PERU, Ind. (AP) — For seven days in January 2005, a jury in a federal courtroom heard tales from a now-notorious Indiana hunting preserve of deer being drugged and even a sick deer propped up in a 1-acre pen so a hunter could shoot a $15,000 trophy.
Jurors heard testimony from an outdoor television celebrity, a corporate CEO, a country music star and an ex-NFL quarterback, some of whom paid substantial sums to shoot deer in enclosures so small that prosecutors dubbed them "killing pens." One shot his deer only minutes after it was released from a trailer.
When the prosecution rested its case, the defense team called only one witness — an accountant. He testified that the preserve owner, Russ Bellar, had paid taxes on the deer.
The message was clear to those familiar with the legal complexities surrounding the captive-deer industry: Bellar was saying that he owned the deer; they were no longer part of the publicly owned wild herd from which their ancestors had been taken generations ago. To Bellar, these deer were livestock. His livestock. And the clear implication was that he could do whatever he wanted with them.
Bellar ended up spending nine months in a federal prison. But his argument lives on, and the laws that put him in prison might not. In fact, the principle behind Bellar's argument has been used by lobbyists across the country and has taken root in the law in numerous states where farms and preserve owners seek to fend off stronger disease controls and hunting ethics rules.
As chronic wasting disease continues to spread — helped along by the captive-deer industry's brisk interstate trade — deer breeders argue that the current rules are more than adequate. Idaho lawmakers, for example, passed a bill this year that would let elk farms conduct CWD tests on only 10 percent of the animals that die, instead of 100 percent.