If We're Truly Honest About Gun Violence, We Must Acknowledge That Non-Human Animals Are Also Victims

The email I received from a leading progressive organization contained a graphic featuring a quote from Jimmy Carter: "The NRA 'represents the gun manufacturers and sellers' not 'the average hunters' or 'people who use guns for defense.'" In the wake of a renewed national gun debate, even liberal political voices are legitimizing hunting as a "proper" form of gun violence.


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Graphic from an email from Fight for Reform.

Carter's statement goes even further, suggesting that killing in self-defense is morally equivalent to killing non-human animals for sport. The media reports on this confused and disconnected view of violence without questioning the logic, all the while ignoring the mounting evidence that mass shooters often have a history of violence that began with animal victims before claiming human ones. The New York Times opens its piece on Vermont's sweeping new gun control laws by pointing out that Vermont is "steeped in hunting culture," but then makes no further mention of non-human victims of gun violence, whose suffering and lives are not mourned, but simply erased in the name of sport and profit.

But it was the news of a 1.7 million investment in a hatchery that breeds pheasants for release to hunters in the Wisconsin State Journal that really caught my eye. How is artificially breeding thousands of birds into this world consistent with the hunting narrative of playing a conservation role?

One video alleging to contain footage from the U.S. Open Pheasant Championship shows a young woman approaching a pheasant that is so tame the bird doesn't even move. The young woman kicks the bird with her shoe to force the bird into flight and then shoots her at about a 10-to-20 foot range. The bird is seen flapping her wings repeatedly on the ground, and the dog runs to her to fetch her. This staged scene is repeated with other young hunters.

The hunting defense frames hunting not as sport or leisure, but as essential conservation work, based on an appeal to fear, warning that wildlife populations will spiral out of control and become a nuisance to communities without their intervention. This may explain why the 85 percent of Wisconsinites who do not hunt still passively support hunting, believing it to be a necessary evil.

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Screengrab from the Cedar Hill Game Farm website.

In Wisconsin, pheasant hunting is not just a business; customers are lured into a sophisticated e-commerce experience offering a wide range of hunting packages that can be purchased like all-inclusive vacations. At the Cedar Hill Game Farm website, customers can choose from packages called "Bakers Dozen Special" priced at $234 and "Tower Hunt Participant" for $80. But support for pheasant hunting doesn't just stop with private hunting clubs and groups. It's a state-financed enterprise.

Non-Hunters Paying for Hunting

I spoke with Kelly Maguire of Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) about pheasant hunting in her state and the Poynette Game Farm the DNR operates, which just invested $1.7 million in a major hatchery facility. Maguire tells me that 75,000 pheasants chicks are artificially bred annually from about 7,000 parent hens and 7,000 parent roosters. Eggs are taken from hens and hatched in artificial incubators. Once hatched the chicks are moved to brooders for about six weeks and then moved outside to the "range field" to live out the remainder of the captive phase of their lives prior to their release. Their total time in captivity, from hatching to release, is about 21 weeks.

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Pheasant chicks are hatched in artificial incubators, motherless and orphaned, like chicks and ducklings.

When I asked if she had any concerns about releasing captive-bred birds lacking the survival skills necessary for the wild, Maguire assured me that the facility goes to great lengths to limit human-bird contact, so as to avoid birds becoming tame and trusting of humans. But Steve Hindi who has been investigating hunt clubs and rodeos for years for his nonprofit SHARK says he sees dead birds on the side of the roads by game farms since these birds have no survival instinct and therefore no sense of the lethal dangers posed by cars, coyotes—or even hunters.

The DNR doesn't just provide funding and resources to the pheasant hunting industry. It actively promotes pheasant hunting much like other recreational sports. The spokespeople for the DNR are often "wildlife ecologists" like Mark Witecha, who writes on the DNR website, "Pheasant hunting offers a fantastic means to experience the outdoors ... the chance to explore landscapes and habitat types you might not otherwise see." And, "During the 2016 pheasant hunting season, an estimated 43,520 hunters went out in search of pheasants and reported harvesting 307,240 birds."

To make it easier for hunters to actually find game birds, the DNR developed the "Fields & Forest Lands Interactive Gamebird Hunting Tool."

Consistent with the hunting narrative of conservation, one might assume that the ring-necked pheasant was an endangered species native to Wisconsin. Instead, Maguire admits that it is designated as an "invasive species," a term hunters hate. Regardless of the term we use, this bird was brought here by private breeders from Asia in the 1800s.

When I asked why the state would invest so much to ensure that an invasive species thrives, Maguire responded that about 40 percent of the revenue the state receives from pheasant hunters goes into habitat restoration, which helps many other species. In other words, Wisconsin is promoting a blood sport as a means to save other animals. Wisconsin and other states have placed the fate of valuable wildlife and ecosystems at the mercy of a lucrative canned hunting enterprise and factory farm hatchery to mass produce an invasive species known to displace the native species the state claims to be protecting.

Meeting Two Rescued Pheasants

Brenda Vetter and her husband run SoL Creations Sanctuary about an hour north of Madison and about 30 minutes away from Poynette Game Farm. Last year they rescued two ring-necked pheasants, a rooster named Phoenix and later a hen named Phoebe. Both were 6- to 8-week-old chicks when SoL rescued them and likely originate from the hatchery.

The two have since bonded as a couple. In one video, Phoenix is doing an elegant courtship dance and song for Phoebe. Brenda says these birds have their own unique personalities just like the other animals in her sanctuary. Even the Bird Hunting Society website, in its defense of hunting, ironically states, "Birds are generally smarter than mammals, and among birds, pheasants are one of the smartest. Any person who has had a bird as a pet or studied birds will attest to the intelligence and learning ability of birds."

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Photo of Phoenix and Phoebe, two rescued ring-necked pheasants. (Image courtesy Brenda Vetter)

What Can You Do?

First, we need to be honest and clear in our language that pheasants and other animal are victims of gun violence. We must command the attention of our elected officials in our own states and municipalities and demand that they stop allowing tax dollars to support the hunting industry as well as the war on wildlife at the behest of animal farmers. We can organize or join local grassroots efforts to build public awareness and pressure local lawmakers. We can write letters to the editors of media outlets. We can approach our allies in the March for Our Lives movement and make the case that hunting must be part of our struggle against gun violence.

Whatever you decide to do, please take one immediate step by signing the petition to end taxpayer support for pheasant hunting in Wisconsin. If we can set a precedent here, we may be able to replicate this in other states.

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