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article imageRealistic undercover robot animals help officials snare poachers

By Megan Hamilton     Feb 26, 2016 in Environment
Wildlife officials have a new breed of undercover agents: Robotic animals that are more than just taxidermy specimens. These animals are actually so realistic they are used to snare poachers all across the U.S.
Officials pose the critters in environments where shooting them is illegal. Then they find a place to hide out of sight of the poachers who attempt to shoot the creatures, Popular Science reports.
With the use of a remote, these robots can easily move, although they can't walk or run. They can, however, make subtle movements such as lifting a leg or turning their head. And recent reports say that's just enough to lure in poachers.
There's a huge demand for these decoys, noted Jim Reed of the Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust (HSWLT), which donates them to agencies that combat poaching, The Washington Post reports. Game wardens are usually underfunded, Reed said, and robotic wildlife is definitely expensive. One deer costs around $2,000, while a black bear costs up to $5,000. And the Humane Society says hunters kill as many animals illegally as they do legally, meaning wardens are extremely busy.
If the decoys look alive, it's because they once were, Brian Wolslegel, owner of Custom Robotic Wildlife told the Post. Wolslegel doesn't hunt. Instead, he raises deer in his backyard. He makes the realistic dummies out of legally acquired hides from hunters, game wardens, or online.
He sells as many as 100 whitetail deer yearly, and they are his most popular critter. Wildlife officers have told him they make up to $30,000 in fines off of each robot animal, he said.
When one of these pseudo-critters isn't available, having a poacher, a wild creature, and a law enforcement officer on the scene at the same time is like winning the lottery, he said. And if the poacher is caught, "the animal already died in the process," he said.
Through the decoy program, the HSWLT donates deer, bear, pronghorn, and other wildlife decoys to agencies. The decoys are placed in a vulnerable setting (an open field, for instance), and officers waiting nearby use remote controls to make them move like a living animal would. If a poacher shoots at a decoy, the officers have the necessary evidence to support the poacher's prosecution.
And the decoys can still look lively, even if they've been shot 100 times, The Week reports. In part, this is because they are filled with Styrofoam. So there's usually no problem if bullets pass through their cores. If the motor gets hit, it's replaceable. These motors are the same type that are found in toy cars or planes, National Geographic reports. The decoys are also outfitted with reflective eyes that glow at night when light shines on them.
Typically, a deer in the forest doesn't necessarily appear well-groomed, Reed noted.
"It may have a little mud stuck on its back, some hairs ruffled from the wind," he said. The decoys that work best are the ones that "get well-seasoned."
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