Wants to change name but not disassociate from “World’s Largest Coon Hunt”
MEMPHIS, Tennessee––Unfazed by 28 years of protest against the cruelty to animals involved in the now-41-year-old Decatur County World’s Largest Coon Hunt, an annual benefit for the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital of Memphis, the hospital may at last disassociate itself from the hunt over allegations of racism.
Or maybe not, if the World’s Largest Coon Hunt organizers agree to change the name of the event from “coon hunt” to “raccoon festival,” to help to hide the cruelty issue as well as the racial issue inherent in the use of the word “coon,” often used as a derogatory term for Americans of African descent.
“It’s a raccoon hunt,” says mayor
So far, the World’s Largest Coon Hunt board has accepted a partial name change, to become the World’s Largest Raccoon Hunt, but has balked at adopting “festival” in place of “hunt”––at least for now.
Meanwhile, the 2016 edition of the World’s Largest Coon Hunt is scheduled for April 8-9, and has already been extensively promoted under the traditional name.
“St. Jude threatened to disassociate with the event and not accept donations [raised from it] unless Decatur County changed the name to raccoon hunt, citing racial concerns,” reported WSMV-Channel 4, of Decaturville, Tennessee on February 29, 2016. Decatur County mayor Mike Creasy said the Coon Hunt board had agreed to change the event’s name, “but St. Jude again asked the county to change the name to raccoon festival, citing animal rights concerns.”
Said Creasy, “It’s not a festival and it will never be a festival. It’s a raccoon hunt and it’s what it’s going to remain.”
Will change names to say “raccoon”
Said a St. Jude media release, apparently beating a discreet retreat, “It is our standard practice to accept donations from a variety of events and people of all walks of life, professions and backgrounds who desire to help support our mission and we will continue to do so. The event committee voted 100% to change the name and we support their decision.”
“The mayor said the city plans to change all of its signs to now say ‘raccoon,’” the WSMV-Channel 4 report finished. “However, the group behind the event is a registered LLC. With six weeks to go before the event, Creasy said they don’t have time to legally change the name.”
Begun by Jaycees & Jaycettes
According to a 2006 “History of the World Largest Coonhunt” posted to the American Kennel Club coonhounds web site by Nelda Pritchard, who is still listed as an official contact for the event, “In 1976 the Decatur County Coon Hunters got together with a group of volunteers called the Decatur County Jaycees and Jaycettes to host a coon hunt fundraiser. They opened concessions and invited all coon hunters to participate.”
Hosted by the Decatur County Fairgrounds in Parsons, Tennessee, the first World’s Largest Coon Hunt benefited the American Cancer Society. In 1977, however, the organizers “decided to make this an annual event and donate all proceeds to the St Jude Children’s Research Hospital,” Pritchard wrote. The Decatur County-St. Jude World’s Largest Coon Hunt, Inc. was separately incorporated in 1984, Pritchard recounted.
Though no one appears to have established a direct connection, the World’s Largest Coon Hunt originated coincidental with the emergence of the 1976-1992 mid-Atlantic raccoon rabies pandemic, the worst and most widespread rabies outbreak in U.S. history.
The pandemic began when a group of West Virginia raccoon hunters and trappers, trying to rebuild the hunted-out local population, translocated 3,500 raccoons from Florida, where raccoon rabies has persisted for more than 60 years.
Rabies typically kills raccoons, like humans, within days of the appearance of active symptoms, but in raccoons the latency period before symptoms show is often around two months, and can be up to six months: long enough for an infected raccoon to mate and raise rabid offspring.
Some of the raccoon translocators testified later that they had no idea that the raccoons they moved were rabid. But rabid raccoons had nonetheless been distributed throughout the Great Smoky Mountains.
State wildlife agencies and organizations promoting raccoon hunting and trapping then seized upon the rabies outbreak as pretext for encouraging hunters to kill as many raccoons as possible.
Massacre made outbreak worse
From 1977 through 1987, trappers in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and New Jersey killed more than 500,000 raccoons per year. Hunters killed as many more, often using packs of unvaccinated or unreliably self-vaccinated dogs.
This increased the risk of rabies spreading into the pet dog population, in turn accelerating impoundments and killing of dogs found at large. Shelter killing of dogs peaked in the affected states during the mid-Atlantic raccoon rabies pandemic years.
Outbreak slowed in New England
Despite the killing, raccoon rabies rapidly spread east to the Atlantic coast, then spread north and west at the rate of about 50 miles per year. This occurred partly because hunting and trapping pressure obliged surviving raccoons to wander farther in search of mates, partly because killing raccoons opened habitat, helping the survivors to raise larger litters than they otherwise could have.
The raccoon rabies pandemic lost momentum only when it reached Connecticut and Massachusetts, where hunting and trapping pressure was comparatively light, even though the raccoon population was denser.
Investigators discovered up to 300 raccoons per square mile in Fairfield County, Connecticut, and adjacent Westchester County, New York, where the first and most cases of the raccoon rabies strain north of New Jersey were found.
