A few years ago, I was driving down Bel Air Road through Kingsville. It was getting close to midnight, and it was a bit foggy out. Mine was the only car on the road. I was passing the Kingsville Market when I caught a brief glimpse of something I’d never seen before.
Right there in the middle of the road were two foxes, canoodling. The pair was standing over the double-yellow line, with their muzzles pressed together. At somewhere around 45 miles an hour, I didn’t have time to brake. I struck and killed one of the foxes, and in my rearview mirror, I saw the other animal still standing in the road, looking down at his very suddenly dead mate.
What commuters saw the next morning must have seemed banal: road kill. But imagine what it must have been like to be the other fox. As a predatory mammal, the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) ranks high for intelligence when compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. Trying not to anthropomorphize the little guy, I think we can imagine that it must have come as quite a psychic shock to, in the midst of what appeared to be a very tender moment, have his mate smashed out of existence.
Every spring, black bears push their juvenile males out of the nest. The young bears are supposed to range out and establish territories of their own. On occasion in recent years, a few bears have headed east out of the Appalachians, and roamed through Carroll, Baltimore, Harford and Cecil counties. And this, of course, causes humans to completely freak out. The black bear (Ursus americanus), after all, is a force of nature. It can swim, climb trees, and run way faster than a human.
Typically, when a bear passes through town, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources gets lots and lots of phone calls, and the bear ends up one of three ways: hit by a car, shot by an over-excited homeowner, or tranquilized by wildlife authorities and transported back to the mountains. Talk about waking up with a hangover. One minute, you’re snacking in a garbage can, the next, you’re back at your mom’s house—after she kicked you out.
Now let’s climb down the evolutionary ladder a few rungs and talk about the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Not being quite so bright as the cunning fox or the keen-eyed bear, the deer—when it’s not hunted to the point of extinction, as pretty much everything with a pulse was in the 19th century—is not so averse to living around humans. While the fox and the bear sometimes show up in our streets and backyards, the deer, moving slow in cud-chewing groups, practically lives among us. The deer eat and eat until all there’s nothing on the forest floor but dirt, leaving no young trees to replace the old ones. The deer breed and breed, and pretty much everyone has a story about hitting or almost hitting one on the road. And that tendency to freeze in the face of danger? It has worked for the deer, from an evolutionary standpoint, for thousands of years. It’s not the deer’s fault that we invented automobiles.
The reason the deer population in Baltimore County has gone nuts is manifold. But it started when humans chased off the predators. The predators are smart enough to avoid us, and we are scared enough to shoot at them (once upon a time, there were cougars in these parts, which anyone would be afraid of in a face-to-face encounter). Since we caused the problem, it’s our responsibility to fix it. And short of releasing black bears and big cats into Double Rock Park, the only way to effectively deal with the completely ridiculous number of deer in the area is managed hunts. It will be incumbent on the DNR to make the hunts safe— I am a hiker, not a hunter, and I don't want to get shot. But ignoring the problem will only further endanger the long-term health of what little bits of forest we have left around here.