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Real Hunters Don’t Shoot Pets
There’s no “thrill of the chase” if there’s no chase. But with canned hunts, there’s no effort either, and that’s the selling point.
It was at Lido’s Game Farm in Taghkanic, New York, that I finally participated in a “canned hunt.”
In most canned hunts tame or semi-tame game species, reared in captivity, are placed in enclosures of varying sizes, and the gate is opened for the client, who has been issued a guarantee of success. Canned hunts are great for folks on tight schedules or who lack energy or outdoor skills. Microchip transponder implants for game not immediately visible are available for the proprietor whose clients are on really tight schedules. And because trophies are plied with drugs, minerals, vitamins, specially processed feeds, and sometimes growth hormones, they are way bigger than anything available in the wild. Often the animals have names, and you pay in advance for the one you’d like to kill, selecting your trophy from a photo or directly from its cage. For example, Rachel, Bathsheba, Paul, John, and Matthew were pet African lions that would stroll over and lick their keepers’ hands before they were shot in Texas.
But Lido’s has pheasants only, so a guy named Dave threw them from a tower for a dozen of us to shoot. Some, diseased or wounded from past shoots, dropped to the ground. Other times we’d fire simultaneously, and the bird would exude feathers as if you’d shaken a slashed pillow in a nor’easter. Once someone shot while Dave was still holding the pheasant, and he screamed: “Hey, what you shooting at? Don’t never play games wid me!” The year was 1991, and I was on assignment for Audubon.
For the column you’re reading now I had desperately wanted to attend a deer shoot, but the anti-canned-hunt crowd has rendered proprietors jumpy as December grouse. These days no one gets in without paying and, wishing to stay on the good side of my editor, I thought it imprudent to include on my expense account, say, $15,500 for knocking off a “Lifetime Trophy Buck scoring 220 gross B&C points or more.” This you can do at establishments like the Louisiana Game Farm near Shreveport, known for such monster bucks as Studley, Toby, Geronimo, Henry, Blitzen, and Patrick.
“B&C points” refers to the complicated scoring system for the Boone and Crockett Club record book, in which sundry antler measurements of main beams, tines, and gaps are totaled in inches. But while virtually all deer and elk farmers who offer “shooter bucks” and “shooter bulls” for canned hunts use the Boone and Crockett scoring system, club record keepers won’t accept any animal shot in an enclosure. The club is a leading voice for “fair-chase hunting,” which it defines as “the ethical, sportsmanlike, and lawful pursuit and taking of any free-ranging wild, native North American big game animal in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper advantage over such animals.” Accordingly, the club “condemns the pursuit and killing of any big game animal kept in or released from captivity to be killed in an artificial or bogus ‘hunting’ situation.”
The Boone and Crockett Club was founded in 1887 by Theodore Roosevelt and his hunting buddies. Fifteen years later, when Roosevelt was president, he gave the world “Teddy bears” by turning down a canned hunt. After an unproductive outing for black bear in Mississippi, one of the guides ran down a bear with dogs, tethered it, then dragged the exhausted, terrified creature into camp for Roosevelt to shoot. He declined in disgust, explaining the principles of fair chase. The Washington Post ran a cartoon of the incident, and within weeks the nation was flooded with “Teddy bears.”
There have been major changes in canned hunts since I last wrote about them 19 years ago. For one thing, they’re vastly more popular. In my January 1992 Incite column, I reported that the record book of Safari Club International (the biggest promoter of canned hunts) contained 17 entries for “introduced [from Europe] North American wild boar,” all 17 from a game preserve in Nova Scotia called Shangri-La, where the “wild boars” were fed commercial hog chow and “hunted” in enclosures that averaged 75 acres. As of September 2010 the club’s record book contained 833 canned-hunt entries for what it now calls “feral boar,” 15 from Shangri-La.
The Safari Club espouses fair chase but proclaims that this includes shooting captive animals. “High fence hunting operations worldwide can offer unique hunting experiences to many types of hunters, including beginning hunters,” reads its official statement on canned hunts. One of the club’s most prominent members is rock star Ted Nugent, who runs his own canned-hunt operation in Jackson, Michigan. Five of Nugent’s kills have made it into the club record book, including a feral boar he shot during a canned hunt in Texas and a bison he shot on, of all places, Alaska’s Kodiak Island, where they’re being raised to be crossed with cattle for “beefalo.” “Lunatic fringe” is how Nugent describes people who think canned hunts “degrade the heritage of American hunting.” But Nugent does a pretty good job of degrading that heritage himself. For example, in August 2010 the state of California fined him $1,750 for illegally attracting and shooting an immature buck with a formula called C’mere Deer for his Outdoor Channel hunting show, Spirit of the Wild. Two employees of the Outdoor Channel paid smaller fines.
