BY Matt Friedman | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
TRENTON — Oh deer, what has the New Jersey Assembly gotten into?
What had been obscure legislation (A2903) to establish a "licensing program for cervidae livestock operations" turned into a heated debate behind closed doors in Trenton just before the Assembly met Thursday.
Cervidae is the family of hoofed and antlered animals that deer belong to, along with other species like moose and elk.
The bill would put authority over cervid livestock under the state Department of Agriculture, taking it away from the Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Fish and Wildlife. It already passed the Assembly in 2013 with little notice before dying in the Senate. But this time, it didn't get that far.
Before every voting session in the Assembly, each party's members gather privately in a caucus meeting to debate and wrangle votes before starting the public meeting.
When Assembly Democrats met in caucus on Thursday, Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D-Gloucester), a former television reporter, described a story he worked on about game farms in the 1990s. At one of those farms, Moriarty said, customers could pay a substantial amount of money to shoot a bear in a cage about the size of a house, according to three sources who were present at the meeting but requested anonymity because caucus meetings are supposed to be private.
The meeting got contentious. Many members didn't like the idea of shooting penned bears, even though the bill makes no mention of them. Then Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) compared it to a Six Flags Great Adventure's safari, only where you can shoot the animals.
Support for the bill tanked, forcing Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) to drop it from the agenda.
"I just voiced my concern that this was something that came out in Texas, and the unfairness of setting up a caged area where hunters can pay and just go shoot the animals right on sight, much like shooting a duck in a bucket," Assemblyman Reed Gusiora said, while refusing to go into detail about the meeting. "It takes away from the sport of hunting and creates an uneven playing field with the animals."
Moriarty declined to comment. Assembly Democratic spokesman Tom Hester, Jr. said ""a lively caucus discussion is not unusual, nor is a bill getting further consideration."
"But what happens in caucus should stay in caucus," Hester said.
The bill's sponsor, Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak (D-Cape May), did not respond to a call seeking comment.
As it turns out, New Jersey already has deer farms, including ones where you can pay to hunt deer that are restricted to a certain area. But critics say the Department of Agriculture is considered a friendlier overseer of the industry than the Department of Environmental Protection.
"The regulations are more severe under the Department of Environmental Protection," said Kathleen Schatzmann, New Jersey director for the Humane Society of the United States.
The state's League of Humane Voters and Animal Protection League came out strongly against the legislation in a Jan. 29 statement to Assembly members.
"Deer farms, a very small interest in New Jersey, breed and raise deer and/or other cervids for abnormally large, genetically enhanced antlers or meat production," it read."Many of these animals are destined for so-called hunting ranches; as targets for massively unpopular canned or captive 'hunts'... Not for a moment does this comport with the values of the majority of the state's residents."
In Belvidere, Mountain Trail Whitetails has a fenced-in 100 acre preserve in which customers can pay $250 each to hunt deer that were born and raised on the premises.
Its owner, Tim Matthews, said deer farming has been licensed in New Jersey since 1903, and there are several other places like his in the state, along with some where deer are just farmed for meat and not hunted.
The bill, Matthews said, is about putting oversight of those places in more capable hands.
"What the deer farmers are concerned about is the spread of diseases. And Fish and Wildlife, they have been doing nothing to prevent it," Matthews said. "If there was ever a chronic wasting disease outbreak, Fish and Wildlife would do nothing."
Matthews said the average age of a deer on his farm is four years old, while the average age of a deer in the wild is one and a half. He said that when a disease, Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease, ravaged the local deer population, his farm only had two cases of it.
"So where do they have a better life?" Matthews said. ""They're not being hit by cars. They're not being chased all the time. They're well fed and well taken care of versus wild animals. If there is a disease, I take care of it early."
This is probably not the last the Assembly has heard of the bill, which has not yet advanced in the state Senate. Matthews, who has been publicly advocating for it, said he's hearing it will be brought back up on Feb. 23rd.