BENNINGTON -- While the current group of white-tailed deer is shrinking and is likely the last of that species to be kept there, there will always be deer at the Vermont Veterans Home Deer Park if leaders at the home have anything to say about it.
Prior to December, the Deer Park, located in front of the Vermont Veterans Home off North Street, held seven deer. Three did not make it through the winter, said Dick Frantz, director of environmental services at the Vermont Veterans Home.
While the home owns the park, the deer there are wild and thus considered property of the state. Frantz, who has worked at the home since 2006, said the deer are regulated by the Agency of Natural Resources, which will not allow new white-tailed deer to be introduced to the roughly 1.58-acre fenced enclosure. Since the herd has been without a buck, no new white tails are being produced and so it's only a matter of time before the deer are all gone.
White-tailed deer, at least.
Melissa Jackson, director of the Vermont Veterans Home, said the park is enjoyed by veterans at the home and the community at large. "I can see it from my office -- it's a busy place," she said.
Veterans Home residents watch the park's wildfire regularly in nice weather, and it's estimated that thousands from the local community and beyond take a look at the deer herd each year and make use of the picnic area nearby.
There is no pressing need to come up with a long-term plan for the park, Jackson said, but once the white tails are gone there will be conversations about what kind of deer to bring in, what improvements the state may require, and how to make all that happen.
Frantz said the state has indicated it would like to see a second fence around the existing one to keep people from feeding the deer, an activity which those who maintain it discourage as best they can. Such a fence would not be cheap, Frantz said, and funding would have to be sought.
Fallow deer, which some say are nicer to look at than white tails, and are more comfortable around humans, may be an option, said Jackson.
The Agency of Natural Resources inspects the park annually, and once a year a retired veterinarian, Reginald Tschorn, examines each animal and vaccinates them, said Frantz. He said the animals are healthy, but it is not known why three of them died this winter. The bodies are turned over the Department of Fish and Wildlife which performs a necropsy, but he has not received much information about the results.
Frantz said the average lifespan of a white-tailed deer is between five and seven years. The oldest of the park's deer have pushed 14 years. Currently their ages range from one-and-a-half years to 13 years old.
The park has been in that location since at least 1893. Frantz said it was known as a "menagerie," the old time equivalent of a petting zoo, and may have at one time featured a coyote. Today, besides the deer, it's home to ducks and gray squirrels who waddle and scamper about the tall oak trees that grow there.
Because the area is so small, a pellet feeder was installed to supplement the deer's diet of natural plants, fallen acorns and beech nuts. Mineral deposits essential to their diets have also been put into the enclosure.
Frantz said that since he has been at the home, he has known the park to hold up to 13 deer. The state would allow more than 14, and it will not allow other deer species to be mixed with the white tails. It's believed the state fears the spread of chronic wasting disease, which is why it can be strict when it comes to captive deer.
The community has a strong emotional attachment to the deer in the park, Frantz said. He gets weekly calls about them. Many times people have come across injured deer they want rehabilitated there, and this is how he believes the current population started off.
Frantz said grounds workers are in the enclosure on a daily basis to do clean-up work and check on the deer, who seem satisfied with their current surroundings.
In the past, when it came time for the annual medical check the deer would be shot with tranquilizer darts. This upset the animals, so now the practice is to funnel them into a shed using blinds. Whenever this is done, people call worried something is happening to the animals -- such is the public's concern over them.
It costs the home $6,000 per year to maintain the park, said Jackson. She said it's a relatively small expense for what is considered a landmark and a great way of connecting the Vermont Veterans Home to the community.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.