Spotlight on Deer

From our November/December 1981 issue: Unique Penn State research project is tops with tourists. 

cover of NovemberDecember 1981 Penn Stater Magazine featuring photo of a buck in the fall woods by Pat Little '77 Lib


When Larry Wert ’64 comes back to campus from his home on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, usually in the autumn to see his mother and to watch a football game, his visits follow a firmly settled pattern: an hour for a beer with the Swintons, a drive over to Madisonburg for a contemplative hike around the family hunting camp, a stop at his father’s gravesite, and then a swing by the deer pens.

For 8-year-old Bryce Wert, the deer pens are the highlight. The bucks and does and fawns mosey over and gently nibble the grass and bread crusts Bryce pokes through the fence. His excited voice climbs a couple of octaves, and he laughs delightedly as an old buck licks his fingers.

Larry turns to the friend who came along for the ride. He expresses a hunter’s wish, making it sound like the analytical observation of a college man. “The herd seems healthy,” he says. “Look at the magnificent rack on that buck and the sheen on his coat. From the looks of things, we’re going to have a great hunt this year.”

Then he betrays a wistful hope, prompted by his ritual tour through the Nittany Valley where he was born and raised, roamed the outfield in a Penn State uniform, earned his secondary education degree, and in December joined the late Ralph Wert at the camp we’ve just inspected.

“It would sure be nice,” Larry says, “if we had a good tracking snow when I come home next month.”


a young woman feeding a group of half a dozen deer, photo by Pat Little '77 Lib
A CAMERA POSE is one thing. Common sense is another. For safety reasons, few deer pen visitors become quite this intimate with the herd. Pat Little '77 Lib.


Penn State’s Public Information people estimate that the deer pens (officially, The Penn State Deer Research Program, one of the Commonwealth’s cooperative wildlife research units) are among the top three attractions at University Park, right up there with the ice cream they serve at the Creamery and the fall festivities in and around Beaver Stadium.

Most of the visitors come, like Bryce and Larry Wert, to admire and perhaps to feed some of the 70 or so white-tailed deer that live on the 22 acres of natural habitat behind the 8-foot anchor fencing. They range in temperament from hunters who feed their longing for deer season to aesthetes who see ballet in a bounding deer and wouldn’t think of shooting one. All, of course, are welcome.

Comparatively few, however, go behind the fence, which Penn State has built so that visitors at the gate never interfere with the research conducted inside. Nevertheless, the number of deer pen “insiders” has constantly increased in recent years, matching the growing interest in the environment. Penn State’s deer research is, first and foremost, a continuing study in ecology and conservation; thus, the university now provides regular tours.

Like most other Penn State research, the Deer Program has a set of definite goals—in this case, three of them: 1) to supply information Pennsylvania and other Eastern states need in order to manage the white-tailed deer; 2) to give Penn State students pointing for careers in conservation, forestry, and animal science the chance to conduct supervised wildlife research; and 3) to inform and educate the public about deer research and management.

Goal number three was a principal concern for Mike Ondik, a man who, until recently, held the unusual title of University Herdsman. Penn State’s Faculty-Staff Directory sometimes sounds vaguely medieval. One can find herdsmen, shepherds, gardeners, and clerks listed with the provosts and professors. Herdsman Mike Ondik, for example, is really a Penn State-trained wildlife researcher who has spent 22 years working with deer. He left the university in August to accept a position with the Pennsylvania Forestry Association.

A complex man who affects woodsy attire (sometimes a camouflage green hunting hat with brim turned down; sometimes a black knit cap and a buckskin vest) and an easy slang (deer are often “critters”), Ondik knows more and can speak more knowledgeably about deer than almost anyone else. He’s won the Pennsylvania Forestry Association’s Conservationist of the Year award; he has formally addressed the National Wildlife Association in Washington, and his photographs have appeared in Outdoor Life, Field and Stream, The American Rifleman, and Audubon Magazine.

With his silver hair, mischievous pale blue eyes and engaging, conspiratorial grin, Mike has been a particular favorite among such groups as the Alumni Vacation College, the Elderhostel visitors, and Continuing Education’s Summer Conservation Leadership Workshops for high schoolers.

Observe him on a sunny morning in late July at work with about 50 of these Conservation Leadership youngsters—a pack of numbered football jerseys, adjustable baseball caps, printed T-shirts, blue jeans, Adidas, work boots, and brightly woven camera straps. About half girls and half boys, they mill around inside the structural steel, concrete-floored research shed examining skulls and antlers, bottled deer fetuses, and supple deer hides. Mike shuffles bashfully up front and asks where they all come from. They shout a jingoistic cacophony of Pennsylvania towns and counties. Mike commences to test their deer knowledge.

