The case against Bambi

deer_headlights.co.top.jpg By Allan Sloan, senior editor-at-large


FORTUNE -- If you think that deer are the cute woodland creatures of Bambi, think again. In the real world -- to the extent that suburbs like mine are the real world -- deer are pests.

"Rats with hooves" is the term for them in my household, which is plagued by deer that eat our plants, defecate all over our yard, and show no fear of humans. Then there's Lyme disease, which is carried by deer ticks -- an especially serious problem if you have young kids or grandkids. And the scare we got last year when a herd of deer began crossing the six-lane highway on which we were driving 60 miles an hour.

In the Disney movie, hunters shoot Bambi's mother. I used to think that was terrible. Now I think that what's terrible isn't that Bambi's mother was shot; it's that the hunters didn't also get Bambi, his father, and the rest of the herd.

But since I'm supposed to write about business, not vent about wildlife, let me show you some numbers about how appallingly expensive rats with hooves are in terms of dollars and human lives.

We're talking big bucks here. (You can groan now.) Deer-vehicle accidents resulted in more than $3.8 billion of insurance claims and driver costs in the year ended June 30, according to State Farm Insurance. Such collisions resulted in about 140 human deaths, according to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Serious stuff.

We're not even including the financial and social cost of deer-tick-spread Lyme disease, the expense of hauling away deer carcasses, or the cost in money and time of protecting vegetation and crops from deer predation.

Damage control

State Farm estimates that in the 12 months that ended June 30, there were 1.14 million deer-vehicle accidents, which resulted in $3.8 billion of insurance payouts and driver costs. The total goes over $4 billion when we throw in the cost of accidents in which no claims were made because drivers had no comprehensive insurance on their vehicles, or no insurance at all.

The costs in the chart below combine State Farm's estimate of an average $3,103 per claim paid by insurers with the estimated deductible, $250, absorbed by drivers. We're using a $3,353 cost per accident in all states, because State Farm doesn't provide state-by-state cost data.

State Farm, which has published data about deer accidents for seven years to draw attention to its accident-mitigation tips (be especially vigilant from 6 to 9 p.m.; remember that deer usually travel in herds; don't rely on car-mounted deer whistles, and so on), does some quite interesting math. It extrapolates total deer-vehicle damage based on claims made by its policyholders. For example, if State Farm has a third of the auto policies in a given state, it multiplies its cost and the number of accidents by three.

State Farm says there were 21% more accidents in the 2009-10 survey than five years earlier, even though vehicle-miles driven are up only 2%. That's a telling statistic. It means either that drivers have gotten a lot worse at avoiding deer, which seems unlikely, or that a lot more deer are on the roads than there used to be, which seems extremely likely.

Last year the highway safety administration counted 182 deaths caused by animal-vehicle collisions. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety estimates that 75% to 80% of those deaths involve deer. Call it 140 people killed last year because Bambi was where he didn't belong.

Look, I'm all in favor of cute woodland creatures -- as long as they stay in the damn woods and aren't destroying the habitat on which plants, birds, insects, and reptiles depend. When you see the New Jersey Audubon Society allowing carefully selected people onto its nature preserves to shoot deer, as it has since 2005, you know that an excess of deer is an ecological disaster.

The next time some bleeding heart tells you how cruel it is to kill deer to keep them from hurting people and causing property damage, wave these death and damage numbers around. Up with people! Down with Bambi! To top of page

Cost of deer collisions by state
State Estimated annual accidents Estimated cost ($ millions)
PENNSYLVANIA 102,165 342.6
MICHIGAN 101,174 339.2
NEW YORK 77,582 260.1
OHIO 65,753 220.5
VIRGINIA 51,990 174.3
NORTH CAROLINA 43,844 147.0
WISCONSIN 42,597 142.8
GEORGIA 41,749 140.0
TEXAS 38,438 128.9
ILLINOIS 37,816 126.8
INDIANA 34,776 116.6
WEST VIRGINIA 32,472 108.9
MINNESOTA 32,059 107.5
MARYLAND 31,888 106.9
NEW JERSEY 31,639 106.1
MISSOURI 31,347 105.1
IOWA 29,657 99.4
ALABAMA 24,971 83.7
SOUTH CAROLINA 23,215 77.8
CALIFORNIA 22,664 76.0
ARKANSAS 20,710 69.4
TENNESSEE 20,432 68.5
KENTUCKY 18,202 61.0
MISSISSIPPI 14,738 49.4
FLORIDA 14,446 48.4
NEBRASKA 12,174 40.8
KANSAS 11,747 39.4
WASHINGTON 10,441 35.0
LOUISIANA 10,394 34.9
MASSACHUSETTS 10,333 34.6
OREGON 9,968 33.4
COLORADO 9,859 33.1
OKLAHOMA 9,382 31.5
CONNECTICUT 9,000 30.2
MONTANA 8,963 30.1
SOUTH DAKOTA 7,879 26.4
UTAH 6,333 21.2
NORTH DAKOTA 5,192 17.4
MAINE 4,669 15.7
DELWARE 4,350 14.6
IDAHO 4,167 14.0
WYOMING 3,533 11.8
NEW HAMPSHIRE 3,443 11.5
VERMONT 3,183 10.7
ARIZONA 2,413 8.1
NEW MEXICO 2,250 7.5
RHODE ISLAND 2,167 7.3
ALASKA 1,306 4.4
NEVADA 1,128 3.8
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA 500 1.7
HAWAII 68 0.2
UNITED STATES 1,141,166 3,826.2
Source: State Farm insurance and Fortune