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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Paoli and Penn Hills with Pigeon Shoots in Between

I’ve written before about the presidential candidates trotting out their hunting bona fides to strut their stuff in rural primary states. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are not immune to this quadrennial affliction, as they duke it out in Pennsylvania—a state which James Carville famously described as Paoli and Penn Hills with Alabama in between.

The Obama campaign has formed a “Sportsmen and Sportswomen for Obama Steering Committee” in Pennsylvania, stating in a white paper, “He will protect the rights of hunters and other law-abiding Americans to purchase, own, transport, and use guns for the purposes of hunting and target shooting.” At a recent campaign stop, Clinton talked about her own experiences hunting as a girl, when she learned how to shoot “behind the cottage that my grandfather built on a little lake called Lake Winola outside of Scranton.”

It’s odd that these candidates are swooning over such a diminishing constituency. But it’s also a reminder of the power of politically active interest groups. We will have greater political success when we organize our community of animal advocates into a cognizable voting bloc.

Pigeon Pennsylvania has 920,000 hunters, second only to Texas in the nation. It has more hunters than the total number of soldiers in the U.S. Army, but still they represent only 9 percent of the state’s population. By contrast, 3.6 million Pennsylvanians, or 37 percent, participate in wildlife watching. Presumably, for every voter who stalks animals with a gun, four voters stalk animals with cameras and binoculars.

And the sportsmen of Pennsylvania, unlike their counterparts in other regions, have failed to clean up some of the most abusive practices in the country. The Keystone State is home to the last remaining live pigeon shoots—gruesome contests in which live birds are sprung from traps and shot at point-blank range for money and prizes.

At the shoots, three out of four birds are not killed immediately, but are wounded and left to suffer from their injuries. Some are collected by young children who stomp on them, cut off their heads with gardening shears, or throw them into barrels to suffocate. Even the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has called the events “cruel and moronic.”

Any presidential hopeful (perhaps with the exception of Mike Huckabee) would be horrified by such conduct. We need leaders who will inspire us to teach our children the values of kindness and mercy, not allow us to numb them with cruelty and indifference. Pennsylvania is now in the spotlight, and state lawmakers should take the opportunity to ban pigeon shoots and rid the state’s sportsmen of this black eye.

Kids see through the nonsense, and it’s adults who do strange and sometimes cruel things for political purposes. Children have a natural affinity for animals, and this was illustrated by a passage in Hillary Clinton’s book, "Living History." Again remembering her days at Lake Winola, she tells a hunting story:

I loved Chelsea’s growing assertiveness, though it wasn’t always convenient. Around Christmas, 1988, I went duck hunting with Dr. Frank Kumpuris, a distinguished surgeon and good friend of mine, who invited me to join him, his two doctor sons, Drew and Dean, and a few other buddies at their hunting cabin. I hadn’t shot much since my days at Lake Winola with my dad, but I thought it would be fun. That’s how I found myself standing hip deep in freezing water, waiting for dawn in eastern Arkansas. When the sun rose, the ducks flew overhead and I made a lucky shot, hitting a banded duck. When I got home, Chelsea was waiting for me, outraged to wake up and learn that I had left home before dawn to go “kill some poor little duck’s mommy or daddy.” My efforts at explaining were futile. She didn’t speak to me for a whole day.

My late mentor, Cleveland Amory, once commented in "TV Guide" about a film in which a hunter struggled on the edge of a cliff. Cleveland said he was rooting for the cliff. Reading about an argument between mother and daughter about “some poor little duck,” I found myself rooting for Chelsea.


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