Captive Cervid Industry In California

The cervid family (Cervidae) includes 39 species. Of these 39 species only a few are commonly raised in captivity for commercial purposes; these include: Rocky Mountain Elk (Cervus elaphus canadensis), red deer (Cervus elaphus), fallow deer (Dama dama), sika deer (Cervus nippon), and axis deer (Axis axis).

Private citizens hold captive wildlife for a variety of reasons, ranging from game farming to maintenance of small private zoos. Since the early 1980's, the segment of the captive wildlife industry that deals with cervids grew significantly both nationally and internationally. This expansion of the captive cervid industry revolved around the speculative market for live animals for breeding purposes, venison, and velvet antler sales. This increased interest in the farming of captive cervids led to numerous conflicts between the captive wildlife industry, state and federal wildlife agencies, and state and federal agriculture agencies.

The State of California allows the holding and possession of captive cervids under permit issued by California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and regulates this activity through the Fish and Game Commission, CDFW Codes, and Title 14 of the California Code of Regulations.

Regulations of the Captive Cervid Industry

The primary responsibility of CDFW is to protect and conserve the natural resources within the State. Within that broad-based mandate, the Department is concerned with wildlife populations, the habitats upon which they depend, and exotic species which can impact native wildlife populations directly or indirectly. The California Fish and Game Commission is authorized by the state legislature to regulate the captive cervid industry within the State by Fish and Wildlife Code sections listed below:

  • § 202 directs the Commission to formulate policies to guide the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in the management of wildlife in the State.
  • § 2116 defines wild animals as any animal that is not usually domesticated in the State.
  • § 2116.5 authorizes the regulation of importation, transportation, and possession of wild animals by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in order to protect wildlife, agriculture, and public health and safety
  • § 2118 regulates the importation, transportation, and possession of wild animals. The section establishes a list of prohibited species that are considered detrimental or undesirable and a menace to native wildlife, the agricultural interests of the State, or to the public health or safety.
  • § 2150 establishes permits for private possession of restricted species subject to certain restrictions and criteria adopted by the Commission.
  • § 2185 - 87 allow Fish and Wildlife officers to inspect, on arrival and periodically, any and all wild animals imported, transported, or possessed. If evidence of disease or suspicion of disease is present or if husbandry conditions are unsatisfactory, the Fish and Wildlife officer can order transfer of ownership or destruction of the animals. No indemnification is provided.
  • § 2118.2 prohibits the importation of any elk (genus Cervus) into the State except by the Department and accredited zoos.
  • § 2118.3 prohibits the removal of any elk horn or antler from any live elk for commercial purposes.
  • § 3214 requires all domesticated game mammals to be held in escape-proof facilities.

In 1980, legislation was passed that prohibited the importation of any elk species into the State except through State-sponsored projects (§ 2118.2). Since that time only wild Roosevelt elk (Cervus elaphus roosevelti) originating from Oregon have been imported and released in the northern part of the State to augment free-ranging populations.

During the remainder of the 1980's, a limited number of cervids (no elk) were imported into California. In March 1992, bovine tuberculosis was diagnosed on an exotic animal game farm in central California. Personnel from the California Department of Food & Agriculture (DFA) and CDFW conducted the initial investigation of the game farm. The primary species involved in the outbreak were cattle and fallow deer (Dama dama). In April 1992, the Fish and Game Commission adopted a moratorium on the importation of any cervid into California, effective until regulations could be formulated and adopted to deal with this captive cervid industry. CDFW had numerous concerns including: escape and establishment of feral populations resulting in social and habitat competition with native species; hybridization with native species; disease and parasite introduction to native species and livestock; enforcement of regulations; disease testing not validated for wildlife species; and impact on sport hunting.

No cervid legally entered the State until 1994 when CDFW adopted regulations to guide the changing captive cervid industry and to handle associated disease issues. The adopted regulations, Title 14, Section 676 allowed the farming of fallow deer (Dama dama) for the production of breeding stock and meat, and only those fallow deer which had been tested for tuberculosis (TB) and brucellosis were allowed importation into California.

Since adoption of the fallow deer farming regulations, only two fallow deer herds have been imported into California, both originating from accredited TB-free herds (Tennessee, 1998; and Iowa, 1999). Owners of fallow deer herds present within California prior to the 1994 regulations had two options: 1) conduct specific disease testing on the herd (undergo two TB tests, at least 12 months apart, and one test for brucellosis within three years of obtaining a fallow deer farming permit) or 2) conduct no disease testing. Compliance with the disease testing requirements led to a 'fully certified' fallow deer herd in which individual deer in the herd could be transported an/or sold within the State (10 fully certified fallow deer herds exist at this time). For those fallow deer herds which did not undergo disease testing a 'partially certified' classification resulted (presently there are seven partially certified fallow deer herds). Deer in 'partially certified' herds are not allowed to be moved, sold or transported, except directly to slaughter. The 2002 estimated number of fallow deer held on the 15 permitted fallow deer farming premises is 1,200.

Cervid species, including fallow deer, can also be possessed under a Restricted Species permit issued by CDFW for a variety of purposes (CCR, § 671), namely:

  • Animal Care
  • Exhibiting
  • Single Event Breeding for Exhibitor
  • Breeding
  • AZA
  • Research
  • Broker/Dealer
  • Shelter

These cervids, primarily axis, fallow deer, and sika deer, can be sold, moved, or transported within the State to other permittees without disease testing. The estimated number of cervids held under a restricted species permit is 1,000 (this includes those cervids held by zoos).

All cervids to be imported from out-of-state must be approved in writing by CDFW. The permittee must receive an approved Cervidae Importation Application from CDFW License and Revenue Branch prior to the importation. Prior to approving a cervid import request, a CDFW Wildlife Investigations Lab veterinarian conducts a risk assessment based on the application information and information obtained through consultation with the state-or-origin state veterinarian, herd owner, and herd veterinarian to determine health status of the cervid(s) to be imported and to assess the possibility of exposure to a disease of concern (e.g. chronic waiting disease). Only those cervids originating from disease-tested herds or closed herds (e.g. zoos) are approved, and from those states considered to be at low risk for chronic wasting disease in deer and elk. During 2002, only muntjac (zoo) and fallow deer (non-resident exhibitor) were approved for importation.

A limited number of restricted species permittees are approved for the breeding of cervids. All of these were 'grandfathered in' after the adoption of the 1994 fallow deer farming regulations. Permittees with a Restricted Species Breeding permit are only allowed to slaughter deer for their own consumption.

In summary, only a limited number of cervids (non-resident exhibition deer and fallow deer) have been imported into California during the past two decades and no ranched elk. Non-resident exhibition deer enter the State for a short period of time for exhibition purposed and have no contact with domestic livestock, captive resident cervids, or free-ranging wildlife species.

Only two fallow deer herds have been imported, both from TB-free accredited herds. In addition, all cervids six months of age or older to be imported in CA must be tested for TB within 120 days prior to entry and shall have been classified negative for TB based upon an official test and tested negative for brucellosis within 30 days prior to entry. The herd of origin must have undergone official testing for tuberculosis within 24 months of the importation. This herd test requirement is waived, on occasion, for AZA facilities citing humane concerns for particular cervid species at high risk for physical or chemical immobilization. These animals have no contact with free-ranging native cervids, farmed fallow deer, or domestic livestock, and thus present little to no risk as a source of TB, brucellosis, or other contagious diseases.