Why Do NIH Deer Wear Ear Tags?

Have you ever wondered why the White-Tailed Deer on the NIH Bethesda Campus have ear tags?  They are part of a wildlife research study done at the NIH through the Division of Veterinary Resources (DVR).  This study is designed to provide sterilization surgery to maintain a natural amount of deer to the amount of space on the campus.  Dr. Tom Thomas, who oversees the program, said "that this is an alternative to relocating the deer, euthanizing the deer or to providing birth control to the deer, and it is working well to keep our deer population in check. " 

NIH contains a high concentration of commercial development interspersed with small natural and landscaped areas.  The absence of any deer management, combined with intensive landscaping, can allow the local deer population to increase to a level incompatible with some land use and human activities.  Although the physical condition of the deer is not a serious issue currently, there is ongoing concern regarding deer/vehicle collisions and damage to landscape plantings.  Several management options were considered, and it was determined that a program that involved the surgical sterilization of female deer was the most viable option based on logistical, legal and social factors.   The Maryland Department of Natural Resources was contacted and have continued to approve what we are doing.  During the first year of the program, 24 female deer were captured, surgically sterilized and released.  Between 2015 and 2020, another 23 deer were handled. 

Once a year, in early December, a group of trained and dedicated veterinarians and veterinary technicians, along with assistance from Dr. Anthony DeNicola and his team from White Buffalo, Incorporated, take on the task of permanently sterilizing the deer on campus.  Dr. DeNicola has a PhD in Wildlife Biology and has done wildlife control procedures at sites all over the world, ranging from capturing vultures in Botswana and Argali Sheep in Mongolia to training government biologists to solve wild pig problems in Bhutan to deer management in Japan and the United States. 

We have been doing this study for the last six years and in early December 2020, we sterilized 5 female deer.  The deer are anesthetized using a dart delivery system.  They are then transported to the surgical facility and prepared for surgery.  The abdomen is clipped and an intravenous catheter for IV fluids is placed in the back leg.  Their eyes are lubricated and covered, and they are given antibiotic, anti-inflammatory and analgesic injections prior to surgery.  They are also given two numbered ear tags, one in each ear, in order to identify them and to indicate that they have been sterilized.  The tags also allow us to track their whereabouts on the NIH campus.  During the aseptic surgery, their vital signs are monitored.  Once the surgery is completed, the deer are returned to the place on campus where they were originally darted and given an anesthetic reversal agent.  They are monitored until they are recovered and are up walking around.  The entire procedure takes a little over an hour.  Now, when you see deer walking around campus with ear tags, you'll know how they ended up with them.

As a reminder, if anyone sees an injured or sick wild animal on campus, to include White-tailed Deer, please call the NIH Page Operator or the NIH Police at 301-496-5685 or 311 to report it.  They will contact one of the Wildlife Veterinary Volunteers, who are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to look at the animal. 

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