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Kīhei hunter, school cafeteria manager helps families by providing Maui deer donations

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Maui hunter and cafeteria manager Philip Burton has several recipes for preparing axis deer. PC: Courtesy
  • Maui resident Philip Burton donates deer to families and individuals. PC: Courtesy
  • EV Polaris with articulating gun rest. PC: Philip Burton
  • Family friends learn about deer. PC: Courtesy
  • Maui Heroes Program kids learn about axis deer. PC: Courtesy
  • Dorothy and Philip Burton. PC: Courtesy

For Kīhei resident Philip “Uncle Buzz” Burton, giving happens around the year — not just during Christmastime. 

Burton, 59, hunts invasive axis deer on private farms and donates the deer to families and individuals. After all, the biggest joy is helping others, he said.

“When I started giving away the meat, I saw the joy on people’s faces that they can feed their family,” Burton said. “They are just happy as a clam. So I do it because of the joy that it gives. And I really love the meat.”

Haʻikū resident Bianca Antonio, director of Pono Outdoor Program, gets deer from Burton once or twice a month. The program receives the free deer and then donates it to 10 or more families once it’s processed.

“Nothing blesses our community like meeting our basic needs of food,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to teach and learn what our ‘āina can provide; it’s a connection to our ancestors, and our food sovereignty.”

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Introduced on Maui around the 1960s, axis deer is considered invasive. Populations boomed in recent times, and the feral ungulates cause vehicle collisions, property damage, crop impacts and threats to native species and ecosystems. 

However, axis deer is also viewed as a vital resource for subsistence living and cultural practices. Known for tasting similar to beef, deer meat is leaner and often healthier when raised in the wild and harvested humanely. Local officials and stakeholder groups for years have been evaluating ways to effectively balance community interests and manage deer populations. 

Federal rules make it extremely challenging for local venison to be brought to market, and it’s illegal to sell the meat. Instead, Burton takes deer donation orders from a list of 60 to 80 individuals and families. 

“He only hunts invasive deer, and only hunts if he has waiting families that will use and eat the venison,” said Catherine Sweet, Burton’s sister. “He volunteers for this; he shows families how to process, prepare and cook the meat.”

Born and raised on Oʻahu, Burton has lived on Maui for nearly three decades. He is a full-time public school cafeteria manager who does handyman work on the side. He hunts once a week when school is in session and twice a week when it’s on break. 

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Burton, along with hunting partners Jeff Fry and Charlie Tabon with Maui Animal Control Services, are contracted to help curb crop and pasture damage on several private farms.

The hunting group leaves at about 8 p.m. and Burton tells families to be ready to pick up the deer whole between 2 and 4 a.m. the next morning. 

“It’s a 24- to 26-hour day. It’s a bit much, but it’s rewarding,’ he said, laughing. 

At first, the deer donations happened by word of mouth among five or six people. After posting on social media, Burton received scores of people. His only ask? Be honest about whether the deer will be used to feed animals.

“I’m giving away deer to needy families,” he said. “I’m not selling it. I’m not giving away animal parts. We’re giving away wholesome, steroid-free meat to families.”

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The hunter and chef said he strives to use every part of the deer. He takes carcasses to a group that uses them for vermiculture composting. Bones go toward bone broth. Meat is cooked in everything from jerky to reuben sandwiches.

“Lately, I’ve been messing around with making mocetta, a venison tiered dried ham,” said Burton, who recommends “Buck, Buck, Moose,” a wild game cookbook. “It comes out pretty good. When I retire, that’s what I want to do — make a Maui-based mocetta brand.”

Harvesting, preparing and cooking are important skills for the next generation as well. 

Loren Lapow Maui Hero Project director, who has a master’s degree in social work, said Burton’s deer donations help teach kids. 

Lapow founded the eight-week Maui Hero Project program held at Pāʻia Youth & Cultural Center to develop youth leaders through cultural, survival, first aid, disaster preparedness and response, social-emotional coping and community-service skills.

Burton and his crew have been donating a few deer every other month for a couple years in support of the project’s wilderness survival, Hawaiian character education course.

“The kids are able to learn butchering, anatomy, physiology and larger life lessons related to native ecosystems, invasive species and food sovereignty,” Lapow said. “It also connects them to deeper moral considerations related to life and death.”

For information about Burton and Maui Animal Control Services, email [email protected].

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