The baths themselves are a curious sight. Bare walls and a weathered parquet floor provide an ambience expected in a city clinic. Tubs are lined up along a small hallway, separated only by thin pieces of white sheet metal. The water is tawny-yellow; its aroma carries a slight tang. A medical technician checks customers' pulses every few minutes. Afterward, he gives every bather a half shot of maral deer blood served in a silver shot glass. Fruit syrup is added as a preservative, and because "blood by itself doesn't taste very good," says Vyacheslav Safonov, who runs Parma with his father, Valery.
At the deer farms, antlers are cut every May and June. Farmworkers say the deer feels pain while the cutting takes place but that its life is not endangered. On a recent morning at the New Way Farm in the village of Dektiyek, a six-man crew collected 220 pounds of antler from 13 deer, an hour's work that should bring in about $40,000.
Each deer was herded into a chute, where two workers steadied the animal's head. Another worker stood on the deer's back. In a matter of seconds, crew chief Alexander Yegarmin sawed off one antler, then the other. After another worker dabbed a powdery salve on the animal's open wounds, the deer bounded out of the chute toward a thicket of birch and pine.
Each antler was weighed, hung on a rack and dunked into a steaming caldron that eventually would yield the liquid used in the baths and saunas.
Pavel Starikov, 70, a retired Moscow economist who returns to the Altais every year for a round of maral baths, shrugged as he looked on, saying, "They would shake off their antlers in autumn anyway."