New York Times quotes Wright State biologist in Staten Island wildlife management story


Photo of professor Thomas Rooney holding a book in front of a book case.

Thomas Rooney, Ph.D., professor of biological sciences

You would think that Staten Island has plenty of room to share space with wildlife.

After all, it is New York City’s least populous borough, with three times fewer residents than Manhattan, and half the city’s parkland is on Staten Island.

Yet the way locals describe it, the borough is ground zero for unwanted visitors who are proliferating so abundantly that they are turning into urban pests.

First, there are the deer — many of whom, residents say, swim across from New Jersey — and eat seedlings, damage woodlands and cause dozens of collisions with drivers every year. Then there are wild turkeys, which can be aggressive and trample over yards, and feral cats that urinate on lawns, leaving foul odors.

“They’re pretty rough,” said Rob Sosa, 51, who says he has spent a small fortune on cameras and a high-tech sprinkler to scare off the deer and turkeys that invade his property with impunity. “We’re alarmed.’’

One ornery turkey even tried to get in his house, he said. “This son-of-a-gun was trying to break my window.”

Residents have tried various ways to ward off the unwanted visitors, from putting up fencing to concocting homemade deer repellent using hot sauce.

Mr. Sosa has taken to throwing shoes at the turkeys that perch on trees and keep him awake with their nocturnal yelps.

As for the cats, animal shelters say they are overflowing with strays and their litters.

The deer, seen over much of the island, have become a particularly vexatious issue, dividing residents and officials over the best strategy to contain them: to cull or sterilize.

While state officials are open to the idea of allowing a limited cull, the city seems reluctant and instead remains committed to a vasectomy program that it is financing.

The debate heated up recently after a local congressman took on Mayor Bill de Blasio, who supports sterilization. Representative Max Rose, a Democrat who represents Staten Island, said sterilization was doing little to address the problem, and a controlled hunt would be preferable.

“I’ll build a little hide for myself,’’ Mr. Rose, an Army veteran, told the Staten Island Advance. “I’ll go back to my glory days, and I’ll start taking down some of these deer.”

In a separate interview with The Times, Mr. Rose said, “We have to deal with this problem. You can’t put all of our eggs in one basket.”

And for good measure, he added, the turkeys also needed to be dealt with because they were “disrupting people’s daily lives.’’

Mr. de Blasio told reporters that Mr. Rose needed to take his concerns to the Police Department. “They are very much opposed to hunting taking place in a borough with half a million people in close proximity to each other,” the mayor said.

As for feral cats, they’re not just a Staten Island problem, said Nick Gitto, a volunteer at a Staten Island animal shelter. “They’re everywhere, and they’re going to pee on people’s lawns,” he said.

The number of turkeys has also ballooned over the years, and on a recent visit many were concentrated on the grounds of Staten Island Hospital, their tails fanned out.

But it is the deer that really have gotten on people’s nerves — a problem that is not confined to Staten Island.

Across the country, there are an estimated 30 million deer that eat the equivalent of 15 million metric tons of vegetation every year — greater than the combined weight of all the aircraft carriers in the Navy, according to Tom Rooney, a biological sciences professor at Wright State University in Ohio.

Deer nearly became extinct a century ago because of overhunting and natural predators, he said. Today, if there were no control efforts, the deer population would double every two years.

“In some places, deer are responsible for the disappearance of over half of all plant species in just a few decades,” Mr. Rooney said.

On Staten Island, the city’s $4 million deer sterilization program has reduced the deer population by 15 percent to 1,737 in 2019 from 2053 in 2017, officials say.

The vasectomy plan “is showing signs of success,” said Sarah Aucoin, chief of wildlife and education at the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

Deer-car collisions fell to 77 in 2019, from 99 in 2017, while cases of Lyme disease, transmitted by ticks that are carried by deer, dropped to 88 in 2018, from 124 in 2017, according to the latest available statistics.

With the city’s program “trending in the right direction,’’ Ms. Aucoin said, “killing hundreds of deer is our very last option.”

Still, critics said that the decrease in deer population is relatively modest and that the animals still posed a nuisance.

“Definitely not worth the plus-$4 million spent,” said Paul Curtis, a professor of natural resources at Cornell University, who has worked on reducing human-wildlife conflicts in suburban settings. “Deer culling would have likely shown measurable and significant declines in deer-and-vehicle collisions much quicker at a lower cost.”

Animal rights groups have opposed deer culls as a cruel response to overpopulation.

“It’s a terrible message to especially children that slaughtering any species of wildlife is a solution, said Edita Birnkrant, executive director of NYCLASS, an animal welfare group.

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