The days of industrial scale hunting might seem like something from a bygone era. Surely, we’ve evolved as a nation? Think again. Odds are there’s an event planned this weekend in a town near you where wildlife will be slaughtered en masse.
Across the country, barbaric contests aptly called “killing contest” are pegged as family fun where even Jr. can nab a defenseless critter for the chance to win a prize, more often than not a trophy or ribbon not unlike one you’d get at a county fair.
At these events, participants point, aim, and fire at anything that moves to rack up the most, the heaviest, the smallest: the superlatives are as endless as they are cruel. What’s worse is this isn’t the subsistence hunting or fair chase associated with ethical sportsmen. It’s killing for no other reason than slaughter.
One of the leaders in the effort to stop this unethical treatment of native wildlife is Camilla Fox, founder and executive director of Project Coyote, a predator education non-profit that seeks to teach the general public about coexistence strategies for both predators and people.
For the past 10 years Camilla and her cohorts at Project Coyote have fought for the rights of native species to live in peace alongside us. And in doing so, a nascent movement to get states to ban wildlife killing contests has gained traction. Allies include a diverse mix of ranchers, scientists, conservationists, and everyday citizens who care about wildlife.
Through various programs that include community education, partnerships with farmers, and wildlife advocacy in the halls of government, Project Coyote has helped turn the tide against the unabated exploitation of wildlife. But it’s not easy.
“The view that wildlife is here for our exploitation, for our recreational and commercial use is at the base of practices like killing contests,” Fox tells me over the phone. “And until we change that fundamental perspective of viewing wild animals as something that we can kill in unlimited numbers for fun and prizes, we won’t really be getting at the base core problem…”
Attacking that problem will require a mix of tactics, ranging from advocacy to legal action, all of which Fox is poised to use in an effort to bring awareness to how we as a country mismanage wildlife. One of her most recent projects includes the production of an award winning documentary style film called Killing Games, Wildlife in the Crosshairs.
The film is shot through the lens of those most affected by predator contests – coyotes. While they are the focus, however, the film employs a host of narratives from stakeholders, like ranchers Becky Weed and Keli Hendricks, who want to see an end to killing contests.
With reason and raw emotion, storytellers give voice to the voiceless through science-based data and personal anecdotes. The result is a film that offers a compelling mix of stories that both pull at your heart strings and offers an alternative way to view and live with predators.
“I look at killing contests as an exercise in cruelty”, says Michael Soule, a Project Coyote science advisory board member, in the film. “Why would you want to kill creatures just for the fun of it? We’re talking about mammals, animals that have a pretty high level of consciousness. They’re aware of what’s happening to them and that means they suffer.”
The victims are often some of our countries most important species – coyotes, foxes, bobcats, mountain lions, and sometimes even wolves.
Proponents will tell you that they’re managing pests, helping ungulate populations, and reducing conflicts with wildlife. But all of these reasons have been debunked by peer reviewed studies. And some studies show that indiscriminately killing coyotes can actually have the opposite effect.
But research and organizations like the Human Society of the United States say otherwise.
“Research suggests that when aggressively controlled, coyotes can increase their reproductive rate by breeding at an earlier age and having larger litters, with a higher survival rate among the young,” reports the HSUS website. “This allows coyote populations to quickly bounce back, even when as much as 70 percent of their numbers are removed.”
So in effect, wildlife killing contests may actually create more problems than they purport to solve. In addition, by killing predators, the participants are destroying ecosystems that predate our existence and time on this continent.
While wildlife killing contests have been happening in the shadows of America since the late 50’s, the advent of social media has brought them and their participants into the wider public view. And many aren’t pleased by what they see.
“There’s no justification for this other than … the cheap exploitation of human power and weaponry over defenseless animals”, says Project Coyote advisory board member Peter Coyote in Killing Games. “That’s not sport. That’s just massacre.”
By highlighting ethical ways to manage and live with wildlife, the film shows how our current system is woefully lacking. Scenes are replete with beautiful stories from ranchers and scientists who work with community members to reshape the narrative around predator management. Their focus is on one that includes a host of non-lethal techniques like using guard dogs, fladry, and range riders to deter predation.
As the film also wonderfully captures how key native predators are to the ecosystems in which they inhabit. They keep environments healthy by managing rodent populations and keeping grazers in check.
“All of these carnivores, … they all have their particular niches to maintain the health of ecosystems,” says veterinarian, bioethicist, and author Michael W. Fox (also Camilla’s father). “When they are disrupted, when they are exterminated, ecosystems change.”
This change often has a decremental impact on other species and the environment overall and some states have taken notice. Project Coyote scored a big win in 2014 when California, their home state, prohibited the awarding of prizes or other inducements for the killing of non-game and furbearing animals as part of a contest, derby or tournament. This ban covers not just coyotes, but also bobcats, foxes and raccoons who are often targeted in killing contests.
Since then, the momentum has only increased. Last year Vermont banned coyote killing contests. New Mexico followed up this year by doing the same. And most recently Arizona Game and Fish passed a rule that would ban killing contests as well.
The goal of the film is to call attention to the shadowy business of killing contests while building on the success of bans at the state level. But the ultimate goal is to inspire grassroots action to ban this bloodsport nationwide.
And this is where you come in. If you want to get involved, Fox offers a number of suggestions to voice your concerns. One of the lowest hanging fruits is commenting in the comments section online. If you’re really looking to speak up, write letters to the editors of the major news outlets in your area to express your opposition. And for those that are ready to role their sleeves up, you can write letters to your state legislature, governor’s office, and state fish and game commission encouraging a ban of wildlife killing contests.
More than exposing wildlife killing contests for their cruelty and pointlessness, the film offers a chance for you to learn about what’s happening in your backyard.
If you’re in the Great Lakes area this week, come check out the Minnesota premier of Killing Games this Wednesday, July 24th at 7pm at the Landmark Edina Cinema, in Edina, Minnesota, just outside Minneapolis. The screening will be hosted by Rachel Tilseth, herself, and is a part of the Wild and Scenic Film Festival. Purchase tickets here .
Additionally, Camilla and colleagues from the National Coalition to End Wildlife Killing Contests will be part of a post panel discussion to answer questions, hear your thoughts, and talk to you directly about wildlife killing contests and how to stop them.
To learn more about Project Coyote and the film, please visit http://www.projectcoyote.org/