The frequency of contact between critters and humans can create situations where wildlife lose their innate fear of human beings. Frequently called "imprinting," the occurrence is well-documents.
Increased interaction between deer and humans can result in behavior that is detrimental to both humans and the deer. The habituation of some of the deer at Berry College has led to a major research study led by professor George Gallagher.
Berry has a population of white-tailed deer that is highly habituated to the presence of humans. Students, staff and visitors alike are often able to observe the deer very closely for extended periods of time. One area of the campus contains residential housing for faculty and staff. In that area there have been increasing reports, as well as video evidence, of white-tailed deer acting out in an aggressive manner, particularly toward dogs being walked on leashes.
Gallagher and his research team set out to document that behavior and tag the offending deer in a manner akin to a game of paintball. Deer that displayed the undesirable behavior would then receive a negative reinforcement stimulus in the form of impact of a needleless marking dart delivered by a tranquilizer gun. The paint would aid in identification of offending animals. The "tagging" would create only a momentary stinging sensation with no injury to the animal.
Gallagher said the research project was approved by both the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee of Berry College.
The study recorded deer following people walking a dog, occasionally circling the individual, then stopping directly in the path of the walking individual. In other cases, the deer simply stood their ground until the person changed their direction of travel. Some deer would stomp their front hooves in what is typically considered to be a warning.
After the behavior of the deer was documented, the research team took back to the areas where the aggressive deer were noted, armed with a dart gun, no negative behaviors were displayed. It was almost as it the deer knew what was going to happen and backed off.
Gallagher said one doe in particular is considered a primary instigator.
"We call her 'Grumpy,'" Gallagher said. The behavior has only been demonstrated by females. However, there is no indication that the behavior was associated with protecting fawns or a particular area.
"If encountering a deer following you or attempting to stop in front of you, particularly when walking a dog, the best option is to go a different direction and do not engage the animal," Gallagher said.