Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — It turns out that deer love animal crackers in a major way.
Dr. Cliff Shipley, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, keeps about 80 deer, mule deer and elk on 15 acres near Homer Lake.
"Here you go, 404," he tells a hungry deer, and the others gather around to get the crackers from a bulk-sized plastic container.
Are there any deer among those animal crackers?
"I hope not," Shipley says. "That would make them cannibals."
But the deer don't eat flesh; 404, a favorite of Shipley's, licks my fingers, then moves in to try to take a chew out of my jacket on a brisk day out on the prairie.
"404 is very tame. She's my good girl. She loves having her chin scratched," the doctor says.
Shipley, a native of Iowa, bought the land in 2000. It had been a horse pasture; his family planted 5,000 trees.
"I'm a country boy," says Shipley, who had lived in Urbana before buying the land.
Shipley, who is turning 61, said he wanted to get back to the land, and he was able to combine his veterinary medicine specialty, arthroscopic artificial insemination, with the simple of joy of gentle beasts on the land.
Still, it means chores for himself every day, or for son Clint, who usually handles the urine collection.
The deer start to swarm the professor to get at the cookies.
"They're hooked on crackers," he adds.
The animals are penned off by breed; there can be a lot more than 80 of them in fawning season. They are sold to petting zoos, full-sized zoos and hunting parks and just for pets.
The Toronto Zoo is looking for some animals right now, but Illinois is a state where chronic wasting disease has been found, so it's off-limits for now. (None of Shipley's deer has the disease).
Ted Lock of Sycamore Farm in Indiana worked alongside Shipley in the UI vet school for years, and is impressed with the deer ranch.
"Cliff is an amazing guy, probably one of the most versatile veterinarians I ever met," Lock said.
"He got into the deer and elk business and I thought, 'Holy cow, what's he thinking?' But he's really made quite a go of it and really made a worldwide reputation in deer farm management."
Besides selling the deer and elk, the ranch also provides a service to hunters. Deer urine has monetary value, especially that of a doe in heat.
"I started working with deer a lot 15 or 20 years ago at the clinic," says Shipley, who is cutting back from 80-hour weeks as retirement seems ever more enticing. He says the ranch and other projects will keep him more than busy once he leaves the UI.
The deer are pampered to say the least. In captivity, a deer can live up to two decades, but 3 is a normal age limit out in the wild.
"We've seen a lot of coyotes around here," he said.
Alas, by 8 to 10 years old, deer tend to have worn down their teeth from all that vegetable matter.
Shipley walks on to another penned area where there are mule deer, which harken from the Plains States and Rocky Mountains. He found his first breeding group in Minnesota.
Mule deer look a little like mules around the ear. Shipley says Lewis and Clark gave them the name as they trudged westward in service of Thomas Jefferson. They discovered mule deer, as far as the American history is concerned, though Shipley notes the native Americans had known them by their own names for thousands of years.
Another difference from white-tailed deer is the black tip at the end of their tails.
One mule deer has broken antlers. Shipley gives him an extra handful of crackers.
Though the animals are penned off for breeding purposes, at one time early on Shipley had them all together.
"I used to run them all together and they all got along pretty well," he recalls.
All the deer and the elk seem to like animal crackers, but they also eat a lot of apples, some from UI orchards, Shipley said. They love carrots, plums and peaches.
Son Clint Shipley, who works in the UI's horticulture department, often gets the apples. Daughter Abriel Shipley, a UI graphic artist, runs the website, saltforkriverranch.com.
The professor has given tours to Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, church groups, even the USDA. Some of the younger tourists want the animal crackers.
"Yeah, you can have some, too," he tells them.
He shows off the white deer. "You should see them in the snow," he says. They're popular as pets, and seem extra-calm.
One white doe is with a buck, and she has an appetite. "410 can eat (the crackers) as fast as I can give them to her," he says.
For beverages, there's a choice of water or water.
There are watering tubes all over the ranch; a tube into the ground provides heat to keep the water from freezing.
Shipley moves over to the elk; there are five cows and one bull. Bull elks get names, Bonehead plus a number, all in honor of the original Bonehead.
Bonehead 4 is trying to herd his kin. He's imposing, even with antlers shorn. If you approach him, he'll back off, trained by pepper spray. But as soon as you turn your back, Shipley says, he'll start to move toward you aggressively.
"This bull is not tame," Shipley says. "I never turn my back on him. I cut his antlers off because he's a danger with them. He's got a 'tude."
Shipley knows not to let a dog get in with the elk. It would be goodbye, Fido.
"He wouldn't last 10 minutes," he says.
Source: The (Champaign) News-Gazette, http://bit.ly/1NASzYH
Information from: The News-Gazette, http://www.news-gazette.com
This is an Illinois Exchange story shared by The (Champaign) News-Gazette.