Zombies, Semen, and Big Racks: Inside The Texas Deer Breeding Industry

·7 min read
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Photos via Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Photos via Getty

Texas-bred deer are currently infected with an incurable, highly contagious, zombie-like disease, and as if that weren’t bad enough, the likelihood that the disease has spread across the state among the wild population is increasing by the minute. And while the disease has been found in several other states prior, grassroots groups are pointing the finger at Texas deer breeders who, they believe, have skirted regulations that would have made containing and managing the outbreak much simpler.

In March, deer at three breeding facilities in Texas tested positive for Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a highly contagious, fatal neurological disease also known as “Zombie Deer Disease,” because of its long incubation period and the stark behavioral changes it can cause. Symptoms include drastic weight loss and stumbling—and the disease is usually fatal. The disease is not known to be transmissible to humans, but CWD does “pose a risk to non-human primates, like monkeys, that eat meat from CWD-infected animals or come in contact with brain or body fluids from infected deer or elk,” according to the CDC. Environmentalists and landowners are concerned that the disease has already spread and infected Texas’ wild deer population as well.

Since March, The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) has scrambled to test deer breeding facilities across the state in an effort to contain the disease. While they had hoped that the disease was contained, a few weeks ago The Huffington Post reported that two more sites with positive test results were found, raising concerns among environmentalist groups and grassroots organizations about how far this disease has spread over the past few months, and whether the deer breeding industry should be more strictly regulated.

While hunting in Texas has always been big, the deer industry has a life of its own. It all started around the mid-1980s, when two wildlife management graduates from Texas A&M published a book, Producing Quality Whitetails, which quickly became the industry manifesto. The book devised a new purpose for deer breeding—the goal was now to bolster rural economies and provide alternative forms of income to ranchers who did not have enough land to rear cattle. The book called for ranchers to imagine “deer as a money crop,” and went into detail about what to feed the deer and how to maintain them.

Nowadays, the deer breeding industry in Texas is, at least, purported to be a major tourism and revenue driver for the state economy, bringing in about $2.1 billion each year. Throughout the state there are approximately 950 deer ranches, many of which are somewhat like resorts, where deer are bred, and then visitors pay to hunt them (many argue that this is not really hunting, but that’s another story). Some of these ranches have swimming pools, others boast billiard rooms, and the most luxurious, like the JL Bar Ranch, are decked out with complete spas. But regardless of the amenities, the main attraction is the deer, which can sell for upwards of $17,000.

No, the price isn’t dependent on the lodging accommodations, but is instead, determined by the size of the deer’s antlers, which is oftentimes listed out on the ranch’s website in differing price brackets.

“It’s a fetish,” John Sheppard, the Executive Director of The Texas Foundation for Conservation, an environmental nonprofit which works to maintain a healthy fish and game population within the state, told The Daily Beast. “It’s a race to see who can breed a deer with the biggest antlers and sell the trophy for the most money.”

In fact, The Texas Deer Association, a pro-breeding group, runs a quarterly magazine called Tracks, which displays deer with outrageously big, “grotesque and unnatural,” according to Sheppard, antlers. The deer are awarded playful names like “Bad Company,” “Big Jake,” “The Lawman,” and “Bullet Proof,” and juxtaposed against stark backgrounds consisting of lightning strikes, lasers, arctic storms, and more. Sometimes, the measurements of the antlers on specific deer are listed, similar to a vintage pin-up magazine.

Sheppard is working on curbing this “fetishistic” behavior, and has for years been lobbying the state legislature to implement more regulations for the deer breeding industry. Sheppard would like to see more stringent measures in place for testing for the disease, as well as more limitations on the movement of deer from facility to facility, something he points to as a major issue, especially in regards to CWD spread.

“Without movement like this, the disease would take maybe 10 years to spread across the state,” he said. “But because they’re being shipped all over, the disease has made its way from the western part of Texas to the eastern part in less than four months.”

Deer breeders, on the other hand, are vehemently opposed to further regulations, arguing that more guidelines will stymie their business. Kevin Davis, the Chief Executive Officer at Deer Breeders Corporation, a pro-deer breeding organization, told The Daily Beast, “There’s no industry out there that does more surveillance than the deer industry,” citing several different CWD testing protocols breeders are required to perform in order to maintain their breeding permit.

However, Sheppard argues that even these regulations are not enough.

In efforts to curb further regulations, deer breeders formed Super-PACS to fund their legislative battles. Another pro-breeding organization, The Texas Deer Association has a PAC, which is, according to their site, used to “positively affect legislation that has a significant impact on our industry regulations.” This is especially important, as there are “opponents to [their] industry [who] want to impose their own agenda on Texas landowners and deer enthusiasts, [to create] unnecessary government regulations costing our deer industry millions of dollars each year.”

How these PACs are funded is even more interesting. According to campaign finance records for Texas state legislators that The Daily Beast obtained, many of the donations made from this PAC and other ranchers come in the form of “straws.”

What is a straw? “A straw is a vial of deer semen,” Sheppard said. And some of these straws are extremely valuable. According to the campaign finance records, a single straw can have a market value of upwards of $8,500.

“I don’t know why anyone would want their name on an official document donating, or even receiving a donation in the form of semen,” said Sheppard. “But then again, I don’t try to make sense of most things that go on around here.”

As for the efforts to control CWD, Sheppard argues that it was in fact, the deer breeding industry’s influence over the state government which allowed the disease to spread so rapidly and for so long.

Before last year, he said, TDWP allowed breeders to batch tissue samples and send them all in ahead of renewing their breeding licenses at the end of the year. Sheppard fought against this system for years, and last year, TDWP decided to make a shift. This new policy requires samples to be sent for testing within two weeks of a deer’s death, however, it just so happens it was not in place when the first outbreak occurred this March.

As a result of this unfortunate timing, it is currently unknown how many deer have been exposed to the disease, and the TDWP is scrambling to test as many deer as possible.

Mitch Lockwood, the Big Game Program Director for the TPWD told The Daily Beast that he’s concerned and ultimately is “not convinced that we have found every CWD breeding facility yet.”

While this regulation wasn’t made or changed by the state legislature, Sheppard wonders about the state legislature’s general lack of involvement in managing wildlife within their borders, and hopes this incident may allow for stricter regulation to make passage through the legislature.

“One thing I’d like to see done,” he said, “is external, visible identification, for these deer from birth to death.” Sheppard claimed this can be done via an ear tag or a button on the deer. “The need for this has become extremely pronounced in this most recent outbreak, because these deer have now been moved to release sites, and so there’s no way to identify them.”

“The bottom line is this,” he said, “If breeders had cooperated with our initial proposal to trace deer from birth to death, or if there were stricter guidelines in place, like the ones we’ve been asking for, well, this whole mess could’ve been pretty easily avoided.”

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