For the Birds Radio Program: Gluttonous Hunting

Original Air Date: Jan. 12, 2004

More and more hunters are taking part in “canned hunts,” in which they can shoot unlimited numbers of pheasants and ducks without licenses. (Date confirmed)

Audio missing


Excessive hunting

A century ago, when the Audubon societies were taking wing, they had an uphill battle getting the United States to pass the first laws protecting birds from overshooting and then educating the public about these laws. T. Gilbert Pearson, who wrote the Audubon leaflet with the Brown Thrasher poem, wrote in the same leaflet, “One day I heard the report of a little rifle and, looking out of the window, saw that a boy had just fired at [a Brown Thrasher in my yard]. By the time I was able to reach the lawn he was taking aim for a second time. I shouted at him to stop, and, running out to the road, told him he must not kill those birds—not only because we wanted them to live, but because it was against the law to shoot them. His father, who had accompanied his twelve-year-old boy on his walk, came up and asked for an explanation of my conduct in interfering with his son. In defense of the young hunter the father declared: “I have bought my boy a rifle and am teaching him to shoot. I want him to grow up and be a sportsman. Why do you interfere with him and his innocent sport?” Pearson continues, “In the days when the father was a boy there were, unfortunately, no Audubon Societies in the country, and comparatively little instruction was given in the schools as to the economic value of wild birds, and the desirability of preserving them. Still, it seemed incredible that this man who, from his appearance, had evidently prospered in business or by inheritance, should have lived to the age of fifty and never learned better than to think that the greatest service which a Brown Thrasher can render is to serve as a target for a boy…”

The United States has obviously come a long way since those days, but in the same way that many important environmental laws have been gutted in the past three years, we seem to also be taking a step back in the most basic conservation principles of all. In December, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Wayne Pacelle, of the Humane Society of the US, saying a growing number of people are taking part in hunts that are largely rigged. Wealthy trophy seekers are willing to pay thousands of dollars to pursue trophy animals that have little chance to escape. Some birds are tossed from towers toward waiting shotguns. Ranches catering to big-game enthusiasts confine animals in fences and money changes hands only if hunter gets trophy.

I’d like to think this is a rare thing limited to the most wealthy, but my big brother has been taking part in more and more of these canned hunts, and legally brought down several rare and even endangered big animals when he went to Africa earlier this year. And avaricious trophy hunters have a couple of very prominent role models in the highest offices in the land right now. Our president spent New Year’s Day quail hunting, the activity which over a hundred years ago the Christmas Bird Count was developed to replace. And Dick Cheney spent December 8 shooting birds on a game farm in Westmoreland County in Pennsylvania. For the second time in two years, the Vice President arrived at daybreak at Arnold Palmer Airport in Latrobe. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, air traffic was halted briefly at about 7 a.m. as Air Force Two landed and Cheney’s security detail loaded him and his favorite shotgun into a Humvee and drove up U.S. Route 30 to the exclusive country club.

Scott Wakefield, a dog handler at the club, said about 500 farm-raised pheasants were released from nets for the morning hunt. The 10-man hunting party that included Cheney shot a total of 417 pheasants, of which Cheney himself shot more than 70. He was also set to hunt ducks in the afternoon, but I don’t know how many of those he killed. The birds were plucked and vacuum-packed in time for Cheney’s afternoon flight back to Washington, D.C.

This kind of unlicensed, unlimited shoot takes the sportsmanship out of hunting. Apparently some hunters do feel queasy about calling this kind of event a true hunt, but at this point the only people speaking out against it are humane society and animal rights activists. We’ve developed into the kind of society where people prefer simple black and white issues, and once they pick their side of an issue, don’t dare question anyone else on their team. Theodore Roosevelt, himself an avid hunter but a genuine sports hunter, was one of the early advocates for serious restrictions on hunting. Will another hunter be brave enough to speak out against this kind of gluttonous overkill? Or has our country truly retreated to the worst of the 19th century, when so-called sportsmen shot at bison from the windows of trains for fun and gloried not in the quality of the hunt but in the sheer number of animals killed?