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The video begins with the image of a small clearing in the woods. The only noteworthy feature is a large, hollowed-out log leaning against another, indicating humans manipulated the setting.
A few seconds into the video, a black bear rambles into the picture. The bear is calm. It seems to be searching for food. For a few moments, the scene is suffused in lazy silence.
Suddenly the quiet is broken by the crack of a discharged firearm, and the bear keels over dead.
The hunter who fired the shot is likely the same person who set the stage for the kill. He or she spent weeks or months leaving food in the hollow log to habituate bears to visiting the site and feeling safe. This elaborate ruse is known as baiting, and it’s one of the oldest tricks in the hunter’s playbook. In Wisconsin, one of 11 states permitting the practice, 40 percent of bears’ diets consist of bait food, according to Melissa Tedrowe, the Wisconsin state director of the Humane Society of the United States.
The practice is controversial, even among hunters. Many consider it unsportsmanlike because it doesn’t involve the element of “fair chase,” which is a cornerstone of ethical hunting. Tedrowe says it’s “like shooting fish in a barrel.” She compares baiting to “canned hunting” — shooting animals in a confined area, animals bred for the purpose of being killed by thrill seekers.
Bear baiting is particularly unfair during September and October, when bears are desperately putting on fat for their winter hibernation, Tedrowe says. Those are also the months designated for the state’s black-bear hunting season.
Ironically, while bear hunters say they’re controlling the bear population, bear-baiters supply an overabundance of food that actually increases it, according to Maine’s former lead bear biologist Craig McLaughlin.
Baiting also is responsible for a growing litter problem in state parks, and it leads bears to associate the smell of food with humans. That increases the likelihood of human conflicts with bears, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
Candy that’s used for bait sometimes contains ingredients toxic to wildlife and dogs.
But baiting is not the only way to bag a bear.
Of the 4,682 bears slaughtered by hunters in Wisconsin last year, 96 percent were killed using bait and/or dogs. Hunters teach the dogs to chase bears up trees, where they make for an easy shot. This so-called “hounding” is another practice most mainstream hunters oppose.
The dogs are outfitted with radio collars so hunters can track their location — a fusion of modern technology and medieval barbarism.
The hounds are trained by putting domestic cats in cages and then teaching the dogs to attack as the cages are raised and lowered from trees, Tedrowe said. She doesn’t know what typically becomes of cats terrorized in this manner, but likely it’s not a happy ending.
While 12,850 bear-hunting permits have been issued by the DNR, the total number of bears that have been killed in the state remains a mystery.
Joe Brown, an assistant professor of documentary filmmaking at Marquette University, emailed me the bear-baiting video. He’s not sure who sent it to him, but it probably was sent by someone aware that he’s currently at work on Operation Wolf Patrol (wolfpatrolfilm.com), a documentary about the group of the same name.
Founded by animal-rights activist Rod Coronado, the group has volunteers who hike into popular hunting areas to document illegal hunting and atrocities committed by hunters. Such groups are especially important given that policing the state for wolf poaching is something for which the thinly staffed Department of Natural Resources seems to lack the resources and the will.
Naturally, hunters don’t like the Wolf Patrol. Last year, they persuaded the state to adopt a law that some dubbed the “Right to Hunt Act,” which prohibits people from photographing, videotaping or recording hunters on public land. It was backed by the powerful National Rifle Association and signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker.
Officially known as Wisconsin Act 346, the law closely resembles so-called “ag-gag” laws, which prohibit workers from documenting the horrific conditions and torture of animals on so-called “factory farms.” Courts have repeatedly found those laws unconstitutional because they limit free speech.
Earlier this summer, I became a plaintiff — along with Brown and Wolf Patrol volunteer Stephanie Losse — in a lawsuit filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund against Walker, former DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp and Attorney General Brad Schimel. The suit seeks to overturn the “Right to Hunt Act” for violating the First Amendment’s free-speech guarantee. It also seeks an injunction to prevent enforcement of the law.
ALDF director of litigation Matthew Liebman says the right to try engaging someone in conversation is at the heart of the First Amendment. “To not be able to do that at the place that matters most, the place where animals are being killed, I think is a significant infringement” on free speech, Liebman told The Associated Press.
But hunters claim the law is needed to prevent activists from harassing them in ways that interfere with their “sport.” (Of course, in actual sports, both sides know that they’re playing.)
Liebman counters that laws already in place protect hunters and others from harassment.
Ironically, hunters say they’re afraid of the Wolf Patrol, citing the fact that Coronado spent 57 months in prison in connection with a 1995 arson attack on research facilities at Michigan State University.
Coronado, a Native American, says he’s since changed his ways.
“Let our opposition who believe in violence carry the burden for its justification, but let those who believe in peace and love practice a way of life that our society sorely needs now more than ever,” he wrote in a letter from prison.
The assertion that well-armed outdoorsmen are intimidated by unarmed animal-welfare activists seems ludicrous. So does the implied claim that a hunter’s right to kill an animal on public land supersedes a person’s right to take pictures of them doing it.
Unlike the “fears” of hunters, Brown, Coronado and members of the Wolf Patrol really do face danger.
