Hunting -> Animal Welfare Concerns

Animal Welfare Concerns

At present and for the foreseeable future, only lethal methods are capable of reducing deer populations sufficiently to protect property, people, and habitat.  Harvesting deer by lethal methods provokes conflict between two worthy sets of values:  animal welfare and environmental sustainability.  

This page gives voice to this conflict over values. The animal welfare concerns are characterized by quotes taken from local newspaper articles about organized deer harvests in public parks in Fairfax County, Virginia and from statements made in response to a survey of landowners conducted in Great Falls, Virginia.  The responses are drawn from the ideas of authors, wildlife managers, and hunters, but Green Fire is solely responsible for the expression of the ideas here. 

Do people have a right to kill deer?


Does our tendency to spread into suburban areas give us a right to kill, control or otherwise dominate wildlife?  Have the deer turned Fairfax County into strip malls, parking lots and interstate pavements? Have the deer procreated beyond nature’s ability to sustain them? No, we’re attacking other animals with no genuine reason or logic.

A deeper question is whether we should be in control of the deer population at all.  Whether by amateurs or even expert archers, the deer pay simply because humans encroach on land needed by free-living animals.

The additional damage of humans and their removal of trees, surface materials, etc. is the main reason for additional deer damage, and since I can’t hunt the humans, I don’t intend to have deer hunted on my land.


There are some things that cannot be changed.  One is that humans have taken complete control of the entire landscape that we now call northern Virginia.  Pre-Columbian natives took control of the landscape, burning forests and fields for hunting and crops.  Since then, virtually every acre has been altered from its natural state.  One may believe that this is woeful, but it is fact. We need to make the best of what is left. Protesting that the natural state no longer exists here does not solve problems with over-abundant deer.  

What is changing is that our society increasingly recognizes a duty of care for the lands, waters, plants and animals that we have inherited.  This duty of care is not a right, but an obligation.

By the end of the nineteenth century, people in Fairfax County had eliminated deer and the natural controls (wolves, bears, bobcats, and mountain lions) that could have kept deer populations in check.  Then, we re-introduced deer to Fairfax County in the first half of the twentieth century.  We abandoned farms and allowed forests to re-grow.  We built subdivisions in the forests, increasing edge vegetation and cultivating landscape plants that deer eat.  And we created wooded refuges that deer require in the form of parks, outlots, and large lot subdivisions even as we built housing, shopping malls, corporate complexes, and roads.  All the while, we discouraged hunting as being too dangerous to residents.  As a result there are more deer in Fairfax County today that there ever were.  And deer densities are more than an order of magnitude greater (75 to 150 deer per square mile) than their habitat can withstand and stay ecologically healthy (5 to 25 deer per square mile).  

Another fact is that there would be even more deer, perhaps more than nature’s ability to sustain them, if it were not for the on-going harvest by automobile.  But limiting deer populations by automobile collision is a sorry substitute for more effective, humane and safer methods.  

People have substantially interfered with the population dynamics of deer leading first to their extirpation, then to their over-abundance.  We have a duty of care to correct the situation.  We also owe a duty of care to the many other plants and animals that would be able to survive alongside human development were it not for widespread over-browsing by deer.  People have no ethical choice but to be in control of deer populations, and we should be doing a better job of it.

Bow hunting is inhumane.


Bow hunting is a repulsive, violent assault on animals who should be let alone.  

Bow hunting is the least humane way to kill deer, since shooting an animal with an arrow can result in a slow death. 

Bow hunting is not humane or particularly effective. In fact, bowhunters admit they routinely strike deer but do not kill them. It can take days for wounded deer to be recovered, if they are recovered at all.  Oftentimes, the animals are still alive once found. When a wounded deer escapes, the animal is left with a painful injury, one which may lead to a serious infection.

One problem is the lack of skill by hunters in tracking wounded deer.  I have come across wounded deer, arrows protruding from their bodies.  Don’t do this, let nature take its course.


Bow hunting is not the least humane way to kill deer.  Automobile collisions, starvation, and disease are less humane, and each of these increase as deer densities increase. 