Another big change in canned hunting since 1992 has been the composition of its critics, which now include more fair-chase hunters. Because the general public has scant understanding of canned hunting, it frequently doesn’t differentiate it from real hunting. “If we don’t protect our image, we may not have a heritage,” says the Colorado Wildlife Federation’s treasurer and board member, Kent Ingram, a leader in the recent well-fought but failed battle to ban canned hunts in the state.
He reports that he was informed by a Denver taxidermist that half the elk coming in to be mounted had tattooed lips, which identify captives. Ingram also said he had reliable information that one canned-hunt customer had flown into Colorado and paid $40,000 to kill a Minnesota-raised bull that had been trucked in for the one-day shoot.
“While ‘canned hunting’ is an overtly derogatory term, it’s hardly derogatory enough,” comments another leader of the Colorado effort, David Petersen—the talented outdoor writer and avid elk hunter from Durango. “ ‘Contract execution’ and ‘pay to slay’ are more apt, since there is no hunting involved.” Petersen tells me that he, Ingram, and their allies will try again.
Canned mammal hunts have been banned in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming. In 2009 Vermont and Tennessee banned new canned mammal hunts but grandfathered existing ones. This November North Dakotans will vote on a ballot initiative to ban canned mammal hunts. Thirty-four states have banned the Live-Shot website, on which a client, states or continents away, can shoot a captive deer online by touching off a computer-controlled rifle via the click of a mouse. And in September 2010 Florida outlawed “fox pens,” in which coyotes and foxes are pursued and often torn apart by hounds.
Still, canned hunting is booming. You can purchase and then shoot zebras, blesbok antelope, blackbuck antelope, Pere David deer, axis deer, fallow deer, eland, oryx, Barbary sheep, mouflon sheep, Corsican sheep, and just about any other exotic you can think of. But white-tailed deer and elk are by far the most common commodities.
The canned-hunting industry can’t be considered separately from the game-breeder industry, because canned-hunt proprietors who aren’t breeders themselves buy their stock from breeders who may or may not offer canned hunts of their own and who, in any case, couldn’t stay in business without the canned-hunt market. The North American Deer Farmers Association reports that 15,000 deer-breeding operations in the United States annually contribute $3 billion to the nation’s economy.
Not all product is shot. What’s considered “best” for canned-hunt production is sold to other breeders. Russell Bellar of Peru, Indiana, paid $100,000 for Xfactor, a yearling whitetail with a freakishly large rack. Some bucks are plied with antler-growing concoctions and as they age are kept on life support with meds and surgeries. Their function is to produce semen for other breeders who buy it for as much as $28,000 per standard unit, or “straw.” A prime buck might produce 500 straws a year. And there’s additional income from photographers who sell phony wildlife images to outdoor magazines and calendar publishers. Old, decrepit males with waning semen and antler potential are sold to canned-hunt operations as shooters.
But isn’t canned hunting an issue for humane and hook-and-bullet publications? Certainly. It’s also an issue for Audubon. Except in small, thickly settled areas, fair-chase hunting is the only practical control for deer and elk, which, in the absence of natural predators, are wiping out native ecosystems across much of North America. If make-believe hunting of domestic stock continues to replace real hunting of wild ungulates, all manner of wildlife takes a major hit. For instance, at more than 20 wild white-tailed deer per square mile, there’s complete loss of cerulean warblers, yellow-billed cuckoos, indigo buntings, eastern wood pewees, and least flycatchers. At 64 per square mile, you lose your eastern phoebes and even robins. But it’s not only birds that nest on or close to the ground that are being wiped out by overabundant deer. Because deer also remove saplings, even mid-canopy nesters like tanagers and grosbeaks are in serious decline.
The first deer was seen on Audubon’s 285-acre Greenwich, Connecticut, sanctuary in 1969. The following year Tom Baptist, then a student and now Audubon Connecticut’s executive director, began conducting breeding-bird surveys on the property. The most abundant nesting birds were, in order: ovenbird, black-and-white warbler, rufus-sided towhee, and ruffed grouse. By 2002 all these birds had been extirpated, and there were more than 120 deer per square mile. “The whole forest looked like it had been vacuumed,” says Baptist. “The understory was gone—no saplings and no shrubs other than [alien] barberry [which deer avoid because it has thorns].” So Audubon called in the hunters. After seven years of fair chase the deer are down to an estimated 40 per square mile—still too many. But the once-dominant shrub, maple-leafed viburnum, is again sprouting from ancient seeds.
