A popular new pet trend is driving antler theft in Anchorage

Piles of antlers at the Alaska Fur Exchange in Anchorage. Owners say when they suspect antlers of being stolen they won’t buy them. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media)

In pet stores across the country, a new fad has caught on. Pieces of antlers and horns are flying off of shelves, sold as a healthy, all-natural chew snack for dogs. But some hunters say the new market is having unintended consequences, as antlers are stolen to meet demand.

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At a Capital Hill pet store in Washington, D.C. called Howl to the Chief, clerk Vincent Ford extols the benefits of antler: It’s got healthy minerals, lasts a long time, and is particularly good for canine oral health.

“It takes off the plaque and the tarter by them chewing on it, so this is a good treat for that, too,” Ford explains.

Antler is just one of the popular organic chew products sold to pet owners, a growing share of the booming pet supply industry, which last year saw more than $69 billion in sales, according to the American Pet Products Association.

Ford shows off pricier organic chews, like lamb and cow tails. The store stocks horns from goat and bison. The hand-length shards of deer and elk antler are on the cheaper side. But the expense and popularity has regular customers getting entrepreneurial in the hunt for antlers out in the wild.

“A lot of people actually have (started) to get their own antlers now,” Ford explained. “This lady tells me she goes to Alaska and just takes a trash bag and does it.”

The craze isn’t just affecting upscale shops in big cities. Online, pet supply companies will sell a six inch chunk of organic, “naturally shed” elk antler for $15. An Alaska-based business offers single caribou antler chews for large-breed dogs at $23. Amazon Prime members can get a thick slice of moose antler for $30.

But this demand has a downside.

“It sucks getting stuff stolen,” said Anchorage resident Jeff Young. “Doesn’t matter what it is.”

In this case, it was two large moose racks Young hung on the garage beside his Spenard home (Young is the husband of an Alaska Public Media employee who works outside the news department). Three weeks after mounting the racks in July of 2016, thieves ripped them off.

“I think they just hung on ’em,” Young said, looking up at the empty holes on the garage facade.

“They were up on this six-foot later, as far as they could get, and then just pulled ’em down.” Young found the ladder, taken from a nearby construction site, near his garage the next morning.

After it happened, Young tried tracking down the two racks. Not because of any substantial monetary cost, but out of principal. The larger rack came from the first moose he ever harvested, and had a distinctive bullet hole between the two antlers that Young was sure he could identify if it appeared. But after filing a police report and scouring social media sites, his antlers never turned up.

It wasn’t until later that he started hearing other hunters complaining to one another and on neighborhood groups like Nextdoor about the same thing happening to them.

“I started hearing more stories from other friends that are hunters, ‘Yeah, I had a pile by the shed, been there ten years, all gone.’ Another guy who was like, ‘Yeah, I always threw them on the roof, come home one day, all gone.’ So, just started hearing more stories about guys antlers getting stolen,” Young recalled.

Police can’t say definitively whether or not antler stealing is on the rise, largely because they don’t have a way of combing through all the various reports of theft that come in, or comparing it over the years. In 2017 there were 14 cases of antler theft reported to the Anchorage Police Department, according to Deputy Communications Director Nora Morse, but she suspects the numbers are under-reported.

Anecdotally, hunters and some horn merchants believe the thefts are being carried out by low-level criminals trying to make a fast buck unloading antlers that are eventually sold to larger pet supply companies. The issue is framed as a subset of the city’s worsening property crime, which municipal and law enforcement officials attribute in part on the state’s opioid epidemic.

The market for antler chews, particularly on the supply side, is very loosely regulated. While animal products meant for consumption have to meet certain safety criteria laid out by the Food and Drug Administration, the pet supply industry falls under a murky mix of federal, state, and industry standards. Nationally, the Association of American Feed Control Officials, a volunteer group with no regulatory authority, is in charge of developing model guidelines for pet foods. On their website they list their state counterpart in Alaska as the Division of Agriculture, but Lora Haralson with the division wrote in an email they do not regulate or have requirements over these kind of pet products.

So it often falls on individual buyers like Gus Gillespie to determine if a moose antler was legally obtained.

“You kinda get a feel for it,” Gillespie said, sitting behind the counter at the Alaska Fur Exchange. “If a guy comes in and he looks like a hunter and he talks like a hunter then you get a pretty good feel for it.”

Gillespie got into the horn and hide trade several decades ago after years with the Navy and as an engineer on the North Slope. Now he and his wife run the Fur Exchange, where on any given day, just past the rows of wolf and opossum pelts, are piles of antlers jumbled up like waist-high tumbleweeds. On the ground are plastic totes filled with spiky tines and plates sawed down into palm-sized strips. It is an astounding volume of animal matter.

Boxes filled with pieces of deer antlers on the floor at the Alaska Fur Exchange in Anchorage. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media)

“As far as antler it’s either crap and we don’t want it, or it’s really, really nice,” Gillespie laughed.

In the four or five years since antler chews got popular with his customers, Gillespie says it has been good for business. Instead of trading mostly in high-end antlers favored by artisans and collectors, the store can buy more medium-sized products to cut down into chews they stock in baskets by the register. Being as they are closer to the source than most online or lower-48 sellers, the store tends to charge less for generous slices of fresh antler.

But they’ll turn sellers away if they think the source material might have been illegally obtained. Gillespie points to the pervasive presence of substance abuse, and said he and his staff look for whether a person seems impaired as they assess a potential purchase, regularly sharing information with police.

“If it’s questionable, we don’t do anything with it for a while,” he explained, noting the store has plenty of surveillance cameras mounted around. “We have been instrumental in a lot of people getting caught.”

When it comes to avoiding illicit antlers, Gilespie will only speak to his business’s practices. As for other buyers, he believes that’s on them and public officials.

Liz Ruskin contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.