It looks like a caricature of a deer, this dainty white-tailed buck whose neck slumps under the weight of the gnarled antlers sprawling from its head.
This is X-Factor, an Indiana deer that in his prime was worth an estimated $1 million.
His value as a stud comes not from research or the quality of his venison. Instead, it's in those freakish antlers, the product of more than three decades of selective breeding.
In less than 40 years, a relatively small group of farmers has created something the world has never seen before — a billion-dollar industry primarily devoted to breeding deer trucked to fenced hunting preserves to be shot by patrons willing to pay thousands for the trophies.
An Indianapolis Star investigation has discovered the industry costs taxpayers millions of dollars, compromises long-standing wildlife laws, endangers wild deer and undermines the government's multibillion-dollar effort to protect livestock and the food supply.
To feed the industry, breeders are shipping an unprecedented number of deer and elk across state lines, along with the diseases they carry. Captive-deer facilities have spread tuberculosis to cattle and are suspected in the spread of deadly foreign deer lice in the West. The Star's investigation also uncovered compelling evidence that captive deer have helped accelerate the spread of chronic wasting disease, an always-fatal deer disease similar to mad cow. CWD now has been found in 22 states.
CWD's spread roughly coincides with the industry's growth. In half of the states where CWD was found, it first appeared in a commercial deer operation. Officials in Missouri, Nebraska, New York and Canada said they think captive deer or elk introduced the disease to the wild. Yet 29 states and the federal government allow live deer to be imported across state lines.
"It's totally irresponsible," said food-safety activist John Stauber, co-author of the book Mad Cow U.S.A. "And from a public health and policy standpoint, it's insane."
So far, government programs have failed to halt CWD's spread, largely because there is no reliable way to test live animals. So infected deer may be shipped into disease-free states, where they infect other animals, captive or wild. The Star's investigation uncovered examples of deer escaping farms, shoddy record keeping and meager penalties for those caught breaking the rules, undermining state and federal efforts to contain the disease.
Although CWD's risk to humans is minimal, scientists say it's unwise to allow it to spread unchecked. No human is known to have contracted CWD. But scientists and government health officials say the chances of it jumping the species barrier to humans, as they suspect mad cow did, increase as more deer are infected.
Many in the industry say current oversight is adequate and that it's impossible to track the path of chronic wasting disease with certainty. Some say CWD is a "political disease," dreamed up by opponents.
"There is no disease issue," says Clifford Shipley, a deer and elk farmer who is also a clinical associate professor and veterinarian at the University of Illinois. "It's only a disease issue because people choose to make it a disease issue."
In its examination of the growth and risks of deer breeding and farming, The Starsubmitted public records requests to all 50 states and the federal government, reviewed at least 20 studies and conducted more than 100 interviews.
What emerges is a picture of an industry of at least 10,000 farms and hunting preserves in the U.S. and Canada, a boutique business that's part livestock and part wildlife and often falls into a regulatory gap. And, when it comes to hunting deer in fenced preserves, the owners are often free to set their own rules.
The Star found that more than half the states that allow high-fence hunting provide little oversight of how deer are killed. While killing of livestock is governed by humane slaughter rules, and taking of wildlife is governed by hunting laws, anything goes on preserves in most states. The industry counters by saying the market regulates itself.
"Hunters don't want to do that stuff," said Shawn Schafer, executive director of the North American Deer Farmers Association. "Customer satisfaction regulates that right out of business."
But The Star found case after case of hunters willing to blur ethical lines for trophy antlers.
Money is another driver. Deer farming offers a lucrative business for small landowners in rural areas. Their lobbyists and supportive lawmakers are fighting new regulations to slow the spread of disease and ensure ethical hunting rules.
Some wildlife officials say, the private deer market threatens the unique North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, which says deer are a resource held in public trust for everyone's benefit — not for profit.
A number of hunting groups, biologists and wildlife advocates say federal lawmakers should stop the interstate shipment of live deer and enforce ethical hunting standards. So far, 21 states ban importation of deer.
One is New York, citing the threat to its $780 million hunting industry.
"It just didn't make sense," said Bruce Akey, executive director of Cornell University's Animal Health Diagnostic Center, "to risk all of that for the sake of moving a few trophy animals back and forth for the genetics."
It's a lot to gamble, Akey suggested, for big antlers.