This is hunting season in many American communities, and hunters have deer, elk, moose and wild turkey in their gun sights. But before heading out into the woods, they must get a license from their state government and follow rules that limit when and where they may hunt and how many animals they may shoot. Those who don't follow the rules -- hunting out of season, shooting from cars, at night-time with spotlights, or trespassing on private land -- find themselves 'stalked' by game wardens.
Poachers aren't easy quarry, yet more and more law enforcement officials are nabbing them with a special kind of game that just begs to be shot… something like a young deer with an impressive rack of antlers, standing peacefully along a country road.
After a while, a truck drives by, stops, then backs up. The deer turns its head towards the vehicle, and a rifle barrel emerges from the driver's window. A shot breaks the silence. As the ricochet dies away, two game wardens leap from the brush, surprising the poacher. "Game warden!" they yell, "Put the gun on the ground, put the gun on the ground!"
Amidst the commotion, the deer stands unfazed. You can't rattle a robo-deer, but you can be arrested for shooting one.
Colonel Jeff Gray of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department reports his officers have made nearly 50 arrests this year using decoys. "It's an effective tool." So effective, he's become a regular customer of Custom Robotic Wildlife. Besides the deer, he's also ordered six robo-turkeys from the company.
The life-like creatures with motor-driven heads and tails cost about $1300 apiece. But Gray points out that the poachers they help catch are fined hundreds of dollars, so they pay for themselves soon enough. "Something like a loaded gun in a motor vehicle is punishable by up to a $1200 fine. For some of the more serious offenses like illegal night hunting, the fines are up to $2400." Gray says he has limited staff and funding, so the mechanical decoys help him get more bang for his buck.
At the Custom Robotic Wildlife factory in Mosinee, Wisconsin, and his assistant Mike Kleman saw antlers off a deer head. U.S. and Canadian wildlife companies donate or sell the antlers and animal hides needed to make the decoys. The pieces are then attached to polyurethane foam bodies, and fitted with motors and circuitry that allow the head and tail to move by remote control.
The movement is natural, and -- more importantly -- quiet. You can't hear the subtle whir of the unit's gears until you're within about an arm's length of the robot.
Since 1993, Wolslegel's firm has produced decoys for museums, bait shops, and private clients, but its biggest customers are law enforcement agencies. "We probably do about 50 to 60 white tail deer, 30 elk, 30 to 40 turkeys, and a couple moose," he estimates.
Convicted poachers have complained that using the decoys constitutes entrapment. But David Youngquist, of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, says it's all about safe, ethical hunting. "How a hunter can be proud of a deer shot from the road in the day or at night is beyond me," he admits. "But some people will do anything to get a big buck and to get a trophy."
On this cold sunny morning, Youngquist and another warden are setting up a robotic deer. It's named Donald, after the first poacher it bagged.
This part of Wisconsin is plagued by illegal hunting. Donald's already been shot 15 times and has helped capture as many poachers. Soon, the robo-deer is ready to go. Youngquist and his team lie in wait, for the modern technology to tackle an age-old problem.