The whole point is to be part of a gang doing the socially unacceptable
To non-hunters, little could present a worse advertisement for hunting than the photographs, widely distributed via social media, of the 149 corpses of coyotes hung by their tails from a barbed wire-topped chain link fence outside American Legion Post 76 in Stanly County, North Carolina, after the Sixth Annual Carolina Coyote Classic killing contest ended on February 10, 2019.
But the 107 hunters who called and shot the coyotes, most if not all of them using electronic calling devices, were competing for cash prizes, trophies, hunting equipment, and bragging rights, not for non-hunter favor.
And a big part of the bragging had to do with defying the disapproval of the non-hunting 95% of the American public.
Frustrated sense of entitlement
The coyote corpses were hanged, photographed, and the photos aggressively shared for much the same reason that drivers of oversized pickup trucks with even more oversized wheels speed, tailgate, then whip around drivers observing speed limits with one hand steering, the other giving whoever was passed the finger.
None of it is about actually getting somewhere. All of it is an exaggerated dominance display from someone of a frustrated sense of entitlement, whose chosen side has already lost the struggle for cultural dominance.
Killing contests are commonly promoted––and defended, by participants to fellow hunters who consider them abhorrent exhibitions of unsportsmanlike behavior––as instruments for hunter recruitment.
Killing contests rarely recruit new hunters
But the recruitment effort is not directed toward non-hunters. Rather, the goal is to induce the most addicted subcategory of hunters to stay out in the field longer, toward the end of the licensed hunting seasons, after those hunters have already bagged the limit of every species coveted enough for eating or as a trophy to be conserved with a bag limit.
Killing contests are often where young hunters start, introduced to recreational mayhem by older family members. Yet killing contests do not tend to attract participation from anyone who has not already been steeped from birth in the most bloodthirsty depths of the hunting subculture.
Participating in a killing contest is joining in a cult ritual that unites the cultists to a degree going beyond just participating in sport hunting. Specifically, participating in a killing contest unites the participants in an implicit pact to defy the norms of society––not unlike “coming out” as gay in a confrontationally flamboyant manner, exhibiting bizarre body piercings, or flying a Confederate or Nazi flag, or wearing a gang tattoo.
Sport hunters commonly pretend to having motives going beyond getting their kicks out of killing something, including hunting to get meat, albeit very expensive meat, and to contribute their licensing fees to “conservation,” in practice meaning little more than just keeping target species abundant.
Killing animals, however, the more the better, is the entire purpose of a killing contest.
The goal is killing. Only killing.
If the idea behind a killing contest was simply to eliminate a pest, a threat, or a nuisance, building better fences and/or taking other appropriate nonviolent measures would usually do the job, just as nonviolent measures do the job everywhere else, and long have.
The goal of a killing contest is just that: to kill. Nothing else is rewarded.
Killing contests are not new, and when rooted in local culture, tend to be stubbornly resistant to public disapproval. That, after all, is what they are all about in the first place: delineating the difference between those who openly kill for fun and everyone else, who either does not kill or pretends to have a higher purpose behind killing.
“Bunny Bop” & pigeon shoots
Among the best-known killing contests of the past were an infamous “Bunny Bop” held annually in Harmony, North Carolina, from 1946 to 1967, ended in part by the vocal opposition of advice columnist Ann Landers and Fund for Animals founder Cleveland Amory.
The Fred C. Coleman pigeon shoot held every Labor Day in Hegins, Pennsylvania, lasted even longer, from 1935 to 1999. Cleveland Amory helped lead the opposition to the Hegins killing contest, too, but died a year before a court decision ended it.
Opposite modus operandi to a buck pool
But public killing contests focused on killing animals in volume were until recently an aberration. Traditional buck pools award prizes to the hunters who bag the biggest deer, with the most antler points. Killing more bucks than the bag limit, usually just one, disqualifies the entrant.
Except at Hegins, pigeon shoots and other captive bird shoots have historically been held almost entirely at private gun clubs, beyond public observation.
Shooting prairie dogs and other “small game” or “vermin” until recently conveyed no more status to the shooters than shooting rats at a dump. That was something boys might do, for target practice, before they were old enough to hunt “real game” with grown men.
Killing contests are among last gasps of sport hunting
Today’s killing contests somewhat resemble the Harmony and Hegins events, and others similar to them that came and went, from the mid-19th century until toward the end of the 20th century, but they are also different in significant ways, including in the escalating value of the prizes offered to entice entrants.
Most noticeably, the recent coast-to-coast explosion of killing contests coincides with a drastic decline in overall hunting participation.
As the post-World War II “Baby Boom” generation ages out of hunting, hunting itself is dying out––except for the diehards.
Hunters are aging out
Nationally, according to the 2016 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, & Wildlife-Associated Recreation, the most recent available, the licensed hunting population has decreased from 17.9 million in 1975 to 11.4 million today. The annual dropout rate is roughly 6.3 percent, against annual recruitment of about five percent.
Six million of the 11.4 million currently licensed hunters are older than 45 years of age; 3.5 million are older than 55; 1.5 million, or about 25%, are older than 65.
Among hunters younger than 45, rates of participation drop in every 10-year age bracket. Teens, who 50 years ago hunted the most, hunt the least today.
