It looks so life-like . . . BLAM!

Marketplace Staff Dec 14, 2006

PHOTO GALLERY: Where robo-decoys come from

KAI RYSSDAL: The Red Sox went hunting for a pitcher. They bagged one. Other people just go hunting. This is deer season in many parts of the country. A busy time of year for game wardens. There are permits to be issued and illegal hunters to be caught. Poachers aren’t such easy prey. So law enforcement’s nabbing them with bait that just begs to be shot. Brian Bull explains.


BRIAN BULL: Near a rural road in New Hampshire, a deer stands peacefully as a truck drives by, stops, then backs up. The deer turns its head towards the vehicle, as a rifle barrel emerges from the driver’s window. Suddenly:

GAME WARDEN: [LOUD BAM] Game warden, game warden! Put the gun on the ground, put the gun on the ground!

Two game wardens leap from the brush, surprising the poacher. The deer stands amidst the commotion, unphased. You can’t rattle a robo-deer — but you can be arrested for shooting one.

JEFF GRAY: This year, we had upwards of 50 cases that we made using decoys, so it’s an effective tool.

Colonel Jeff Gray of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department is a customer of Custom Robotic Wildlife. Besides the deer, he’s also ordered six robo-turkeys from the company. The birds and deer, with motor-driven head and tail, cost about 13 hundred dollars apiece. Gray says they pay for themselves soon enough.

GRAY: Something like a loaded gun in a motor vehicle is punishable by up to a 12 hundred dollar fine. For some of the more serious offenses, like illegal night hunting, those rise to misdemeanor level and the fines are up to 24 hundred dollars.

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, CEO Brian Wolslegel and 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 enable the head and tail to move by remote control.

[ROBOTIC NOISES]

Here, Wolslegel’s testing a robotic fox. You can only hear the subtle whir of the unit’s gears when you’re within about an arm’s length of the robot.

BRIAN WOLSLEGEL: It doesn’t make much noise.

Wolslegel says his firm makes about 400 thousand dollars profits a year. Since 1993, it has produced decoys for museums, bait shops, and private clients, but its biggest customers are law enforcement agencies.

WOLSLEGEL: We probably do 50 to 60 white tail deer, 30 elk, 30 to 40 turkeys, couple moose.

One project involves a decoy moose on floats, which can swim across a lake. Another venture is to make steam billow from a fake’s nostrils, for added realism.

Wolslegel tests a decoy coyote that runs along a track system like a toy train. This robot is not for catching poachers, but for scaring Canada geese from peoples’ lawns.

Wolslegel says homeowners are full of praise for the product. But his assistant, Mike Kleman, says the company gets mixed reviews.

MIKE KLEMAN: Some people say, y’know, we’re the most, most wonderful people around, and some people say you guys are absolute jerks because of making the product you make.

The nay-sayers — no surprise here — are the poachers, who think using the decoys constitutes entrapment. But David Youngquist, of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, says it’s all about safe, ethical hunting.

DAVID YOUNGQUIST: How a hunter could be proud of a deer shot from the road in the day or at night is beyond me. 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.

Near Daleyville, Wisconsin, I’m Brian Bull, for Marketplace.

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