Editorial: Culture, coonhunting, & child hunters

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2006:

Americans who express broad disgust toward Asian cultures
over the many cruelties of dog-eating and cat-eating might usefully
compare the persistence of those behaviors in South Korea and China
to the persistence of American participation in sport hunting.
About three million (6%) of the 50 million South Koreans eat
dogs, consuming about 2.6 million dogs per year at present. If the
same ratio of consumption applies to the estimated annual production
of about 10 million dogs for slaughter in China, about 11.4 million
Chinese eat dogs–or less than 1% of the human population of 1.4
billion. Cat-eating in both China and South Korea continues at a
much lower level.
Among about 300 million Americans, the U.S. now has slightly more
than 13 million active hunters: 4.3%. Another five million people
identify themselves as hunters but no longer hunt, chiefly due to
advancing age.
A traditional if often elusive goal of deer hunting is to effect a
quick kill, but causing prolonged animal suffering is built into the
method of many other forms of hunting.

For example, a shotgun blast fired into a flight of ducks,
geese, doves, or quail may kill one or two birds outright, while
crippling several others, but the whole idea of “wing shooting” with
shot rather than a bullet is to try to “wing” the birds, grounding
them until retrieved, possibly hours later. The retrieval is often
by a dog, inflicting a new terror on the birds until the hunter
breaks the birds’ necks.
Hunting raccoons with dogs, “coonhunting” for short, may be
the cruelest form of hunting common to the U.S.
Coonhunting resembles British-style foxhunting, but without
the trappings and social pretensions, and is nocturnal. Instead of
following their pack, coonhunters turn the dogs loose, then
typically drink alcoholic beverages and listen. When they hear that
the dogs have treed a raccoon, they go to the dogs, often aided by
radio telemetry and four-wheel drive vehicles, then shoot the
raccoon out of the tree for the dogs to tear apart, living or dead.
Coonhounds are frequently kept in remote rural kennels under
conditions comparable to those of dog meat farms–and hunting dogs,
in many states, are exempted from at least some of the cruelty laws
that govern the care of domestic pets.
An especially egregious example of the so-called culture of
coonhunting recently came to light, if not justice, in rural West
Virginia. This is the same small state where coonhunters trying to
restock the local raccoon population in 1976 released 3,500 raccoons
captured from a rabies-endemic part of Florida. They started a
30-year rabies pandemic that hit 14 states, spreading as far north
as Massachusetts and as far west as Ohio, before air drops of
genetically engineered raccoon rabies vaccine pellets finally brought
the pandemic under containment. USDA Wildlife Services is still
trying to end it, having on August 8, 2006 spread 300,000 doses of
the vaccine over eight counties in Virginia near the West Virginia
Earlier, pro-hunting organizations including the National
Wildlife Federation fought a prolonged court battle against the use
of the oral rabies vaccine. State wildlife agencies pushed raccoon
trapping and coonhunting, claiming that rabies was spreading because
of raccoon overpopulation. Hunters and trappers killed upward of
half a million raccoons per year in the affected states, comparable
to the numbers of dogs killed in China this year to try to stop
rabies outbreaks. Yet the rabies pandemic continued to spread at
about 50 miles per year.
Mark Starcher, 38, of Pond Gap, was among the West
Virginians who came of age to hunt near the height of the pandemic.
On August 10, 2006, a Kanawha Circuit Court jury deliberated for
less than an hour before acquitting Starcher of cruelty to a
coonhound. Starcher admitted he shot the coonhound and left the
remains taped to the steering wheel of a junked car in the woods near
Sanderson, as if the dead dog was driving the car. Starcher also
admitted burying the gun to hide the evidence. Further, “Starcher
admitted that he was drinking and driving with his 9-year-old stepson
in the vehicle the night he killed the dog,” reported Charleston
Gazette staff writer Andrew Clevenger.
Starcher claimed the dog had repeatedly misbehaved during
coonhunts, including that night, but denied abusing the dog, and
claimed the dog died immediately when shot.
“The law does not allow a coonhunter exception to the [animal
cruelty] statute,” Kanawha County Prosecutor Bill Charnock told the
From the ANIMAL PEOPLE perspective, Starcher should have
