Freak Show Bucks: A Hard Look at Breeding For Antlers

Make no mistake—this isn't hunting

I always try to avoid those sick tabloids at the supermarket checkout counter. You know the ones with the two-headed calves and the chickens with three legs and steroid-taking body builders who didn't know how to say no. I feel sorry for these freaks of nature and truth be told, they give me the creeps. That's why I cringe every time I open an e-mail proudly offering a 300-, or 400- or even 500-inch whitetail buck at stud. Last week I received 4 of them, including the deer pictured here which is reportedly a new world record at 561 6/8 inches with 88 scoreable points. I click the e-mails open, cringe and delete. Then I get mad. Mad, because unlike the two-headed calf who is a true freak of nature, these whitetails are freaks of a different kind. These Frankenstein bucks are man made and money is the motive. One look at this pen-reared buck tells you there is something wrong, something terribly wrong. His obscenely disfigured antlers look more like something you would find growing on a coral reef or in a post nuclear war sci-fi thriller. They twist and turn and droop and bulge and fork and then fork again. Some of these deer seem to have multiple bases and all of the racks are preposterously large for the necks and shoulders that support them. They look nothing like the bucks we see on magazine covers, nothing like the buck of our dreams. In the following slides I'll describe the methods behind growing these freak bucks and show you photos of just how outrageously large they can get.
According to a deer farming insider, normal captive deer live for about 12 years while deer bred only for massive antlers usually die by age 7. Maybe it's too many steroids or food supplements? Maybe it's medication and living in a rarefied environment? Maybe it's donating more sperm than their bodies can handle. My guess is it's the genetics. I'm no genetics expert, but breeding brothers to half sisters and mothers to sons and then back again can't be healthy. I've studied more than a few field champion pedigrees in my day and I've never seen "line" breeding like I see in the antler growing business. Some of these breeders breed for antlers and don't seem to care much about how they get them. Frankenbucks are the products of excessive "line" breeding. They aren't bred for hybrid vigor, longevity or the ability to take on all comers and win breeding rights. They aren't bred for the ability to avoid hunters, live through a hard winter or to produce tastier venison.
Most of these deer are bred artificially. An electronic probe is inserted into a "prize" buck's rectum. Push a button and an electric impulse causes the buck to ejaculate. The process is referred to as electroejaculation. The semen is captured in a vessel, gets packaged in "ready-to-inseminate straws" and then it's sold. That's the buck's side of the deal.
The doe's job is simpler. She gets tranquilized, scoped and probed until her cervix is located and then a straw of semen is inserted. An insemination specialist blows on the other end of the straw and the job is done. All she has to do now is wake up and produce a son who grows a few hundred inches of antler by age one and a half.
The breeders are all about big antlers and the money associated with them. Meanwhile, the deer keep getting bigger. According to an industry source, 15 years ago a 200-inch whitetail buck was a real oddity, now they grow 200-inch antlers as a yearling. One preserve has more than 20 200-inch bucks.
Make no mistake, breeding big bucks is big business and deer farming is a billion dollar industry. A half straw of semen from one of these freak bucks can sell for more than $10,000, a well bred doe can bring $20,000 and a breeder buck can go for $50,000 or more. Deer farming permits are issued by virtually every state. Pennsylvania and Texas alone list more than 1,000 farms.
Not all the bucks are "lucky" enough to grow freak show antlers and become breeders. Some disappoint and top out at less than 200 inches. These deer are sold as "stockers" to private high-fence hunting facilities (to "upgrade" genetics) or to shooting preserves for public consumption. Many of these "inferior" bucks are dead (killed by wild bucks or shot) within a few days of being tranquilized and transported to their new homes.
Hunters (and I'm being generous with the term) typically pay between $1,500-$3,000 to shoot an average buck of 120-140 inches. Larger bucks, 150 inches and up, typically sell for $5,000-$10,000 or more. A real monster in the range of 180 inches can bring much more. Farmers typically use deer brokers to sell and deliver pen-raised deer to high-fenced shooting preserves. Money is literally changing hands all over the deer farming landscape.
