If you’ve never been through this type of experience, it will be hard for you to understand the abject horror my husband, Rod, and I faced on Oct. 20, 1999.
It started off like any other day on our farm, feeding horses and our growing herd of white-tailed deer. But the routine came to an abrupt halt that evening when we found the hole in the fence. Our world had been turned upside down.
Rod and I got into raising whitetails back in the late 1980s, long before deer farming exploded (there are currently 800 of us) in Pennsylvania. We looked at it more as a hobby than a money-making venture. A lot of other deer farmers probably got started the same way, and for the same reasons: enjoying the novelty of having a “wild animal” in your care, and watching their behavior in ways you never could when all you got to see of them were glimpses on the edges of a field in the evening or during the short days of hunting season.
When you have contact with these animals as we did, feeding them every day, interacting with them one-on-one, your relationship with them changes. And despite whatever preconceived notions you may have, whitetails, like people, all have individual personalities. You can understand, then, that all of our deer have names — like a doe we call “Piggy” because she inhaled her bottles of milk as a fawn — that came to us as we spent time with them.
And like people, deer have individual physical characteristics in their body shapes and facial features that you come to recognize as they mature. That might be easy to understand if you’re thinking about the rack grown by the bucks, but the does are just as distinctive. Since we’ve bottle fed almost all of our deer from the time they were small fawns, we can look at any one of our nearly 100 whitetails and call to them by name. Remember this as I tell the rest of this story.
Like many other people who started raising deer as a hobby and, as their interest grew, started a selective breeding program to improve the overall genetic quality of their herd, Rod and I were soon hit by the bug of seeing what kind of racks we could get our bucks to grow. Nutrition and food, as anyone who has studied whitetails knows, plays a big part in the equation, but the right genes have to be there or all that good chow goes for naught.
Selectively, we began buying buck fawns from breeders whose herds had long, well-documented lineages of antler producers. Without getting into a complicated discourse on genetics, that is how we happened to buy the deer we named “Goliath.” Both of us enjoy the symmetry of a typical rack, and we have a line of typicals that are extraordinary. But we’re really fascinated by the non-typicals, and that’s what Goliath’s line produced.
As a fawn, there really wasn’t anything exceptional about this little buck. He may have been a smidgen bigger than normal right from the start, but that was to be expected, given his genetic lines. If anything, he was remarkable for his tolerance, almost — if I can say this without seeming anthropomorphic — as if he enjoyed being around people. Lord knows he should have; he came onto our farm riding on my lap.
And then Goliath started growing his first rack. When it ended up having 21 “ring-holding” points, we knew we had an extraordinary buck.
If you grew up on a farm or in a rural setting, or even if you just have friends who live out in the country, you can understand that some things ingrained in city dwellers — such as locking your doors when you go away for the day or being suspicious of people you don’t know — just aren’t part of our daily lives. We both have jobs, Rod as an equipment operator at a manufactured-housing plant and myself as a librarian at the local elementary school, and we have more family (four generations of us living right here around Knox, Pennsylvania) and friends (including several hundred from our state deer farmers’ association) than you could imagine. And all of these people, sometimes as many as a dozen at a time, came by to visit with us and to see the rack on Goliath. Despite the coming and going of all of these people — many of whom were strangers to us at the time — the thought of being concerned for any of our personal possessions, let alone our deer, never crossed our minds.
I couldn’t tell you how many times we wondered aloud, as we watched Goliath’s first rack grow, what he was going to look like in his second year. But I can tell you that within a couple weeks of watching it bud out of the pedicles, we could see we weren’t going to be disappointed. And even before he began shedding the velvet that third fall of his life, we were clearly able to count 28 points. When that rack was done growing — all 230 B&C points’ worth — Goliath was one of the highest-scoring 2 1/2-year-old bucks ever recorded.
