Money, Power, and Deer Urine

By: Adam Davidson, staff writer at The New Yorker
Originally appeared in the Fall 2017 Issue of Whitetails of Louisiana

Elam Lapp, Jr., like many Amish always knew we wanted to be a farmer, but he knew it was a difficult way to make money. Before the nineteen-seventies, most Amish made their living farming; today fewer than ten per cent do. Lapp has twelve siblings, none of whom went into the business. But Lapp - a friend of mine, and a man with an easy, self-deprecating sense of humor and the short beard of a newly married Amishman - came across a solution: he would farm deer. Deer farming doesn't require as much acreage as cows or crops, and there's little need for technology. All you have to do is throw up some fences, get pregnant does, and buy feed (the deer like beans and corn). There are roughly ten thousand deer farms in North America, and some thirty per cent are owned by the Amish. The deer are usually raised for venison or hunting, but Lapp found another specialty: he is one of America’s premier producers of deer urine.

Walk into Walmart or Cabela’s and go to the back, near the rifles. and you’ll find a wall display of deer urine. It comes in small squirt bottles that hunters spray on the ground to hide their scent. Some hunters spend extra for urine collected from does in heat, which, they believe, attracts bucks. Industry groups estimate that deer urine is a hundred-million-dollar business. With players like Tink’s, Wildlife Research Center, and Top Secret, which for some reason packages its urine in wine bottles. Lapp sells his, wholesale, in three-hundred-and-twenty-gallon vessels, to the big manufacturers, and also runs a small business selling directly to hunters. He is not rich, but he makes a solid living for a young Amishman and has plans to move his wife and their newborn baby into a larger house.

Lapp, along with the deer-farming industry as a whole, is facing a crisis in the form of chronic wasting disease, a plague that attacks white-tailed deer, elk, moose, reindeer, and other members of the cervid family. C.W.D., like mad-cow disease, is caused by a misshapen protein that forces healthy proteins to fold in on themselves, becoming defective. There is no cure - a sick animal wastes away and eventually dies - and the infectious proteins, called prions, can linger in dirt or on plants for years. (There have been no known cases of humans catching C.W.D., but a recent study in Canada found that some macaque monkeys who ate infected meat became ill.) The prions are found in huge quantities in an infected deer's brain, lymph nodes, saliva, and meat; in smaller amounts in its blood and feces; and in nearly undetectable amounts in its urine. C.W.D. is widespread in the West, particularly in Colorado and Wyoming, and other states are trying to prevent the disease from spreading. New York is among the latest, and largest, states to pursue regulation; this summer, a task force drafted a risk-mitigation plan, which many expect to shape policy in other states. It forbids the importing of full deer carcasses or unprepared trophy heads. But Krysten Schuler, a Cornell ecologist on the task force, told me that the most controversial part of the plan has been its complete ban on deer urine.

In a report released by the task force, the case against deer urine appears to be grounded in science. When I contacted some of the authors of the scientific papers cited, however, I learned that a deer would have to imbibe gallons of urine from a dying animal to fall ill; a few ounces sprayed around a hunting site doesn't pose a risk. One of the papers’ authors, Nicholas Haley, a professor of immunology and microbiology at Midwestern University, told me that his lab had fed or injected more than a hundred mice with infected urine. Only one became sick - a mouse that had received an injection of highly concentrated urine directly into the brain.

The state will still allow hunters to bring butchered meat back from infected areas, even though hunters often field-dress the animals exposing the meat - and their clothes, trucks, and other gear - to brain matter, blood, saliva, and feces. One gram of brain contains the same number of prions as thirty thousand gallons of urine. Why is the lowest-risk bodily fluid banned, while meat, which may pose an equal or greater risk, is permitted?

The reason is simple. The risk-mitigation plan, like all regulation, isn't based purely on science; it also takes into account politics and economics. The report acknowledges that the New York deer-hunting industry, which is dominated by firearm hunters, brings in more than one and a half billion dollars a year, and is supported by retailers and a passionate population of hunters. The deer-urine industry, on the other hand, is most vocally supported by bow hunters, who are comparatively few, and is predominantly represented by people like Lapp small farmers with few resources.

The plan’s disparate treatment of urine and meat is an example of what economists call regulatory capture: the process by which regulators, who are supposed to pursue solely the public interest. instead become solicitous of the very industries they regulate. Such industries typically use enormous amounts of money and political power to influence every detail of regulation. For Schuler, it’s not practical to forbid hunters to return with prey from the West but banning the sale of deer urine is easy. It's also, politically, far less risky. But it doesn't serve the interests of the people-or the deer-of New York.

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