An 18-month investigation by The Indianapolis Star, led by reporter and lifelong hunter Ryan Sabalow, has pulled back the curtain on the captive hunting industry in the United States. The remarkable four-part series, “Buck Fever,” exposes the breeding of “Frankenstein” deer with monstrous racks sold for tens of thousands of dollars and shot at fenced hunting preserves, the reckless practices that threaten native wildlife, livestock, and our food supply with deadly diseases, and the cost to taxpayers for multi-million dollar government eradication efforts.
The report notes that chronic wasting disease has been found in 22 states, first detected in captive deer herds before then being found in nearby wildlife. And bovine tuberculosis has spread from deer farms to cattle in at least four states. The evidence is overwhelming, with wildlife officials citing deer escaping from farms and blending in with wild populations, and researchers in Michigan setting up remote cameras along deer fences to document nose-to-nose contact between captive and wild animals. After CWD-infected deer were found on a Missouri preserve, others were found in the wild within two miles of the pen—but nowhere else in the state.
Hunters interviewed for the story rightly criticized the shooting of tame animals inside fenced pens, and this mockery of fair-chase hunting. At the Oak Creek Whitetail Ranch in Bland, Missouri, “one bull elk with a tag in its ear [was] lazily chewing its cud in a grassy meadow. It didn’t bother to turn its head as the Durango drove past…[The owner] paid about $4,500 to have the animal shipped in a few weeks earlier from a farm in South Dakota. He said he’d charge the client who put in his order to kill it about $6,500.”
The trial of one Indiana captive hunt operator included video footage of “a white-tailed deer with majestic antlers…dying of pneumonia, so sickly that a ranch hand had to poke it with a sharp stick to get it to stand. On wobbly legs, it toppled over in a snowy thicket…it appeared to be propped into a standing position, a branch through its antlers. A few yards away, a camouflaged hunter crouched in the snow, his rifle at the ready. A cameraman stood behind him filming the action, all part of a service for which the hunter paid $15,000. In the video, the hunter fires and the deer collapses, legs twitching in the snow…the hunt took place inside a 1-acre pen.”
Armed with the proceeds of these drive-through killing operations, deer farm operators are hiring lobbyists to try to roll back the minimal state regulations that exist. They are even lobbying Congress and the USDA for federal funds while seeking to relax disease control restrictions on CWD-infected herds. They want to be exempt from the Lacey Act, which has been used to prosecute deer smugglers. They want to be classified as agricultural enterprises to escape wildlife regulations, but don’t want to play by agriculture’s rules, which would mean food safety and humane slaughter guidelines.
How often do we see an irresponsible industry putting the rest of society at risk, seeking public subsidy, and expecting the public to clean up the mess they’ve created? The people who breed tigers and lions for roadside zoos and photo ops dump these dangerous predators into communities, threatening public safety and fobbing off the millions of dollars in costs for their lifetime care to nonprofit sanctuaries. The Burmese pythons and boa constrictors peddled over the Internet become established in the natural environment and wipe out native birds and mammals. The millions of dogs churned out by large-scale puppy mills cost unsuspecting pet owners in heartbreak and veterinary bills, and displace healthy dogs who would otherwise be adopted from shelters and spared euthanasia.
As The Star’s investigation makes clear, it’s time for tighter restrictions on the captive deer hunting industry. States should follow the lead of Florida which recently banned the import of captive cervids. And with the brisk interstate commerce in captive deer spreading diseases farther and faster, and taxpayers forced to foot the bill for disease outbreaks, this sweeping national problem cries out for federal action.