By Marti Maguire
The News & Observer
SMITHFIELD, N.C. — Police detectives here are hunting some unusual suspects for the second year in a row this fall — white-tailed deer accused of decimating plants in one of the town's well-heeled neighborhoods.
A trio of detectives took to the woods in recent weeks for an in-town police hunt that is rare, if not unique, in the region. Last year, they killed 25 deer in the woods near the manicured lawns of South Smithfield, where a growing population of deer munch on tender plants and shrubs such as hostas, azaleas, and Acuba.
The hunt is again stirring some opposition among residents.
"They're supposed to be fighting criminals, not pansy-eaters," said Jim Wilson, whose 30 acres adjoins the town land where police hunted last year with rifles and silencers.
State biologist Joe Folta said he's never known of such a hunt in the 11-county district he oversees for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
Folta had recommended that Smithfield hire bowhunters or specially licensed sharpshooters, though he said there is no state law barring the police from hunting the woods instead.
But if the solution is rare, the problem is not, Folta said. Contact between deer and people is increasing as neighborhoods take over wild land, creating pockets near homes where hunters can't thin the herds.
Grazing in neighborhoods strengthens the herd as the animals nibble from corn piles left by deer sympathizers and nutrient-rich residential shrubs.
"The deer are using these urban areas as refuges," Folta said. "We're adding to the nutrition that allows them to produce more offspring."
Years of complaints from South Smithfield residents reached their height last year, when the town planned to let locals hunt in the 300-acre area behind the neighborhood. The idea earned support at public meetings, where locals railed against the marauding deer, but it was abandoned because of concerns over liability.
"We didn't want to risk having every Tom, Dick and Harry out there," Town Manager Pete Connet said. "We're trying to err on the side of safety."
At the direction of the town council, Connet exempted police from the town's ordinance against discharging firearms so the police could carry out the hunt.
Several council members live in the quiet neighborhood of stately homes bounded by U.S. 301 and the wooded area along the Neuse River. So does state Rep. Leo Daughtry, whose wife was a vocal proponent of hunting the deer.
Retired Dr. Thomas M. Johnson, standing in front of his electric fence-enclosed garden on a recent morning, said he doesn't mind police out hunting on the public dime.
"I didn't care how they did it," said Johnson, who has caught images of deer ravaging his hydrangea on a tree-mounted, motion-sensitive camera. "I just wanted some of these deer gone."
But the neighbors aren't all so enthusiastic. Wilson, perhaps the hunt's most vocal opponent, lives just a few doors from Johnson. He said he has seen police breaking their own safety policies by hunting during school hours and without bright orange gear.
His 11-year-old son plays in a clubhouse near the property line, and he and his wife worry that they don't know when police are out hunting. The officers recently started calling him as a courtesy, but other neighbors are not notified.
Community opposition last year came mainly from animal activists and other residents who simply enjoy the animals' visits.
"Protect your plants, do something," said Ullie Mattern, a South Smithfield resident and president of the Johnston County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "It just doesn't justify mass killing them."
The officers hunt during their normal workday, in between their investigative duties. Connet stresses that the officers chosen for the job are experienced hunters. One, narcotics officer Greg Whitley, has a degree in wildlife management.
Whitley said the neighborhood's proximity to the fertile woodlands of the Neuse River basin will always attract deer — and dissent among neighbors over how to deal with them.
"In any urban or suburban area that has this type of habitat, people and animals are going to have these kinds of conflicts," he said.
One morning last week, Detective R.L. Capps left his truck about 300 yards behind the neighborhood and headed into wooded town property, toting a shotgun and his personal handgun.
Capps said the officers scout out areas where deer travel by following droppings and tracks. They set up timed feeders to drop corn twice a day, then show up early in the mornings to hunt them from tree stands bought by the police department.
"We try to confine our hunts to a specific location where there is a lot of movement," Capps said.
The hunting has been slow this year. The officers have yet to kill a doe after five days out; they plan to move to another area. They had to move farther away from the neighborhood because of complaints.
In all, the operation cost less than $3,000 last year, including the hours spent hunting, said Police Chief Steve Gillikin — less than the $100 a kill for professional hunters. The meat went to needy families, though each officer was allowed to keep one.
Whitley said he is happy to spend some of his work hours hunting, though there are some restrictions. For one, the officers are only supposed to shoot does, not the bucks most prized by hunters. (He admitted they bagged a few bucks last year.)
"In some ways, it's not quite as fun when you're doing it for work," Whitley said.
Detective L.R. Capps of the Smithfield Police Department tracks deer within the Smithfield city limits. Police officers were exempted from a town ordinance barring discharge of firearms within the city limits to help thin the herds. Staff Photo by Ted Richardson
A deer was caught filching apples one night in September with a remote camera set up by Thomas Johnson.
Copyright 2007 The News & Observer
N.C. officers gear up for police deer hunt