Most Insane Deer Story Ever

Okay, we’re going to talk about the deer again. We know it seems as if conversations about the pesky quadrupeds have become almost as ubiquitous as the animals themselves. Depending on whom you ask, deer are either fuzzy woodland angels begging to be photographed and protected or mentally insufficient tick-infested disease vectors to be controlled and possibly exterminated. But, cutting to the chase, we have a deer story that we think you might find enlightening.

If we travel back in time to 1916, Charlie Chaplin was starring in The Vagabond, Woodrow Wilson was president, and people on the East End were already freaking out about the deer. 

Specifically, on Shelter Island farmers were distressed at this new pest that was destroying their crops. As far as they understood, the animal — scarce enough elsewhere or hereabouts to arouse excitement when spotted — had been introduced to the island by a resident named Francis Marion Smith, the “Borax King,” who had brought deer over on a boat, along with peacocks and a number of other exotic beasts, to his 42-acre estate in 1892, letting them loose to roam freely. Locals referred to Smith’s home as Deer Park and complained that the animals were “constantly escaping.” 

Some islanders thought that perhaps they could simply herd the deer down to the shore and force them to swim to Sag Harbor, but that notion was pooh-poohed by naysayers who pointed out that the current was too strong, and many would drown. Besides, as one Shelter Island doctor pointed out, “Sag Harbor residents have informed us that they don’t want them.”

Farmers reached out to the State Conservation Commission for relief. “The deer have become as numerous and as pestiferous as jack rabbits,” they formally complained, “and it has become practically impossible to grow anything on the Island.” A plan was hatched to do a massive cull; the commission contacted 25 sharpshooters to carry it out. 

But all was not hunky-dory. A Suffolk Times article from May of 1916 states gravely: “Little did a few of the people of Shelter Island realize that they would stir the pulse of the state and the nation when they applied to get rid of some of the wild deer.”

The backlash was truly incredible. Not long after the hunt was confirmed, Governor Charles Whitman in Albany found his desk piled high with personal appeals from constituents begging him to save the deer from the “disgrace of so barbaric an exhibition.” Senator George L. Thompson and other worthies of Suffolk County wrote to Commissioner Pratt, requesting that he rescind the order. A number of wealthy naturalists staged protests and proposed alternative solutions.

Someone came up with an alternative that seemed like a good idea at the time: a “deer drive” that would remove them without the slaughter. Corral, crate, and ship them out via the Long Island Rail Road was the scheme. It was estimated that it would take two weeks and $10,000 to humanely remove 100 deer, but many hunting and sporting clubs approved of the proposal and offered funds to support it. The director of the Bronx Zoo offered to take some of the animals. Eager to quell the turmoil and dissent, Commissioner Pratt accepted the proposal. 

The plan for the drive, which reads like a military report, was to use police vehicles and personnel to drive the deer down into a section of the woods that had been fenced in with wire. The docile deer would then be captured, nailed up in wooden crates, and sent to public parks in Queens and Brooklyn and the Adirondacks. 

“The trappers are stopping with Irving Clark at the South Ferry House,” reported The Suffolk Times, “and expect  to start today to make their first drive. New York newspapers have representatives there including photographers. Moving picture cameras will also be kept busy. Newspapers are collecting funds to pay for the capture. William Rockefeller has offered to donate $500, if needed, to the fund.” 

In the end, however, the whole ordeal was botched. Spectators and protesters showed up to watch, in automobile parties and from yachts at anchor. At Mashomack Point on a Sunday afternoon, scores of onlookers penetrated the line of game wardens, creating a scene of chaos. 

A number of animal activists and concerned locals tried to sabotage the capture by chasing some of the deer into the golf links at Dering Harbor to prevent the wardens getting them. Of the 100 deer they had hoped to capture, the wardens laid eyes on only 24, trapped 14, and shipped 6. Eight died from injuries and fright.

“The first real shipment of the captured deer took place Tuesday morning,” reported The Suffolk Times, “when six were crated and shipped via South Ferry and Sag Harbor on the 6:42 train.” Their destination was Utica Park.

“The entire proceeding has been a mistake,” continued the paper. “It was generally admitted that the drive demonstrated beyond question the futility of any intent to drive deer into traps.”

Frustrated by the failure of the plan and the messy political battle, angry islanders decided to take matters into their own hands. It was shortly after reported that “there have been a number of venison dinners on Shelter Island and Greenport.” 

Cornelia Channing

Our associate editor at EAST, Nina has written this year about land preservation, Montauk ghost stories, and Trump helicopters. Born and raised in Bridgehampton, she graduated from Wesleyan University in 2016 and is now an MFA candidate at Stony Brook Southampton. When she’s not working, she can be found driving to the beach in her Volvo station wagon with her dog, Tucker, riding shotgun.