STATE COLLEGE - The sight of this white-tailed buck would make any hunter drool.
Its rack sports more than 11 thick tines, one that points down toward the buck's ear. The deer's neck is swollen, proof that it is in the midst of rut.
But the chance that this particular animal will end up in the crosshairs of a scope is unlikely. It is one of 107 deer that are being studied at the Deer Research Center at Penn State University.
The site is restricted access due to biosecurity concerns
"The area around the pens is posted as archery only, so the deer are not visible from areas open to rifle hunting. We have student housing at the facility, so there is usually someone at the facility 24-7. Campus police also randomly patrol the area," said Don Wagner, unit manager of the Penn State Deer Research Center.
"The deer themselves are actually probably the best security we have. If there is any unusual activity around the perimeter of the facility, we can tell exactly where and sometimes what is disturbing the deer just by watching their behavior," Wagner said.
The 23-acre center, which is managed by the Department of Dairy and Animal Science, plays a vital role for students who are majoring in wildlife, forestry, fishery-biology and other related fields.
Students who work at the facility do a variety of jobs - feeding the deer, monitoring animals that are involved in testing programs, helping maintain the health of the animals, collecting data and writing summary reports. They learn how to draw weekly blood samples, weigh a deer and control its diet.
They usually have a pretty good track record when it comes to getting lucrative positions in the workforce after their graduation, said Wagner.
In the past, the center has worked with the state Game Commission on antler studies, tested radio collars and deer repellants and studied fawn mortality rates. Penn State faculty also use the center for other studies.
"It gives the students some valuable experience that is tough to find," Wagner said.
Because Wagner and the students deal with the deer on a daily basis, 365 days a year, they try to breed their resident deer to develop animals that are calmer than the average human-wary deer.
"We handle the animals twice a year to vaccinate them and the ones that are on a research test are handled a lot more," he said.
The deer are checked on twice a day, and students take a full walk-through of all the herds housed in nine pens. Sometimes the bucks are tranquilized for the safety of both the deer and the handler.
Dirty and wet feed is replaced with fresh food and clean water is kept in constant supply.
"You really have to be on top of it ... make sure it's in good shape all the time," Wagner said.
Wagner worked at the research center as a student from 1994 to 1997 and started managing the facility in January 2000. He is the only full-time employee.
"One of the interesting things I see here is the antler development on a buck through the years," he said.
For instance, Wagner showed a display of antlers from one buck as it aged from 2 to 4 years old. He pointed out the development made through the years, which resulted from a daily nutritional diet the facility deer eat.
"Everything thing here is fed a complete diet and commercial deer pellet that has 16 percent protein and vitamins and minerals they need," Wagner said. "We are not pumping anything into them to make big antlers. We are just feeding them a complete diet."
Allowing a deer to age before it is harvested or planting food plots to ensure nutrition for the deer can help an animal develop larger antlers, Wagner said.
Whitetails generally do not peak in antlers until they are 4 to 6 years old, he said. A 2-year-old buck is not near maturity.
"You can see the progression from spike to Boone and Crockett animals here," he said.
The Boone and Crockett Club maintains records of native North American big game. It has established an official measurement and scoring system for trophy animals.
Bucks can lose 20 percent to 30 percent of their body weight during the breeding season and over winter, Wagner said. When spring rolls around, they build their weight back up, and the rest of the build that doesn't go to weight goes into antler growth.
Fawns are born at the facility, too, but usually are sold deer farms. The facility has to keep its deer population stable.
Right now there are 107 deer, split 50-50 between bucks and does.
"We can maintain 200 deer at the facility if necessary. These numbers can only be possible with intensive supplemental feeding and a vaccination program to maintain herd health," Wagner said.
The research facility is working on a big project involved contraceptives with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Wildlife Research Center is in Fort Collins, Colorado.
"It's basically not looking for a replacement for hunting by any means," Wagner said. "It's looking to find a alternate or different management tools to manage populations in different areas."
The nationwide study could be used in places where hunting is not possible to control a dense population of animals such as deer.
Wagner said it's something that will not work on a large scale but something that has to work in isolated small populations.
"We have drugs that work right now and are effective," he said.
Anything there that is part of the project has to gain federal approval before it can be used.
It also is not a specific deer project, Wagner pointed out. It is being looked at in applying it to other animals such as wild horses and feral hogs.
"It's a really broad application," he said.
The main project at the facility is the contraceptive project for the USDA.
The site is also working on a project with the State College School District Agricultural Science Program to evaluate the palability of glycerin and its utilization as an energy feed source alternative in white-tailed deer rations.
"The glycerin used for the project is produced by distilling the glycerol by product from their biodiesel production," Wagner said.
"As far as the big deer, we're not conducting any research on growing bigger antlers at this time, that's just what you get when you have healthy well fed deer that are allowed to grow to a mature age," he said