Most farm-raised deer are bottle fed, receive regular medical attention and are fed out of feeding troughs. They are unafraid of humans and upon release in a canned hunt operation, they present little if any challenge to shooters. Allegedly, some preserves allow the deer to be "hunted" with transport tranquilizers still in their systems. I'm told however that once released, some stockers wise up quickly and become wary (provided there is ample space and habitat to become wary in).
The "canned hunts" that many of these bucks are sold into are condemned by both the Boone & Crockett Club and the Pope and Young Club. These organizations strongly oppose controlled breeding, genetic manipulation and artificial insemination of whitetail deer. Tony Schoonen, Boone & Crockett Club's Chief of Staff, refuses to call them "hunts." He contemptuously calls them "shoots." Kevin Hisey, Executive Secretary of Pope and Young, emphatically states: "we strongly oppose this kind of thing."
The Quality Deer Management Association does not support "canned hunts" or "controlled breeding" as a means of managing wild whitetail deer populations. As QDMA COO, Brian Murphy states "we have serious concerns about transporting deer raised in enclosed environments as they are more susceptible to some known diseases such as Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) and tuberculosis. We are also very concerned about the impact of artificially manipulated genetics (from farm-raised deer) on wild deer populations."
Why Deer Farms? So why, with all these negatives, is this practice tolerated? Well for starters, states consider raising deer to be an agricultural practice, which places deer farming outside the regulatory responsibility of state Fish and Game agencies. And the agricultural agencies view deer farming differently than wildlife agencies do. They monitor captive herds for diseases but they are not in the business of trying to shut down an industry which contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to state and local economies and provides tens of thousands of jobs nationally. Deer farms are the fastest growing segment of the animal agriculture industry and the vast majority of deer farms were founded in the last 30 years. There are tens of thousands of deer farmers and their numbers are rapidly growing.
Then there are the industry participants themselves. They live in a free country and have a right to make a living. The animal agriculture industry is comprised of thousands of God-fearing Americans (including veterinarians, feed producers, fence manufacturers and struggling farmers) who are trying to make a simple living. Their publications talk about the value of raising kids in an animal-friendly environment and the responsibility that ensues. To them this is not a "freak show" but a mission to advance the whitetail species. And to be fair, not all deer farmers are into growing massive antlers. Some are just happy to keep a herd around back and maybe sell a few fawns each year to other breeders. Some keep them for the kids, others keep deer to collect urine for hunting products and some raise deer for venison. Maybe, the "freak show" vs. "super buck" argument is just a matter of which side of the high fence you are sitting on.
So how far will it go? Will the breeders just continue to breed bigger and bigger antlers until these bucks collapse under the weight of their own racks? Should this "freak show" be curtailed or simply left to its own devices?
My guess is that it will cease only when the demand for obscene-antlered bucks fades away. The freak show buck trend will stop when hunters (or shooters as Schoonen calls them) begin to realize that the deer they just shot was bottle-raised as a fawn and was eating Snickers Bars out of a 4 year old's hand a few days earlier. It will stop once they realize the buck they just shot wasn't a diamond at all, but a genuine certified "cubic zirconium" as Texas veterinarian Bill Eikenhorst refers to them.
Which side of the fence do I sit on? I prefer to be on the outside looking in, along with all those beautiful, natural, 100-inch main frame eight pointers. You know, the kind of bucks dreams are made of. What side of the fence do you sit on? Comment below and scroll through the gallery to see more of these freak deer.
Pictured: Caesar, 194 inches at 3 1/2 years old
Pictured: Casanova, 247 inches
Pictured: Maxin Elite
Pictured: Prodigy
Pictured: Stemwinder
Pictured: Stitches
Pictured: Super727
Pictured: Texas Hold'em
Pictured: Thundering Thor
Pictured: Topdraw, 220 inches
Pictured: Wildcat