In addition to working with the deer, elk and reindeer associations, my current clients include associations for goat breeders, fruit growers and market gardeners (as well as dentists, pharmacists and ambulance drivers). All these groups are similar and all face common challenges - developing new markets, educating their memberships, securing a favourable legislative environment and so on.
However, I noticed that the cervidae industry differs from the other agricultural groups in two significant ways. First, the deer and elk producers have many more regulations and rules. Anybody can start a berry farm. Berry farmers do not have to worry about inventory and record keeping, movement permits or cutting the head of a raspberry bush and sending it in for compulsory CWD testing. I'm struck by the significant regulatory and administrative "overhead" that deer/elk farmers have to put up with.
The second major difference is that fruit and vegetable growers do not have to worry about any opponents to their industry. I find it a real relief and pleasure to work in the fruit growing industry because of the absence of this distraction. It also made me aware of the significant burden and disadvantage that game farmers face in comparison to other agriculture pursuits, just to be able to do what they love doing.
Reasons for opposition
So where did this opposition to game farming come from? I have two personal theories about how this came about.
The present generation of post-war "baby-boomers" were born into a relatively prosperous society. As a result, they were less worried about finding a job and surviving day to day. This generation became one of the most socially conscious and activist in the history of the western world. No cause was too small - justice, caring and saving the environment all became important issues. Killing was wrong - and this included hunting, fur farming and slaughter of animals.
The impact on our value systems and our society was profound. It counter-balanced the drive for business and financial success at any cost. Activist groups that arose during these decades fought for the rights of the under-privileged, animals and the environment. We became a much more "caring" society. They had an impact on the livestock industries to ensure that animals were raised and cared for in humane ways. So these groups, and many others, are naturally concerned about taking deer that live in the wild and raising them domestically for meat and hunting.
The other contributing influence, I believe, arose from our increasing urbanization and reduction of agricultural populations. This has removed most people from the realities of farm life and nature. Although we all like our milk and meat, we don't have to milk the cow (goat) or slaughter an animal to get our food anymore. How many people do you know that ever had to kill an animal in order to eat it (hunters don't count)?
This lack of knowledge about the realities on the farm and in the wild is also affected by the romanticization of animals by the media. The most significant one that comes to mind is Walt Disney's popular film Bambi. One can only speculate on what impact that movie has had over the years to create opposition to deer hunting and deer farming. (I can still remember that evening when I first saw the movie Bambi. At the point where Bambi's mother was shot by hunters, my wife, sitting next to me with tears in her eyes, turned to me and said, "See, it's all your fault!" Yes, I was deer hunting at that time, and was being personally held responsible for Bambi's misfortune!)
I believe that these factors are responsible in part for some of the opposition to game farming and hunting in general.
Let's take a look at the strategies used by game farming opponents.
The first, and preferred strategy, is simply to make game farming illegal in the state, province or country. Once the necessary legislation is in place, farming of cervidae disappears. This is what happened in November 2000 in Montana where voters passed Initiative 43 to ban game farms.
The second strategy, if you can't get it banned, is to make it so regulated that the industry will drown in "red tape." More regulations and rules make it difficult to get into the industry, and once you are in it, it becomes so costly to comply that the business becomes unprofitable and most farms will go out of business. The elk industry is very near this point, especially if compulsory CWD surveillance comes into force, and if governments don't pick up the costs of compliance by the farmers.
I believe the game farming industry is causing its own problems by unwittingly acquiescing to the second strategy. In order to appease its opponents, the industry is agreeing to more regulations and more stringent requirements, which in the end may spell the demise of game farming. An example of this is the recent proposal in Alberta to legalize hunt preserves. The proposed regulations call for a minimum of 600 fenced acres! I'm sure this was put into place to appease opponents concerned about fair chase. However, it also puts hunting preserves out of reach of small operators, and eliminates business opportunities for the very group of small farmers it was designed to benefit.
Deer and elk farming should be subject to the same rules as other livestock industries - goats, sheep, cattle, llamas, etc. - no more or no less! Otherwise the industry is at a significant competitive disadvantage and will have difficulty in surviving.
