Animal welfare advocates in upstate New York received unexpected aid last year from an anonymous, bizarre “Deer-Man,” who waged a multi-pronged and ultimately successful attack campaign against a controversial and brutal plan to eradicate the local deer population.
Employing the power of popular social-networking sites such as Facebook and YouTube along with more traditional tools such as the Freedom of Information Act, “Buck Van Deer” orchestrated a relentless personal crusade that exposed the backroom machinations of government, and mobilized the local citizenry. Is this the new model for “fighting City Hall?”
Rock Cellar Magazine tracked down this unique story of citizen activism, and was rewarded with exclusive insight from an individual claiming to be this mysterious vigilante.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. February 2010. In this small village of 8,000, recently-elected mayor Peter Swiderski had ridden a white horse to victory on a campaign promise and perceived mandate to “take care of the deer problem,” at any cost. For Swiderski this was a public health issue, while also a personal one: two family members had contracted Lyme disease, which he blamed on the “deer infestation.”
For most of the prior year Mayor Swiderski had listened to disgruntled Hastings residents reading off a litany of complaints: Deer trampling their gardens. Deer eating their flowers. Deer defecating in their manicured yards. Mama deers giving birth to baby deers in full public view. The upscale community seemed to care more about winning Garden Of The Month than cohabitating naturally with Bambi and her friends.
What Swiderski did next however, was dramatic and unexpected: Without full disclosure to his constituency, he requested and applied for a permit for most inhumane eradication option available: “Net-and-Bolt.” A permit for its use had never before been granted in the state of New York. Used primarily in the slaughter of captive beef cattle, the bolt is a lethal shot to the head. When used on animals in confined quarters it can be as quick as a death-for-meat process can be.
However for deer in the wild, net-and-bolt works quite differently. Drop-nets are set up and hidden in back yards and bait is put out as an enticement. When enough of the deer are present, the nets are thrown – trapping the animals, which thrash about in a panic, often breaking their legs, shredding themselves, and even dying of heart failure. Due to the smaller size of their skulls, the bolting part of the procedure is erratic and far more prolonged.
Mayor Swiderski publicly claims to have considered other options, but quickly and unilaterally passed them off. Since hunting is not legal near the village’s borders, Swiderski moved ahead with what he felt was his only option. It was the first-ever net-and-bolt permit given in New York State’s history.
Enter Buck Van Deer. Depending on who you talk to, Van Deer is either a Hastings resident, a resident of a nearby Westchester County village – either Dobbs Ferry or Irvington – or an ex-resident living in Vermont. Others say Buck is more than one person, possibly even 6 people. Buck Van Deer, however, claims to be a deer.
It started simply. First was a cheery letter to Hastings resident John Gonder from Van Deer extolling the virtues of the tasty vegetation indigenous to Hastings. Soon letters to local papers appeared, in sharper tones, warning of the pending lethal cull. Then dozens of residents began receiving anonymous letters as well. Danielle Zachar got one. “I was appalled,” “It’s inhumane. I feel there are other ways to go about this,”
she announced to the board after getting Van Deer’s wake-up-note.
Many locals agreed, claiming they had no clue that this type of eradication program was underway until receiving messages from the deer. Questions arose whether the Mayor had even considered non-lethal methods such as fences, deer repellants, light reflectors, or sonic devices, as he claimed he had.
For Van Deer, ignorance is no excuse. “Buck” says the evidence was right under their noses: the village board films and broadcasts their meetings, then posts and archives them at the Hastings Village website for all to see. Most cities do the same.
It was from these videos that Van Deer was made aware of the extent of the plan, but moreover, he/she/they was struck by the almost giddy attitude with which the board and mayor were proceeding. Particularly galling to Van Deer was a video showing Swiderski unsuccessfully attempting to promote his net- and-bolt plan to neighboring Irvington – comparing deer to “giant rats,” and claiming that Hastings had “rolled over” on the issue. “We’re going to do this, no matter what,” boasted Swiderski. Meanwhile, publically, he claimed he was still exploring all options.
Incensed, Van Deer began phase two. In short order up rose a facebook page, with a photo of a bizarre suit-wearing deer for its profile. Then came a series of amateurly-edited YouTube videos, taken directly from the board’s own archives, including Swiderski’s visit to Irvington:
For Van Deer, these YouTube videos became the flashpoint for the insurrection. They revealed unknown facts and assumptions about the deer culling processes, and exposed how limited the awareness and participation of average residents was. Moreover, they revealed the apparent cavalier attitude that board members were taking towards the killing of deer.
