PR and wildlife: Who’s managing the message?

I almost hit a deer yesterday—and I was on my bicycle! Those playful whitetails, I tell ya, they’re out to get me.

But it’s not just deer that are creating hazards for humans. Our suburbs and some of our urban parks are overrun with critters from coyotes, raccoons, geese — even alligators. By my focus here is the whitetail deer, and the inability of wildlife managers to gain public consensus on how to deal with the ever-expanding herds. It’s a real PR problem that’s been without a solution for over a decade.

Deer over-population is a pocketbook issue as well as an emotional one. My adopted state of Ohio ranked seventh in deer-car collisions in the last report (2004) by the Ohio Insurance Institute. Close to 30,000 deer-car crackups led to damages of over $80 million. That doesn’t take into account the five motorists who died in 2004, down from seven in 2003. (Not sure why, but OII hasn’t posted stats for 2005. You see the same problem later with Lyme disease numbers from the CDC.)

Car-deer collisions are just part of the total damage the deer overpopulation inflicts on us. Car crashes, combined with agricultural crop damage, runs the tab to over $1 billion nationwide, according to USDA reports. (Note: The number has been widely reported for a decade now with little change, but I can’t find a reliable stat more recent than 2002.) There’s also the problem of Lyme disease (transmitted by the deer tick). The CDC reported some 23,000 cases in 2002 (the last major report posted) and numbers were rising.

The only surefire way to solve the problem is to kill more deer. Don’t shoot the messenger. I’ve studied the writings of some of the nation’s foremost wildlife management experts — even interviewed a few — and most of them agree. But since the problem lies in densely populated suburbs, we can’t just invite hunters to set up tree stands in our backyards. What’s required are controlled kills done by trained sharpshooters — and we all know the ugly publicity that comes with that.

If governments continue to use lethal remedies — and that seems to be their solution of choice — the PR folks need to build consensus among the suburban residents for these programs. A lot of these soccer moms and dads see deer as a cute addition to their “green” suburban life. They aren’t familiar with the stats I’ve cited here. They don’t perceive a threat.
During the controlled kill of some 600 deer in the Cleveland suburb of Solon, tempers on both sides ran high. Check out this series of articles posted on the site of a local TV station. That case study has played out in dozens of other cities in the East and the Midwest.

I’d rather not turn this post into a discussion on animal rights. It’s a lot like bickering about abortion or gun control. We all get to vent, but we never solve the problem.

Instead, let’s discuss ideas on how communication professionals can tackle the issue. We may never reach consensus, but maybe PR can be used to create a compromise. At the very least we can create some dialogue in this space.

Deer management represents an intriguing challenge for PR professionals. I’d like to be part of it.

Disclosure: I’m a deer hunter and have been for most of my life. So go ahead…shoot me. While it’s important I disclose that fact, I don’t think it kills my objectivity on the issue. Fact is, my knowledge of wildlife and experience with it helps me understand the problem. I promise, no venison recipes on this blog.

2 Responses to PR and wildlife: Who’s managing the message?

  1. (Any chance you could link back to your “Killing Bambi” Tactics piece? Might be worth attaching as a rider to said discussion.)

    PR pros need only do one thing: remove emotion from the equation. Get past that, and the issue becomes crystal clear: deer are losing their otherwise stellar reputation. On screen, they warm the cockles of my young daughter’s heart. Off screen, they pose a public health hazard.

    Perhaps it is somewhat unfair that unprecedented population growth — I’m talking human now — may displace deer from their natural habitat. One could argue that they waltz into our gardens because we caused them to. Maybe, maybe not. Controlled killing of deer appears to be the most effective and humane approach for now, cruel as it may “seem”. Of course, we kill all manner of cattle, waterfowl, fish and even snails to appease our own culinary delights. Nobody mourns for Elsie. Nor should they. Elsie tastes pretty good under a bed of crumbled Maytag blue.

    Thankfully, Disney hasn’t put “Zoey the Zany Zebra Mussel” back in their DVD vault or Great Lakes boaters would be screwed. Until then, people will continue to believe that deer are somehow treasured above all other woodland creatures, placed aloft in some fictional caste of our own design. Pray people keep that in mind as they haggle over their next deductible.

  2. Cindy Berman says:

    I remember this project when I was in your intro class, Bill (by the way where’s the ponytail and beard? I hope you’re at least still telling stories of riding across the US..?)

    What I’ve seen on the news re: sharpshooting is footage of the actual cull… done incorrectly… where the sharpshooters were going up to the still alive deer and putting bags on their head or choking them to death.

    So first.. let’s recommend the shooters KNOW what they are doing and if they don’t, they kill them with another bullet instantly. What a nightmare when activists revealed they had this cruelty on tape! (remember.. I was the animal rights chick in your class and through this project I, too, became convinced the killing was NECESSARY)

    How did I become convinced? WITNESSING deer half alive on the side of the road… 3 legs broken trying to pull themselves away on one functional leg. Dead fawns in ditches. Fawns walking on the side of the road just a ways from a dead doe.

    I also met a woman who’d been sitting at a traffic light in her car when a deer jumped through her window and kicked about putting this woman in the hospital with bolts holding her head to her shoulders so she couldn’t move.. for 6 months.

    Gruesome picture isn’t it? THAT is what the public needs to see. The suffering that humans AND animals are experiencing. Do I care John Smith’s garden is destroyed because of deer? No. I’ve seen that covered by the news. Do I care when they show footage of 50 deer in the park? No actually.. it’s kind of pretty and it’s in the park so.. yay. happy deer!

    Show me footage of the things I’ve seen compared to a sharp shooter DOING HIS JOB CORRECTLY and I’m sold.

    Now.. was this case of the sharp shooters screwing up isolated? Likely.. but the wrong people got it on tape and this incident.. which aired several years ago.. will forever live in my mind.

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