We crab and crouch in the brush, low to the ground in the woods of Michigan. Deep, deep in the woods. Patient, silent, dressed as trees, we stalk our prey. Not the mighty bear or the trophy buck but an animal far more dangerous, and dumber than a bucket of rocks. The poacher.
A white pickup skids to a halt, the driver spotting a white-tailed doe and a buck in the brush off Sucker Creek Road in Alcona County. The deer are on private property, so if this hacker grabs his rifle and takes a shot, he's under arrest. Bob Mills, my partner, radios to our backups, Sergeant Pete Malette and Officer Warren MacNeill, who are hiding in a nearby grove. "We've got a looker," Mills tells them.
The driver is backing up slowly, so as not to scare the deer away before he can get a clear shot. What he doesn't know, the poor sap, is that the deer are not real. They're robodeer. Yes. Robotic deer. Who can compete with American ingenuity? Malette just had a funeral for a buck that took so many bullets in the line of duty --more than 100 in seven years--they called him Sluggo.
All across the country, conservation officers use mechanical Bambis, most of them made by a Wisconsin taxidermist, to nab poachers. The deer don't gallop through the woods or eat prize rhododendrons. Only their heads and tails move. But that's all it takes. "You can't believe the look on a guy's face," Malette says, when a brawny hunter discovers he has just blown holes in a stuffed animal with AA batteries in its head.
Mills gives me a cue to flick the two joysticks that make my deer's head swivel and her tail twitch from 50 yds. away. This would be easier if not for the camouflage hat the officers gave me. With a curtain of dangling burlap strips, it looks like Bob Marley has joined a militia. My doe's head may be spinning around like something out of The Exorcist for all I know. I can't see through the dreadlocks. The driver may not know whether to lock and load or call a priest. But he's still watching. Go ahead, tough guy. Show some courage.
Some poachers have argued entrapment, but Malette knows of no one who's got off on that defense, because the typical charge is trespassing, carrying a loaded weapon or shooting out of season, which can cost up to $500 in fines and 90 days in the brig. And he's come across some real All-Stars. The Hemingway wannabe who wet his pants when he got caught. The jughead who was nabbed twice in one day. Malette uses a wild-turkey decoy too, and had one cowboy go after it with a .357 Magnum. We're talking N.R.A. Dream Team. But the all-time champ was the Lions Club president who asked Malette to bring a decoy to their meeting. "They were laughing, and the president said, 'Who's going to take a shot at this thing?'" Three days later Malette had the decoy on a stakeout. Guy drives up, gets out with his rifle and blasts away. The Lions Club president.