Notes from webinar 3: Deer, are they a wild or domestic species?

Can wild animals be domesticated – deer in particular? What are the issues around farming wild animals? Why are deer listed on China’s proposed list of livestock?

Image: Kate Fox

Listen to the third webinar here.

Host, Guo Peng: Hi everyone, today I will be the host of the third online webinar. It’s 8pm in Beijing, 1pm London and it’s really a global webinar. We’ve invited experts to talk about wildlife topics including domestication: Deer, are they wild or domestic?

It’s because the livestock list was published earlier this month and deer were listed on the catalogue as a special species.

Sika deer 1st class protected. How should it be protected and how commercially used? We should prefer protection over commercial as we need to stop people hunting them illegally and commercial use leads to abuse and doesn’t help protect.

In the academic field sika deer listed in livestock is one of our quarrels.

Domestication of wildlife discussed so much in China. We have decades of history of farming deer. During domestication, what problems are there and how should they be addressed? We’re going to focus on farming, welfare and risks to public health. We have three experts:

Rob Laidlaw, Biologist and Founder of wildlife protection organisation Zoocheck Canada, will put a spotlight on deer to discuss their suitability as a genus for commercial farming, and the welfare problems associated with captive breeding of wild animals.

Guo Geng, Vice Chairman of the Science and Technology Association of Beijing Academy of Science and Tecnology, Beijing Elk Ecological Experimental Centre, and Beijing Biodiversity Conservation Research Centre, an academic with expertise in animal ethics.

Professor Lu Jia Hai, Director of One Health China, Professor at Sun Yat-Sen University in epidemiology, vaccinology, pathogenic biology and veterinary medicine.  Professor Lu will discuss the prevention of zoonotic diseases through vaccine.


  1. It is said in the western world that venison is high welfare meat – is this true? And what is the scale of deer farming?

Guo Geng: The scale of deer farming has been fluctuating because the situation has been changing constantly. Now there are 400,000 deer, lowest 200,000, highest 500,000 deer. Recently it’s low – we all know why. Sika deer are 80% and red deer 20%, and others much less, reindeer I believe are domesticated deer, special but a very small number. It’s a minority group, less than 1,000. Compare China with New Zealand, a big country with deer farming. They focus on European red deer in NZ. Russia, largest number of deer 2 million reindeer. There are 50 different species of deer in the world and reindeer closest to domestic. Russia, NZ then China re numbers, I visited Japan where there are lots of sika deer across the streets – I haven’t been eating meat for decades and I have worked here for 20 years. People ask if I eat the deer and I say no, I don’t eat meat. Deer faeces are not stinky because they don’t eat meat.


Rob Laidlaw: There are some similarities in my answer. The deer farming industry and other alternative livestock industries are in a state of flux due to market conditions and other factors. In Canada we have several hundred deer farms with thousands of individual animals, but the industry is relatively small compared to the United States. In fact, there are two US states with more than 1,000 farms – each having a number greater than all of Canada. The flux in the market is because the public is not yet entirely receptive to the eating of wild game as part of their diet, even though the deer farming industry has been promoting deer as a nutritious and eco-sensitive food. Interestingly, hunting organizations whose members go out and shoot deer for sport and recreation, do not agree with deer farming associations. In fact, the hunting organizations don’t want deer to be farmed at all and would like to see the industry phased out. Meat and antlers (for export) are the primary products produced by North American deer farms but no one really knows if the industry will grow and become more sustainable in the future. And I should mention that in other areas of the world, where deer are raised more for their antlers and parts (and not meat), there may be more receptiveness to deer products than exists in North America.


Prof Lu: one part of question not mentioned, in China and western world people are using deer differently, commercially using deer because of different culture and habits and religious beliefs. In China, people believe deer is valuable and nutritious and can be used in medicine which is why commercial development is overdone. In other countries to use it as only a source of food.


  1. How is the welfare of farmed deer, what does ‘welfare’ mean, and what are the three tenets of welfare?

Guo Geng: I am currently at Beijing Elk Farm. We have 200 elk in this park, classified as intensive farming. They live in a huge area plus a huge wet land for them to live in. An environment very similar to original nature and we give them a rich environment. I personally believe if you don’t have the right conditions and enough space do not raise the animals. I think we have enough space here and people say you are supported by the nation and researchers are doctors or masters and your deer are different because we (farmers) use them just for products. We are saving an endangered species but they farm them.

