Death in the deer pen

When the last deer in Bidwell Park’s infamous deer pen died a few weeks ago, it brought to a close a long-running and controversial park issue that pitted the grim reality of nature against the grim reality of protective captivity.

For more than 100 years Bidwell Park contained the deer pen for injured, displaced or just confused deer. The pen was a popular place for city folk to see nature in captivity. But the pen was small, there was little care offered to the deer, which shared their small corral with wild fowl and were occasionally attacked by feral dogs that leapt the pen’s fence.

Then about 10 years ago a biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game told the city the deer in the pen were unhealthy and should be removed.

Things were so bad, at one point a fawn had to be euthanized after it was discovered literally being eaten alive by maggots, which were born in the piles of deer and fowl dung that littered the pen.

At the time there were about 16 of the cloven-hoofed creatures in the small wire enclosure off Eighth Street near Cedar Grove. As a partial mitigation, six of the deer were flown by DFG to a zoo in Argentina to live out their natural lives, leaving nine behind in the pen in Chico.

When word that the city’s deer pen might have to close, however, Chicoans flocked to the City Council meetings to argue why they thought the pen should remain open.

“If we don’t have them in a pen they are liable to get hit by a car or killed by a hunter,” one woman said.

Another sadly noted, “When my children were born, the first place I took them was the deer pen.”

And still another wistfully recalled, “The reason my husband and I settled in Chico was because of the deer pen.”

The city, under citizen pressure to keep some of the deer, struck a deal with DFG. The deer’s health would be monitored by a veterinarian; the remaining deer would be sterilized allowing the pen to empty by attrition.

But there was no money to make the needed improvements.

Deer lovers, at least those who love captive deer, rallied, saying volunteers would step forward and raise funds to save the pen. It sounded great, but the volunteers never stepped forward and a couple of fund-raising picnics netted only $2,000 of the $8,000 needed.

City Council member David Guzzetti moved some budget items around, got the rest of the council’s support and the deer conditions were improved enough to keep them living for another 10 years in relative comfort.