Jason Miller pushes aside his tie, pulls up the right side of his black shirt and, squinting at the computer screen in the basement of his Lenexa home, starts to scrawl the phone number of a lawyer on his abdomen — just in case.
It's a little after noon on September 25, and Miller is making the final preparations for a stunt he promises will be a "mind blowing" moment in his battle against the Johnson County Park & Recreation District.
Protest placards and campaign handouts cover the chocolate-colored shag carpet. "Disgusting, evil, atrocity, deplorable," says one poster that's smeared with red paint to evoke spattered blood. "Vick went to prison for a lot less," reads a flier with the image of a dead deer, a pistol atop its rib cage.
Earlier this summer, after nearly two years of study, the Johnson County Park & Recreation District finalized a plan to use sharpshooters to reduce the deer population in Shawnee Mission Park by 75 percent. Miller has made it his mission to stop them, starting a blog and an activist group. County officials have refused to meet with him. They haven't changed course in the face of angry letters or peaceful protests.
"They want to play hardball?" Miller says. "I can play hardball."
The 42-year-old has adhered to the conventional activist playbook so far, but today's presentation will be a first. He has revealed his plan only to his girlfriend, Sylvia Riley, and one other confidant. "It's off the fucking chain," he says.
In his garage, a severed deer head, wrapped in two plastic bags, is defrosting. He took delivery yesterday from a venison vendor in Minnesota, he says. Because the butcher would have tossed the head in the trash, she charged him just $40 for shipping.
The exposed flesh isn't new to him. As a kid, his dad took him fishing and hunting. In college, he dissected a pig. "For as long as I can remember, gruesome things don't seem to bother me," he says.
Still, he's taken aback as he opens the bag encasing the deer head. The plastic adheres awkwardly to the softening flesh of its face and the still-oozing neck.
"Oh, Jesus," Miller says, cringing. "I'm not usually squeamish, but this is getting to me." He exhales hard. "She's not smelling too good, either."
After washing his hands — the first of four trips to the sink — he runs upstairs to retrieve a newspaper. Balling up sections of print, he lines the bottom of a wicker basket. "All right, baby," he says, positioning the head in the gray nest, "you did not die in vain."
He has named the deer Victoria.
At 12:50 p.m., he's poised to leave. Deer blood has dripped onto the floor, so he sprays the spattered tiles in his entryway with kitchen cleaner before letting his pit bull, Chico, back into the house. "I'm a little nervous but more eager, actually," he says. "I feel so strongly about this issue: our culture's fetish with killing everything that gets in our way or is a nuisance."
On this cloudless Friday afternoon, he wants to show Johnson County officials the face of death. More important, he wants his opponents and supporters to know that he won't back down.
For 18 years, Vicky Needham lived in a little ranch house in Shawnee. The boisterous mother with a puff of dark hair raised her three kids and got involved in the PTA. But with her children nearly grown, Needham fled the subdivision life in 2003.
She designed her dream home. The house sits atop a wooded hill, just west of Shawnee Mission Park. Gigantic windows show off sweeping vistas of forest and field.
Six years later, guilt nags her.
"The land out here is being gobbled up and settled, and it's really too bad for the wildlife," she says. "We're boxing them in. We're intruding on their lives. I know this hill used to be where the deer would lay and have their babies."
Needham has embraced the remaining animals as family. She calls the grassy area next to her husband's work shed, where he retools old cars, "the lower meadow." Every day, Needham scoops Record Rack's "Golden Deer Nuggets" into a dog bowl set out for the deer. On a recent Monday afternoon, it takes only a few seconds for a doe and two fawns to scurry out of the bushes.
"It's almost like a religious experience," she says, "when you look at those creatures and are able to be close to them."
Less than a mile east, though, those creatures are close to catastrophe.
On that same misty Monday afternoon, Randy Knight, the community-relations manager for Johnson County Park & Recreation, eases his silver Prius out of the administration office's parking lot at Shawnee Mission Park. A sticker on the back of his car instructs: "Evolve," the o a peace symbol. Like Needham, he relaxes as he cruises through the 1,000-acre expanse of Shawnee Mission Park.
But there are signs of distress.
Knight points to the wooded areas, which look like someone has taken an enormous pair of scissors and snipped away all the leaves and bushes below an invisible line about 6 feet from the ground — the height accessible to hungry deer. "They just munch their way through there," he says.
The deer are easy to spot, congregating in small groups of three and four. Despite a lush summer and no frost yet, many of the deer look sickly. "See those ribs?" Knight asks as a deer darts across the field. "He doesn't look so good."
Officials have been concerned for two years that deer in the park are starving. In November 2007 and November 2008, Lloyd Fox, program coordinator of Big Game at the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, conducted "spotlight surveys" of the deer in Shawnee Mission Park. Every square mile of the suburban park hosted approximately 200 deer — seven times the density of such animals in the wild.
