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Report details deer farming’s pluses, minuses

The issueS that surround deer farming are thorny and complicated.

Separating fact from fiction isn’t easy, because people on both sides of the controversial practice have vested interests to protect.

Now, however, thanks to some phenomenal work by a handful of Indianapolis Star reporters, the pros and cons of so-called “captive cervid facilities” have been laid out in simple, easy-to-understand language.

Investigative reporters Ryan Sabalow, Steve Berta and photojournalist Robert Scheer scoured the continent, from California to Alberta to Mississippi to New York, interviewing deer farmers, wildlife agency officials, veterinarians, hunters, lobbyists and lawmakers.

They delved into the industry’s economics; its potential to affect wildlife, livestock and human health; the ethical and moral dilemmas it creates; and its growing reputation for political activism.

The Star’s editors published the in-depth report as a four-part series. It’s available for download, free of charge, from the paper’s website. The URL is long, but well worth taking the time to copy:

In my opinion, the series should be required reading for every deer hunter, every member of the West Virginia Legislature, every apologist for the captive-deer industry, every Department of Agriculture official and every Division of Natural Resources official.

It’s that good.

It’s that thorough.

The Star’s reporters spent 18 months gathering information for their series. Their effort included public-records requests to all 50 states and the federal government. They conduced more than 100 interviews and reviewed at least 20 governmental or academic studies.

They also visited farms or hunting preserves in four states, and interviewed disease researchers in two others.

In other words, they did their homework.

In the report, they trace the captive-deer industry back to its origin in 1974 and explained how it started as a pastime but quickly exploded into a lucrative breeding enterprise.

They explain how the breeders found that even more money could be made by allowing hunters to kill bucks bred for freakish antler size.

They delve into the legal quagmire industry proponents create by defining deer as livestock while they’re alive, but as game animals when they’re shot.

In a section of the series that should be of special interest to West Virginians, they examine the industry’s push to have authority over deer farms transferred from wildlife resource agencies to state agriculture departments.

They also take a good, hard look at the practice of killing deer kept in fenced enclosures, explaining thoroughly the moral dilemma hunters face when they choose to shoot captive animals.

And finally, they examine the possibility that deer farms might be breeding grounds for chronic wasting disease, bovine brucellosis, scrapie and other diseases with the potential to infect wild deer, livestock or even humans.

I have little doubt that the Star’s series will earn a truckload of awards for feature and investigative journalism.

Every one of them will be richly deserved.

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