The Traffic in Deer

Deer trafficking: another example of the spread of what I call trafficking talk, or the traffic in trafficking. Recent headlines include Two Florida Men Sentenced for Trafficking in Deer or Deer-Trafficking Scheme Nets Record $1.6 Million Fine

Up until around 2010, news outlets usually called such crimes “smuggling,””poaching,” “illegal sales” or “illegal transport” (the earliest “deer trafficking” I found is 2008). As I dug deeper, I found that Federal Wildlife Service press releases actually began using “trafficking”earlier, but only in 1998, to describe enforcement actions regarding reptiles and corals (we have to wait until 1999 for trafficking in Venus flytraps)

This shift from wildlife smuggling to wildlife trafficking was accompanied by the invention of a “wildlife trafficker” who is different from the ordinary person. As a 1998 packet intended for use by teachers explains:

Myth: Thousands of private citizens have been prosecuted for harming or killing endangered species, even when killing occurred accidentally. Reality: Most of the people prosecuted under the Endangered Species Act are illegal wildlife traffickers who illegally and knowingly collect rare wildlife and plants to sell for personal profit.

Traffickers are not “private citizens” who presumably recognize wildlife as a public good, but are out for “personal profit.” This shift in language frames the crime in melodramatic terms, as committed by a evil person against innocents, in ways that justify any actions to stop such travesties.

Government authority to regulate the transportation, trade or sale of wildlife, fish or plants was established in 1900 by the Lacey Act. Trafficking doesn’t appear in government language until the Mann Act of 1910, AKA the “White-Slave Traffic Act,” which prohibited transporting women across state lines for “any immoral purpose.”

The union of wildlife with trafficking would have to wait until 1998, when “trafficking” as a crime got a boost. That was the year the United Nations opened negotiations for what would become the 2000 Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons.

Trafficking talk, whether describing prostitution or deer, “underpins moves to strengthen the moral capacities of the state by hardening its borders and giving its agents new powers to surveil, assess, and inscribe.” After the widespread crackdown on trafficking in humans, now there is also trafficking in deer: no additional immorality required.


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