Two men in Maryland recently achieved Internet infamy when they were temporarily banned from hunting after they'd used crossbows to shoot a deer on state land.
Or so they thought.
The men had actually fallen prey to the ruse of a state-owned robotic deer, one of a growing number of remote-controlled decoys being used by American wildlife law enforcement to stop poachers. Across the nation, a small army of deer, elk, bear, turkey, fox and wolf dummies has been deployed to catch people who hunt in the wrong place, in the wrong season or otherwise illegally.
Here's how it works: Officers truck a robo-animal out into the wild and stage it in an area where they've been tipped off about illegal hunting. Then the officers sit out of sight - in a truck, or maybe crouching in bushes - and use a remote to move the animal's head, tail or legs.
Demand for the decoys is huge, said Jim Reed of the Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust, which donates them to anti-poaching agencies. Game wardens are chronically underfunded, he said, and robo-wildlife is pricey: A deer costs about $2,000; a black bear, up to $5,000. Wardens also are busy -- the Humane Society says hunters kill at least as many animals illegally as legally.
The decoys look so alive because, well, they once were, said Brian Wolslegel, owner of the Wisconsin-based Custom Robotic Wildlife. Wolslegel - who does not hunt but instead raises deer in his backyard - makes the dummies out of hides acquired legally from hunters, game wardens or online. (You, too, can purchase a bear hide at taxidermy.net.)
Each year he sells as many as 100 whitetail deer, by far his most popular item. Officers, he said, tell him they make as much as $30,000 in fines off each fake animal.
"To have a poacher, a wild animal and a law enforcement officer at the same scene, it's like winning the lottery," he said. And then if the poacher is caught, "the animal already died in the process."
Robo-wildlife, it turns out, are pretty hard to kill. If a bullet busts the motor, it's replaceable, Wolslegel said. And most have a Styrofoam core, so a high-powered rifle shot passes through "with minimal damage," Reed said. In fact, he said, some of the most realistic-looking decoys have been shot 100 times or more.
"The typical deer in the forest is not going to appear well-groomed. It may have a little mud stuck on its back, some hairs ruffled from the wind," Reed said. The best decoys, he said, "get well-seasoned."