a deer? I was just at a gardening meeting the other week talking about a raccoon problem and very elegant middle-aged woman responded with the story of how she lay down inside her kitchen door and shot at pests attacking her koi (not while she was living in Austin but when she lived down by the coast).

    I guess Texas IS a whole other country.

    BTW, is there a cuteness factor involved here? Or does the objection extend to killing rats?

  12. It’s got nothing to do with cuteness for me, mss. I can’t imagine blasting away at anything, even a rat. There’s no animal “pest” that justifies buying or using a gun in my book.

    I am just not a gun person, though I’ve nothing against hunting.

  13. It must be a regional, cultural thing. My late mother-in-law used to shoot a 410 at the squirrels on the bird feeder. I think she even shot at bird species she didn’t like. (This on a midwestern farm.)

  14. My pest problems are rabbits and groundhogs, and they make me insane enough with their vegetable predation to consider using a gun. I’ve also thought about trapping, but blanched at the idea of dealing with an enraged groundhog in a cage. So far, I’ve taken the passive approach–I just fence, fence, fence, and then reinforce the fence some more.

    If you ask the local organic farmers at the farmer’s market how they deal with these vegetable lovers, you get the same unsentimental answer from every one: shoot ’em.

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