So who are the opponents to game farming, what do we know about them, and what are their concerns? I want to focus on two broad groups - animal rights activists (such as PETA) and wildlife associations (Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and other similar organizations).
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), - http://www.peta.org - with more than 700,000 members, is the largest animal rights organization in the world. Founded in 1980, PETA is dedicated to establishing and protecting the rights of all animals. PETA operates under the simple principle that animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment.
PETA focuses its attention on the four areas in which the largest numbers of animals suffer the most intensely for the longest periods of time: on factory farms, in laboratories, in the fur trade, and in the entertainment industry. PETA works through public education, cruelty investigations, research, animal rescue, legislation, special events, celebrity involvement, and direct action.
PETA has 55 permanent staff and its own building. The PETA website is currently (June 2001) advertising for the following positions - campaign coordinator, legislative coordinator, media writer, public affairs coordinator, research assistant (policy), staff attorney. (Wouldn't your deer or elk industry association just love to be able to afford only one or two of these staff positions?)
PETA has a budget of about $17 million (US$) per year. The annual budgets of other similar groups are - American Anti-Vivisection Society ($1 million), Animal Legal Defense Fund ($2.9 million), Doris Day Animal League ($2.3 million), Friends of Animals ($4.3 million), Fund for Animals ($6.4 million), Humane Society of the United States ($51.6 million), In Defense of Animals ($1.7 million), Last Chance for Animals ($658,000), National Anti-Vivisection Society ($2.2 million), New England Anti-Vivisection Society ($1.1 million) for a combined budget of over $90 million. In comparison, the Americans for Medical Progress had a budget of $611,000. (Source: COHO Field News, Winter 2001, p14).
In 2000, PETA was mentioned over 7,500 times in the media, and organized 400 "events" or protests. Their education department reaches 170,000 teachers in schools and over 4 million students. They printed over 13 million flyers, brochures and fact sheets.
In the cervidae industries, PETA has been successful in having deer urine removed from some sporting goods stores. Their concern was that the deer were being kept caged up all the time in inadequate conditions in order to collect the urine.
PETA is a well-organized and run organization. Our industry can learn much from them.
The second group of opponents consists various wildlife federations. The opposition from these group is difficult to understand. Many game farmers are (were) deer/elk hunters as well, who wanted to turn their love of these animals into a business. The research and work done by the deer and elk farming industry has significant benefits for our wildlife as well.
Here is the official position of SWF - "The Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation (SWF) does not support the concept of game farming until an extensive professional qualified review of the policy, practices, testing of diseases, etc. has been undertaken and brought forward for public scrutiny and discussion. The SWF strongly opposes any and all efforts to obtain wild game stocks by the game ranching industry.
Game farming and ranching can and does pose substantial risks to the indigenous wildlife of Saskatchewan through the spread of contagious diseases, parasites and hybridization between game farm animals and indigenous wildlife.
To the extent that these practices are permitted, the following conditions must exist:
1. Game farming and ranching must be limited to indigenous and exotic species that pose no possibilities of surviving and/or hybridizing with wild indigenous species.
2. Wild animals of the species under consideration must not be taken from the wild for seed stock.
3. Game farming and ranching must not be permitted on Crown lands.
4. The potential for animals to produce fertile hybrids or otherwise breed with indigenous ungulates must not exist.
5. The potential for animals to become feral and compete for habitat with natural ungulates must not exist.
6. Strict regulations must apply to all aspects of proper care, dealing, farming, processing and marketing of animals and products, which must also include licensing, mandatory tracing of animals and products, monitoring and enforcement. Regulations controlling contagious disease must be stringent.
7. Jurisdiction and regulation of the industry must reside with the provincial wildlife ministry.
8. All regulatory and administrative costs must be borne by the industry, not the taxpayer.
9. Game farmed and ranched animals must be marked with a unique identification number.
10. Game farm and ranch operators must be required to maintain proper records.
11. Proper government inspection of game farms and ranches must be mandatory.
12. Game farm and ranch operators must be required to operate under terms and conditions of a license approved by provincial wildlife management agencies.
13. Game farms and ranches must not be permitted to sell hunting rights."
The above are the most common concerns stated by these types of associations.
