TIME TO BAN DEER FARMS



The saddest thing that has ever happened to hunting is its conversion into a competitive sport.  Hunters are by nature more or less competitive people, but in the past fifty years or so this personality trait has been shamelessly exploited by gear manufacturers and retailers to convince hunters that they must have the latest gadgets and the hottest new Super-Duper Mangle-'Em calibers to be taken seriously by their peers.  Deer hunters have been especially victimized. The marketeers regard deer hunters as no more individualistic than sheep; using slick sales techniques they've proven that they can sell anything to deer hunters with the right sales pitch and the right gimmick.

Proof of this contention is easy to find.  Wandering through an outdoors mega-store or leafing through a catalog I sometimes ask myself how aboriginal Native Americans, who lacked everything the modern outdoorsman is absolutely certain is simply essential, ever managed to kill a deer.  Catalog copy and the "hunting" shows on the Boob Tube drum it into the deer hunter's head that without all the junk they're selling, he will fail to get his buck.  Such shows are simply half-hour long commercials consisting of endless endorsements of new products, but they serve the purpose of making the average hunter truly believe he must have this stuff to "succeed," that with it he will bragging rights when he shows up at the check station with a "monster buck."

In terms of deer hunting, the definition of "success" is very simple: it means big antlers.  There is no other criterion by which the "quality" of a deer is evaluated.  The bigger the antlers, the better the deer, period, end of discussion. 
The very term "quality deer" makes me cringe; nearly everyone I encounter—including, alas, 99.9% of the 9-year-old kids in Hunter Ed classes—equates that phrase with "big antlers" and nothing else. The huge bucks shown on "hunting" shows and depicted on magazine covers not-so-subtly reaffirm the notion that only such bucks are "quality" deer[1].  

Part of this belief is certainly attributable to the carefully inculcated "never shoot a doe" mentality that game departments fostered during the long recovery of whitetail deer populations from near-extinction[2] to the levels of today. Perhaps unintentionally, it induced a mindset that if your "harvest" had small antlers, or worse, none at all, you were less than a true hunter and probably less than a Real Man. 

The various official systems for "scoring" a deer's "quality" are based entirely on antler size and shape.  No one ever sees a doe or a spike buck on the cover of a major outdoors magazine, except as a worshipful admirer of Old Mossyhorns, that Huge Monster Buck that every deer hunter who has swallowed the "quality" myth believes he needs to maintain his self-respect. This deeply held, almost religious, belief that antler size is all that matters, when allied to the aggressive marketing tactics and honed sales techniques of the hunting industry, has produced some truly ugly sequelae.

One is the loss of the concept of hunting as a contemplative pastime, a matching of wits between Man and the game hunted.  Hunting is an activity older than mankind and has always had deeply mystical and ritualistic aspects[3] but high-pressure sales tactics and commercialization have more or less destroyed this quaint earlier view: today what matters is to get The Biggest, The Baddest, or The Most, by any means. Most of the great outdoors sports writers of the past, people who understood the symbolism and emotional importance of hunting, couldn't make a living in today's hunting press, because they aren't "commercial" enough.

Another evil thing that has come about because of the commercialization of hunting and its presentation as a competitive sport  is "deer farming."  The frankly industrialized production of animals who could not survive outside a pen, whose sole purpose is to feed the frenzy for bigger antlers, and which are "hunted" in relatively small, high-fenced enclosures (by people with neither the time nor the skills to find truly wild deer of great antler size) brings censure and shame upon hunters in general, especially in the eyes of the non-hunting public on whose tolerance our sport depends for its very existence.

And of course the deer farming business could not possibly exist without the Big Antler cult.  In fact deer farming is the inevitable result of the distortion of hunting from what it used to be.  Not just exploitative, deer farming is outright abuse of native game animals.  If allowed to continue it will utterly destroy the North American Model of conservation in which it is explicitly understood that wild game species are not, and cannot, be private property: instead they are owned collectively by the people of a state and the nation.

I once lived in Texas, the Poster-Child State for how NOT to regulate hunting, and the very epicenter of the deer farming industry.  Texas "hunting"—an oxymoron if ever there was one—is the absolute antithesis of the ethical hunting principles with which I was raised. Nearly everything that passes for "hunting" there will get you a jail sentence in Virginia, and I'm happy that I now live in a state where what passes for acceptable practice there is illegal. I wish that were the case nationwide. 

By trade I'm a veterinary school anatomy professor.  A few years ago, after having been away from Texas for nearly 20 years,  I attended a Continuing Education workshop in Austin in chemical restraint techniques.  Virtually everyone else there was a member of the Texas Deer Farmers' Association, and though I'd been exposed to their views I was appalled at the attitude and practices they condone without a thought. I also personally know some of the pioneers of the artificial insemination and genetic engineering techniques used to produce the sort of freaks deer farmers raise and sell for millions of dollars.  I like to think that my professional colleagues would be horrified to see this perversion of their scientific achievements.

The one bright spot I see in this horrible situation is that perhaps the CWD epidemic that has been spawned and propagated by deer farming will wake people up, eventually putting an end to high fences and deer farming.  Not in my lifetime and certainly not in Texas, but maybe everywhere else.

This essay is prefatory to providing links to two very important articles written by Mr Matt Knox, the Deer Coordinator for the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries.  Mr Knox is a national authority on all matters relating to whitetail deer: and he presents the case against deer farming far more completely and more eloquently than I ever could.  Moreover, he speaks from a professional background of years of experience in deer management and wildlife biology, with numerous papers in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals, and first-hand knowledge of what it takes to manage a commonly-held resource—wild game—properly.  He has kindly given me permission to post these pieces, one from Deer & Deer Hunting Magazine, and one from the Wildlife Society Bulletin, here on the NRVO site.  Mr Knox knows what he's talking about, and he is worth listening to. Click on the links to download these articles as PDF files.

Mr Knox also directed my attention to a series of reports by the Indianapolis Star. Deer farming is a hot topic in Indiana, and some of the video clips in it are illuminating, especially those of people speaking in defense of deer farming. Well worth your time.

 

 


[1] That these are not real, wild deer is never mentioned: and Photoshop is a wonderful tool for erasing the image of the wire fence around the pen.

[2] In 1939, the official estimate of Virginia's whitetail deer population was 15,000 animals.  Today it is nearly 1,000,000.  The restoration of whitetail populations is one of the shining successes of the conservation movement.

[3] The oldest known examples of human creativity are cave paintings of hunting scenes, believed to have been a form of prayer to the gods for hunting success and hence survival.