Critics Take Aim at Plan for "Nonfatal" Deer Hunt

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
August 16, 2006
The World Hunting Association (WHA) recently announced that it is moving forward with plans for "nonfatal" hunting tournaments where white-tailed deer will be shot for cash prizes with tranquilizer darts and arrows instead of bullets.

David Farbman, the real estate executive who founded the professional sports league in June, believes the competitions will enhance the image of hunters and attract more youth to the sport.

"People don't think of hunters as being skillful, tactful, respectful people," Farbman said.

"They look at hunters as guys who run up north and have a party and shoot the first thing that comes along. But in reality it's not what hunting is at all."

But the tournaments, scheduled to be held this October in Michigan, are facing fierce opposition from animal welfare groups, who say that WHA's methods might cause the deer undue suffering (related: white-tailed deer profile).

Other professional hunting associations have also publicly condemned the idea on the grounds that this manner of competitive hunting for money lessens the seriousness of the sport.

"Hunting requires, by its very nature, the taking of the life of the animal, and as such it is definitely not a game. It is not baseball or tennis or poker," Rich Walton, an editor for the online archery magazine, wrote on an Internet forum.

Possibly because of the unique nature of this tournament, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which oversees hunting regulations, has asked the state's attorney general to determine if the competitions are legal.

This week state officials are meeting with WHA representatives to gather information before reaching a verdict, says attorney general spokesperson Rusty Hills.

Thrill of the Hunt

WHA first announced its plan in June to hold two 16-day tournaments at Lost Arrow Ranch, a fully fenced 1,000-acre (405-hectare) wooded property in Gladwin, Michigan.

Eight hunters armed with tranquilizer guns and special bows and arrows that deliver tranquilizer will compete for points and $250,000 (U.S.) in prize money.

Farbman has already filled seven of the eight spots.

But almost as soon as plans were announced, several pro-hunting organizations—including the National Rifle Association, Women Hunters, and the North American Bow Hunting Coalition—cried foul.

Rick Story of the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance in Columbus, Ohio, says he hopes Farbman doesn't go forward with his plans.

"If he does, I think he's going to encounter a great deal more friction from among the sportsmen and conservation communities," he said.

Farbman disagrees with the notion that his tournament is an insult to hunting.

"The ultimate insult to hunting is someone who would say that hunting is all about the killing," he said. Instead, the competitions will focus on the patience, strategy, and skill of the hunt.

Even with the wave of opposition, Farbman is confident attitudes about the sports league will change for the better.

He is in talks with various hunting and outdoor groups in hopes of finding a middle ground.

"Unfortunately there's a bit of a herding mentality within some of the hunting industry [groups], and people made knee-jerk reactions without knowing the facts," he said. "And it's really too bad."

Drug Use

At the same time, WHA's plan is being condemned by veterinarians and animal-welfare groups for potentially harmful use of tranquilizers.

Terry Kreeger is a wildlife veterinarian in Wyoming and author of the Handbook of Wildlife Chemical Immobilization.

Kreeger, who is opposed to WHA's tournament, emphasizes that bows and arrows are never used by professional wildlife workers to dart deer, because of the risk of injuring the animals.

What's more, he says, the prescription drugs WHA plans on using—Telazol and Xylazine—are only intended for medical or research purposes.

"These drugs are not there to make this guy money," Kreeger said. "They are there to help animals."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agrees.

Even though federal law gives veterinarians freedom to prescribe drugs for uses not listed on the label, there are some key constraints.

"Extra-label use is limited to treatment modalities when the health of an animal is threatened or suffering or death may result from failure to treat," FDA wrote in an email to National Geographic News.

The federal agency also raises concerns that deer injected with the tranquilizers could end up in the human food supply.

WHA says it has hired a veterinarian to provide the prescription drugs and to be present during the tournaments.

A Michigan state official says there are no regulations to prevent a veterinarian from providing such services.

Karlene Belyea, executive director of the Michigan Veterinary Medical Association, says that veterinarians are deeply committed to supporting and protecting animal health and welfare.

But, she says, vets "are also obligated as a profession to provide society with the veterinary services they request for any legal purpose."

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