SANTA FE, N.M. — On the first day of 2015, a photo appeared on the front page of the Albuquerque Journal showing a solemn-looking man standing in the desert near Las Cruces. He was looking at dozens of dead coyotes spread out on the ground around him.
The man in the photo was me and the 39 dead coyotes were the victims of a killing contest held just the weekend before Christmas. A few of the animals had been skinned, but most of the bodies were intact, except, of course, for the bullet holes.
Perhaps you’ve never heard of wildlife-killing contests. They are organized events in which participants compete for prizes for killing the most animals. Prizes are also often awarded for shooting the largest, as well as the smallest – and youngest – animals.
Sometimes, the winners are determined by a simple body count, other times by a system that awards more points for bigger and rarer species. The most common targets are coyotes, but others include bobcats, foxes, badgers, prairie dogs, squirrels – even wolves and mountain lions.
With a few restrictions, such contests are legal in every state except California, which recently banned them. There were at least 130 contests held in the nation between August 2013 and July 2014, according to data compiled by Wildlife Conservation Advocacy Southwest, with at least 17 happening in New Mexico alone. The number appears to be increasing.
I’d known something about these contests but had never before stumbled upon the victims. Usually, organizers are supposed to be more circumspect in disposing of the bodies. As I stood there, looking at so many dead coyotes, I didn’t wonder why some people like to kill things for fun.
We all know that humans are a violent species. The real mystery is why we allow people to engage in behavior that in any other context would be considered inappropriate, criminal or even borderline psychopathic.
Are these people bloodthirsty? I can’t say I know many personally but, judging from their presence on Facebook, many clearly take an unhealthy pleasure in watching their living targets suffer and die. The cavalier way they dispatch living creatures and the glibness with which they joke about it is disturbing, especially since we know that these same people are armed and living among us.
But sadism alone doesn’t explain their behavior. Many of these shooters have another life as well; they are also dutiful parents and responsible citizens. Many undoubtedly enjoy the challenge of “outsmarting” their quarry, even if they use enough high-tech advantages, such as electronic calling devices and sophisticated weaponry, to cancel all possibility of a “fair chase.”
But if they do not intend to eat their victims (or utilize the pelts, in most cases), why kill them? Why not settle for a camera shot?
I’ve spent enough time on their websites to think I know at least one reason. Through all the self-congratulatory photos, defiant rhetoric about hunting rights and general bashing of “libtards” runs a similar narrative: Their victims are labeled undesirable – varmints and pests – and the shooters are simply doing the world a favor by getting rid of them.
Predators, especially, are held in disdain for engaging in a variety of real and imagined behaviors deemed objectionable: consuming game animals that rightfully belong to human hunters, attacking livestock and pets, killing for fun (yes, the irony is lost on human hunters), menacing little children – you get the idea. The fact that these views are illogical and inconsistent with a modern scientific understanding of the importance of predators matters little.
Maybe this anti-predator fervor is what drives them, or maybe it’s just a convenient excuse for their gratuitous killing. But what ought we to do in response? Should “wildlife cleansing” continue to be permitted by state wildlife departments?
Many of these agencies appear indifferent, if not outright hostile, to the conservation of all but a handful of game animals preferred by hunters – the agencies’ primary constituents. They are aided in this by the reluctance of mainstream sportsmen’s groups to break ranks with rabidly anti-predator outfits, such as Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, and the National Rifle Association.
I know a fair number of hunters and, without exception, they tell me privately of their disgust for wildlife-killing contests, yet they refuse to say so publicly for fear of providing an opening for hunting opponents. That’s unfortunate and does not bode well for either hunting or wildlife.
The vast majority of Americans who do not hunt are willing to accept hunting, but I would bet they draw the line at wildlife-killing contests. When ethical hunters remain silent, that line is blurred. Meanwhile, animals die needlessly in a shameful way.
Kevin Bixby is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is the director of the Southwest Environmental Center in New Mexico.