Save Our Deer: Supporting Science and Community Involvement Over Slaughter


During Vassar College’s 2009-2010 Winter Break, a small herd of about 85 deer was baited with food for two weeks. They then hired a sharpshooter from a company called “White Buffalo, Inc.”, which on its website likens shooting deer to mowing grass. Almost the entire herd was destroyed, with roughly 10 deer surviving. The shooter targets pregnant does and fawns, such that 55 of the deer shot to death were female. This travesty was carried out under a legal loophole which no longer applies and also amid intense public opposition. More than 50 letters opposing what the college euphemistically referred to as a “cull” appeared in The Poughkeepsie Journal. Several can be accessed from the Links Page on our site.

These killings are conducted on a part of Vassar's property known as the Vassar Farm. Since the Farm is located in the middle of residential neighborhoods, many local residents were appalled by this unnecessary carnage occurring virtually in their own backyards. Two residential roads are no more than 1200 feet from any point in the Farm.

In late 2012, Vassar College announced plans to carry out a second shooting during January of 2013. This announcement was once again met with widespread community opposition, as well as opposition from within Vassar's own student body. Information sessions were held at the Farm in early November, presenting a one-sided case in support of the killings and dismissing outright the many other feasible options available to Vassar. The college ultimately killed 11 of approximately 40 deer, many fewer than initially planned, because of the mass opposition and non-success of the first night of shootings.

At the end of Vassar's Fall 2014 semester, as students were heading home for their winter vacation, the school announced a third deer shooting. Once again, the community came out to express opposition to this plan, joined by Vassar students and staff. Several local residents and two Vassar students sued to stop the killing. On the last possible night, the school shot and killed 40 deer.



There are a total of about 50-60 deer today. They travel in small family groups over an area much larger than the Vassar Farm and into many surrounding neighborhoods, which is one reason many residents find it the height of arrogance on the college’s part to decide that the local deer population must be decimated. The deer do not belong to Vassar College and Vassar has made the decision to kill the deer without community involvement and in spite of community opposition.



At the information session held by the college on November 10, 2012, it was stated that the college considers 10 deer per square mile their target number. It was also stated that the college plans to continually slaughter any deer population above that number. Their present actions support this arbitrary, vicious goal because there are only about 50-60 deer still alive in the area today as a result of the kills in 2010 and 2013. Amazingly, the deer population was at a consistent level before Vassar began the shootings and actually grew following the first shooting to above its pre-shooting size.



The college states that the slaughter is scheduled to occur over their 2015-2016 Winter Break, which has already begun. Students who are not presently on campus return January 24, 2016. The college has not made publicly known when exactly the killings will occur, creating a greater risk for those in the surrounding community.



Vassar Farms is located in a suburban setting and surrounded by residential streets. Two of these streets are never more than 1200 feet from any point on the Farm. Many local residents were shocked and extremely upset by the shooting in 2010 due to the Farm’s close proximity to their homes and yards where their children play. Further, many people had grown accustomed to and fond of the deer families residing in their neighborhoods.

As one would expect, both the City and Town of Poughkeepsie prohibit the shooting of firearms within their limits. The college had to obtain a waiver of local gun ordinances to carry out the 2010 slaughter, which was granted in error. The legality of these shootings instead occurring in the Town portion of the farm remains contested today.

Vassar College is required by state law to donate the slain deer. The deer are inspected and butchered by volunteers. As these deer have been feeding on pesticide- and herbicide-treated lawns and are shot with bullets potentially containing lead, it is unclear if their bodies are actually fit for human consumption and if volunteer butchers can properly determine this. Consumption of the deer poses a risk to the population who rely on local soup kitchens for sustenance.



Vassar College claims that biodiversity at Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve is harmed by an “over-abundance” of deer.  In short, they make two claims.  First, that the deer eat the understory of the woods, which make up about half of the Farm. (The other half is fields.) They argue that because the deer eat some saplings, there may be a problem with forest regeneration 50 years from now. Second, there is an amorphous claim that the deer adversely affect the “mammals, birds and insects” of the Farm.   

