The Tame Deer of Miyajima Island Are Starving to Death

The deer of Japan’s Miyajima Island are quite tame – they freely roam the city’s streets and almost entirely depend on humans for food. For several years, they survived purely on the crackers and other food that tourists fed them. But in a bid to reduce their population, the government decided to ban the feeding of the deer. And now the poor animals are almost starving to death.

At one point, these small, red-brown deer were revered and worshipped by the locals. After WWII, when the number of deer had reduced greatly, people decided to invite them out of the wild and offer them food. Slowly, the deer became an international tourist attraction – people arrived by the thousands to see the tame deer of Miyajima. And of course, they wanted to feed the animals themselves. Several vendors sold rice crackers that the tourists could feed to the deer.

During this time, many reports suggested that the deer still had wild tendencies. Sign boards warned tourists that teasing the deer or getting to close to them could lead to injury. Not too long ago, a tourist blogged about her experience feeding the creatures – when her friend couldn’t get the crackers out of the packet soon enough, a deer attacked her and bit her on the knee. The girl retaliated by slapping the offender’s nose and managed to infuriate the locals, as the deer are sacred and should not be harmed.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Feeding wild animals could really lead to no good, and Miyajima’s deer are a perfect example of that. All the excess food from tourists and locals resulted in a huge surge of the deer population. Suddenly they were everywhere, living alongside humans. They came into town seeking food, littered the whole place with their droppings, obstructed traffic, got killed in road accidents and also depleted the natural vegetation in the forests. So no one wanted them around anymore.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

To control and reduce the population of deer, officials of Hatsukaichi city (which has jurisdiction over the deer) passed a law in 2008 that some might find downright cruel. They decided to completely ban people from feeding the deer. They figured that if they left the deer in their natural state, the creatures would go back to the wild and also reduce in number. While that sounds logical, it hasn’t worked at all because the deer have long since become tame and cannot fend for themselves in a forest environment. To make matters worse, there isn’t much vegetation left in the wild for them to eat, anyway.


Totally habituated to being fed by humans, Miyajima’s deer have now turned to garbage as their main source of food. Sometimes they even eat pebbles and plastic bags. Even though most foreign tourists still get a kick out of feeding the deer various snacks,  and some animal activists have taken it upon themselves to bring them food, the situation is pretty dire. The hungry deer are so desperate that they will eat anything – clothing, camera straps, tickets, maps and passports. As they starve to death, the deer are becoming bolder, even pulling at tourists’ backpack and clothes in search of food.


Animal rights activists all over Japan are trying to get the deer some justice. They’ve collected signatures, but the city has rejected all petitions. A few vets did offer to spay or neuter the animals for free, but officials have turned a deaf ear to all suggestions. The city holds strong to their belief that leaving the deer in a ‘natural’ state will slowly solve all problems. While it might be a good idea to let animals re-adapt to the wild, it doesn’t sound right in this case. It’s a classic case of humans using animals for their benefit and leaving them to starve to death when the purpose has been achieved.

Sources: Miso Keiko Nature Love, Ilya Genkin