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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Venison for the Hungry

Air Date: Week of

A program in southern New York state is encouraging hunters to donate deer to be processed for area soup kitchens. Not only does this help with deer overpopulation, but it also provides nutritious food for the hungry. Karen Kelly reports.


CURWOOD: The southern tier of New York state is deer country. The woods just north of the Pennsylvania border are loaded with white tails. The region also struggles with poverty. Area hunters are allowed to kill as many as six deer each season, and, increasingly, the bounty is going to feed some of the area's hungry. Karen Kelly reports.


KELLY: Neil Dougherty bushwhacks through the thick brush near his cabin in the Allegheny foothills of southern New York. Wearing a camouflage outfit and carrying a two foot long bow stocked with arrows, he's set out to hunt for his first deer of the season. For Dougherty, it's an opportunity to get closer to nature.

DOUGHERTY: Going out when the leaves are in peak color, just to hear the wind coming through the trees, that's a wonderful experience in a tree stand.

KELLY: Dougherty has all sorts of apparatus to lure his prey. He has a plastic tube, to imitate the sound of a mating buck.


KELLY: And a pair of plastic antlers that he clanks together to mimic the sound of two bucks fighting.


KELLY: If Dougherty is successful today, he'll donate the animal to a processor, who will prepare it to be served in local soup kitchens.

DOUGHERTY: We agreed with our camp here, four members on this 500 acres, that everybody will donate the first deer that they harvest. That's 160 people that will be fed from one donation. That made me feel really good.

KELLY: But after two hours, no deer comes close enough to warrant a shot. Neil Dougherty packs up his gear and heads home.

Dougherty didn't get his deer today. But this fall, bow hunters alone will have contributed more than 4,000 pounds of venison to New York's Venison Donation Coalition. The group was started two years ago. This year it's expanded to 16 counties in southwestern New York. Coalition director Greg Fuerst says hunters are eager to participate.

FUERST: Their desire is to be outdoors and enjoyment of deer hunting. And I think, too, when they start to learn about the need amongst their own communities--and that was something that came out loud and clear. We're glad to participate and we really want to see the home town feeling of our processors, our deer, our success helping our citizens right here, close to home.

KELLY: Fuerst is a wildlife technician for New York's Department of Environmental Conservation. He's spent the past five years mainly dealing with deer complaints. The animals eat thousands of dollars worth of crops and gardens, and there are hundreds of car-deer collisions in the county each year. The DEC attributes these problems to an overpopulation of white tailed deer, and, in recent years, they've steadily increased the number of deer a hunter can take. But Fuerst says hunters and farmers were reluctant to kill deer they couldn't consume, so he designed a program that would make donation free and convenient.

FUERST: Simply, drop off properly field dressed and legally tagged deer at any of the participating processors, and when a processor has about 200 pounds in the freezer, he calls a food bank, they pick the meat up, and then it goes onto the menu at all the pantries.

KELLY: New York isn't the only place to have such a program; there are venison donation clinics in more than 30 states. That's a cause of concern for animal rights advocates like Michael Markarian. He's the vice-president of the Fund for Animals, a national group which opposes hunting. Markarian doesn't believe there are too many deer. He thinks people need to find better ways to deal with them. He suggests using roadside reflectors and repellant to avoid problems with animals, and he questions the motives of hunters who donate venison.

MARKARIAN: Hunters are participating in their sport because they find it recreational, and they are simply trying to use these venison donation programs to make the public think that hunting is doing a public service.

KELLY: Public service is exactly how Paul Hesler would describe the program. He runs the Food Bank of the Southern Tier, which collects the venison and distributes it to soup kitchens and food pantries around the region. Hesler says the donations help address their chronic shortage of meat products.

HESLER: Venison has one of the, if not the, lowest concentration of saturated fat, so it's an excellent protein source that is low in fat. And if the visibility and exposure it brings to our work and the issue of hunger in our community has been incredible.


KELLY: Here at the Catholic Charity Samaritan Center in Elmira, New York, clients come for the free grocery items that line the shelves. For some, like this man, the venison is a special treat.

MAN: The meat is so fantastic, what these people do here, it's really, really good.

CHARITY WORKER: Get your meat here and, you know, the other side. There's no limit.

KELLY: With the help of more publicity the number of deer donations grew by 500 percent last year. Greg Fuerst worries the program may not have the funding to keep up with such growth. He and his colleagues are spending much of their time applying for long-term state and federal grants. Fuerst says working on this program has been a welcome change from dealing with deer complaints from drivers, farmers and homeowners, and he's come to see his job as an advocate, not only for wildlife, but for the needy people in his community. For Living on Earth, I'm Karen Kelly, in Bath, New York.




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