Buck Van Deer’s facebook profile page began contacting almost everyone in Westchester County. Pages were cross-referred to an ever-increasing number of YouTube videos documenting the town’s meetings – each one edited to show the most embarrassing, contradictory or hypocritical moments. Soon, residents who never participated in Hastings’ meetings began showing up and speaking their voices. From a done deal, the “deer issue” was back on the agenda.
In the space of a month the Buck Van Deer profile page had hundreds of friends, was deleted for not “being a real person,” and rose again as a fan page. Meanwhile, Buck Van Deer got a petition going at change.org with over 700 signatures and which resulted in hundreds of email petitions to Mayor Swiderski.
Then, Van Deer alerted members of The Defenders of Wildlife and other animal welfare organizations. One member supplied a graphic video of the actual net and bolt killing process in action. Once this video hit Van Deer’s information stream, Hastings supporters became an active and viable force.
With daily pressure from Van Deer and Hastings residents near and far, Mayor Swiderski’s position began to waver. Suddenly immuno-contraception, a non-lethal alternative, was now being seriously considered. It appeared the tide had turned in Hastings.
At the board meetings the Mayor began distancing himself from the now unpopular net-and-bolt, claiming he’d been led to it by the Department of Environmental Conservation, and that he had never been set on that solution. Van Deer and now others weren’t buying it. Under the “Freedom of Information Act” Van Deer’s new supporters obtained e-mails revealing the Mayor’s intent, and read his own words back to him. And for YouTube:
August, 2010. Net-and-bolt was dead, at least for the moment. And the Mayor’s fumbling response spoke volumes.
Van Deer’s 6 months of postings on blogs, facebook, and other sites had by then turned decidedly personal – a relentless profanity-filled attack that some felt sometimes crossed the line.
Swiderski, a vegetarian Prius driver who describes himself as “earthy-crunchy” refuses to credit Buck Van Deer as the instrument that ultimately changed his mind, still holding to his belief that the anti-cull movement was instigated by a mere handful of non-residents. He does however acknowledge that he may have “overstated my case” on net-and-bolt and underestimated the reaction of the community, that “had no stomach for it.”
On Van Deer, Swiderski had this to say: “It seems odd to feel compelled to shadowbox someone who hides behind a silly anonymous name…too afraid to speak and say who they are.”
But for Van Deer, anonymity in this case felt necessary. When contacted by Rock Cellar Magazine, Buck (or at least an individual claiming responsibility for Buck) explained: “A surname would have been seen as a lone voice, just another animal activist. Like the Lone Ranger or Zorro, once you pull the mask off, the gig is over.” In other words, desperate times call for desperate tactics.
Deer or human, Buck denies even being an animal activist, noting that Swiderski was targeted for the way he approaches many of the issues in Hastings: “A village is only as good as its people. Without a diversity of people it’s not a village at all, it’s just another faceless suburban community. What began as saving deer ultimately became much more about saving the village of Hastings that I know and love.”
As for the future, this complex issue is far from over. Buck Van Deer vows to take a continuing watchdog role on the net-and-bolt permit, which still can legally be activated at any time.
Meanwhile Swiderski, who is currently dealing with ongoing budget issues in Hastings has limited options in dealing with the deer. The experimental immuno-contraception program agreed upon is expensive and also requires a permit – one that the D.E.C. has never yet approved in New York. For now, the 100 or so deer run free, tearing up the gardens.
For Buck Van Deer, citizen activist, the process of fighting City Hall has been a learning experience. One revelation was how little most average people know about their rights; that as taxpayers we are welcome to demand anything from the stewards of our government – emails, videos, phone and computer records, government transcripts and papers of all kinds. We paid for it. And not only is it every citizen’s right, it is their responsibility to keep watch on it.
So who is Buck Van Deer? Buck Van Deer is all of us.
In our Fight The Power category Rock Cellar Magazine celebrates the willingness of individuals to effect change. We want to hear from people and groups who are fighting entrenched bureaucracies, careless corporations, and ridiculous laws in the name of the common good. Whistle-blowers and muckrakers are welcomed. If you know of any such stories that need to be told – contact editors (at) rockcellarmagazine (dot) com. Thanks for reading!
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