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All for Antlers: Five Tips From The Indy Star’s ‘Buck Fever’ Series

All for Antlers: Five Tips From The Indy Star’s ‘Buck Fever’ Series

Picture of William Heisel

This is the first of two posts on "Buck Fever." For the next installment, click here.

If you haven’t thought about the connection between deer hunting and tuberculosis before, you should read Ryan Sabalow’s “Buck Fever” series in The Indianapolis Star. He makes that and many other connections over the course of the stories. Sabalow talked to hunters, business owners, regulators, and many others for this compelling and complex investigation into the captive-deer hunting industry.

When you click on the links, check out the photos and videos, mostly by Robert Scheer. Scheer’s work grabs you and pulls you into these amazing stories, and The Star’s online team did a masterful job.

Here are five tips from the series.

Look for dominoes. The captive-deer hunting industry started in a storybook way. In 1974, an Amish dairy farmer named Abe Miller had a wife who was about to have a baby. The family wanted a pet deer. And so he bought two white-tailed fawns from Pennsylvania wildlife agents, a common practice back then. Sabalow wrote:

Miller never imagined that the offspring of those two deer would help fuel a new enterprise devoted to breeding big-antlered deer.

And that’s how a lot of problematic practices start. One person takes a step into a gray area and, in isolation, has little effect on society at large. Then, when people follow en masse, people, animals or the environment start to get hurt. Where are the pet-loving farmers today who are unintentionally pioneering the way for the public health threats of tomorrow?

Show readers the money. Sabalow does this in multiple ways. He documents how much the captive-deer industry is earning with reporting that would fit right in The Wall Street Journal. He breaks down the different products spawned from and related to deer and elk hunting in great detail. And he shows why the typical reader should care.

These diseases and pests have real consequences for taxpayers, the food supply and wildlife. Indiana spent $1.2 million fighting an outbreak of bovine TB that started on a deer farm and spread to a cattle ranch. Wisconsin has spent more than $30 million fighting chronic wasting disease. One Wyoming wild deer herd infected with CWD has declined by 50 percent. Half of all wintering fawns in some Western wild herds die because of the exotic lice infestations.

Give the subculture its due.If you are from a state without a lot of hunters, much of what Sabalow describes will feel weird and maybe a little scary.If you grew up in a hunting state like Montana, where I grew up, you will recognize the framing through which so many of Sabalow’s sources view the idea of fencing off an area, putting a bunch of deer inside the fence and charging hunters a lot of money to kill them.

Sabalow himself is a regular deer hunter, which gives him a facility with the language around hunting. He clearly spent days and days with hunters and game-farm owners. These hunters really do have “buck fever,” as the title implies. Having that big rack of antlers to put on their wall is an achievement the same way having a trophy for from a reporting contest is an achievement for so many journalists. Sabalow wrote about one game farm owner named Donald Hill:

Hill scoffs at those, such as the Humane Society of the United States, who refer to fenced preserves as "canned hunts."

Hill says the densely wooded, ravine-covered hills inside his two hunting areas (one is 1,000 acres, the other 500) offer plenty of places for their 600 deer to hide. He noted that on the day Cook shot his deer, none of the three other hunters inside the 1,000-acre enclosure even saw a trophy buck, let alone shot at one. The deer were hunkered down in wooded gullies away from the hunters' blinds.

To ensure a fair chase, Hill said, he doesn't allow his clients to hunt near his mechanized feeders, which are a couple of hundred yards from the blinds, and he doesn't let anyone hunt from a vehicle.

Check all claims. In a typical he-said, she-said story, we would read about the entrepreneurial deer farmers feeling threatened by the wild deer spreading disease and the well-intentioned wildlife regulators trying to strike the right balance between sport and slaughter. Sabalow does give us both of these perspectives, but he documents each of them. When the deer farmers blame the wild deer, he shows what the evidence shows. One particularly telling graphic shows how 38% of the deer at the center of a farm tested positive for chronic wasting disease (CWD), while the rates were lower and lower the farther one moved away from the farm. He wrote:

Officials found by far the densest concentrations of the disease on Edwards' 1,580-acre property. The infection rate among deer inside the pen was greater than 50 percent, the highest recorded at that time. The data presented graphically show a series of concentric circles spreading outward from the farm, forming a bull's-eye. "The concentric circles show the pen as a CWD hot spot with declining rates the farther away from the pen we went," Hams said. "This is the best proof that the disease originated in the pen."

On the flip side, Sabalow shows how poor the record-keeping for deer and elk farms is and how little, in some cases, wildlife officials really know.

Explain how it’s supposed to work. It’s easy to say something is bad just because it will seem bad to most readers. Drugging a deer and shoving them out into the middle of a pen so a country singer or a football player can kill the animal with a bow and arrow or high-powered gun seems bad to most people who don’t live in states where a lot of people hunt. Sabalow does more than just make his readers uncomfortable with these practices. He shows step by step how they and the laws that are meant to regulate them have evolved over time. He wrote:

Each state regulates the captive-deer industry differently. Some have resolved basic issues about whether the animals are classified as livestock. Indiana has not. Its experience is an example of what can happen when those issues aren't resolved and agencies try to shoehorn a hybrid industry into regulatory structures that were created separately for agriculture and wildlife. The captive deer industry has aspects of both, which irks its critics.

"These are livestock while they're being raised, but the moment they're released into the game preserve, they become wildlife and available for the hunt," said Jerry Wheeler, founder of Hoosiers for Ethical Hunting. "It's a magic transformation."

Gannet deserves a huge amount of credit for supporting in-depth, undoubtedly resource-intensive work like this. The team behind the project includes: Alvie Lindsay, news and investigations director; The Star’s top editor Jeff Taylor; and investigations editor Steve Berta, who Sabalow told me was “the brains behind the story.”

Image from The Indianapolis Star.

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