It’s funny to think back on it now, because that rack was, by anyone’s standards, enormous. But if you asked Rod or me what we remembered about Goliath, we’d probably tell you it was his temperament. Even during the rut, when all male deer get a little squirrelly, Goliath wasn’t aggressive toward us. We’ve had dogs around since we first started raising deer, dogs that have been bred for their herding and protecting instincts, but while we always had them with us when we went into Goliath’s enclosure in the fall, we never felt they were needed.
By August 1999, it was a rare evening when we didn’t have visitors while we were feeding our deer. Friends, and even friends of their friends, were stopping by with bags or bushels of apples. I’d be fibbing if I said it didn’t get to be hectic at times, but we knew how rare deer like Goliath are, and we also knew how much people wanted to see him. As much as we possibly could, we accommodated everyone who came to see him.
Realizing other deer breeders would be interested in obtaining semen and offspring from Goliath, we advertised a “head and shoulder” photo of him to illustrate our price lists that appeared that fall in several deer farmers’ catalogs. As you might imagine, we had a tremendous response.
In early October we tranquilized Goliath and, under the supervision of our veterinarian, collected semen. For those not familiar with the process of artificial insemination, semen can be kept frozen for some time in what are referred to as “straws” and then used for breeding at a later date. Because of the circumstances I’m about to relate, however, we weren’t able to fill enough of those straws to meet the demand we had for them.
Pennsylvania in late October, with the leaves just starting to turn, is probably one of the prettiest places in the world. However, between our “real” jobs and the deer, we don’t get to enjoy much of this fall scenery. At that time of year, we’re both up very early, feeding our herd and on our way to work before the sun comes up. So it wasn’t until we got home on the fateful evening of Oct. 20, 1999, that we discovered a hole had been cut in our fence in the wee hours of the previous morning.
I’ll skip over the nightmare of the next few days, other than to relate that, at first, we thought that maybe some local kids had cut the fence, hoping to get Goliath’s genes spread around in the local deer population. It wasn’t until Rod found the drag marks and a pasture fence that had also been cut that we realized that this wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment act by a group of juveniles. We’d been robbed by professionals.
Goliath and 16 does were missing. (Several of the does returned on their own, while most of the others we captured in the woods near our farm.) Someone had, with a great deal of forethought and planning, cut a hole in the fence in a spot that couldn’t be seen from our house. They then had tranquilized Goliath and dragged him to a waiting getaway vehicle. The thieves obviously weren’t interested in taking the does.
This was the start of a four-year nightmare. Along the way, we received “tips” that Goliath was suspected to be in Texas or Arkansas or some other state; there was even a period in the beginning when we couldn’t help but believe that he’d been destroyed because of the publicity the case was receiving.
With local and state newspapers carrying the story and our national associations helping to get the word out to their sizable memberships, it wasn’t conceivable to us that he could be out there someplace and no one know it. Still, with the State Police, the FBI and the Pennsylvania Game Commission all supposedly hot on the case, there wasn’t much we could do but wait for word.
As the months, and then years, dragged by, we gave up hope. Oh, there was occasional talk about his offspring showing up in one place or another, but nothing concrete ever came of it. And then, on July 29 of this year, we had an unexpected visit from four of our friends in the Pennsylvania Deer Farmers’ Association.
They were absolutely sure, they told us ecstatically when they arrived at our home that day, that they’d found Goliath alive, and less than 50 miles from our farm. That close? We could hardly believe them.
With quick action from our attorney, Ron Elliott, the next day we obtained a court order to go to the farm near Hazen, Pennsylvania, where our friends had found Goliath. The court order authorized us to bring the deer home. Imagine what went through our minds on the short drive down Interstate 80. Our first thought was, We’re finally going to get him back! But then, there was the darker side: What if it isn’t really Goliath?