The mid-Atlantic raccoon rabies pandemic was finally stopped through the deployment of Raboral, an oral rabies vaccine for wildlife modeled after similar vaccines which had been used successfully against fox rabies in Europe for nearly 20 years.
The introduction of oral vaccines for use against raccoon rabies had been bitterly fought in court for six years by the Foundation on Economic Trends, which is sympathetic to animal rights but was opposed to the release of any genetically modified product, and the National Wildlife Federation, then the national umbrella for 49 state hunting clubs.
Concern about the role of raccoon hunting in spreading rabies, and about the influence of organized raccoon hunting competitions in popularizing the use of dogs to hunt raccoons, had already emerged years before humane protest against the competitions began.
Humane opposition appears to have been deflected for years by United Kennel Club and American Kennel Club competition rules against contestants’ dogs killing the raccoons they chase.
Rather, the dogs must keep each raccoon treed until the raccoon’s presence is confirmed by a judge.
Nonetheless, raccoon hunting contests help to promote traditional raccoon hunting, launder the image of it, and develop the skills used in it. In traditional raccoon hunts, raccoons are dismembered by dog packs if caught on the ground, or if treed, are shot out of the trees and thrown to the dogs.
Also problematic for animal advocates during the earliest years of the World’s Largest Coon Hunt was lack of a raccoon hunt sponsor vulnerable to boycott. By 1988, however, Ralston Purina had become a prominent sponsor. A boycott of Ralston Purina called by the Animal Rights Network was endorsed two years later, in 1990, by The Fund for Animals and the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights. (Both organizations later merged into the Humane Society of the U.S.)
The timing seemed to be right. Ralston-Purina was simultaneously under boycott by Earth Island Institute, Earth First!, and the St. Louis Animal Rights Team for allegedly selling non-“dolphin-safe” tuna through a subsidiary later sold, and was under boycott by some bird protection groups for producing Starlicide, a toluene-based poison reportedly used by cattle feedlots to keep starlings and blackbirds away from the grain given to livestock.
The Ralston Purina boycotts were not endorsed, however, by most major dog-and-cat humane societies, apparently because of the popularity of the Ralston Purina Pets-for-People program, which paid rebates to animal shelters for making adoptions to senior citizens. Ralston Purina subsequently ramped up other programs helping to feed shelter animals and fund animal shelter programs.
That Girl did nothing
As the Ralston Purina boycott fizzled, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals became involved, appealing to St. Jude celebrity spokesperson Marlo Thomas to use her influence toward ending the St. Jude association with the World’s Largest Coon Hunt. Her father, entertainer Danny Thomas, had cofounded St. Jude in 1960.
Marlo Thomas dismissed PETA’s complaints, but by 1998 PETA at least had the World’s Largest Coon Hunt organizers’ attention.
“It is Holy Thursday, the day Christians celebrate the Last Supper,” opened Memphis Flyer writer Phil Campbell on the eve of the 1998 event, describing a pre-hunt dinner that was conducted much like a revival meeting.
Many of the PETA protesters were Jewish.
Wrote Campbell, “‘These are the same people who crucified Jesus Christ,’ one coon-hunting fan says, with the certainty of someone who’s thought things through.”
Despite all that, St. Jude fundraiser Richard Shadyac accepted about $150,000 from the World’s Largest Coon Hunt.
Finished Campbell, “The question of the ethics of the hunt will never again be resurrected, the St. Jude official says.”
Campbell was wrong about that. The question of the ethics of the World’s Largest Coon Hunt has been raised by animal advocates almost every year since.
“Horrific blood sport”
Wrote wildlife biologist and ethicist Marc Bekoff in a 2012 blog posting for Psychology Today, “I and everyone I know fully support the remarkable work of St. Jude, but there is no reason at all for them to associate with a horrific blood sport that not only results in the merciless killing of numerous raccoons but also it leaves many orphaned babies to die…Raccoon hunting dogs are often trained using live bait and a dog was killed during their 2010 event.”
Asked Guardians of Rescue in an appeal for letters to St. Jude opposing the 2014 World’s Largest Coon Hunt, “How can a humanitarian organization like St. Jude’s be part of an event that raises blood sport money at the expense of the lives of defenseless animals? Is there no way to humanely fundraise for this extremely worthy and charitable cause? Torturing God’s precious creatures is not the answer!”
Maybe not worst, but worst example
The World’s Largest Coon Hunt is scarcely the worst recreational abuse of raccoons seen in in the south-central U.S., even if it does arguably set the worst example by being as prominent as it is, and as closely associated with a well-respected charity.
In Boyle County, Kentucky in June 2014, a “Coon Dog Treeing Contest” was reportedly turned into an event called a “coon drag” in the fairgrounds horse arena. Released amid the hounds, a raccoon was attacked, blinded, then escaped briefly, only to be dismembered alive when caught again by the hounds at a nearby truck pull arena.
In Memphis, Missouri, the local Future Farmers of America chapter in November 2015 held a raccoon hunt that awarded prizes for the “biggest coon, the smallest coon, the most coons and the fastest skinner,” with no bag limit for participants. All raccoons were to be killed on the night of the contest, brought back whole to the contest headquarters, and skinned in front of an audience.