For 70 years, locals and tourists in Harbor Springs have enjoyed the town’s deer park, where a small herd of deer live inside a two-acre, fenced-in enclosure.
But a few years ago, activists began an effort to shut the park down. They say the city’s methods of controlling the herd are inhumane and unethical.
Janice Elliot has been coming to the deer park for years.
“I would probably come two or three times in the summer time and feed them and interact with them, not thinking past that," says Elliot.
Culling the herd
One morning, five years ago, Elliot made an unplanned visit to the deer park.
“I was heading down East Hill and I looked over and saw two men with hunting caps on," she says.
The men had rifles and were running around the south side of the deer park. As Elliot pulled into the parking lot to try to figure out what was going on, the men started shooting at the deer.
“One buck in particular was throwing himself against the fence, trying to get away from the bullets and trying to release himself," says Elliot. "I was horrifically saddened by watching this happen.”
The men with rifles were employed by the city of Harbor Springs. City Manager Tom Richards says that’s how the city controlled the herd population.
“Over the course of the 70 or so years that the deer park has been there, occasionally it would be necessary to reduce the size of the herd so that it was appropriate for the size of the enclosure,” says Richards.
Richards says there shouldn’t be more than six deer in the park but last year, the herd had grown to 21.
After Janice Elliot organized a campaign to end the shootings, the city worked with the Humane Society to come up with another plan. A couple of years ago, they tried using a form of contraception on the does. But that didn’t work.
A new partnership with a deer breeder
Last year, the city entered into a deal with a deer breeder near Gaylord called Storm’s End Whitetails.
“The herd that we had last fall was transferred to Storm’s End so that they could be provided to some of Storm’s End’s customers," says Richards.
Deer park opponents are concerned about who those customers may be. Elliot says some of those deer end up in what she calls “canned hunts," where deer are hunted in fenced-in ranches.
“The whole idea of offering this experience to families and children, and then hauling the deer off to be shot in canned hunt enclosures rubs thinking and feeling people the wrong way," says Elliot.
Gina Bozzer owns Storm’s End Whitetails. She has a problem with the term "canned hunt."
Right now, there are six does and one buck in the Harbor Springs Deer Park. Bozzer says the does will never be hunted. But the bucks might.
“The end result is that some of these animals will be hunted," says Bozzer. "Our job is to make sure that we deal with people … where it’s not necessarily a canned hunt, where you’re shooting at an animal in a small pen or you’re taking an animal that’s been raised by humans and is tame. That’s not the reality.”
But even some of the park’s advocates aren’t fans of the city’s new deal with Storm’s End Whitetails.
A Harbor Springs 'tradition'
Christopher Heinz grew up in Harbor Springs. He says he prefers the old way the herd was managed.
“It was handled by the street department," says Heinz."They’d come in very quietly, take the older ones that were ready … to be thinned out, thin them out and they’d take them to Manna Food Project and feed the families around here that need the food. And I thought that was a great way of doing it.”
Heinz says the deer park is a community tradition – one he fondly remembers sharing with his dad and one he shares now with his five-year-old son.
“Grandparents bringing their grandkids, multi-generations down here feeding the deer … and the smiles and the happiness and the joys of the deer park," says Heinz. "Everybody loves it. So I’d hate to see it go. It’s a great place for memories and heritage and tradition for Harbor Springs.”
Since the city made its deal with Storm’s End, the debate over the deer park has intensified. Now there are competing Facebook pages on both sides of the issue, letters in the local paper and a petition on change.org.
Last month, the city council decided to put it to vote on the November election ballot.