Moreover, game farming and canned hunts are substituting the failed European model of wildlife management for the successful North American model. In Europe wildlife is the property of the landowner, and no one hunts save at his pleasure and/or profit. Enlightened management is the exception. Otters, for example, are routinely shot because they are thought (incorrectly) to limit trout populations. Healthy native ecosystems are rare in Europe. In North America wildlife is owned by the public. Anyone can hunt, and management is done by trained professionals. “When you start manufacturing the animal artificially and kill it with no effort, it becomes a trophy lie to take home,” submits Jim Posewitz, the biologist who left Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in 1993 to start Orion: The Hunter’s Institute, an outfit that promotes fair chase. “No one ever says, ‘I shot this in a pen.’ When you cheapen wildlife the public’s interest in preserving it fades.”
Finally, there’s the disease issue. Game farms and the canned-hunting operations they supply are spreading bovine tuberculosis, brucellosis, chronic wasting disease (the wildlife version of mad cow), and brain worm (carried by white-tailed deer and fatal to ungulates that didn’t evolve with it, such as moose, elk, caribou, and pronghorn). So far the worst epidemics have been in Canada, but they apparently were touched off by animals imported from the United States. In 1990, only three years after Canada legalized game farming, bovine TB showed up on elk and deer farms in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario. Thousands of animals had to be destroyed—at public expense because the presence of disease obligated the federal government to provide compensation. Eventually the disease moved from game farms to cattle, pigs, bison, and people. After alien muscle worm was discovered in red deer (the European version of our elk), 90 suspected carriers escaped into the Canadian wild.
In 1996 chronic wasting disease (CWD) appeared on a Saskatchewan game farm; again, the source was apparently animals imported from the United States. Eventually CWD spread to other game farms and to wild mule deer, whitetails, and elk. Thousands more animals had to be destroyed, again at public expense. CWD-infected stock from one farm was found to have infected animals on 21 other farms. The government of Alberta sent up heli-copters and shot 10,000 wild deer along its border with Saskatchewan. Now CWD is rampant in Alberta and Saskatchewan and well established in the United States. While humans don’t appear to contract it, that could change fast. In Britain CWD’s first cousin, mad cow disease, jumped the species barrier to humans. And in the United States, CWD, spread by saliva and most likely urine, probably jumped from domestic sheep to mule deer, whitetails, and elk. “It’s entirely possible that CWD in deer will jump to humans,” warns Valerius Geist, among the world’s foremost authorities on wild ungulates. “At that point kissing another person can pass on this fatal disease.”
Farmed deer and elk shot at canned hunts are, of course, handled and often eaten by people. Now that elk velvet and antlers have been largely replaced by Viagra, and now that most of Asia declines North American elk parts because of CWD, velvet is being peddled to Americans and Canadians as alleged health supplements. Ranched elk parts are being sold as pet food despite the fact that in Britain at least 100 cats contracted mad cow from beef. Elk ranchers have even fed elk velvet to elk in hope that it will enhance antler growth. Feeding cow parts to cows is how mad cow got started.
The person who has most closely followed game ranching and canned hunting in North America is Darrel Rowledge, director of the Calgary-based Alliance for Public Wildlife. He’s worried about the trade in deer urine, which is being harvested at game farms and shipped around North America. Why, you might ask, would anyone want to purchase deer urine? Well, if you douse yourself with it, your odor might attract rather than repel deer. So the main customers are fair-chase hunters. “They don’t understand that deadly diseases, probably including CWD, are transmitted by urine,” says Rowledge. “And they’re spreading this urine through our best wildlife habitat. I was contacted by a guy in the deer-urine industry who very nearly died from brucellosis that he picked up from a deer farm.” Another serious disease humans can contract from deer urine is leptospirosis. Symptoms include cough, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, shaking chills, muscle and bone pain, and enlargement of the liver, spleen, and lymph glands.
Everything Rowledge has ever warned about has come to pass—including the demise of the elk-ranching industry. In February 1992, only three months after I’d reported on canned hunts, Audubon sent me to Denver to attend the annual convention of the North American Elk Breeders Association (see “The Elk-Ranch Boom,” May-June 1992). “Elk! Livestock of the Future” was the convention’s theme. Back then the industry was young, robust, and full of itself. Velvet was selling for as much as $110 a pound, and the Asian buyers would hover around the live elk when antlers were being sawed off, collecting the gushing blood in cups and chugging it straight. (“I can’t stand that—to see them guys drinking that,” intoned one elk rancher.) Vile-smelling antler tea, guaranteed to surge one’s libido, was being brewed at a convention booth. “Who are we to say it doesn’t work?” remarked an association board member. The reason he couldn’t say was because he declined to drink. I, on the other hand, held my nose and gulped—with no apparent result.
