In Old English, a dēor was a beast — any one with four legs. Over time, dēor became der became deer. These, too, were once wild things, the cute little fawns that wander through suburban backyards, the does and bucks that overrun East Coast forests. These days, even when they’re outside fences, deer don’t live free of human meddling.
They thrive because we’ve killed off their predators — the wolves and cougars, the coyotes and bobcats. They wander across patches of property that have been designed by hunters to attract them and, sometimes, to protect them.
But across the country, at farms in Texas and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and Indiana, deer are not wild at all, now. They’re livestock. Farmers feed fawns from bottles and keep their herds behind pens. They select their best deer as breeders and sell their semen to other farmers.
And while it can seem, in some places, like deer are in oversupply, these farms have taken off in the past twenty-five years because they’re feeding a demand. Breeders, game preserves, and, in the end, hunters will pay tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars for a whitetail deer. Or, at least, for a buck with antlers big enough and impressive enough.
“It’s a lot like cattle or horses,” says David P. Anderson, a professor at Texas A&M, who’s studied the industry. Farmers have bred deer to have desirable characteristics and cultivate their herds to express those qualities. And there’s one quality that has been prized above all: “Bigger antlers is what you’re looking for,” says Anderson.
On these farms, deer with names like X-Factor, Big Rig and King of the Mountain have been bred to grow antlers that, at their largest, can be so thick and bulbous that they look like patches of mushrooms sprouting out of the deer’s head or like thick growths of coral, surfaced from the sea. Sometimes the antlers will have errant branches that drip towards the ground like candlewax. Sometimes they’re just huge.
Hunters give antlers a score by measuring features like the length and spread of the main beams and the number and length of the smaller tines that grow out of them. Out in the wild, a really big buck might score 200 inches, if he’s got a “typical” rack, with the main beams curving out from his forehead and an orderly line of tines pointing towards the sky. On a “non-typical” rack, the main beam might split and split again, and the irregular tines will wind chaotically outward. The largest of these, on wild deer, come in over 300 inches.
The antlers that are being produced on deer farms grow much, much larger. In the past five years, farmers have produced non-typical antlers with scores of more than 500 — even more than 600 — inches. It’s not unusual to find deer with 400-inch racks, while racks in the 200-inch range, which on a wild deer would be amazing, are becoming standard for deer raised on farms. Much as the poultry industry has super-sized chicken breasts to meet humans’ culinary preferences, the deer industry has succeeded in enlarging antlers to meet their aesthetic ones.
These antlers are a valuable commodity. The largest and most attractive can make an animal a lucrative breeder, whose semen can fetch thousands of dollars a straw. Other well-endowed deer are sold as “shooters” to fenced-in hunting preserves and game ranches, where hunters pay to stalk trophy animals.
These hunters are paying both for the experience — access to the land, often a guide, too — and for the trophy antlers that they bring home. Private hunting preserves charge hunters for the animals they shoot, and deer with larger antlers cost more. They’ve often advertised to hunters who, at some hunting preserves, can look through catalogues of deer on the property and pick out which ones they’d like to hunt down. (Respectable preserves will guide hunters to places particular deer are known to hang out, without a guarantee of success. But there have also been examples of shadier operations that have drugged the animals or that keep the deer in such small areas they have no chance of eluding a hunter.)
Plenty of hunters keep the meat of the animals they shoot, but the real prize — the display-worthy win — are the antlers.
Even bucks who are protected from hunting by their status as breeders on the farm can end up contributing their impressive antlers to someone’s home decor. After the deer shed them, farmers often sell their antlers to furniture makers, who might turn them into chairs, lamps, chandeliers or door handles.
People who don’t hunt are often creeped out by this whole idea. But animal rights activists are not the loudest protestors of the deer farming industry. PETA staged an action in 2007, and Animal Liberation Front another in 2009, but the greatest opposition to the farms has come from other hunters. Some think that the preserves are erasing the concept of “fair chase,” in which hunters don’t take unfair advantage of their quarry and an animal has every opportunity to use its cunning and speed to escape. But many hunters are simply put off by the sheer size of the antlers that deer farms have managed to produce.
“Genetic manipulation is creating an unnatural, contrived, manmade critter,” says Keith Balfourd, a spokesman for the Boone & Crockett club, an august hunting organization that has condemned genetically altering whitetail deer to enhance their commercial value. The club is worried that deer breeding is hurting the hunting community — people shooting tame deer behind fences doesn’t exactly present a positive image—but also that it’s hurting the animals.
“It’s not healthy for some of these deer to be carrying rocking chairs on top of their head,” says Balfourd. No one knows exactly what producing these huge antlers is doing the bucks’ overall health, but experienced hunters say it’s easy to see that some of these deer have trouble keeping their heads up, with all the weight they’re carrying. And the concerns endemic to any farming operation where large numbers of animals are congregated in relatively small places — prevalence of disease (in this case, chronic wasting disease) and increased use of antibiotics and other drugs — apply here, too.
But size isn’t everything, it turns out. Even within the deer farming industry, plenty of farmers will tell you that the biggest racks that their fellow farmers have produced are ugly. And, on private preserves, plenty of hunters will opt for a smaller rack, simply because the bigger ones are so expensive.
“Nowadays, there’s a lot of big deer out there,” says Greg Flees, whose family has been breeding deer since 1977. Back then, he says, deer were more likely to score around 140 inches, with just 8 or 10 points, and improving a herd simply meant breeding does with the biggest bucks available. Now, deer produce such large antlers that the goals of breeding programs have become more subtle.
“Ninety percent of the people aren’t just trying to say, I’m just trying to make the biggest deer I can make,” says Flees. “They’re trying to make the prettiest deer they can make.”
What makes a deer good-looking, though, is a matter of taste. Some people are attracted to size alone. Some like drop-tines, or flyers, or other “extras” that split and grow from the main beams and tines. Some prefer typical racks, with their orderly points.
I look at a picture and say, “That’s a really pretty deer,’ or ‘that’s a really ugly deer,’” says Flees. “You know what you saw. Would you want to mount that buck in your living room? Or, if you walked by it, would you say, man, that’s kind of ugly?”
At this point, the most valuable deer have pedigrees, documented and backed up by DNA testing, that stretch back generations. Deer farmers communicate these in shorthand like “Maxbo over O2 with Sargent dam” or “Loverboy/Flees Big Guy/Kali/Red 8.” Farmers look for does that share genes with the biggest and most beautiful bucks and breed them, by artificial insemination, with other superstar cervids.
The most successful farmers are careful not to sell too much semen, though: Some of the most sought-after breeder bucks are the ones whose seed hasn’t been spread too widely. When I was talking to Kevin Grace, a deer farmer who also runs a yearly Top 30 Whitetail Extravaganza auction, he asked me which deer I liked, and when I mentioned, at random, one of a deer that’d produced a particularly large set of antlers, he told me, “It’s not the most sought after deer in the industry, but it’s out there. It has respect…” And then, after a pause, as an explanation for why this particular deer had fallen out of fashion: “There’s been a lot of semen sowed out of that deer. So it’s not rare.”
While some deer farmers might worry that their industry has focused too much on size alone, at base, bigger antlers are clearly more desirable and more lucrative. Whatever nature had to offer in whitetail deer, humans are now intent on improving.
“I like a deer to look just exactly what you’d imagine,”
Grace told me. “But I want them to be big.”
Illustrations by Miko Maciaszek