As buck hunters continue to seek more impressive trophies, the controversial industry of deer farming has risen to meet their demand. And with the industry’s growth has come a great deal of criticism from hunters themselves.
Deer farmers raise several species, mostly whitetails, for venison and for use in hunting. There are an estimated 10,000 deer farms currently operating in the U.S. and Canada, but they are increasingly under fire.
Deer farms are often accused of maintaining questionable health standards. Many are criticized for spreading disease from captive deer into wild populations, or vice versa.
Just recently, hundreds of deer on an Ohio deer farm were ordered to be euthanized because of an outbreak of chronic wasting disease, a devastating neurological disorder. With many harvested deer being sold to make venison or being eaten by hunters after a kill, there is growing concern such a disease could threaten humans.
Many sportsmen decry deer farms for moral reasons. On deer farms, the animals can grow huge racks of antlers, frequently with the help of genetic engineering. Such deer often struggle under the weight of their massive antlers. The bucks are then sold to outfitters to provide clients with ideal trophies. Additionally, the deer are often corralled into fenced areas to be more easily accessible to paying customers.
To many hunters, these “canned” hunts are a violation of everything they value in their sport, from the tradition of fair chase to natural wildlife management. Sportsmen are concerned that the growth of the deer farming industry will harm hunting’s reputation, blurring the line between the act of killing penned, genetically engineered deer and hunting wild animals in a natural environment. Many traditional hunters claim that farm-raised trophy buck on a deer farm hunter’s wall should come with an asterisk attached.
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Critics of deer farming, hunters included, say trophy hunters bear as much blame as the industry itself. They point to hunting shows and publications that publicize antler sizes may lead others to pursue their own trophies, regardless of the means. Hunters also create the demand for deer farms by supporting outfitters that use them.
The controversy about deer farming has bled into legislation throughout the country. Twenty-one states ban the importation of live deer, citing the danger of disease or the potential to harm profitable hunting industries. 26 states also have bans on hunting captive mammals, and many others continue to ban deer farms outright. But many conservative legislators are averse to having the government further regulate privately held deer farms.
With deer farming generating $3 billion annually and thousands of jobs for the U.S. economy, it’s not likely the industry will go away anytime soon. It will ultimately be up to hunters to examine the ethics of deer farming themselves and review every outfitter they patronize.
In the end, hunters must decide what is most important to them: the experience or the prize.