been charged with psychologically abusing the 9-year-old by taking
him on a coonhunt. Coonhunting is a legal voyeuristic behavior, for
adults, but so is attending strip joints. Any West Virginia jury
would almost certainly convict any father for contributing to the
delinquency of a minor if he kept his 9-year-old out late to visit a
strip joint.
Consequences of exposing young people to hunting and firearms
at an early age were on display not far north. On July 13, 2006,
hunter Michael Guerriero, 46, and his mother Josephine Guerriero,
72, of East Brunswick, New Jersey, were charged with endangering
the welfare of a child and possession of illegal weapons. Police
found 98 guns in the Guerriero home. Their 11-year-old son and
grandson was charged with aggravated assault and aggravated
manslaughter for killing Alexander Khoudiakov, 12, while playing
with a handgun. “There was no evidence of intent to cause the death,
but he acted recklessly by intentionally pulling the trigger,”
Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan told Tom Haydon of the
Newark Star-Ledger.
The arsenal recalled the November 2005 arrest of David
Ludwig, 18, in Lititz, Pennsylvania, for allegedly killing
Michael and Cathryn Borden and kidnapping their 14-year-old daughter.
The parents had objected to Ludwig dating her. Police found 54 guns
in the Ludwig family home. “David Ludwig apparently was an avid
hunter,” who posted an image of himself posing with a freshly killed
deer on his own hunting web site, reported Martha Raffaele of
Associated Press.
Farther west, Zachariah Blanton, 17, of Gaston, Indiana,
shot two deer on July 8, 2006, using a depredation permit that he
received despite having “faced prosecution for sex and theft crimes
in the past,” police told news media. Blanton and six men he hunted
with killed at least eight more deer before Blanton was accused of
shirking his share of gutting and skinning the carcasses on the night
of July 22. Blanton vented his anger by shooting at motorists, he
admitted, killing Jerry L. Ross, 40, of New Albany, and wounding
Robert L. Hartl 25, of Audubon. Blanton was charged with murder,
attempted murder, and criminal recklessness.
Ludwig was old enough to vote when he got into trouble, and
Blanton was old enough to enlist in the U.S. military, if his past
alleged offenses did not keep him out, but ANIMAL PEOPLE suggests
that the psychological harm leading to the criminal charges against
both young men may be traced back to whoever taught them, beginning
many years earlier, that manhood is demonstrated by killing.
The Khoudiakov death illustrated that even an 11-year-old who
is quite familiar with guns may lack the maturity to avoid deadly
Yet the trend around the U.S. is to introduce young people to
hunting ever sooner. Most recently, Michigan Governor Jennifer
Granholm on July 10 signed into law a bill that lowers the minimum
age for hunting small game from 12 to 10, and lowers the minimum age
for hunting deer, elk, and bear with firearms from 14 to 12.
Trying to keep hunters in the field, states have raised bag
limits, opened public lands to hunting, lengthened hunting seasons,
and introduced doe hunting, bowhunting, and hunting with
muzzleloaders. Dove hunting has been reintroduced in Ohio and
Michigan. Puma and bear seasons in many states have been opened,
re-opened, or extended.
Such measures have kept hunter attrition at about 2% per year
over the past 25 years, but as the World War II generation passes on
and the Baby Boomers pass their mid-fifties, when hunting
participation tends to fall sharply, the decline of hunting is
expected to accelerate.
Vigorous efforts to recruit new hunters from non-hunting
backgrounds have already failed for more than 30 years. Instead,
hunting enthusiasts are ever more aggressively drafting their own
Last-ditch defenses of collapsing regimes often include
drafting young men barely big enough to shoulder arms, though this
tactic rarely buys the ruling cabals much time. The United Nations
in February 2002 adopted a convention against the use of child
The U.S. did not endorse the convention until November 2002,
after most of the developed world had already signed. The stated
reason was that the U.S. allows military enlistment at age 17, with
parental permission. About 1% of U.S. soldiers are under 18, the
Pentagon said.
We are probably decades away from a U.N. convention against
recruiting child hunters, but the elements of coercion toward
behavior leading to lasting psychological harm are comparable. How
much choice does a nine-year-old have, if his father chooses to
expose him to coonhunting? Or to make him a witness to shooting a

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