Sending Deer to School

The deer and elk industries still rely pretty heavily on tranquilizing the animals for testing, treatment and artificial insemination. This practice carries with it a number of risks:

  1. You could lose your pants and get grass stains on your butt and privates.
  2. Some deer never recover from tranquilization and die.
  3. You are injecting powerful chemicals into the deer body; this may cause concerns if the meat or velvet of the animal is to be used for human consumption.
  4. Animal rights groups and others have more arguments for opposing and/or banning deer and elk farming.

Progress is being made. Most modern deer and elk farms have handling facilities where the animals can be herded into and worked on. Most have drop chutes or squeezes to physically immobilize the deer in order to conduct TB tests, provide injections, remove antlers, etc.

But I wonder if still more can be done in working with these animals – like sending them to school. There are several reasons behind this thinking.

A long time ago, in a faraway place (the Kingdom of Saskatchewan) I took experimental psychology at university. As a student, I was a rat psychologist. It is amazing what you can train a lowly white lab rat to do. So if you can train lab rats, why not deer, whom we all know are pretty smart?

The training was based on the behavior theories of Dr. B.F. Skinner, a psychologist at Harvard University. Dr. Skinner said that people and animals behave in such a manner as to receive positive reinforcements (rewards). Negative reinforcements or punishments quickly stop certain behaviors, but at a price. (Probably the rationale behind stopping the use of straps in schools). Behaviors could also be “extinguished” by removing positive reinforcement. In other words, if there is nothing in it for me, why bother doing it? (Something associations should keep in mind when losing directors or members). Yes, I know, I know – this is all common sense. However, we always don’t apply it to get the results we want.

The theories certainly work. We ran many experiments with lab rats. The most common was to put a rat in a “Skinner Box”, which had a little lever connected to a switch which dispensed food pellets. The rat had to learn that by pressing the lever, he would be “rewarded” with food. The lever was connected to a counter that would measure activity. It usually didn’t take long before Mr. or Ms. Rat was happily clicking away. The next experiments varied the delivery of the food pellets. Pellets could be delivered every 5th click or at random. This simply made the rat work harder, but they never gave up. (The best example of this behavior is modern gambling, where we engage a activity for that possible random positive reinforcement, even though we know the odds are very small).

My favorite variation of this experiment had to do with, well I’m not sure. A white rat was put into a Skinner Box that had the lever on one side of the box and the food dispenser on the other side. As usual it did not take the rat long to figure out that you had to push the lever, and then run to the other side to get your reward. Then, a SECOND rat was put in. What happened is that when the first rat pushed the lever, the second rat ate the food before the first rat got there. Well, as time went on, the second rat was getting pretty fat and very content, while the first rat was nearing starvation. (Don’t you love the symbolism in this – the first rat is the worker, the second rat is the boss getting fat on his subordinate’s hard work; the second rat is the capitalist organization exploiting members of the unions; or add your own interpretation.) Well after a few days, things were getting pretty serious for the first rat who was nearing starvation.

The story does have a happy ending. Whether by accident or insight (some argue rats can reason and solve problems), the first rat discovered that if he pressed the lever three times in rapid succession, he could run over to the other side and still get his food. So both of them got fat! (A possible moral of the story – if you get your workers to work 3 times as hard as they do now, everyone will win. Or does it mean that if you starve your employees they will eventually work 3 times as hard?)

So how does apply to handling deer? Simple. Apply the same “behavior modification” strategies to your deer to reduce the necessity of darting or use of force. Let me give you a couple of examples.

A rancher had great difficulty in getting his ponies into a trailer. He would have to drag, push and beat them to get into it. Someone suggested that he start putting oats in the trailer, i.e., positive reinforcement for a particular desired action. After a few times, all he had to do was open the trailer door. In the ensuing mad rush, the ponies often got stuck in the trailer door trying to be the first one in!

A friend of mine has a Beagle with allergies. The dog needs to gets a needle to control these allergies. Well, that Beagle just hates getting that needle. However, my friend knows that her Beagle loves Kibbles. So all she has to do is shake the box of Kibbles and the Beagle comes running. The look on his face says, “Well, I loathe getting that needle, but since I love those Kibbles more, the discomfort is worth the ultimate reward.” She never has any problems giving her dog his shots.

The same is true for deer. Many deer farmers put their deer their handling facility maybe once or twice a year. For many deer, this is something unknown, frightening and associated with negative reinforcement. The handling facility needs to be associated with positive reinforcement in the deer’s mind – just like with the ponies. Run your deer through the facility more frequently and be sure to give them a special treat at the end of their journey. They will become much more cooperative and this will reduce stress on them and you.

“Shaping” is a technique that animal trainers often use. This simply means giving positive reinforcement or rewards when the animal takes the first step towards the desired behavior. Then the animal is rewarded for the next right step, and so on until eventually the animal is doing the total desired behavior.

By using shaping and behavior modification techniques, you can get your deer or elk to do things that will make handling and looking after them much easier. While I’m not sure you can train you buck or bull to ejaculate into a bottle, I’m pretty sure that at the sound of a whistle, you can get your does or cows to line up and expose their rumps to you for A.I. Just be sure to give them their positive reinforcement when you are finished.