But which younger hunters are still hunting at every opportunity?
The psychology of hunters continues to stratify into age categories discovered in 1977 by Robert Jackson and Robert Norton of the University of Wisconsin, who interviewed 1,600 licensed deer and waterfowl hunters in a study of attitudes and motivations commissioned by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Jackson and Norton found that hunters typically pass through five phases of outlook and behavior that roughly correspond with stages of maturity.
Killing contests cater to the mentality of the least mature hunters, including older hunters who might be categorized as either cases of arrested development or frustrated, angry men venting their hostility on wildlife.
Jackson and Norton found that in phase one, the Shooter stage, hunters are chiefly interested in exercising their firepower; they don’t much care what they hit. Any living target will do.
In the second phase, shooters evolve from random killing to what Jackson and Norton called the Limiting Out stage, where satisfaction still comes from firing the gun, but success – and social status – comes from “bagging the limit.”
When the limit is low, however, as it tends to be for “meat” and “trophy” animals, hunters tend to reach the limit quickly, and then have nothing else that conveys status to hunt.
Killing contests confer status on killing “varmints,” if the hunters kill them in volume.
Killing contests targeting native species currently focus on “13 Unlucky Animals That Are Killed for Fun,” enumerated in 2018 by Sam Schipani for Sierra, the Sierra Club membership magazine.
Among the 13 are coyotes, foxes, bobcats, wolves, woodchucks, marmots, prairie dogs, squirrels, crows, pigeons, rattlesnakes, sharks, and cownose rays.
To that list should be added several non-native species, among them the fish species Asian carp and snakeheads, and feral pigs and pythons, the latter the victims of an annual killing contest hosted by the South Florida Water Management District.
Among those species, foxes, bobcats, and wolves tend to be “collateral damage,” most often added as “extra points” species to the target lists for coyote killing contests.
Ignorance about predation
Predator species, especially coyotes, wolves, sharks, cownose rays, and pythons, are typically targeted on the pretext that they deplete other hunted species, even though no reputable research supports the notion that they do.
On the contrary, healthy predators tend to help maintain healthy prey by picking off the diseased animals who might otherwise infect and genuinely deplete whole populations.
Healthy predators also open habitat for younger animals by killing those who are past their reproductive prime.
Meanwhile, killing predators tends to enable the survivors, who have less food competition, to bear and raise more young, thereby encouraging an ever-larger predator population. This phenomenon has been known to be particularly pronounced among coyotes for more than 60 years.
Killing contests are also promoted to exterminate non-native species as alleged threats to native wildlife, but essentially the same population dynamics apply. Killing big boars and pythons merely removes from the habitat the most successful predators of these often cannibalistic species, while opening habitat to far more offspring than would survive the depredations of nest-raiding males.
Illustrating this tendency, the Florida python killing contest bagged just 68 pythons in 2013, the year it began; reached a cumulative total of 1,000 in May 2018; and had accounted for 1,711 python killings by October 2018, meaning that participants are now killing more than ten times as many pythons as when prizes were first awarded to accelerate the killing.
Whatever else it may be doing, the python killing contest is self-evidently not more than transiently diminishing the python population.
Momentum builds to ban killing contests
The self-defeating aspects of killing contests, both in promoting hunting to non-hunters and as an alleged tool of wildlife management, has recently built momentum toward banning them.
Recited Beth Dalbey of the Patch national staff on February 6, 2019, “California banned coyote killing contests in 2014. Four years later, Vermont became the second state to do so, after social media outcry led to the cancellation of the Boonie Club Crow Shoot. In Oregon, where the state’s large JMK Coyote Hunting Contest was shuttered by a 2014 lawsuit, activists are gathering signatures on state and national petitions to end the killing contests. From New Mexico and Nevada in the Southwest to New Jersey and New York, activists and lawmakers are taking a fresh look at how they view coyote killing contests.”
Contests stopped in New Mexico, Idaho, & Maryland
In New Mexico, meanwhile, “Calling animal killing contests ‘brutal, barbaric and inhumane,’ new state land commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard banned the practice on state trust land,” reported Matt Grubs of the Sante Fe Reporter on January 10, 2019, noting that “Her office oversees more than nine million surface acres.”
On the same day, posted Humane Society of the U.S. senior wildlife policy advisor Dave Pauli to social media, “A coyote and wolf killing derby scheduled in Kamiah, Idaho for February 1-2,” meant to be the first of an annual series, “was cancelled when the sponsoring ranch was inundated with positive professional facts that killing contests are not effective at reducing predator issues.”
Two Maryland bills, SB 143 and HB 213, introduced to extend a two-year-old moratorium on bowfishing contests that target cownose rays, appear to be advancing through the state legislature.
Could just play video games
However, recently lamented Humane Society of the U.S. president Kitty Block, “Despite their unpopularity among the general public, wildlife killing contests happen with astonishing frequency in almost every state. At least five were held in Oregon in recent years,” and that was just the killing contests that were publicized beyond local neighborhoods.
Though prohibiting killing contests makes a good start, ending them altogether will require not only that the hunting population ages, but that it matures.
That includes the cases of arrested development who organize, promote, and put up the prizes to incite alienated, angry, frustrated younger men to spend whole days hunting, when they could just play video games.