Are deer wild or domestic – it’s hard to define. Some are wild, some domestic. Reindeer in northern Asia and US and Europe, they are domesticated. Let’s switch back to animal welfare which is something we value a lot. We are open to the public for free and I say as a manager we limit the tourists. Open at 9am and close at 4pm, rest of the time the deer can relax. Space wise different functions are separate, including the core area, buffer area and experimental area, No one enters the core – including me. Then a buffer where people and deer can be in a space together. I know there are 5 animal welfare markers: physical, environmental, health, psychological and behavioural.

Our deer here – we will never take their antlers. It frees the animal from suffering the pain. People ask, why do you raise deer, do you sell the products – the meat, the blood the antlers? I say no, we sell nothing, this is protection, but as a farmer you do it for profit.

Host, Guo Peng – you are doing it for protection and looking at welfare. For farming basically could not reach the standard of animal welfare and in fact, they breed the deer and put them in a farm.

Guo Geng: We make a circle and they can breed here and then send them out to preservation areas across the nation.

Guo Peng: So a question: a farm where hundreds of deer are raised in an area the size of five or six basketball courts, what kind of problems would you encounter? Should these deer be released into the wild?

Guo Geng: No, they cannot, I think it’s different. Protection is one way and domesticated farming is another way, and they should not be mixed, or everything will be chaotic.

Guo Peng: In terms of animal welfare, let’s ask Mr Rob Laidlaw to shed some light.

Rob Laidlaw: Whenever my organisation assesses the welfare of wild animals in captivity we tend to look at the three key facets of animal welfare. They are:

  1. The biological functioning of the animal,
  2. Affective states (how animal feels)
  3. Natural living – can the animal live a life according to its own evolved adaptations.

From what I see in intensive farming, some of biological functioning needs of the animals are being met, but the animal’s affective states (particularly those that are positive) and their ability to live natural lives according to their evolved adaptations may be restricted or even severely diminished.

In all intensive farming businesses that I’ve seen (regardless of what animal is being kept), profit trumps the welfare of the animals. That reality is a root cause of poor farmed animal welfare throughout the world. And it can be particularly problematic when you are dealing with wild animals like deer.

Even a cursory investigation of deer farms will reveal a range of animal welfare issues. Many operators have no expertise or experience with deer or farming and enter into deer farming because they see it as a good, and potentially very profitable, business opportunity. But for many of them it turns out to very different than they thought, leading to unprofitable, shoddy, sometimes failing, enterprises that fail to satisfy the welfare needs of the animals. That is not uncommon.

Deer are also not the best candidates for intensive farming. Many deer are naturally wary, highly strung and flee whenever they feel threatened. It’s a normal survival mechanism for an animal that encounters predators in a free-living wild state. Hindering that flight response (and the ability of deer to engage in other normal behaviours) may contribute to excessive or chronic stress resulting in poor welfare. There may also be stress associated with improper caging and housing, overcrowding, inter-individual aggression, monopolization of preferred feeding areas by dominant animals and inappropriate handling, to name just a few areas.

Of course, there are other welfare problems in farming situations that can result in physical discomfort, pain, injury or death, such as exposure to excessive heat, cold, wind and sun, getting tangled in fences, being exposed to sharp edges or protrusions, being crushed in poorly designed stalls and raceways, predation on calves, unskilled removal of antlers resulting in pain and infection and rough handling, to name just a few.


  1. About wild animal farming some people say eco-use of intensively farmed animals, that can’t we do that, it’s not a good trend. In China what are the problems in farming wild deer and what are the differences between zoos and farming in terms of husbandry?

Rob: While my exposure to deer farms is limited to North America, I think I can safely say that there are some fundamental differences between traditional zoos (located in cities where limited space is available). Zoos tend to provide much smaller spaces for deer (often just a few hundred square meters), while the better deer farms tend to provide enclosures measuring several acres or more in size. The zoo enclosures often are overgrazed and devoid of vegetation, while the larger farm pens are typically covered with pasture and/or treed areas. Certainly from the perspective of space, the farms are more advantageous.

Since the space is smaller and visibility of the animals is better in zoos, there may be a greater level of scrutiny of animal health. In farming situations where observation may be significantly less than that in zoos, some problems may be overlooked or missed, such as social conflicts or making sure calves are found and protected from predation or dangerous weather.

When it comes to numbers of animals, most zoos have small numbers of deer (although some public deer parks where visitors feed the animals have large numbers), while farms tend to have greater numbers.

