It was surprising to come down with what seemed like the flu in early June, but the signs seemed unmistakable: a significant fever and needing to sleep all day.
By Howard Husock
It was surprising to come down with what seemed like the flu in early June, but the signs seemed unmistakable: a significant fever and needing to sleep all day. By the third day, things weren’t improving, so I roused myself to get to WESTMED. My internist asked what turned out to be the key question: How long have you had that rash on your chest? I didn’t have the flu; it was early stage Lyme disease.
I was fortunate to have gone to the doctor when I did, as antibiotics are almost always effective if taken soon after a tick has infected someone. So it was that I avoided the serious, long-term suffering that Lyme can cause —debilitating fatigue and joint pain, facial palsy, and memory impairment.
The experience did have one lasting effect, however. It made me all the more aware of the extent of Rye’s deer population. It’s likely that a deer tick bit me during an early morning run through the high grass in the Edith Read Sanctuary woods, where the deer regularly cross my path in groups of three or four, that may have been the source of exposure. The Centers for Disease Control confirm that deer are the most significant “vector” through which ticks, specifically the deer tick, transmit Lyme to humans. My experience prompted me to ask some simple, if far from original, questions: Are there simply too many deer in town? Should something be done to reduce their numbers?
The overabundance of deer poses a number of health and safety issues.
Key to considering the matter is the fact that Lyme disease is endemic to the Northeast (where 80 percent of reported U.S. cases are found) and specifically to Westchester, as is a rising deer population. As one federal agency using satellite technology to predict likely Lyme incidence stated: “High densities of white-tailed deer, the most important host of the adult-stage tick, are supported by the residential-forest landscape, which contains preferred forage in an abundance of edge habitat and ornamental plantings. Mice and other small vertebrates are common hosts of the juvenile stage of the tick, and many of these hosts also serve as reservoirs of the disease.”
The most recent New York State Health Department data shows the rate of Lyme infection in the mid-Hudson region to be second highest in the state (113 cases per 100,000 persons; Putnam County alone has had 253 cases per 100,000); and federal data shows New York to have the highest rate of infection in the nation. According to the NY State Health Department, there’ve been, over the past three decades, some 95,000 cases of reported Lyme disease — a number that undoubtedly understates the true extent of the bacterial illness. Connecticut officials estimate that up to a quarter of the entire population in “endemic areas” have been infected with Lyme. The problem is undeniable — as I found simply by mentioning Lyme to my neighbors, two of whose family members had also had it. I have no doubt that many others in Rye have their own stories of Lyme-related suffering.
To make matters worse, deer pose other serious problems. They include deforestation, owing to an increasing deer population finding food wherever it can. As a Westchester County parks department study puts it matter-of-factly: “Overabundance of white-tailed deer has been a longstanding issue in Westchester County with far-reaching ecological consequences.” A hike through the Marshlands is all one needs to understand that.
Deer are a menace, as well, to drivers. The Rye City Council appointed Deer Study group believes, based on police reports, that there have been as many as 13 collisions between cars and deer in just the first six months of this year. For that reason alone, Mamaroneck Mayor Norman Rosenbaum has called deer “a clear and present danger to drivers” in Mamaroneck and Rye that should, he says, be a focus for state and county agencies.
The deer issue is hardly news to Rye officials, who, to their credit, have called on a volunteer task force to report to the City Council this summer on how to proceed. Deer study group members Anne Dooley, Jana Seitz, and Ed Collins have provided the Council with an overview of ways in which deer and Lyme might be tracked and measured and tick populations reduced through tick boxes, which lure and trap ticks. County public health officials regularly urge residents to take measures to avoid tick bites (insect repellent, long pants, and rolled-up socks in the woods) and to recognize the early warning signs of Lyme (which often, but not always includes a bulls-eye rash).
It is one thing to adapt to Lyme, however, and quite another to take direct steps to reduce the likelihood of contracting it. Doing the latter inevitably means facing the need to reduce the deer population. Increasingly, communities are taking what seems like an inevitable step: reopening their woodlands to deer hunting. In the small upstate village of Trumansburg, bow-hunters within the village limits (thanks to anti-hunting ordinance revised for the purpose) killed more than 80 deer this past winter. Village officials stressed the need to “reduce the negative impacts of the village’s excessive deer population, which include Lyme disease, car accidents, and property damage.”
A similar effort will come to northern Westchester County this fall. In response to recommendations from the Westchester County Citizen’s Task Force on White-tailed Deer and Forest Regeneration, the County will, this October, re-open to bow-hunting sections of Muscoot Farm and Lasdon Park and Arboretum in Somers, Ward Pound Ridge Reservation in Cross River, Mountain Lakes Park in North Salem, and Hilltop Hanover in Yorktown Heights.
It hardly seems radical — or premature — to consider a similar effort within the 1,000 acres of woodlands of Rye. As Anne Dooley of the Deer Study Group reported: “Lyme disease is spreading and increasing in the northeastern United States, and some recent studies show that the more deer there are living in an area, the more cases of Lyme disease there are in that area. In the small communities of Monhegan Island in Maine and Mumford Cove, Connecticut, a drastic reduction in the deer population also saw a drastic reduction in the number of new cases of Lyme disease in humans. Some communities are applying tickicide, which reduces the tick population somewhat and, hopefully, Lyme disease somewhat, but it does not reduce other problems caused by deer.
Rye has to decide what it will do — and soon.