When it comes to culling deer population, Jews in Mt. Lebanon hold dear to ideals
The deer are pretty much everywhere in Mt. Lebanon.
They travel in packs around parking lots and across streets; they graze through flower and vegetable gardens, leaving only bare stems and stubs in their wake.
Some seem to have no fear of humans. Those are the ones that will stare you down if you get too close.
But they are cute.
Jews in the South Hills suburb, like other residents, are divided on what — if anything — should be done about the deer.
A pack of at least eight lives on the grounds of Beth El Congregation, located off Cochran Road.
“The deer are an added attraction,” according to Beth El’s executive director, Steve Hecht. “When the kids see them, they’re in awe. I don’t mind having them here. We’re in the woods, and they are part of our natural environment.”
Likewise, several can be seen wandering around Temple Emanuel on Bower Hill Road but so far have caused no problems.
“There are tons of them,” said Leslie Hoffman, executive director of Temple Emanuel. “But I can’t say they’re doing any damage. No one has hit them or anything. And I’m not sure they’ve eaten anything [on the temple’s grounds] of any magnitude.”
Once in awhile, one or two come up from the woods and meander around the Jewish Community Center’s South Hills branch, which is on Kane Road in Scott Township, adjacent to Mt. Lebanon.
“We have a fenced in garden for camp, so that’s not a problem,” said Dan Garfinkel, branch director of the South Hills JCC.
But the animals do pose a danger, according to many residents, who site Mt. Lebanon police statistics of 73 vehicular accidents in 2015 involving deer.
A recent sharpshooting cull to control the deer population funded by the municipality ended last week with 115 deer dead, which satisfied some Jewish residents but angered others. A previous archery cull ended with the removal of 104 deer.
Stacey Reibach, a member of Beth El, is not “anti-animal by any means” but recognizes the need to control the deer population.
A few years ago, as Reibach was traveling south on Route 19, a deer jumped the guardrail and ran into the side of her Chrysler minivan.
Two weeks and $2,000 later, Reibach picked up her car from the body shop. Just one week after that, while driving on East McMurray Road in Peters Township, a deer jumped in front of her car, and she hit him head on, sustaining another $3,000 worth of damage.
Fortunately, she was not hurt in either incident, and insurance covered the car repairs.
The deer population in the South Hills, particularly in Mt. Lebanon, has been steadily increasing, and the question arises as to whether it is more humane to hunt these animals that have no natural predators in the area or to allow them to starve as food sources become scarcer.
“At this point, it’s very dangerous because of the quantity of the deer that exists,” Reibach said. “I don’t think the culls are inhumane. I think they’re doing it for the right reasons.”
The deer are “scary, big animals,” said Garfinkel, who recently hit and killed a deer near the Galleria shopping mall and sustained $750 in damage to his car.
“We do have an over-population and no natural predators except Buicks and SUVs,” he said.
But other Mt. Lebanon Jews have concerns about deer hunting in this “walking community” that does not provide bus transportation for children to and from the district’s schools. Not only is the hunting inhumane, they say, but also could pose a danger to pedestrians.
“There are serious ethical questions regarding whether taxpayer money should be used to fund an endeavor like this,” said Jason Margolis, who has been active in leading community protests against the culls and petitioning commissioners against them. “This is a taxpayer-funded endeavor seeking the near extermination of an animal population.”
Margolis, a Jewish Mt. Lebanon resident who works as a professor at Duquesne University, is convinced that the culls were undertaken to satisfy “influential, wealthy, angry people to protect their gardens and property. They were the ones who put pressure on government officials.”
Last year, he noted, the municipality had set up corrals to trap the deer. After they were trapped, “hunters would come and shoot them in the head. That’s when I became angry.”
The deer are not a “violent threat,” according to Margolis.
“Hunting in densely populated areas is more of a safety threat than the deer themselves.”
Not a single person has been killed or seriously injured in a deer/vehicle collision in Mt. Lebanon in recent memory, Margolis added.
While that may be true, it is the municipality’s aim to keep it that way, according to Ward 2 Commissioner Steve Silverman.
“We do not have medical information on those involved in deer-vehicular accidents in Mt Lebanon,” Silverman wrote in an email. “However, we know of people in other municipalities in Pennsylvania and in other states who have been harmed in this type of accident. I would hate to see someone hurt in a deer-vehicular accident in Mt Lebanon.”
There were no human injuries resulting from either the archery or the sharpshooting cull, according to Silverman.
The municipality’s failure to release information identifying the properties on which the sharpshooting and archery hunts were occurring posed another ethical issue, Margolis said, as residents have a right to know the location of these types of activities.
Silverman defended the commissioners’ decision to maintain the confidentiality of the property owners participating in the culls.
“Our concern is that these property owners may be harassed by those people who are against the archery program,” Silverman said. “Under the rules of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, a property owner may allow an archery hunt to occur on their property as long as it meets the Game Commission’s regulations, and that property owner may authorize that activity without the knowledge or consent of the municipality.”
Many property owners, though, have been forthright about their support of the culls, placing signs in their lawns reading, “Hunt in my yard,” or “Eat more venison.”
The lawns of those against the culls, on the other hand, sport signs reading “Not in my yard.”
“This strikes me as a modern example of the ancient controversy between Hillel and Shammai, resolved when a voice from heaven called down, Eilu v’eilu, ‘These and these are the words of the living God,’” said Rabbi Mark Mahler, spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel. “In other words, the claims and concerns on both sides of this issue are equally valid.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.