"Sometimes the effect of too many deer is what you don't see: certain species of flowers, plants and other wildlife," Fox says. The silence of songbirds whose homes in the lower tree branches have been browsed bare. The absence of wildflowers such as trillium. The disappearance of plants from the park's rare native prairie remnant.
"Protecting this resource, we can't let any aspect get out of balance," Knight says. In early 2009, park officials determined that the herd would have to be reduced; otherwise, the animals would graze themselves into starvation — and damage other species in the process.
Knight says his staff tried to find a way to cull the herd without killing the deer. Capturing and relocating the deer, he says, would have been so stressful for the animals that as many as 80 percent of them might have died. And because of the risk of spreading disease, the KDWP prohibits the relocation of deer. The Humane Society of the United States urged the district to use birth control, citing field tests in which a contraceptive called Porcine Zona Pellucida reduced a deer herd by 11 percent a year. But, aside from the cost — from $200 to $1,000 per animal — birth control wouldn't have solved the immediate problem. "It would take 12 years to get from 200 deer [per square mile] to the targeted 50," Knight says. And, again, the KDWP hasn't approved the use of PZP in Kansas.
The only options left meant a lot of dead deer. In Missouri, Jackson County has allowed bow hunting in Fleming Park for years, and many cities in Johnson County — from Lenexa to Olathe — permit hunts on private land. "But this is the first time on public property in Johnson County that we're dealing with what is an issue throughout the Midwest: an overabundance of white-tailed deer," Knight says.
Gary Montague, the chairman of the Johnson County Board of Park and Recreation Commissioners, says the issue has been the most controversial of his tenure, bringing hundreds of residents to two heated public hearings. In June, the vote to approve what has become known as the deer harvest — with sharpshooters in October and, if necessary, bow hunters in December — wasn't easy. "The board wasn't necessarily pleased with what we have to do," Montague says. "But something had to be done."
Needham isn't satisfied. "I'm just totally at a loss for words that these men would go to such violent means to solve what they perceive as an issue," she says. "Myself, I don't see it as an issue. Let the poor things eat every damn thing in that park."
She isn't the only one. Hundreds of residents across the region have signed a petition opposing the hunt. For months, however, they lacked a leader to bring them all together.
Enter Jason Miller.
On the surface, Miller is a model suburbanite.
Every morning, he climbs into his gray Saturn. He drives from his tidy two-story home in a middle-class neighborhood to his call-center cubicle, where he works as a customer service supervisor.
At night, though, he inhabits a different persona at his basement computer.
On the floor, a booklet titled "Excelling as a First-Time Manager or Supervisor" rests a few inches from the latest issue of the anarchist zine Fire to the Prisons. Beside a Mrs. Potato Head doll and a shiny pink alien on his desk, Miller has stacked two business cards from the FBI agents who questioned him this summer. Under framed pictures of his three teenage sons, he publishes subversive essays and corresponds with the most militant members of the animal-rights movement. Though he calls hunting "wanton cruelty," he owns several handguns — for security, he explains.
Miller grew up in Grandview, where he was an Eagle Scout and the valedictorian of his high school class in 1985. At 19, though, he started to rebel against what he now calls the capitalist "indoctrination" of his youth. He dropped out of the University of Missouri-Kansas City after three years and worked a series of low-paying industrial jobs. He experimented with drugs and became addicted to alcohol. In 1990, a machine-shop accident severely burned 30 percent of his body. Five years after that, his first marriage ended in divorce.
"I've been through some rough times that helped to instill a sense of empathy that I lacked before," he says.
His political awakening was gradual. He didn't attend his first protest until 2003, marching with hundreds of thousands against the impending war in Iraq. The re-election of George W. Bush in 2004 sparked his first writing: polemics against what he said were the administration's corrupt and violent practices. In 2006, Patrice Greanville, an animal-rights activist and editor-in-chief of Cyrano's Journal, invited Miller to blog for Cyrano's. Miller not only accepted the blog slot but also adopted Greanville's vegetarianism. "He got me looking at animal oppression and the context that it's the ultimate root of all oppression," Miller says. Marking Thanksgiving that year, the new herbivore penned a 12-page article, Institutionalised Glorification of Greed & Gluttony, excoriating the factory farms and the U.S. quest for global hegemony. He listed Hamas, the militant Palestinian group, as one of the 12 things for which he was thankful.
A few months later, Miller found a mentor far more militant than Greanville: Steve Best. A professor of philosophy at the University of Texas-El Paso, Best was banned from the United Kingdom in 2005 after he reportedly told an animal-rights crowd: "We will break the law and destroy property until we win." In early 2008, Miller interviewed Best for his blog, and the two became friends. Shortly after, Miller converted to veganism — a diet and lifestyle eschewing any animal-derived product.
