Earlier this month I was fortunate enough to kill a nice blacktail buck. I had been hunting off and on through deer season, and I saw lots of does every time I went out. With a little patience I knew I would finally cross paths with a good buck and have a chance to punch my tag. I was feeling good about my chances after the weather in Oregon’s Coast Range turned wet and cold in October, so I headed out to public land near the town of Cave Junction.
By noon, the buck was dressed, skinned and hung out to cool and dry in my wood shed. My wife, Suzanne, needed to make a trip into Grants Pass so I took over the supervising of our young daughters. Worn out from the morning’s work, I decided that a little TV time was in order, and within minutes a commercial ran for Arby’s new “venison sandwich.”
My 5-year-old asked, “Daddy, what’s venison?” I explained that venison is deer or elk meat. “Oh,” she said, “just like our deer?” Well, no, not exactly, I replied. In fact, it’s not even close.
An entire industry based on raising and harvesting traditional game meats has evolved over the past several decades. There are thousands of game farms in the country, and hundreds of them in the West. Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Texas and Wyoming — all provide venison to restaurants and grocery stores. But rather than roaming wild, these animals are raised behind tall fences as if they were domestic cattle or sheep, and they are butchered, packaged and sold in much the same manner.
We know that these game farms help spread the disease known as chronic wasting disease, or CWD, to herds of wild game. This deadly disease spreads most easily through captive populations, but it also makes its way into the wild, spreading both through contact, when wild animals touch game animals “through the fence,” and through domestic animals that escape. The problem has been clear for a while, and many groups are working to find ways to stop the spread of the disease.
Technically, a deer or elk in the wild is the same as an animal raised in a pen. But the actual differences are immense. Imagine a wild turkey that scratches out a living in the forest, surviving on bugs and berries. It has no white meat to speak of; its meat is dark from the vascularization of well-developed muscles. Compare that to the Thanksgiving birds we buy from the supermarket — monstrosities that are raised to boost their fat and juiciness content. Factory-farmed turkeys sport giant white breasts with pathetic wings that have never moved. Fenced elk also differ from their farm-raised kin. You can tell by their antlers: They are white in game-farm animals because they are never used, but in the wild they’re black, because the elk sharpen them on trees, the better to fight other elk.
Wild game is unique, and the experience of hunting an animal and bringing it home for meat makes it something that transcends “meal prep.” Call me a snob, but I have to take a deep breath every time I hear someone say, “Oh, you hunt, I just love elk. I had it at a restaurant in Montana.” I guarantee that the elk that diner tasted, while probably delicious, was an inherently different beast from the animal my wife and I packed out of Nevada’s Jarbidge Wilderness last year.
What Arby’s is selling is a fantasy of wild animals running free until they are hunted down and turned into dinner. Arby’s is also selling the idea that its sandwiches connect ordinary people to someone like the charismatic hunter Steven Rinella, who has his own television show, without requiring any of the hard work it takes to kill, butcher and process a large animal. Arby’s might put a piece of meat between two pieces of bread and call it venison, but I don’t think that piece of meat deserves the name.
At least Arby’s venison is said to come from domestic red stag in New Zealand, so the company is not supporting an industry that spreads disease to wild deer and elk here in America. But it is normalizing the consumption of game meat in a national ad campaign without acknowledging any of the potential dangers involved in the game farming industry. Before they saw Arby’s TV ads, how many people even knew that they could buy venison?
It will be interesting to check whether the sales of game meat from online vendors flourish as a result of this ad campaign. Why knows: Maybe McDonald’s will get on board and offer us a special “Big Moose.”
Brian Sexton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He manages a medical clinic in Grants Pass, Oregon, and also volunteers for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.