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Bill to ban canned hunts falls prey to the legislative clock



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June 25, 2007
As the legislative session came to an end last week, The Humane Society of New York and the National Humane Society desperately tried to no avail to convince Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno to pass a bill that would ban "canned hunting" of exotic animals in New York state.

The Humane Society and other opponents of "canned hunting" define the activity as killing an animal in an enclosed space for sport. Animals native to New York, such as whitetail deer, turkey, moose and black bear, would all still be available for hunting on preserves if the bill had become law.

Scott Reif, spokesman for Bruno, R,C,I-Brunswick, said the senator supports the concept of banning canned hunting of exotic animals, but it wasn't a priority with the session drawing to a close.

Both the state and national humane societies view the act of "canned hunting" as contrary to the spirit of real hunting, which they say should value the hunt more than the kill. "We look at these people as cowards and cruel; we are looking for the state Legislature to stop it," said Elinor Molbegott, legal counsel for animal affairs at the New York Humane Society.

Yancey Roy, public information officer for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, explained that without further legislation, the DEC can only license hunters who hunt game birds or whitetail deer on hunting preserves. The DEC also cannot shut down a preserve unless it is determined that endangered animals are being hunted or if the site is smaller than 10 acres, Roy said.

"We really have almost no oversight of hunting preserves right now," said Roy.

A video provided to The Legislative Gazette by the National Humane Society depicted what the organization describes as a common occurrence in canned hunts because hunters aren't always experienced, and in some instances, not in possession of a state hunting license. The hunt took place in Pennsylvania and was filmed using a hidden camera.

In the video, a group of Corsican rams ran through sparse tree cover, their exotic features making them more unusual when contrasted to the environment of the Northeast. The hunter kneeled, took aim and fired, hitting one of the rams in the hindquarters. It ran, only to be impeded by a 10-foot high fence, where it stopped and began to shake.

Finally, after five arrows and a gunshot fired out of pity, the ram succumbed to its death, and the man had his trophy.

"There are two kinds of hunters," explained Bill Cooke, government liaison director for the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, "Sport hunters hunt for the connection to nature and the animal, the chase.

"The other group is thrill killers, people who just want to kill. My view is they need therapy and shouldn't be in the woods with guns," Cooke said.

His organization supports hunting preserves because they save open space in the state, but not the hunting of non-native species. He explained that hunting preserves that number in the thousands of acres can provide very realistic hunting situations as would be experienced in the wild, and that hunting of native species on that land is not a problem for him or his organization.

According to the League of Humane Voters, there are about 12 shooting preserves in New York state. Some preserves provide, for a fee, a guaranteed kill of a specific type of animal, including many exotic breeds, in an area that is geographically closed off or fenced so that the animals cannot escape.

Preserves in New York state range in size from hundreds to thousands of acres, and usually provide a guide to lead customers directly to the animal they have paid to kill. The types of animals offered vary from native species like black bear, whitetail deer and turkey to ones as exotic as scimatar oryx, Himalayan tahr and Indian axis deer.

Cooke said the main reason he opposes the hunting of exotic animals in New York state is because of the unknown ecological impact those foreign species could have on the state's environment. He said that foreign-born animals could impact the region by introducing unknown animal diseases or illnesses that native species have no immunity to. "Those animals put our ecosystems at risk, they have no business being here," said Cooke.

Some organizations came out in opposition to the bill, including the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association and the New York Deer and Elk Farmers Association.

"The Humane Societies' ultimate goal in New York state is to abolish hunting," said Thomas King, president of the Rifle and Pistol Association. "There is no difference between hunting on a preserve or public land."

Cooke said he has been hunting since he was a boy and periodically hunts his more than 150 acres of property where he also raises pigs. "We're losing hunting as a society, and that's a mistake. We're losing the connection to nature that hunting brings," bemoaned Cooke. He added, "This is an excellent example of why hunting is losing public support and understanding. [Canned hunting of exotic animals] is the poster child for everything that's bad about hunting."

"[Canned hunting] violates the hunting ethic of fair chase," argued Dora Shomberg, National Humane Society program coordinator of government affairs in New York state. "Even hunters find this activity embarrassing and consider it not hunting."

Shomberg said the famous Boone and Crockett Club, founded in 1887 by trophy hunter Theodore Roosevelt, records hunting trophies and promotes the activity of hunting but will not accept "canned hunt" trophies and are fierce advocates of the principle of fair chase.

Fair chase as defined by Boone and Crockett is, "ethical, sportsmanlike and lawful pursuit and taking of any free ranging wild native North American big game animal in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper advantage over such animals."

Cooke relayed a story where he tracked a deer for more than 6 hours in thick snow when he was in his early 20s. Finally, after hours and miles of silently stalking the deer in the cold snow, he lined up a perfect shot but didn't squeeze the trigger. "I don't know why I didn't, maybe I just didn't want to drag the thing back, but it was still one of the best hunts I have ever been on in my life. And you know why? It was the chase," he said.

But King said he sees no difference between hunting preserve animals and animals sent to slaughter for mass food consumption. "What is the difference?" he asked.

Martha Goodsell, spokeswoman for the Elk and Deer Farmers Association, said she has her own deer farm where she raises an exotic breed of deer called fallow. She explained that when most of her deer are sold for venison they are shot behind the ear and die instantly. She said the older bucks are sold to hunting preserves when their breeding abilities are limited and they become a burden on the herd. She said that even though her business is not dependent on the money generated by sales to hunting preserves, it still provides an extra little boost to her finances that helps keep her farm operating.

Shomberg pointed to a 2003 survey by Field and Stream Magazine, a publication that is popular among outdoor sports enthusiasts, which found just 12 percent of respondents supported hunting in enclosed spaces.

Current legislation exists in New York that makes hunting of animals in enclosed spaces less than 10 acres illegal, but both human societies say the impact of that law has been negligible due to the fact that "canned hunts" historically take place in enclosures larger than 10 acres.

Legislation to ban the practice of "canned hunts" of exotic animals in New York state passed the Assembly but stalled in the Senate rules committee. Frank Padavan R,C-Queens sponsored the bill (S.784/A.2612) in the Senate and Deborah Glick D-Manhattan, is the Assembly sponsor.

Shomberg said that Bruno has supported similar legislation and explained that in 2003, both houses of the Legislature passed a bill outlawing the "canned hunting" of exotic animals, only to have it vetoed by Gov. George E. Pataki. Shomberg called Pataki's veto a "tragedy."

King maintains that the bad name of hunting preserves is a fabrication, that no animals are forcibly restrained and that the Humane Societies complaints and problems, "They frankly made it up."

"Anybody who opposes this bill doesn't understand the public sentiment on this," said Cooke, "and they need to rethink their thinking."

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