Antler Magic

By Nick Simonson

Antlers.  Those that are big enough reduce even the best hunter to a shaking pile of human-shaped jello on stand. Beyond their power in the field, however, there is a huge market – however sometimes dubious or even illegal – for antlers in one form or another.  From curing ailments to bringing continued good health, the demand for antlers, especially in the far east, is as astounding as their effect on the average sportsman.

Asian folk medicine has held the velvet antlers of a variety of cervids, such as deer and elk, as an immune booster and a treatment for a variety of maladies.  In fact, each section of antler supposedly has its own medicinal powers. The base of a velvet antler is used as a treatment for calcium deficiency in eastern cultures.  The middle section is said to treat the pain from – and potentially reverse – arthritic conditions.  Finally, the tip of the antler which is the most sought-after portion, is believed to contain vast regenerative capabilities and is used as a supplement to spur growth in children.

While none of these uses in eastern folk medicine have been tested or confirmed (and certainly not approved by the FDA), they do have their roots in the science of antler growth.  The tip of the antler is where the growth of the bone occurs, and the velvet serves as a cover of sorts with a number of blood vessels underneath supplying the developing bone with oxygen and nutrients as it increases in length and size.  Some species of cervids have exhibited rapid growth of their antlers during the development phase, as up to 1.5 inches of new antler can develop in a single day.  This amazing growth rate makes antler bone the single fastest growing tissue in the entire animal kingdom.

The idea that velvet antlers can treat or cure diseases stems from this amazing fact.  Consumption by people in Asian cultures, while again, not proven to help any health issue, has created a high demand for antlers and a business nearly as huge as big game hunting has become in North America. For medicinal purposes alone, New Zealand produces over 450 tons of deer antlers each year to meet demand.  In addition, China contributes 400 tons to the global supply.  Antlers are often sliced and sold in small packages or ground up into a powder and sold in capsules.  Recently, a deer-antler-spray maker in Alabama was shut down under allegations that sales of its product (which was determined to do nothing) violated fair trade practices; but that was only after it was reported that members of the Alabama Crimson Tide college football team had tried it.

Whether or not it works to improve the immune system, get kids a good start on their growth spurt or fix brittle bones, deer antlers – in velvet or fresh out of it like the visitor to my stand this opening weekend – does have obvious effects on a hunter’s mind and body.   Mere pictures from June through August on a computer screen can cause a raise in blood pressure, lucid dreaming, and a lapse in attention.  After bow opener, elevated heart rate, difficulty staying still and the inability to hold an object, such as a bow or a pair of binoculars, firmly in hand are some obvious side effects.  Now, as gun season approaches, the mere idea of that big buck’s headgear wandering in and out of shooting range is enough to cause a bout of insomnia and inattentiveness to rival a case of ADHD. Here’s hoping the magic of the mighty antler will spare you such distraction and not prevent you from bagging the buck you’re after this season.

Featured Photo: Antlers – especially those in velvet – are believed to have significant healing properties in many cultures. Simonson Photo.

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