Brian Wolslegel was fresh out of school and looking for work as a firefighter when he took a temporary job with a taxidermist. One day a game warden walked into the shop near Wausau, Wis., and asked if he could build a robotic deer to help catch an illegal hunter.
“I had putzed around with robotic cars just like any kid,” Wolslegel said, “and we started messing around with little motors to make things move. It was a lot of fun.”
More than 20 years later, he’s still at it. His business, Custom Robotic Wildlife, is now one of the oldest and best regarded of its kind in North America. Each year, Wolslegel builds a menagerie of about 150 lifelike remote-controlled animals, mostly for wildlife enforcement officers in states and American Indian reservations across the United States and Canada.
Compared to current motorized decoys, that first attempt was “prehistoric,” Wolslegel recalled, laughing.
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Today, his whitetail deer can be made to independently move their ears and tail, stomp their legs and slide on a track that makes them appear to walk.
He’s made robotic animals as big as a bear and as small as a squirrel. He’s sold pigs to game wardens in Texas, and elk to clients out West.
“Whatever people ask for, we’ll definitely try,” Wolslegel said.
Wolslegel has named his latest mechanical deer “The Deuce.”
“He lifts his tail and poops,” Wolslegel said. He’s already sold one and is working on another, much to the delight of his children. They get to enjoy a bag of colored M&Ms and save the brown ones for The Deuce.
It’s difficult to quantify how valuable the robotic animals are in the fight against poachers, who by some estimates take as much fish and game as legitimate hunters each year. An Oregon police officer reported that the state raised $30,000 in fines over a five-year period off a single deer decoy, which cost about $2,500.
Lt. Gary Nordseth, an officer with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, has used Wolslegel’s decoys in areas of known or suspected game violations, including trespassing and “shining,” where hunters turn a bright light on animals at night to catch them.
“These moving parts add realism,” said Nordseth, whose territory spans 12 counties in southwestern Minnesota. “It’s not uncommon for decoys to be shot at.”
Poaching remains a problem in the state, where 1,350 calls were made to the TIPS line in 2015, according to the nonprofit, Turn In Poachers Inc., that runs it. Game wardens used the information to arrest 231 people last year.
Most hunting violations in Minnesota qualify as gross misdemeanors, as does shooting at a big game decoy set out by law enforcement officials.
Steve Beltran, an Illinois-based warden and treasurer of the North American Wildlife Enforcement Officers Association, said Wolslegel’s attention to detail makes his decoys effective.
“They don’t have to be absolutely perfect, but there are some idiosyncrasies with the animal that make it look real,” he said. “The stomping of a foot, the flicking of a tail. He’s got a little magnet that sticks in the eyes that is reflective, so that when hit with a spotlight, you can see the eyes looking back at you and it looks normal.”
Whitetail deer are by far his most popular order, costing about $2,500. A turkey, the second most popular, is about $2,000. An elk runs about $4,500.
The biggest challenge, particularly with deer, is hiding the cuts around the neck and legs, Wolslegel said.
Unlike a black bear, which has a fairly consistent color, a deer’s fur can be gray, red or brown with different shades throughout the body.
Although he once had five employees, Wolslegel’s operation in the northern Wisconsin city of Mosinee is strictly family-run these days. His mother decided to join him in recent years. In the summer, his 14-year-old son is a near-constant companion in the 50-by-50-foot pole building. His 12-year-old daughter pours the mold and makes forms; his 8-year-old likes working with the skin and flesh.
Wolslegel is constantly working on new techniques to get the decoys to move differently, often based on feedback from officers in the field.
Lately he’s been experimenting with carbon dioxide cartridges to make it look like the animal is blowing air.
Wolslegel does not hunt. He and his family raise about 45 whitetail deer on property in central Wisconsin, which he mostly keeps as pets and to educate the public.
He bristles over criticisms that officers use his realistic animals as a form of entrapment. True hunting, he said, is “meeting that animal on its own terms.” Poaching robs individual hunters, businesses and taxpayers that rely on the sport and the region’s gene pool.
“Most officers know who they’re after,” he said. “For the most part, they’re not trying to catch a guy who’s having a bad day or who makes a bad decision. They’re out there looking for the professional poacher.”