Dealing with the opponents
So what can the industry and individual game farmers do to deal with this opposition in order to save their livelihoods and their passions? Here are some strategies and suggestions.
1. Be proactive, don't hide - Several speakers at recent deer/elk conferences have stressed the importance of being proactive. To date the game farming industry (and their associations) have kept a low profile with the hope that if nobody notices them, they will not have any problems. Well, the opponents have noticed game farming, and now the industry faces an up-hill battle. Remember, the vast majority of people are not aware of game farming, and therefore don't have a position or opinion on it one way or the other. Then along come opponents, who make them aware and say it is bad. Now the industry doesn't have a neutral start point to work from, but has to convince people who have a negative opinion to change it to a positive one - a more difficult and challenging task.
It is important for the game farming industry to get their message out - including the benefits for the animals, wildlife, farmers and the economy. This will to some degree inoculate the public against the negative messages from the opponents.
2. Address and respond to reasonable concerns - Nearly all game farmers love, pamper and spoil their animals. They ensure that the deer/elk get the best care, nutrition and facilities possible. Steps need to be taken to address disease management and possible escape risks. The public needs to know that these concerns are addressed as much as possible. However, if some demands are unreasonable, then a clear case, along with supporting evidence needs to be presented. Standards and requirements should be "fair and equitable" with other livestock industries.
3. Police your industry - One "bad apple" can give the whole industry a bad name. Industry associations should have their members subscribe to a code of conduct and/or a code of ethics. These should be enforced and members who do not comply should be thrown out of the association. Associations must take the time and effort to "educate" their members about these codes and the importance of following them. The associations and industry must also ensure that game farmers have the knowledge, skills and competencies to work with their animals in an effective, caring and humane manner.
4. Have consequences - One response by game farmers in Saskatchewan has been to ban SWF members from hunting on their lands. Most game farmers own significant tracts of land. Adding in the land of relatives and supportive neighbours, hunting opportunities on private land could become scarce to SWF members. The following sign has been printed and posted across the province:
"NO HUNTING to any member or anyone supporting the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation. You cannot lobby against the farmers and private property owners of Saskatchewan and still expect to hunt on this private property. Do not support the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation in any form! For permission, contact …."
5. Get under agriculture - If game farming in your province or state is not yet regulated by the Department of Agriculture, begin lobbying to have the jurisdiction changed. Wildlife management departments do not understand, nor have the appropriate values or mindset to regulate what is essentially an agricultural industry. Game farming is an agriculture activity and should be regulated as such.
6. Be well-resourced - Due to the many regulations and requirements, new industry entrants should be well-resourced and knowledgeable. Perhaps if you have only enough funds for an one-acre fenced pen, you should not go into deer farming, but consider other options such as investing in an existing farm or partnering up with someone else. The same holds true of knowledge and skills. Amateurs should not be attempting velvet antler removal if they do not know what they are doing. Situations like this give ammunition to the opponents who can claim inhumane conditions and treatment of animals.
7. Information packages - We need to prepare and distribute brochures, flyers, websites and other information packages to explain the benefits of game farming to various audiences. PETA does a very good job of this, and our industry needs to do so as well.
8. Credible spokespeople - One effective strategy many organizations use to promote their particular cause is to use celebrities - a well-known sports figure, movie star, prominent business person and so on. The game farming industry should recruit and use such people as well.
9. Join and support organizations - There are two separate strategies here. One is to join organizations that support hunting and the game farming industry. Two of the best known are Safari Club International ( http://www.safariclub.org ) and the Canadian Outdoor Heritage Alliance ( http://www.coha.net ). Join these organizations and work with them to preserve the rights associated with your industry.
The other strategy is to join and actively participate in the wildlife associations that presently oppose game farming. These organizations operate on democratic principles, and thus members can affect change from within. Join, attend meetings, make your views known, run for the executive and board, and make things happen.
10. Lobby government officials - It is important that the "rule makers" or elected government officials are aware of our industry, its importance for your state/province, and the benefits it provides to rural communities. Do not take politicians for granted, but keep them informed. See suggestions for lobbying in the "Guide to Becoming an Activist" located on the PETA website at http://www.peta.org
11. Media relations - Some industry associations (SWAMDPA, CCC and NAEBA) have become more active in responding to media stories. However, writing a letter to the editor in response to a negative story about the media is not as effective as if we were to have positive articles published in the first place.