Best introduced Miller to Jerry Vlasak, press office coordinator for the Animal Liberation Front, an anonymous network of activists who operate underground and use tactics such as property destruction and arson. "Those activists — whatever violence they engage in is very mild compared to the violence of the people who are exploiting and torturing and slaughtering animals," Miller says of the ALF.
In March, members of the ALF blew up the car of David Jentsch, a researcher at the University of California-Los Angeles whose experiments have used monkeys. Afterward, Miller spoke on behalf of the organization. "As with any social-justice movement, when met with resistance from the state, violence becomes inevitable," he told Fox News.
Jentsch, who calls Miller a terrorist, has since installed an expensive security system and hired an armed guard for his home. "There are a significant number of people on our campus who live with the concern that they may be targeted next," he says.
In June, Miller took his activism beyond the computer screen. At an animal-rights conference in Portland, Oregon, he pressed graphic photos of force-fed ducks against the windows of a French restaurant, screaming along with a crowd of protesters: "Their blood is on your hands!" The next night, Miller joined a group of mostly masked activists who had gathered outside the homes of a furrier and of a medical researcher with Oregon Health & Science University.
"I loved it," Miller says.
In July, he traveled to Los Angeles for another animal-rights conference. Participants mobbed the UCLA campus, protesting Jentsch and his fellow researchers. On the flight home from that trip, Miller wrote his most inflammatory essay yet — one that brought two agents from the FBI to his door.
"If a bully is abusing the weak or defenseless, it's morally laudable to knock the shit out of him — with a ball bat, a metal rod or any weapon at hand," he wrote. He called hunting accidents "a beautiful manifestation of karma" and darkly joked that the activists' outraged correspondence with animal researchers wouldn't go unheeded if "said letters were contaminated with a biological warfare agent."
He knew it was time to act locally. "I wanted something to draw people in, a way I could get people's attention," he says. The deer at Shawnee Mission Park were just what he needed. Taking inspiration from one of his favorite movies, Fight Club, Miller founded an organization to stop the deer harvest: Bite Club of KC.
Like Miller, the group's blog pulled no punches.
"Fuck Compassion," the title of the first entry read. "We whack 'em and stack 'em."
It's the night of August 6, and Miller roams through Shawnee Mission Park, looking for the huge herd of sick and starving deer that park officials claim is the problem. He's convinced that officials are deaf to his pleas to spare the animals. He calls them callous and bloodthirsty.
At about 10 p.m., he wanders over to the administration office. He ponders the letters he has sent to the board, in which he has offered to spend his own money to purchase contraceptives and administer them as a volunteer. He considers the board's rebuff of his request for a private meeting.
He slaps a homemade sign on the glass door. The image: a deer with a bullet hole in its forehead. The words: "You Are Fucking Murderers."
Since he started Bite Club, Miller has drawn others to the cause. In recent weeks, the ranks of his followers have grown quickly, uniting under a common banner of distrust. Bite Club supporters don't believe the board's data. They don't buy the promise that meat from the cull will be donated to food pantries or the assurances that sharpshooters will be trained to make their kills quick and humane. Those disputes aside, though, they oppose the hunt on non-negotiable moral grounds: that there can be no rationale for killing defenseless animals.
Two weeks after Miller posts his flier, police barricade a corner of that same parking lot to accommodate a much larger contingent of Bite Club. Dozens of protesters show up at the August meeting of the Board of Commissioners to hoist placards displaying slaughtered deer.
Montague tries to maintain order as Bite Clubbers line up at the microphone. Those not speaking whoop and applaud at each plea to save the deer. Montague's gavel banging can't maintain silence. When the only pro-hunting speaker finally steps to the lectern, the deer protesters roughly depart.
"Murderers!" Miller shouts at the board as he walks out of the meeting.
Outside, activists gather around the Bite Club founder, who assures them that he is exploring legal options. In the meantime, the group raises $1,000 to lease a billboard on Interstate 670. The image: a chrome pistol, surrounded by drops of blood, pointed at a spotted fawn. "We're going to turn this into a public-relations nightmare," Miller says.
Before the next meeting, Miller thinks that he has found a solution. Anthony Marr, an animal-rights activist who lives in Canada, has sent an outline for his "Deer Auto-Assembler" to Johnson County officials. The concept uses one-way gates to contain, without bloodshed, several hundred deer in a fenced-off corner of the park, thus controlling the grazing impact and allowing the animals to be treated with contraceptives.
Miller arrives at the next board meeting with a Kinko's box tucked under his arm, full of schematics detailing Marr's invention. Outside, a crowd of more than 30 protesters congregates under growing police supervision, waving signs that read, "Cull the Board" and "We will not go away."
