It's often hard for law enforcement to nab a poacher: There are too few of the former and too many of the latter on American state lands. But officials now have a tool that's helping to catch poachers while lessening the chance that an animal has to die. An army of taxidermied, robotic wildlife has been unleashed across the county to help police and game wardens stop poachers.
The robo-animals are made by companies like Custom Robotic Wildlife, which use legally acquired animal hides and robotic components to create realistic critters. With the touch of a remote-control button, the animals move just enough to appear alive – a tail twitch or a head turn – when a poacher lines up a shot on them. At the other end of those buttons are officers hiding in the bushes or a truck ready to arrest the poachers. Generally the officers have gotten a tip that poachers are in the area, so they know where to place the decoys.
"I've been building [the animals] for law enforcement for a little over 20 years," says Brian Wolslegel, owner of Wisconsin's Custom Robotic Wildlife. He gets requests almost every day for his animals that range in price from about $2,000 for a whitetail deer – his most popular animal – to nearly $5,000 for a moose (cost includes the robotics and packaging). The prices might seem high, but Wolslegel notes that the animals can be used for many years – and take many shots before being retired.
So, How Good Are These Robo-animals?
"Where they have been used very little, they're incredibly effective," says Jim Reed, the director of stewardship at the Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust (HSWLT), and the man in charge of its robotic decoy program that donates robot animals to law enforcement agencies. "Where they've been used quite a bit, the poachers kind of get used to it. Then the game wardens have to change things up a little."
That's when Wolslegel gets a call for a new animal or one that moves in a different way. "Every year we build something different because the officers say, 'I hear [the poacher] say, "If just the heads and tails move, don't shoot."' So then we make an ear move or a leg move," Wolslegel says. "I'm working on [a whitetail deer] right now for a federal law enforcement officer. She wants one that picks up its tail and poops."
How will they manage that, you ask? Wolslegel is trying a few techniques. "We got a little auger system going. I have three kids and they just love this because I buy M&M and they get to eat every color except the dark chocolate ones." An auger system is a conveyor system to move materials on an incline. As for the brown M&Ms, you can guess what they're there for.
Poaching is a huge problem in the U.S., and the decoys are a great help. HSWLT's Reed says, "They are very effective. They're used to target specific crimes such as hunting from roadways, hunting out of season or shooting from a motor vehicle."
HSWLT has donated more than 30 robotic decoys to various enforcement agencies since 2004. "In working with game wardens around the country, we came to find out these men and women don't have the resources they require to do their jobs effectively in a lot of cases," says Reed.
The organization plans to continue raising funds to donate even more, with the goal of eventually ending poaching.