Strange: Fallow deer in the wild?

I heard the two shots about 10:00 a.m., but they sounded too far to be Jim or Craig. It was Jan. 4, and a couple of biologist friends and I were hunting on one of my places near Gleason, Tenn.

The place had been clear-cut and set back in pine trees in 1999 — I bought the 148 acres in May 2001. I had placed Jim in a tower stand overlooking several acres of brushy clear-cut. I had put Craig on a ladder stand in a little ravine — and that's why the shots sounded so far away.

I saw Jim first at the rendezvous point. Jim said, “you'd better sit down — Craig just shot two fallow deer — a doe and a buck.” Now I've hunted with Jim for over 30 years, and I respect him as a biologist, an ethical sportsman, and above all an honest man — so he must be teasing.

He was not kidding, though. There they were — no doubt, two fallow deer, complete with white spots, no tarsal glands, different shaped head, and other characteristics that separated them from white-tailed deer. In addition, we noticed an ear tag-size hole in the ear of one of the deer.

I took a roll of film and then we processed the deer, along with four white-tails we also took that weekend.

The next Monday, I called the regional office of TWRA. They had never heard of a hunter taking a fallow deer (in the wild) in Tennessee. That afternoon, I received an e-mail message from Chad, one of our university alumni. He had killed a strange-looking deer about 60 to 90 miles away. I couldn't be sure from the picture he sent, but it also looked like a fallow deer, or maybe an axis deer (both are found in Europe and Asia).

A friend told me he thought he'd read an article about still another fallow deer being taken this year in West Tennessee. I looked it up — sure enough, a hunter killed a 12 point fallow deer buck that field dressed 129 pounds (had an ear tag-size hole in one ear). It was taken about 80 miles from my place and 60 miles from where Chad took his.

Of course, I was becoming very interested in this mystery. No one I talked to, including several wildlife professionals, had ever heard of a fallow deer being taken by a hunter in Tennessee. All of a sudden, four are killed in three different areas in the same year.

I called another former student, one who works for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, and he is in charge of the captive wildlife program. His division carefully regulates all wild animals held in captivity. Turns out, fallow deer are considered alternative livestock and thus are not under his jurisdiction.

He referred me to the state veterinarian, the one in charge of assuring that all livestock entering the state are disease-free and remain that way.

Between these two individuals, here's what I found:

  • Fallow deer and red deer have been brought into Tennessee primarily as meat animals. They also, along with axis deer and a few others, were used (to a limited extent) on shooting preserves. And finally, a few people think they are neat to keep as pets.

  • TWRA doesn't regulate producers, because fallow deer are considered alternative livestock. The Tennessee Department of Agriculture doesn't regulate them unless they are crossing the state line. So nobody knows for sure how many are in the state and who has them.

    Best estimate is that there are at least 40 to 50 people who raise one exotic species or another in Tennessee — about 16 are known to have fallow deer.

    The most fallow deer kept by one breeder is 700 (Putnam County) and the least — three. There are about 10 shooting preserves in Tennessee — six or seven that have fallow deer — only one in West Tennessee.

  • The fallow deer meat market is not very good now. The speculation is that white-tail are so common, demand for deer meat is down. For similar reasons, hunting demand for fallow deer on shooting preserves is also down. In addition, meat processing regulations are too much of a hassle.

So, demand for fallow deer is not good. There's a little demand for the animals as pets — some call them “ornamental deer.” Since demand is down, some speculate that producers aren't as diligent in keeping their fences up. (Fences for fallow deer need to be higher than for cattle, but not as high as needed for white-tails).

It is speculated that as animals escape, it's not cost effective to try to recapture them, so they become feral — and it stands to reason, that hunters would occasionally see them.

Fallow deer (Dama dama) are a different species from white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). So they won't inter-breed. Since they are considered alternative livestock, hunting regulations do not pertain to them — no season, no bag limit.

So, who knows? You may see about any kind of animal while you're hunting. Lion, giraffe, whatever — just don't assume it was born there!

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