One year ago, the Indianapolis Star ran an in-depth, four-part investigative series by reporter Ryan Sabalow on the captive hunting industry – where self-proclaimed hunters shoot semi-tame deer, elk, and other mammals within fenced enclosures for trophies and a convenient kill. This in-depth investigation chronicled an industry rife with defects ranging from frequent animal escapes, shoddy record-keeping, disease transmission across state lines, and, in at least one case, an Indiana operator drugging his animals to make them easier to shoot.
But in spite of this exposé by the state's leading paper, key state lawmakers went ahead and reintroduced legislation, House Bill 1453, to legalize and expand this shameful industry. H.B. 1453 has already passed the House, and it passed out of the Senate Natural Resources Committee on Monday. It could come up for a vote on the Senate floor as early as next week. The proponents of expanding deer farms and captive hunting want to treat deer as "livestock" – and undo the core principles of North American Wildlife Management by allowing dangerous commercial exploitation of wildlife.
These operations, which are the equivalent of shooting animals in a zoo-like enclosure, violate every principle of fair chase. Many established hunting organizations, including the Boone & Crockett Club, the Quality Deer Management Association, the Izaak Walton League, and the Pope & Young Club, say there is nothing remotely sportsmanlike about these operations. Incentives are high for captive hunt operators to ensure that customers get their trophy, and it's not uncommon for captive hunts to advertise "no kill, no pay" guarantees or boast about their "100 percent success rates." Operators offer the "hunters" a menu list of available animals – whose prices are based on the size of their antlers. Mockingly described as "hornography," this desperate desire for enormous antlers has led to the creation of Frankendeer – deer who have been genetically manipulated to have freakish antlers so unnaturally large, they can barely lift their heads.
It is well documented that these ranches are also breeding grounds for disease, such as bovine tuberculosis - which can spread to livestock - and chronic wasting disease. CWD is always fatal, incurable, and it infects deer, elk, and other cervids. There is no live test for CWD, and its symptoms – including repetitive walking, excessive drinking, loss of coordination, and increased salivating – may not show for several years (if ever). This means that deer farms and captive hunts could have infected deer and there would be no way of detecting the disease. Through escaped animals, and documented nose-to-nose contact through fences, animals on captive hunts can readily spread CWD to wild deer. Because live animals are constantly trucked across state lines, captive hunts are a major culprit for spreading this disease to new areas. CWD has already been found in 23 states, and new cases are discovered every year.
When CWD becomes established, the effects are far-reaching. Sharpshooters and hunters are often called upon to perform extensive deer culls in CWD-positive zones, and taxpayers are left to foot the bill for these efforts, which can cost millions of dollars. Sport hunting programs are jeopardized because of listless behavior and death among deer, along with a fear of contracting a human variant of CWD. Why put the hunting and farming economies at risk just so a few reckless individuals can breed, sell, and shoot Frankendeer with monster racks?
Captive hunts are banned or restricted in over half of American states (Montana voters passed a ballot initiative years ago to ban the practice), but in Indiana the debate over them has been an ongoing, decade-long fight that has pitted industry shills and lobbyists against a diverse and unwavering group of environmental conservationists, animal welfare advocates, and responsible sportsmen. Year after year, efforts to legalize this practice have been consistently knocked down, but when given the chance to honor the overwhelming 81 percent of Hoosiers who support a complete ban on captive hunting, lawmakers refused to even give the relevant bill a hearing in committee. The American Cervid Alliance, a trade group for the captive hunting crowd, last year hired Rick Berman, the notorious lobbyist and flak long known for working to advance the goals of factory farms, circuses, sealers, puppy mills, and others. Their association with Berman and his phony HumaneWatch organization should tell us all we need to know.
The time is past due for Indiana's lawmakers to honor the desires of their constituents and ban this disgraceful practice of captive hunting in the Hoosier state once and for all. Voting NO on House Bill 1453 is the first step.
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