Rats in our Forests


(This 1050th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on May 8, 2011.)


Please visit Eronia with me:


In Eronia the rats are very large, giants in fact, some weighing 200 pounds or more. Indeed, they are ugly but they are also relatively benign: they rarely pose any danger to humans. But the huge rats are to be found everywhere: grazing in open farmlands or wandering through woodlands and even urban parks.


Any walk out of doors in Eronia today is quite unlike such a venture fifty years ago. In the good old days you would rarely see any of those ugly rodents; today, you can rarely visit a parkland without observing at least a half dozen. The rats are shy creatures and don't bother you; they are simply there, their brown coloration blending in with the background.


But the rats of Eronia have affected major changes in the character of that country's woodlands. In the past the ground of the Eronian forests were strewn with wildflowers and young trees were everywhere to be found. No longer. The rats have devoured most wildflowers and, wherever those have all been eaten, they have turned to chewing down bushes and small trees. They eat the branches, especially of the tender seedlings that are their favorites, up to a thickness of a half-inch or more. Because of this, there is no longer any forest regeneration in Eronia.


In response to the rat problems of Eronia, their government is finally taking action. The rats are being trapped and destroyed. Everyone applauds this action against such ugly and problematic animals.


Some forests where the rats have been removed are already beginning to recover. But recovery is not easy. When the rats ate the native vegetation, alien plants moved in, plants that the rats do not like to eat. Those non-native plants have to be removed as well to give natives the chance to re-colonize the woodlands.


That story of Eronia is, of course, fiction as is the country. But I believe that the story carries a moral. Substitute Erie for Eronia, deer for rats, beautiful for ugly and you have our current situation in western New York.


To me deer are the big rats of our environment. They are wrecking havoc on our wildlands. Unfortunately, I appear to be a lone holdout against the hucksters who have made deer our best-loved animals.


Because deer do have a remarkably good press. Never mind that they share the horns and cloven hooves of the devil. Most recently, their characteristics - the sweet little polka dotted fawn, the stately buck, and the doe mama willing to sacrifice her life in defense of her family - have been Disney-promoted, but their original press officer was Felix Salton, whose earlier pornographic writing was not nearly so popular.


As a result we have episodes like the recent one in Williamsville. A deer, evidently frightened by a car, slipped when leaping over a cemetery fence and became impaled. The deer had to be euthanized.


This rare event was unfortunate. I would not like to have seen this suffering animal. But was it particularly unusual to have a deer suffer like this? Surely not. In one recent year over 400 deer were hit by cars in the Town of Amherst alone. Many of those deer died similar heart-rending deaths. As did additional hundreds of squirrels, foxes, pet dogs and cats. And, yes, rats as well.


But what is the response to this nearly unique cemetery accident? Fix the fence so this cannot happen again. At a cost of an estimated $44,000.


Wait a minute. There is about a hundred yards of similar fence in Amherst State Park and about a half mile more surrounding the White Chapel Memorial Park on Niagara Falls Boulevard: spikes at the ready to impale the dozens of deer that are destroying what undergrowth remains in those parklands. Must another hundred thousand or so have to be spent there as well?


This, I claim, is absolute nonsense. For years my dear and now lost friend, Mike Levy, called me a tree-hugger and I was always honored by his nomination. I am, I like to think, however, a tree-hugger with some sense of proportion.


Deer are the big rats of our urban areas and we would better use our money to reduce their population, just as we do our normal-sized rodents. Only that way can we restore and protect our native plants.