Another fundamental difference is that the majority of deer on farms are going to be killed for their meat, antlers, penises, skins etc. long before they achieve the upper reaches of their natural lifespans, potentially creating a range of welfare issues associated with handling, transport and slaughter. In contrast, zoos don’t routinely kill their animals.

  1. What are the possible potential risks for public health – consider with reality in China?

Prof Lu: I will continue to talk about animal welfare and the risks they might bring to human health. To some extent, in the welfare we talked about, one thing is missed: are deer wildlife or domestic? If they are wild then endangered species protection is good, and what Guo Geng is doing is good and worth doing, as to some extent the park imitates the deers’ natural environment. So the deer can live in quite a wild way, and then protection is really worth doing.  And in zoos in cities, they care about the animals to some extent, and the welfare can be good. But also in zoos the protection of animals is sometimes over-stated. Some people now use deer for commercial purposes, which will bring many issues. Because trying to use an animals as an economic product: to raise it, breed it, means there will be exploitation. There’s a limitation of costs. You can’t give the animals a better environment. That’s the nature of going after profits. It will costs the overexploitation of the animal products, for eg some people would say this part of the deer is valuable for medicine, and they do something to stimulate that part of their body.

Now let’s think about COVID-19 and infectious diseases that pass from animals to people. More than 75% of infectious diseases are zoonotic. For example, deer can pass TB, a disease hosted by lots of species, including people and cattle. Also lyme disease comes from ticks on deer. In US people get lyme disease because of the ticks. There are skin disease people can get with too much contact. If people commercially use wild animals there are problems, raised risk. Through the domestication of wild animals we are exposed to new pathogens and this is dangerous and will cause pathogens to cross species, like COVID-19 from bats to other animals, to humans. We need to protect wildlife and not exploit it.


Guo Peng: The connection between zoonotic disease and wild animals, people do not have enough experience yet. There is promotion online that drinking deer blood can increase libido – can we drink raw blood from deer? Some people eat deer meat. Are there health risks?

Prof Lu: What you are saying, in Asian countries these things are very common. A wrong theory could cause people to act wrongly. People think that deer have very hot blood, and drinking the blood is good for people who have week immune systems. But obviously that is absolutely wrong. Like I said, there are all kinds of pathogens living in animals’ bodies. These pathogens include firuses, bacteria, mould, and sometimes the host doesn’t have symptoms of the disease. But when people are exposed to these pathogens, it’s going to be very dangerous. It’s a very bad habit that should be eliminated. We should not adopt it any further.

Guo Geng: Let me add something here: we don’t just have elk in our park, we also have a smaller deer and I often photograph them. Once I took a picture of the deer’s face, and it was covered with parasites – ticks. Ticks have been living on deer for many years. If you stay away, it’s safe, but if you get close to play with it, eat it, or drink its blood, then the tick will pass from animals to human beings and that’s how you get Lyme disease. That’s why I said we just take a photo of them from afar.


Guo Peng: What is the definition of domestication? Because in the wildlife protection law there has been a dilemma. The original law says important for us to exploit the use of wild animals. After decades of farming, does it turn into a domestic animal? What is the correct definition of domestication?

Guo Geng: Domesticated animals originated from wild animal at least thousands of years ago. People have used them for meat or eggs on farms, or for pets like cats and dogs. But today I think the question in English is really correct: are deer wild or domesticated – that is the question! But today as we are talking about deer, there are 50 species of deer in the world, but only two are domesticated. The first is reindeer, which is the only species that has been domestic for thousands of years. And the second one is in China, I don’t know if you’ve heard about it. European deer don’t exist in Europe in the wild anymore, but can be found in captivity, and in China they are easily bred. They are found to have alberfaction, which means the whitening of their appearance, fitting into culture of China which claiming that an individual with a whitened appearance is an auspicious symbol. That’s why I believe it is a species being domesticated. But today as we talk about sika deer and red deer on the livestock list, although in China they have been farmed for hundreds of years, principally I believe they are not domestic but they are being domesticated. I hold my idea we need to protect the wild so they can live on their own without artificial breeding or feeding but there’s a problem – from appearances we cannot tell if it’s wild or domestic. We implant a chip into domestic deer and many institutions do that. If a poacher illegally hunts a sika deer they will be punished. They might way we stole it from a farm – if there is a chip its from a farm and punishment is not so severe. If it’s wild it’s much more severe.


Guo Peng: Is it a good trend to categorise wild animals as livestock?