As to the claim that other animals are adversely affected by the existence of our small deer herd, it was asked of the college to specify exactly which local creatures are affected at the November 10, 2012 information session. A professor explained that the deer could potentially interfere with the ground-nesting habits of migratory birds. A cursory Google search revealed that the bird in question’s habitat is the entire Eastern Seaboard of the United States and Canada. Furthermore, it is not considered an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Needless to say, the invoking of the need to kill our deer to maintain “biodiversity” of the area’s wildlife is rather far-fetched.

The college’s claims that biodiversity is threatened by deer eating the understory of the woods also fails to substantiate the dire measure proposed, for the following reasons: 

1. A dense understory exists in many of Vassar Farm’s wooded areas, which can easily be seen by anyone hiking the property, indicating the problem is overstated. 

2. There are many factors that can effect understory growth, including the density of the forest canopy, and the presence of invasive species such as bittersweet, factors routinely ignored in the college’s perfunctory rationale for killing deer.

3. White-tailed deer always eat understory during the Winter; there is no research as to any natural benefits this may yield at Vassar Farm.

4. There are more ethical approaches to dealing with this perceived problem, and with decades left to find a solution,  it is hard to fathom how a liberal arts college can justify decimating the local wildlife in the name of nature.

Vassar College enlists students in introductory Biology classes (Biology 106) to aide in the collection of materials from the Farm that are used in College biodiversity studies. These studies are later used to claim deer have an adverse effect on biodiversity. Students assess the differences between the leaf litter inside fenced enclosures and outside fenced enclosure. They are then asked to write a paper containing a section discussing the methodological errors and possible confounding factors involved. Any student who has taken the Biology 106 course knows that the potential confounding factors are many. For instance, a fenced enclosure not only prevents the entrance of deer, but also countless other animal species. Likewise, plant materials are more likely to collect and accumulate within a small fenced area. The studies used to justify the biodiversity argument are therefore highly questionable.

Additional arguments posed by Vassar College personnel have pointed to the spread of Lyme Disease, even though all mammals and birds can carry ticks, and there is evidence that deer kills like the one planned do not bring down the Lyme Disease rate among humans. They have argued that some local residents do not like having their ornamental plants eaten by deer, even though the study Vassar undertook after the first kill showed no reduction of the deer population in surrounding properties. In any event, there are many more local residents horrified by a liberal arts college shooting Bambi in their backyard. 

They even point to other local forest preserves, the Cary Institute in Millbrook and the Mohonk Preserve in New Paltz, that do place limits on the white-tailed deer. What they leave out, though, is that both of these preserves are many times the size of Vassar Farm, with thousands of acres of forest; Mohonk is the largest private preserve in New York State.  In addition, they are located in minimally populated, rural areas. Accordingly, both Cary and Mohonk open their forests to limited hunting to control their deer population. Neither Cary nor Mohonk would allow their deer to be baited and slaughtered, which is a practice so cruel and unsportsmanlike, it is opposed by many hunters. Moreover, the deer at these much larger preserves live primarily within them, unlike the deer scheduled for slaughter by Vassar College.  



The answer is yes, such options most certainly exist. However, the college has shown no interest in pursuing them. Nevertheless, the easiest solution to the complaint that the deer eat underbrush, would be to fence some of the wooded areas of the Farm. The college has never seriously investigated this option. The only figure presented previously was the prohibitive cost of fencing the entire 500-acre Farm. Since this was known to be unnecessary, it stands as a disingenuous example of the college directing its ‘research’ efforts only towards finding supporting evidence for the deer slaughter, instead of undertaking an open-minded, objective academic study. With that said, it is estimated that Vassar College has spent tens of thousands of dollars more on the first two kills than it would have should it have fenced the entire Farm.

In addition, the college could pursue a research project in birth control for does.  This is being done in other areas of New York State, but again is rejected out of hand by the college.