Robo Deer fools would-be poachers

Sunday, December 29, 2002

PANAMA CITY, Fla. -- Tales of Rudolph of red-nose fame, Dasher, Prancer and Santa's other tiny reindeer dominate at Christmas time, but have you heard of the strangest deer of all?

He's Robo Deer. The mechanical decoy helps Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers nab poachers and deter the illegal shooting of Rudolph's real-life cousins at night and from vehicles.

The stories of his exploits have multiplied since 1995 when the agency began using the devices. Robo Deer follows in the hoof-steps of a couple less realistic versions. The first was a cardboard cutout with some burlap on it.

"It was worth maybe $2," commission Lt. Stan Kirkland said. "It was amazing how many people shot at it."

Next was a deer replica similar to those archers can buy as practice targets, but it had no moving parts.

Then came Robo Deer, which can turn its head and twitch its tail. The stories quickly followed.

"We had an officer report there was someone in a truck watching the replica," Kirkland said. "He took a long gaze and then floorboarded his vehicle. He ran through these pines and oaks, ran over the decoy, and destroyed it."

The motorist had to buy the state a replacement.

Another driver just missed running over it.

"Then the guy all of the sudden slammed on the brakes, vaults out of the truck, takes out a big sheath knife, tackles it, and knocks it to the ground," Kirkland said. "The head rolls off."

The man got up mumbling about game officers and drove off. No arrest was made because there's nothing illegal about tackling a deer.

Another man saw the deer and stopped his truck, got out and crawled on his belly across a ditch filled with water to within 20 feet.

"You'd think by now he'd get the message when this thing doesn't run that it's not real," Kirkland said. "He reaches back into his pocket, whips out this little pistol you couldn't kill a snake with, and plinks away at the decoy."

As the arrests grew, so did the legend. Officers get calls from people claiming they spotted Robo Deer, much like Elvis, in places he's never been.

"A lot of them want to us to know we didn't fool them," Kirkland said. "Then they want to know how we're able to get him to jump fences. That's when we just grin and bear it and say 'It's a secret, and we can't discuss that.'"

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