Prof Lu: Today I bring up One Health concept about animals, humans and the environment. It’s about the harmonious existence between animals and people. Our society has developed so much from an agricultural society to a modern society right now, and many animals have been domesticated. They used to be wild animals. It’s a very long process but I think we should not do that anymore, we should not domesticate anymore for the sake of using them for meat. That’s my first point. And secondly, most infectious diseases are transmitted to humans from animals. So we should protect the animals and stay away from them, and live harmoniously together on this planet. So for the sake of reducing the risk of being infected with new diseases, less domestication is what we should aim for as progress for us all.

Rob: Yes, I am adamantly opposed to domestication, commercialising or industrial uses of wildlife, including deer. I think it’s unnecessary. When we treat them as commodities, we create disease risks to people and other wildlife, we do not address food safety or security issues (as some deer farmers say), and we cause discomfort, pain and suffering (i.e., poor welfare) to animals.

Today, we know a lot more about animals than we did in the past. Science has provided a great deal of information about how animals think, feel and live their lives. That information has contributed to a change in public attitudes, with many people now believing that animals have to treated better, that their full range of welfare needs need to  be addressed and, in many cases, that certain uses of animals be stopped. There are many reasons why we shouldn’t be trying to exploit wild animals, so I think deer farming needs reconsidered.


Guo Peng: Have other countries regarded deer as livestock or not?

Rob: It depends on what jurisdiction you’re looking at. There’s no consistency in how deer are designated with some jurisdictions listing them as wildlife and others listing them as agricultural animals. And some jurisdictions have dual listings that divide up wild and captive populations of the same deer species. That doesn’t seem to make any biological sense to me and I suspect the decision to do the dual listings is largely political.

It should be noted that in North America, deer farmers face considerable opposition to their industry from hunters who kill deer for sport and recreation, as well as from animal welfare groups who find deer farming cruel. The hunters believe deer farms pose severe disease risks to native wild deer populations, so they’d like to see them stopped. That debate may inform how deer are designated as well.

Before this webinar my reading revealed that in some jurisdictions deer are not considered regulated livestock because traditional meat inspection systems don’t have the capacity to properly safeguard human public health. However, that argument may not be relevant if deer are not going to be used for human consumption but are instead used for antlers, pelts and other body parts. So there a number of factors that may impact whether deer are designated as wild or agricultural.


What are the biggest challenges to protect wild deer? What’s the population and are they still caught for farming? Are wild animals still caught to be bred on farms?

Guo Geng: In China and other countries there are differences. In western countries there are hunting permits, in China hunting is prohibited. In Western countries deer are sometimes farmed for eating, but in China it’s mainly farmed for medical use. That’s a big difference. The population of wild deer is over 10,000, or several tens of thousands of different species, more than 20 species. And just talking about sika deer, there are many sub-species. And there are red deer in Tianshan Xinjiang as well. There are over 200,000 artificially bred red deer.

Are deer domestic or wild? But how do we address the current livestock list? The use of wild animals is unique in China, people use them for medical use but when commercial use started there is risk of exploitation and people said we should not waste any part of that animal. How much is used in medicine? How much for fake promotions for economic benefit?


Questions from the audience


What are all of the types of deer, can you write them please?
The types of deer in China are reindeer, sika deer, elk and red deer.

What does domestication mean?
Domestication is a clearly defined biological term that describes a coevolutionary process between domesticator and domesticate. Domestication results in a range of genotypic, phenotypic, plastic, and contextual impacts that can be used as markers of evolving domesticatory relationships. It is distinctly different from processes of that simply involve keeping wild species of animals and plants in captivity. How is this definition applied to the situation in China?

Rob:  I think it is a stretch to say that deer are domesticated, even in the case of reindeer, sika, fallow and musk deer that have been kept in captivity for hundreds of years.  Unlike the domestication of dogs and cats where conditions at the time led to some form of cohabitation with humans and reciprocal benefits to both the humans and the animals involved, followed by a long-term relationship that facilitated domestication, that is not the case with deer. As well, most domesticated species today have undergone a fairly rigorous process of selective breeding for traits that make them amenable, to some degree, to living with humans. That is not the case for deer.  Certainly many deer are tame but it is premature to say they are domesticated. At most, even if we adopt a less rigorous view of domestication, only one or two deer species could even be considered semi-domesticated.

What is the punishment for stealing from farms?

I was interested what the panelists feel the main risks are which may jeopardize animal protection in China?