In 1992 the association had 700 members; today it has about 255. With the velvet trade moribund thanks to the export of ED drugs and CWD to Asia, with the venison market saturated, and with the once-booming breeder-bull market basically dead, stock has little value for anything save shooter bulls. So the ongoing collapse of elk ranching is growing the canned-hunt business.
Wildlife can never be the “livestock of the future” unless that future is thousands of years off—as Geist and others failed to make the association, states, and provinces understand. Over eons cattle, horses, and sheep have been selected for docility. Stick a steer in a truck or even a slaughterhouse ramp, and he’s fine with it. Do it to an elk or deer and he’s apt to pump out so much adrenaline his meat becomes unpalatable even to house cats. And genuine livestock can be kept confined. But even after multiple generations in captivity, elk and deer will escape from their enclosures, and wild elk and deer, attracted by females and feed, will break in.
This ongoing exchange facilitates the transfer of genes, perhaps a greater threat to wildlife than disease. “Domestication of any wild species is genetic wreckage,” says Geist. “Such captive animals can escape to pollute the wild stock’s genetics.” But in game-farm speak, “improved genetics” means ever bigger antlers to the point that some of the unfortunate beasts—like Sudden Impact, a grotesque product of selective breeding at a game farm in Rosholt, Wisconsin—can’t lift up their heads. (To see Sudden Impact, go to YouTube and search for “Largest Whitetail Deer Ever.”) Sudden Impact expired mysteriously in 2009, perhaps from the stress of toting his mutant rack and pumping so much of his blood into the velvet that nourished it.
In Texas—the Gomorrah of canned hunts, where 1,099 deer breeders hold 86,989 deer in 1,161 facilities—breeders used to brag about producing whitetails that, at age two, sprouted antlers with Boone and Crockett scores of 100. Karl Kinsel, director of the Texas Deer Association, now reports that farmed two-year-old Texas whitetails are scoring 200. The association, made up of canned-hunt proprietors and deer breeders, officially advocates “fair chase.” But when I asked Kinsel to define fair chase he allowed that it all depends on weapons and cover and that a bow hunter might find it inside a 20-acre pen.
“If you look at a normal whitetail, his antlers barely extend beyond his ears,” Geist told me. “During his escape he runs down very narrow passageways, and he needs to avoid hitting branches. But these obscene [farmed] antlers are enormous and complex. They get caught in branches, and during sparring they’re apt to lock together so that both contestants starve to death.”
So what’s the solution? It’s citizen action of the sort undertaken in Montana. In 1999 a group of fair-chase hunters formed a nonprofit group called Montanans Against the Domestication and Commercialization of Wildlife (MADCOW), enlisting support from sportsmen’s organizations such as the Montana Wildlife Federation, Orion: The Hunters Institute, and the Montana Bowhunters Association. They collected sufficient signatures to place an initiative that would ban canned hunts and new game farms on the November 2000 ballot.
MADCOW stayed firm, focused, and honest. When animal-rights groups offered major financial support, it politely declined, explaining that the canned-hunt/game-breeder industry and radical hunter-rights groups like the Safari Club, the NRA, and the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance would use that support to whip up sportsman paranoia about imagined anti-hunter plots to seize control of government.
“We got lucky,” recalls David Stalling, one of MADCOW’s founders and then president of the Montana Wildlife Federation. “We caught the industry here right before it got really powerful and at a time when chronic wasting disease was in the news. Most frustrating was the fierce opposition from the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, whose members should have been our allies. A lot of them have special deals with canned-hunt operations in case clients don’t want to take time for real hunts. The vote went down to the wire, and we barely squeaked out a victory.”
Since then the canned-hunt/game-breeder industry has fought tirelessly to nix the ban. At one point the state’s GOP-dominated legislature was poised to reinstate canned hunting, but the Republican Caucus warned that defying the will of Montana voters would make the party look bad. The industry filed 13 lawsuits, all unsuccessful. That legal battle cost MADCOW at least $80,000, but in 2009 it won a final and permanent victory when the state supreme court declined to hear the final appeal.
So terse and tight is the prose of Montana’s fair-chase hunters that they were able to pack everything I’ve been trying to say in this column into a single sentence. Maybe you’ll read that sentence this month on one of their trucks, if you venture into Montana’s wild, beautiful deer and elk country, because MADCOW adopted it for a slogan during its ballot-initiative campaign. It goes like this: “Real Hunters Don’t Shoot Pets.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Support fair-chase hunting in your state and speak out against its dangerous and disgusting counterfeit. Fair-chase hunters have formed a Churchill–Stalin-like alliance with the Humane Society of the United States, which, while it disapproves of sporting forms of hunting, is smart enough to realize that there are collaborations that can be formed with hunting groups and therefore directs its efforts at canned hunts. For more information on canned hunts, go to The Humane Society's "Issues" page, and click on "wildlife abuse."
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