“Do deer really listen with their feet?” It’s an old hunters’ tale; some of the youngsters have heard it and shout yes. Mike looks at them in staged condescension; then he explains that deer are merely sensitive to what’s around them, like blind people who develop keen hearing.

“Does a buck rub his antlers because they itch?” Again, the students think the answer is yes, but Mike explains that they do it more to strengthen their neck muscles, to mark their territory by emblazoning trees, and to get acquainted with their unfamiliar head gear, like someone breaking in a new hat.

Mike holds up two skulls, one with an anemic four-pronged rack, the other with a classic eight-point spread. Which deer, he wants to know, was the older. The students nominate the eight-pointer.

“Wrong again,” Mike chuckles. “I thought you conservation students knew a little something about wildlife.” (They thought so too, but they’re laughing easily without embarrassment.)

“Truth is,” Mike says, unobtrusively becoming the teacher, “the bone structure of a deer is complete when the critter’s about 30 months old. From then on, bucks may produce larger racks, particularly if they’re eating the right nutrients. But they won’t grow any more points. Since phosphorous and calcium promote antler growth, our really big racks tend to come from deer that range over heavily fertilized farmland. This puny fellow here (he holds aloft the four-point skull) was probably a deep-woods buck.”

Mike Ondik is now in complete control of the fascinated youngsters. He promises them a close look at Penn State’s deer herd “in just a minute” and then begins subtly, artfully to place the white-tailed deer in an ecological context for them.

Ondik the ecologist is a lot like the man who uses his wife or his sweetheart to illustrate a lecture on love. He is devoted to deer, but his gospel is nature’s delicate web and what the white-tailed deer can teach about it.

At last, Mike leads the eager group outdoors into the deer holding area. A medium-sized buck ambles over to the cluster of students and sniffs about their pantlegs like a collie. In unison the question rises: “Can we pet him?”

“Sure, go ahead,” Mike tells them. “But never trust a deer. They can turn on you in a second, and they’ve got knives for hooves. This one is fairly safe though.”


Mike Ondik kneeling beside a large buck, photo by Pat Little '77 Lib
“DEER ARE SUCH BEAUTIFUL ANIMALS," says former Penn State herdsman Mike Ondik, “That a lot of people think it’s wrong to hunt them. If they looked like spiders, no one would mind deer hunting.” Pat Little '77 Lib.


Aside, he tells me, “We raised him from a fawn on a bottle. He’s imprinted. He thinks he’s human. Last week we drove him over to the Nittany Mall as part of a wildlife display.” (Mike’s colleagues recall an episode Mike fails to mention. Nine years ago, he escaped a serious goring when a huge rutting buck turned on him. Mike had the presence of mind to sidestep one of the buck’s charges and then to jam his antlers in some loose fencing. It was, by all accounts, a close call.)

Briefly upstaged by the docile buck, Mike recaptures his audience and then gestures broadly about him. “Isn’t this a beautiful woods?” he asks.

Looking beyond the immediate area in which they stand, toward a grove of oak and pine with lower canopies of dogwood and ferns, the Conservation Workshop students murmur their agreement.

“Look again,” Mike commands. Now they notice: All around them the ground is bare of vegetation except for a few clumps of nettles and some sea green lichens. The tree bark is torn, stripped and chewed to a height of 6 or 7 feet. It’s a patch of desolation among acres of greenery.

“You’re standing smack in the middle of an overgrazed woodlot. The deer have picked it clean, and we keep it this way to show nice old ladies who want to ban deer hunting what happens when a population of these sexually active animals goes unharvested. Our work here pretty much proves that each deer needs about 50 acres of land. Much less and they’ll come right down into Fox Chapel or New Hope and eat the rhododendron off the front lawn.

“We once had some 10 species of songbirds nesting right where you stand from ground level to 7 feet up. They’re gone now. The deer can also be murder on grouse, wild turkey, rabbits, chipmunks, foxes, and lots of other animals. Makes you appreciate how many concerns deer hunters share with bird watchers and berry pickers. And trout fishermen, too. Brush, grass, and foliage cleanse runoff water, so overgrazing deer can downright ruin a good trout stream.”

Mike checks his watch. “Eleven-thirty, I missed my ten o’clock appointment! It’s been almost three hours. Did you all learn anything?”

Yes, they did. And much more than this brief account can convey.

“Good. Get your cameras ready.” Mike Ondik angles off toward a corner of the fencing where a dozen deer graze on oak leaves. He calls back over his shoulder: “I’ll send them your way. These are wild ones. If we ever set them free, they’d make it in the woods with no trouble.”

In their light summer tans, in single file, glissading over logs and stumps, the small herd floats past like someone’s dream of forest deer. Nikons and Instamatics swing up and echo clicks for a few seconds. Mike Ondik’s enlightened students now have souvenirs to accompany their information.