The tradition of keeping tamed deer in an enclosure to be visited either in pity or delight has hit a vehement standoff in Harbor Springs. In November, city residents will decide the fate of the Harbor Springs Deer Park.

Traverse Magazine contributor and Harbor Springs resident, Kate Basset, shares her thoughts in the essay, “My Deer Park, My Drama.”

I sat under a table in City Council Chambers, pen and crumpled pad of paper in hand. The end of the pen was chewed almost flat. A nervous tick or leftover fixation from college smoking days, I suppose. The yellow legal pad had not one, but two coffee mug rings on the top page. I catalogued these things because it was easier than making eye contact with the looming figures above me. The room was so packed with people when I arrived at 6:54 p.m., this makeshift floor desk was the only spot left to sit.

Truth be told, I didn’t mind. I felt a little hidden, a little protected. Statistics have proven in my 15-plus-year tenure at the Harbor Light News, reporting on hot button, two-sided town issues will always result in at least 36.5 percent of my community being temporarily angry at me. And while I’m not a gambler, I knew the odds weren’t in my favor on this one. I like features about people or pet pigs or nonprofits. This was poised to be the mother of all small town fights. We’re talking a bomb to blow up Maybury, and Andy Griffith was nowhere in sight.

Deer Park discussion night in Harbor Springs.

Yes, that sometimes unsightly and sometimes beloved tradition of keeping tamed deer in an enclosure to be visited either in pity or delight (no comments on which camp I fall into) had hit a vehement standoff after more than a year of Facebook pages for and against, petitions, and people appearing before Council to plead their case. One side thinks it’s cruel, the other side thinks it’s a key part of the town’s past, present and future. Of course, nothing is quite so simple.

The first three times I tried writing this essay, it felt like I was poking fun at my relatives. Small town life is like that; it’s an extended family for better and worse, and our big issues—libraries, dog parks, deer parks—often become insider language. If someone on the outside mocks these stories, the humor vanishes; we can joke because of shared experiences, small moments that bind us together.

I changed tactics. Tried looking deeper at why the deer park triggers strong emotions. What could I say in these pages to underscore the beauty and frustration of such an issue? Perhaps nothing. The deer park was started some 70 years ago, when sanctuaries for injured deer and abandoned fawns were common and less regulated. Today, there are does and bucks and babies in the chain link enclosure behind the police station.

The city has long “thinned the herd” when necessary, a requirement by the Department of Environmental Quality. A few years ago, some deer were shot in the enclosure. The meat went to the local food bank, but the sniperesque hunting scene was witnessed by a horrified passerby. The outcry that followed led to a change in population tactics: deer birth control. The birth control plans didn’t work so hot and the herd got even bigger. A little gun shy, the city opted into a management contract with a deer farm/breeder in Gaylord (which happens to supply whitetails to enclosed hunting ranches).

So one side says: this is an abomination. Deer can be seen in the wild almost as frequently as visitors can be seen buying double-scoop waffle cones. These folks hold photos of a churned up, muddy mess; they call it a cage, an embarrassment, another example of being behind the times. But the other side says, hold on a minute.

They show photos too, some grainy and faded from decades in an album, some with wet ink, downloaded and printed just for the meeting: families wearing cutoffs, striped tube socks and tank tops, smiling next to a fenced lot of deer; small children with awed expressions, feeding a carrot to a doe/ buck/fawn. These folks talk about what it means to lose the icons of their town. They mention a friend, former Councilmember Mick Heinz, memorialized through a rededication and naming of the deer park. They say diminishing what longtime families hold dear is not progress.

They said keep the park open. They said shut it down. They talked, sometimes with tears, sometimes with sharp edges.

And under that table, I sat writing. And writing. And writing. Twenty-seven pages of notes, to be exact.

It was winter. When I stepped back outside, snow was falling. I started cleaning fat flakes off my windshield. I looked to my left, the metal deer park fence gleaming in the glow of parking lot lights. I thought about the last hour and 45 minutes, listening to both sides of this debate. I thought about how, at the breakfast table that morning, I ate a pancake and sipped black coffee, read a tear-inducing story in my daily New York Times Digest about plans for a different kind of fence, meant to keep Syrian refugees out of Hungary.

The juxtaposition was almost too much. Anger bubbled up: how could my town care this much about a deer park? How is this the issue that rallies the masses? Yet, humble gratitude also showed up: I get to live in a place where the biggest fight in a decade may very well be about whether or not less than two dozen deer remain on city property.

I went into work the next morning still unsure whether to laugh or cry. My boss, whose family has owned our community paper for well over 40 years, let me pound out sentences comparing our city’s issues with global and urban plights for safe spaces. When I started looking up incarceration stats for the City of Detroit, however, he pulled the plug and said to write what I saw, nothing more, nothing less. He said to remember these people are friends and neighbors who care deeply about the story we are charged to tell.

So I wrote with an imaginary for and against column in my head, trying to keep the sides even. In a season when talk of voting leads to vitriol, venom and, sometimes, legitimate insanity, I realized these deer park articles reflect a beautiful truth: this microcosm of democracy proves (in its own wonky way) “community” isn’t an overused, meaningless buzzword here. The final decision of the Council was to include an ordinance in the November general election to allow city residents final say in the fate of the deer park. I wonder if someday young students will page through our paper at the local history museum and giggle when they read that in their town, the 2016 ballot had questions about who would be President of the United States … and the deer.

I like to think the docent will tell a story like this one.

Traverse August Cover


This essay about the Harbor Springs Deer Park was originally published in the August 2016 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
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Photo(s) by Noah Bassett