It is true that few hunters, regardless of weapon, can claim never to have lost a wounded deer.  Suburban Whitetail Management of Northern Virginia, Inc., (SWMNV) rigorously documents how many arrows its archers shoot, how many arrows hit their targets, and how many of those resulted in a successfully retrieved deer.  They report a 93 percent retrieval rate on private properties.  Since the Fairfax County Deer Management Program began archery hunting in 2009, the retrieval rate in parks has been better than 95 percent. So about 5 percent of deer struck by skilled archers are not retrieved and may suffer more than anyone wants.  Compare that to an estimated 75 to 80 percent of deer struck by vehicles that do not die immediately and are not retrieved.  These deer also may suffer excessively.

Experienced, skilled, and successful archers are patient and wait for an opportunity to take a “perfect shot”, that is, an arrow that penetrates both lungs or a lung and the heart.  Deer struck with a perfect shot die quickly.  Less than perfect shots can have a range of outcomes from death to survival after recovery.  The number and the consequences of less than perfect shots can be minimized by two measures available to property owners:

1)  Grant access to hunt only to archers that are respectful and skilled.  

A skilled archer will:

  • Have proof of previous experience harvesting big game animals by archery including tracking and retrieving.
  • Annually pass a shooting proficiency test.
  • Understand proper shot placement from all directions and elevations.
  • Practice as often as possible to maintain form, confidence, and accuracy.
  • Exercise self-control, releasing only shots with a high probability of quickly dispatching the deer.

An archer respectful of deer, property, and property owners will:

  • Successfully complete the state sponsored hunter safety course (required to obtain a hunting license in Virginia) and understand state and local laws and regulations applicable to deer hunting and trespass.
  • Attend the International Bowhunter Education Program (IBEP) course.
  • Scout property with the owner or tenant to identify property boundaries, neighboring land uses, structures, roads and walkways as well as deer sign and potential tree stands.
  • Harvest does in preference to bucks.
  • Act courteously and respectfully to anyone they encounter while on another’s property.
  • Protect foliage, crops and plants from unnecessary damage, alteration or destruction.  Cut or remove trees and shrubs only with the permission of the property owner and only as necessary.
  • Mark and retrieve each and every arrow taken into the field.
  • Track any deer shot until retrieved.  Have tracking assistance available for help when needed.
  • Cover harvested deer during transport.
  • Plan how to make beneficial use of retrieved deer in advance of each hunt.

If you, as a property owner or tenant, work with an organization of archers, ensure that it enforces these criteria for you.  Otherwise, enforcement is your responsibility if you, your family, friends, or other independent archers hunt your property.

2)  If your neighbor hunts or allows others to hunt on their property, give your permission for the archer to track deer across your property and retrieve deer that fall on your property.  Some people think that refusing access to track and retrieve can stop a hunt.  More likely, refusing will increase the time required to retrieve the deer, increase the likelihood that a wounded or dead deer will upset residents, and increase the likelihood that the deer will be wasted.  



The County is using volunteer archers so many neighbors are understandably wary.

Even when archers are properly trained, there is a risk to their shooting in areas where people may be hiking and other outdoor activities.  We don’t want to have to wear orange when we go out.

We have three little children so the thought of hunters in the neighborhood is a little alarming.  We would like to know when and where deer hunting would take place in the area.  We want to feel safe when we hike, go jogging, and play!


The nature of archery makes it very safe for people in a neighborhood.  One statistic stands out in proof of this:  No bystander has been struck by an archer hunting deer in Virginia.  That is after 27,000 deer have been taken by archers since 1959 when records started being kept.

Reasons for this safety record include:

  • Prior to deciding to shoot, an archer has to see a deer close up and without obstruction.  Even expert archers do not take shots greater than 30 yards, and many limit themselves to 20 yards.  At such close and unobstructed range, archers do not mistake dogs, horses, cows or joggers for deer.
  • Most suburban deer hunting with bow and arrow is done from tree stands.  The elevated position means that arrows are pointed toward the ground and do not travel out of eye sight.
  • While some wilderness archery is done by stalking, in suburbs an archer doesn’t just walk through the woods and shoot at the first deer.  They wait quietly in stands for the deer to come by them.  In the quiet, archers become aware of everything that moves outside, and they hold off from taking any shots while people are moving about.  Success in suburban archery depends on stealth, patience, and observation, not shooting up the woods at anything that moves.

That is not to say that archery is absolutely safe.  The persons most at risk are the archers, and their biggest risks are due to careless use of tree stands, over-exertion, and cutting themselves on arrows.  

As to “volunteer” archers, very few hunters have made a profession out of deer hunting since market hunting was outlawed early in the twentieth century.  So nearly all deer hunters are volunteers and their skill and ethics must be judged by measures (see above) other than whether they are paid or not.