However, our fears were gone the moment we saw him. Despite our concerns this might not be our deer, both Rod and I — as had our friends from the deer association — recognized Goliath immediately. And after we had him tranquilized, in preparation for bringing him home, Rod looked in the buck’s left ear and found the tattoo we’d put there when he was a fawn. Neither of us really needed to see that tattoo, because we were both so familiar with Goliath (remember what I told you earlier) that we recognized his face.
If you’re thinking this is the point in the story where the good guys ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after, you’re wrong. Yes, Goliath is back on our farm, and there are only a very few things — one of them the recent arrival of a grandchild — that could make us happier. But getting Goliath back was in some ways only the beginning of the story.
Before I get into that, however, let me tell you a few of the ironic — and heart-warming — things that happened along the way.
I know this is neither the time nor the place to get into the rhubarb that is swirling around the issue of hunting inside high fences. I will say, however, that 99.9 percent of the hunting preserve owners, just like 99.9 percent of us who raise their deer for them, are good and honest and hard-working people who deliver a service that is being driven by the law of supply and demand.
For those of us who are deer farmers, the philosophical debate over hunting preserves isn’t something we get into every day. We do, however, feed and care for our whitetails every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. No vacations. No breaks. And while a cattle or dairy farmer makes his profits from meat or milk, we deer farmers make our profits from the size of the antlers we produce. Hunting preserves, as you might surmise, are not interested in buying spike bucks.
Even the fact that our friends happened to stop at that farm was a bit of a fluke. Every year in late summer, these four guys — known in the Pennsylvania Deer Farmers’ Association as “The Four Amigos” — visit many of the breeders in northwestern Pennsylvania, looking for new bucks to diversify their own herds. Goliath’s photo, along with his sale price, was posted on this farm’s Web site for just one day before a buyer was found and a deal struck. Incredibly, that just happened to be the day one of the “amigos” was browsing the Internet in preparation for their annual buying trip.
You might also be interested in knowing — and this is one of the real bright spots in this whole ordeal — that Rod and I had pulled together, with a great deal of assistance from those family and friends I told you about, a reward of $100,000 for information leading to the safe return of Goliath. However, The Four Amigos — those four men who do not want all the fuss of publicity they’d get if I mentioned their names — refused to even discuss the reward. When pressed about taking the money, they said that all they wanted was “a big old smooch.” I still think that is a little strange, because they were talking to Rod at
In late August, after Goliath had been back with us for about two weeks, Rod and I and the owner of the farm where our deer was found agreed to a DNA test to make absolutely certain of the animal’s identity. Supervised by two veterinarians, four state police officers and the attorneys for both parties, Goliath was to be tranquilized so that blood and tissue samples could be removed.
The vets, however, felt that due to the warm weather and the short amount of time since he was last “put down” (when we tranquilized him to bring him home), this procedure would not be safe. Instead, a “sampling dart” (designed to fall out after it has penetrated) was fired into his hindquarters and DNA material — under the close scrutiny of the attorneys — was recovered and sent to a testing lab. This DNA test was the beginning of a long legal process that will still be going on as you read this.
There is a great deal more to this story that I am not permitted to relate to you, because of the legal actions that have been initiated. Goliath weighs an estimated 375 pounds, and even at age 2 1/2 he was not dragged off our farm by one person. Also, there were four years — from October 20, 1999, to July 30, 2003 — when his offspring and semen may have been sold without our knowledge or consent. And then there’s the matter of Goliath’s second-year rack, the one depicted in the pictures that we used to advertise his semen and fawns, that was cut off after he was stolen. It ended up on a hunting preserve in another state before being returned to us.
While I can’t tell you how all of this will play out, I can tell you that respected people in the deer-breeding industry are already speculating that Goliath’s current rack (he’s now 6 1/2 years old) might have the highest Boone and Crockett score ever recorded. Until the velvet comes off later this fall, however, that is just interesting conjecture.
But I can tell you for a fact that Rod and I — and all the family and friends who are stopping by to congratulate us for getting Goliath back — are once again able to sit back and speculate on what his rack might look like next year.