The black-tailed buck is doing what deer do, standing beside a rural road on a cool fall evening in northern California. The thrum of tires on pavement rises up in the silence and grows louder as a truck draws near. When the headlights catch the buck, he turns his head, ears twitching, and seems frozen in place by the bright beams. Moments later, a shot rings out.
The deer has nothing to fear. It’s been dead for months. The guy who illegally shot this deceased ruminant, on the other hand, is in trouble. He just took the bait—a robotic buck, made from the flesh of a real animal—in a poaching sting operation.
California Fish and Game warden A.J. Bolton takes part in a handful of these stings each year around Eureka, California. He and his colleagues set up decoys in areas where there have been reports of suspicious activity, such as shots fired in the night, or signs of trespassing. “We don’t go put them out just anywhere,” he says. Once officers have staged a lure, one hides in a nearby protected area and operates a remote control, while the others wait in vehicles parked out of sight.
The key to catching poachers, Bolton says, is a convincing decoy. “If we used a white-tailed deer, people in Eureka would say, ‘That doesn’t look right,’” he notes. The decoy is realistic partly because it is made from the skin and antlers of an animal killed on the highway. For this, Bolton and many other wildlife officers around the country have Brian Wolslegel to thank. Over the past two decades, Wolslegel, owner of Custom Robotic Wildlife, has transformed skin—and sometimes bone, as with the buck’s antlers—into lifelike lures.
“We do just about every animal you can imagine,” he says. “Every year probably about 100 deer, 20 to 30 turkeys, 15 or so elk.” There are also wolves, bears, moose, pheasants, squirrels, and more.
Wolslegel works out of a shop behind his house in Mosinee, Wisconsin. He’s a trained firefighter, but when no positions were available, he got a job in a taxidermy shop instead. Wolslegel isn’t a hunter himself, but he took to the work, and after a few years he started his own company, collaborating with an engineer to make robotic animals.
The company is a small operation, and Wolslegel’s three kids all pitch in. His 14-year-old son “loves to skin.” His 11-year-old daughter is skilled at pouring the molds that give the animals shape. His younger daughter, 8, who Wolslegel describes as “a little princess who likes dresses and pink,” prefers to “flesh.” “She’ll put on an apron and remove meat and fat,” says her father proudly.
Many of the deer Wolslegel works with come from local hunters (he estimates that he’s got about 300 hides in a 12-by-12-foot freezer). If he doesn’t have what officers are looking for, they’ll send the raw materials to him, as Bolton did with his roadkill. A grant paid for the transformation of Bolton’s black-tailed buck, but not all officers are able to drum up the $2,000 or so a robotic deer costs.
Luckily, there are programs that help fill that gap. The Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust, for instance, has facilitated the donation of 30 decoys to federal and state agencies since 2004. The faux wildlife include black bears, grizzlies, white-tailed deer, antelope, and coyotes, says Jim Reed, who heads the nonprofit’s decoy program. While the group has worked with several taxidermists, Reed says that whenever a new project surfaces, “Brian’s name normally pops up. He does a great job.”
Not all of Wolslegel’s creations end up in sting operations. He once did an African lion for the lobby of a real estate development company, adding motion sensors along the base so its head would follow visitors as they walked to the reception desk (an interesting business strategy, to say the least). And last month a woman requested a red fox—the favorite animal of her son, who has autism—with a moving head and tail. “They both loved it,” says Wolslegel. “It was really something special.”
One of Wolslegel’s current projects is a white-tailed deer, with a twist. For a long time he’s been making ersatz animals that, via remote control, twitch their ears, turn their head, lift a leg, or switch their tail. But an officer from the National Park Service has requested that her deer do something more: poop.
So Wolslegel and the engineer he works with figured out how to make the robot drop a load with a lift of its tail. After some trial and error, he hit on brown M&Ms as the best stand-in for feces. “My kids are having a blast eating all the other colors,” he says.
And the pooping ruminant might be more than a one-off. Wolslegel and the engineer are considering starting a side company that makes unique candy dispensers. He envisions selling only the back half of a whitetail: Pull the tail, get a treat. Gimmicks aside, the real treat is how these robots can help protect their still-kicking kin.
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