Hunting increases car accidents


Deer hunts result in a higher number of car accidents locally because the panicked deer run out into the middle of highways and residential roads.  In addition, residents are also in danger, as vehicle-to-deer accidents increase during these culls.


Deer drives where people line up and flush deer toward stationary shotgun or rifle hunters could result in numbers of deer crossing nearby highways.  However, archers hunting in residential communities do not hunt like that.  Nevertheless, a deer shot by an arrow may flee without caution and become a hazard to vehicles and other property.  There are no statistics regarding how often that scenario results in collisions.  Nevertheless, the number must be a vanishingly small percentage of the thousands of deer killed each year in collisions that have nothing to do with hunting. 

However, in the long term, hunting, regardless of how it is conducted, reduces the number of deer/vehicle collisions.  Statistics showing this can be found in Metro Washington Council of Government’s “Deer-Vehicle Collision Report – September 2006”.

Use Alternatives Other than Archery


There is a better solution out there than archery. 

I guess the high costs of alternatives to hunting is not really an answer to me, that is, there are financial concerns. I would be able to pony up private contributions to pay for a more humane approach to controlling the deer population in the county.

Maybe sterilization shots could be used humanely to reduce deer population.


Sharpshooter (rifle) hunting in larger public parks and shotgun hunting on properties or groups of properties of 20 acres or greater in specified areas around Great Falls and Clifton are legal and practical only in limited parts of Fairfax County.  The vast majority of deer habitat in the County is in smaller parks and on private properties where archery is the only legal, lethal alternative.  

Non-lethal alternatives have been assessed repeatedly in the literature.  See, for example, Cornell University’s web site, especially the publication “Managing White-tailed Deer in Suburban Environments.”  

Non-lethal alternatives include barriers, repellants, or alarms that keep deer away from property and plants or alert them to vehicles.  Some of these, such as deer fences and landscape plants that deer eat only as a last resort serve useful purposes but do not solve the community-wide environmental, public health, or road collision problems resulting from deer overabundance. 

The best hope at present for non-lethal control of deer populations is development of multi-year contraceptives.  The U.D. Department of Agriculture has developed one and has submitted evidence to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to have it registered it for use on wild animals.  The researchers who worked with the contraceptive state:

“We anticipate that GonaCon™ vaccine will become a useful addition to the tools used by wildlife professionals to manage populations of overabundant wild animals in settings where other methods such as regulated sport hunting cannot be applied. It must be emphasized that GonaCon™ vaccine and other infertility agents will be applied predominantly where traditional management methods cannot be used and that they will not replace lethal control methods as the primary means of managing wildlife populations.”  (Gionfriddo, J.P., Natalie B. Gates, Anthony J. DeNicola, Kathleen A. Fagerstone and Lowell A. Miller.  “Field Test of GonaCon™ Immunocontraceptive Vaccine in Free-Ranging Female Fallow Deer” in Proc. 23rd Vertebr. Pest Conf. (R. M. Timm and M. B. Madon, Eds.), Univ. of Calif., Davis. 2008. Pp. 235-239.)

Other USDA scientists predict that this contraceptive may be of use in maintaining low deer densities, but only after densities are reduced by lethal methods.  When this contraceptive is registered for use, Fairfax County tax payers should hope that the commenter who offered private contributions will step forward as the cost of trapping, tranquilizing and injecting thousands of female deer across Fairfax County will be significant.

Readers who want to keep abreast of ongoing research on wildlife contraceptives can visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture web site at USDA research on wildlife contraceptives.


There are fundamental differences in the values held by animal rights and environmental sustainability advocates.  These differences become apparent when keystone species such as white-tailed deer must be harvested to correct explosive population growth.  Some of these differences will remain even after careful review of all the facts because the differences are based not on objectively verifiable facts or truths, but personal values.  

Environmental sustainability advocates are not the only group that supports managing deer populations.  Property owners, parents who fear tick-born diseases in their children, and vehicle drivers also desire lower deer populations.  Together, these interests lead virtually all political leaders and over 80 percent of residents in low density residential areas to support deer population management.  

Harvesting deer can be accomplished with respect for the values of animal rights advocates.  Specifically, restricting deer hunting to individuals who demonstrate the skills and respect detailed above under “Bow hunting is inhumane” will result in minimizing suffering of individual deer while fulfilling our duty of care toward our forests.