Lefty, the Harlem deer, dies in tragic end to local political drama

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Caitlin Dickson
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Officials had said euthanizing the deer, currently being held at an East Harlem animal shelter, was
Officials had said euthanizing the deer, which was being held at an East Harlem animal shelter, was “the only humane and safe recourse.” (WABC)

The one-antlered male deer at the center of a dramatic dispute between New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo died Friday afternoon, marking a tragic end to two days of local political bickering.

The deer reportedly drew crowds after first appearing in Harlem’s Jackie Robinson Park earlier this month. But Lefty, as it was nicknamed, didn’t come all the way to New York City to stay within the confines of a single park. So it began to wander, making it as far as a nearby housing project before getting captured early Thursday morning.

That may have been the end of Lefty’s adventures in the big city, but it was just the beginning of what would become a heated debate over the beloved buck’s future, pitting City Hall against the Governor’s Office.

Not long after Lefty was captured, the deer was sentenced to death by the mayor’s office, which cited the advice of state Environmental Conservation Department officials, who’d reportedly informed city park officials that the only other option would be to return the animal to Harlem.

“We’re sort of backed into a corner here,” de Blasio spokeswoman Natalie Grybauskas said Thursday afternoon, according to the New York Times. “It’s not so much a decision as it is, ‘This is the option.’”

And so, at approximately 7 p.m. Thursday, the East Harlem animal shelter where Lefty had been booked earlier that day confirmed that it had been instructed by the mayor’s office to execute the animal.

Its fate appeared to be sealed until — just one hour later — New York Gov. Cuomo stepped in and, according to a statement released by his office, “directed DEC to offer assistance to the city to transport and find a new habitat for it immediately.”

That’s when things really started to heat up. According to the Times, state environmental officials claimed they had actually informed city officials that, rather than return the deer to the same densely populated part of East Harlem where it had been captured, they were welcome to release it somewhere within the 200 acres of woods that comprise Manhattan’s Inwood Hill Park.

Not so, said de Blasio’s office, referring the Times to an email sent earlier that day to a city parks department official by state wildlife biologist Ken Scarlatelli that said, “Bottom line is the options are release back into Harlem or euthanasia.”

The Times also noted that, according to state guidelines, not only is a permit is required in order to capture and relocate deer within New York state, but “permits are not issued to relocate deer to the wild, because acceptable release sites are not available and because the poor chances for deer survival do not warrant the risks.”

Yet conservation department officials argued that there was technically no ban against relocation and that the city could have moved the deer anywhere it wanted. On the contrary, de Blasio spokeswoman Grybauskas insisted that the state had specifically instructed the city against transporting the animal across county lines.

“Releasing the deer in Manhattan is clearly not safe for New Yorkers or the animal,” Grybauskas said in a statement late Thursday. “and the state’s position was that euthanization was the preferred route. Later, the state reversed years of their own policy and offered to help relocate Lefty. The state itself has said it is not safe to relocate deer, and so the only humane and safe recourse is to euthanize the deer, and that will happen in the morning.”

The state conservation department replied with a statement of its own, reiterating that, while Lefty’s future was ultimately in the city’s hands, “we stand ready to assist the city with the safe transportation of the deer to an alternative location.”

The political tug of war continued well into the next day, with de Blasio defending the city’s decision to kill the deer on his radio show Friday morning.

“This is a case where it’s a really bad situation, unfortunately,” he said. “It’s nothing any of us want, but I think it’s a question of is it going to be a quick and merciful death versus potentially a very long, painful process.”

Relocating the deer, the mayor argued, would be “inhumane in its own right.”

The governor disagreed.

“We want to do everything we can to save the Harlem deer,” Cuomo tweeted shortly before 11:30 a.m. Friday. “We have told the city that the feds or we can transport it upstate today.”

The fight to save Lefty had begun to gain steam on social media, while, according to the New York Daily News, veterinarians at the animal shelter in Harlem refused to euthanize the deer.

Reluctantly, the city caved under pressure.

“Although survival rates for relocated deer are low and transport is a great stressor, DEC is the regulatory body here,” read a statement issued by the NYC Parks Department around noon Friday, announcing that the deer would be transported upstate after all.

Eric Phillips, De Blasio’s press secretary, tweeted the latest development while reiterating the city’s disapproval, sparking a Twitter spat of his own with Cuomo communications director Rich Azzopardi.

Sadly, the Harlem deer’s new lease on life was cut short before it even started. Just a couple of hours after the city announced that it wouldn’t kill the animal, Lefty died while awaiting relocation upstate.

The finger-pointing carried on a little longer after Lefty’s life had ended.

“Unfortunately the deer has died due to stress,” said Sam Biederman, a spokesman for the city’s parks department. “This is why the city’s preference in this circumstance was humane euthanasia rather than subjecting the animal to the stress of transportation and relocation.”

Shortly after, the state offered its side of the story.

“We offered yesterday to take possession of the deer and transport it to a suitable habitat,” DEC spokesman Sean Mahar said in a statement Friday afternoon. “The City did not accept our offer until just before noon, and while we were arriving on scene the deer died in the City’s possession.”