"There's a deer!" a blond woman in business clothes shouts. She points to a field north of the parking lot. "Don't worry! We're going to save you!"
Inside, though, the activists are quickly shot down. Before anyone can speak, Commissioner George Schlagel announces that the KDWP has rejected the auto-assembler. State law prohibits the trapping of wild animals in such a manner, he explains.
Miller, seated in the third row, exhales a menacing chuckle. He leans back and puts his hands on his head as his face darkens in a sarcastic grin. His girlfriend, her face smeared with red paint, puts her hand on his leg, as if trying to keep the spark of anger from igniting. A few minutes later, when a hunter asks the board how he can get on the list for the winter bow hunt, the animal-rights advocates shift in their seats and start speaking out of turn.
"When are you bringing them in?" Miller asks from his seat.
"We're not going to get into this now," Montague says.
"We pay taxes. Why don't we have the right to know?" Miller fires back.
"Sir, be quiet or leave," Montague answers.
His commentary continues, and a police officer moves toward Miller's seat. "OK, I'll leave!" he shouts. "Shame on all of you!"
A few hours later, at 12:02 a.m., Miller sends a vitriolic e-mail to a dozen Johnson County officials. He derides them for yielding to the interests of hunters, "sociopaths who take orgasmic delight in the killing of unarmed opponents." He says he was relieved to leave the meeting. "The putrid stench of corruption, hypocrisy, and close-minded ignorance had me on the verge of passing out anyway," he writes. He closes the midnight letter with a warning.
"My associates and I are now going to give you as much hell as we possibly can."
On September 25, Miller parks in the grass across from the administration office and surveys the waiting police officers and the smattering of press officials. At 1 p.m., he strides into the parking lot, carrying the wicker basket. As reporters open their notebooks, he unveils Victoria and hoists the deer's dripping head for the lone TV camera present.
"Had not one of our defenders, Jason Miller, acquired me from a meat processor, they would have thrown my head in the garbage," he says, speaking in character as Victoria. "Now I serve as a macabre reminder of the cruel, ruthless, malevolent act you intend to commit."
When he finishes his two-minute speech, Miller walks to the reception desk, his hands shaking slightly, and leaves the deer head for park officials.
"Is it real?" the receptionist asks with a grimace, leaning back in her seat. "Is it wrapped?"
Miller has already disappeared.
Knight, the intended recipient, doesn't retrieve the basket. In the interest of public — and personal — safety, he chooses his words about the hunt carefully. It's a law-enforcement activity, he says, so all he can reveal is that the harvest will happen in October, and park hours won't be affected.
He's well-acquainted with Miller, having exchanged numerous phone calls and e-mails. "This is not new," he says of the opposition to the deer harvest, "but it has become a perfect platform to argue a case very prominently and publicly, and some people have taken advantage of that, and it's certainly their right. But there's nothing we haven't already heard, nothing we haven't already considered. And we are well-aware of just how passionate people can get and, in some instances, in other places, confrontational.
On October 4, Miller engineers a confrontation — a protest that, he believes, will lead to his arrest.
As dusk nears, a handful of reporters and one police cruiser wait for Bite Club at the entrance to Shawnee Mission Park. "You don't know jack shit about ecology!" a man shouts from an exiting car when the animal-rights activists hoist their signs. "Go home!"
"May the animal gods bless you!" Miller yells back.
Sensing that they may not have much time, Miller and two other activists quickly unfurl a 10-foot banner that declares: "Death Park: Closed for Cruelty." They step onto the street to block traffic. "We're not going to let anyone through," Miller says into a megaphone, his voice trembling. "This park is officially closed for cruelty."
A dozen cars back up behind the sign, blaring their horns. "Sir, this is ridiculous!" a man calls out. "Can we get to Shelter 10?" another woman pleads. "We've got an engagement party here!"
The police have no intention of arresting him. There are two streets leading into the park, less than 30 yards apart, divided by a grassy median. The officers ignore the protesters and simply direct traffic to the other street.
"They're winning," one of the other protesters suggests to Miller.
"They're not winning anything," Miller insists. "Look what we've made them do. Let's go over there."
The three activists walk across the median to the other entry. A police officer approaches the stopped cars, redirecting the visitors again. Miller continues to preach into the megaphone, trying to maintain the protest's momentum, but he finally recognizes the futility. The police are merely amused. No matter how long he stands in the road, the Bite Club founder won't be arrested.
"We can't win, can we?" one of the protestors asks him.
"We can't," Miller says.
The group gathers for a few moments, looking to Miller for guidance. "I think we've done all the damage we can do," he says.
Cars continue in and out of Shawnee Mission Park. Miller squints into the sun and considers his next move.
Click here to write a letter to the editor.