We don't do a very good job generally of media relations. First of all, the industry (i.e., associations) rarely sends out press releases about the game farming industry. When it does, it is usually in response to some public concern about disease, or in an attempt to counter negative publicity. This is being reactive and defensive rather than proactive. None of the association websites have a section for the media where press releases are posted, background information is available, lists of contacts are available - all those things that make it easier for reporters to do their jobs. PETA does, and we need to change that.
12. Websites and the Internet - The animal rights organizations recognized the power of the Internet very early. They have comprehensive, well-designed and informative websites that are kept current. On the other hand, most industry websites (other than Deerfarmer.com and Wapiti.net which are privately operated) are simply "brochure" sites - some basic information and occasional updates designed for producers, not the general public. I don't recall any of the association websites giving a simple, clear description of why game farming is good. PETA makes some very good arguments why hunting is bad. Some associations, including some major ones (e.g., Canadian Cervid Council, Elk Breeders of Canada, ROBA) do not even have a website! Also, there is no one place where the public and media can go on the Internet to get up-to-date information on what is happening in deer and elk farming. The industry has to do a better job in using this medium.
13. Fundraising - On every page of the PETA website is a button called "Donate Now". Click on it, fill out your information, give a credit card number and your donation is made, In return you get a newsletter subscription, plus some other goodies. Their website also provides a wealth of suggestions about how concerned people can go about fundraising for their cause. This well coordinated effort nets PETA some $17 million a year!
In the game farming industry, we don't have one organization to donate to - we have many. Also, the few foundations that have been set up are geared more towards activities in research, production enhancements and marketing rather than industry defense. Fundraising tends to be within each association and directed towards their members rather than the general public. We do not have an effective way to reach out to the public and solicit donations to support the industry. We need to develop and put one into place as quickly as possible. We also need to make it easy for people (and corporations) to donate!
14. Working together - PETA is one organization; we have over 60 deer, elk and reindeer associations just in the English-speaking parts of the world. Each of these associations has their own jurisdiction, interests and resources. Nearly all are run by volunteer boards and members, and focus on the production and marketing aspects of the industry. Most do not have the resources or expertise to mount effective campaigns against the opposition. Yes, both NAEBA and NADeFA has set up task forces to help local associations lobby for favourable legislation, but much more coordination and working together needs to be done.
15. Legal actions - The industry should explore the possibility of taking legal action against opponents when appropriate. This could range from suing for slander to loss of business/livelihood based on actions of the opponents.
16. School programs - As indicated above, the opponents have comprehensive programs for teacher and schools. Unless countered, we will have a whole generation of children growing up with the belief that domestic raising of deer and elk is evil. The industry needs to prepare and distribute materials about game farming to school children. Also, children love deer, elk and reindeer, especially the young animals. Farm visits, school visits or anything else that exposes the young to farmed cervidae is important to enhancing long term support for our industry.
17. Invite visitors - The more people that see a well-run deer or elk farm, the more support the industry will have, and the harder it will be for opponents to close us down. Therefore, both associations and individual farmers need to make a concerted effort to have visitors to their farms on a regular basis. With the concerns of Foot and Mouth and other diseases, many producers are reluctant to have visitors. Take the necessary precautions, but these public relations activities are necessary.
18. Don't be set up - Be concerned if a client shows up at your hunting preserve with a camera crew. Be cautious about who you let on your farm to take photographs or video recordings. You don't want to be set up by the opponents.
The reason you went into game farming is because you enjoy working with these beautiful and fascinating animals. Worrying and battling with opponents takes away time, energy and money from the things you love doing. However, if you believe game farming is worth preserving, then be prepared for constant vigilance and a continuous battle to preserve that right!
If you are not prepared to devote the time, energy and resources to such a fight, you may want to consider converting your deer/elk farm into a berry farm. By the way, if you are interested in fruit farming, check out my latest website at http://www.albertafruit.com