At the zoo: Near and deer

A breeding program has seen the reintroduction of hundreds of deer back to their natural habitat.

There is something of a power struggle going on at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo and the outcome could have implications for the future of wildlife across the country. The zoo's Persian fallow deer community has seen its long-established leadership changed, and according to zoo staff, it is not for the better. Persian fallow deer were once commonplace in many Middle Eastern countries and the Holy Land was no exception. These majestic animals could be found in forests across Mesopotamia with the males sporting their distinctive antlers during the mating season. However, during the early part of the 20th century the deer were hunted to extinction, or so it was believed for many years. In the 1950s a small community of fallow deer was found in Iran and conservationists seized the opportunity to replenish the species. Mating pairs were sent to centers across Europe, and Israel received three deer that were spirited out of Iran on the eve of the revolution in 1979. A careful breeding program has seen the reintroduction of hundreds of deer back to their natural habitat in areas around Jerusalem and in the North. However, because Israel's entire fallow deer population is descended from those same three Iranian specimens, inbreeding can be a problem. Five years ago the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo obtained a young male deer from Germany named "The Chancellor." The Chancellor successfully assumed the role of herd leader and with it the exclusive right to mate with the females in his herd. The introduction of fresh genes to the community was a boon and all was well until about three months ago when one morning zoo keepers discovered signs of a violent clash between the Chancellor and a young, upstart male deer in the herd. Exactly what transpired during the preceding night only the deer know but the result was clear: The Chancellor had been deposed and there was a new male at the top. Although such power struggles are a natural part of deer life, it could spell disaster for the breeding program because the usurper has now cut the Chancellor's all-important bloodline out of the picture. Keepers immediately tried to revert the process by removing the young male from the herd in the hope that the Chancellor would regain his throne. Alas, his pride shattered, the Chancellor was a shadow of his former self and spent his days sulking instead of courting. In desperation, the zoo tried a different strategy and instead removed the Chancellor from the herd and returned the young male, giving the former ruler time to settle his nerves and develop some healthy envy. So far, signs are encouraging and while still segregated, the Chancellor has recently been holding rendezvous with some of the female deer through the fence that divides them. Keepers intend to keep the Chancellor separated until all the males in the herd have lost their antlers. Deer grow their antlers afresh for each mating season and it is hoped that by next spring the Chancellor will have enough vigor to resume his role as the alpha deer. Visitors can find the Persian fallow deer along the walkway that leads to the giraffe and rhino enclosure.