Since passage of the “Right to Hunt Act,” “the hunters seem much more emboldened,” Brown says. “They have called the police. In a couple of instances, they have demanded (his footage). They’ve tried to grab the camera. There’s a lot of threats on social media, against Rod Coronado especially. It’s nerve-wracking.”
Brown says conflict is already in the air for this year’s bear-hunting season, now underway. “Some of these people have been waiting five to 10 years to get a bear-hunting license,” he explains. “Tempers could flair.”
During a recent meeting that members of the Wolf Patrol held with the Washburn County sheriff and about 10 of his deputies, WP members were warned that the situation is really getting heated, according to Brown. The sheriff iterated that his primary concern is safety, and he wants to make sure no one gets hurt or killed, Brown says.
Anyone who’s read the vicious posts or seen the gory pictures that some wolf and bear hunters gloatingly share on Facebook might fear that violence between the hunters and animal-rights activists can’t be avoided. The objectification of animals and the grinning pictures of hunters over the corpses of their prey suggest the violent mindset of serial killers. And, in fact, over-the-top, gratuitous cruelty to animals does correlate with violence toward humans.
“When the wolf hunting first started, people were displaying unimaginable acts of cruelty,” says Wendy Keefover, carnivore protection manager of the Humane Society of the United States. “Any Google search will prove it.”
Warning: If you do the search, be prepared for pictures and statements that you might not be able to un-see or forget. Even the memes are shocking: “Wisconsin Wolf Hunting: Smoke a pack a day,” reads one. “Make America Great Again: Make Wolves Extinct,” proclaims another.
HSUS president Wayne Pacelle says the web posts of extremist hunters ironically documenting the atrocities that proponents of the “Right to Hunt Act” want to hide. He’s used them as evidence in ballot campaigns and legislative lobbying efforts to pass laws preventing the use of dogs to hunt wolves in other states.
He’s succeeded at the polls in Colorado, Oregon and Washington and in the California Legislature.
Most hunters disavow their peers who use ruthless, inhumane techniques such as hounding, baiting and steel-jaw traps.
Surveys demonstrate the American public harbors overwhelmingly negative views of trophy hunting, particularly since the world outrage over the illegal slaughter in 2015 of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe by Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer. This year, a son of Cecil — who like his father was wearing an electronic tag — was killed by a hunter in the same area.
An HBO Real Sports and Marist Poll conducted in November 2015 — after Cecil’s death — found that 56 percent of Americans oppose hunting animals for sport and 86 percent are against big-game hunting.
Keefover says public relations for trophy hunters will worsen as people learn about scientific studies showing the previously unknown intelligence and sensitivity of animals. Views also are changing as people grow to understand the critical importance of biodiversity to the health of the planet.
As Pacelle puts it, “both species (bears and wolves) have important roles in ecosystems. Both are sentient and very family-oriented. Their family ties can be multigenerational.”
“Hounding and trapping are terrible for the wildlife and bad for the people of Wisconsin who want to be able to view wolves or bears or see signs of them,” he adds.
Before wolf hunts in the Midwest were halted by a court order, Wisconsin was the only state in the nation that allowed the participation of dogs in such hunts (the law allowing dogs to participate is still on the books). The collision between a pack of domestic dogs and wild wolves always results in a grisly conclusion, sometimes with the wolves tearing apart and eating the dogs.
But any sort of hunting with dogs exposes them to wolves and other wildlife — regardless of which animals are the prey.
The use of dogs in hunting seems to be growing in popularity here — at least if you consider the number of dogs lost to the hunt as a gauge. A record 41 dogs were killed last year during hunts. The previous record was 2014’s toll of 23 hounds killed.
How do we know this number? Wisconsin is the only state that reimburses hunters for the deaths of dogs they lose by exposing them to such peril.
The amount paid out by the state is generally $2,500 per dog. That means about $100,000 was doled out to hunters who lost their dogs last year in a manner so cruel that no other state even allows it. So far this year, the state has paid out $99,400 to hunters for dogs, most of them killed by wolves.
Hunters are even reimbursed for dogs lost in illegal hunts and hunts in which they violated firearm laws. If a hunter without a license loses a dog, the hunter still is paid compensation. In one of the most egregious examples, a man was reimbursed for a hunting dog’s death that occurred while the man was barred from obtaining a hunting license due to a prior criminal conviction.
Last month, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a complaint with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the issue.
“Wisconsin encourages hunting practices that seem calculated to cause fatal conflicts with wolves,” PEER staff counsel Adam Carlesco said in a statement.
The cultural rift that divides hunters and opponents of hunting will not be healed soon, if ever. I — and others who understand the self-awareness, intelligence and complex emotions of other mammals — will never understand the urge to kill them, except for protection or much-needed food. We consider hunting animals with weapons as an unfair act of slaughter, and in some extremely cruel cases, evidence of sociopathy.
But at the same time, I bear no ill will toward responsible hunters. I understand that if I had grown up in their shoes, lived their experiences, and possessed their bent of mind, I probably would do the same.
I was recently seated on a plane next to a Wisconsinite who uses dogs to hunt bears. I can’t remember how the subject came up, but when it did, he acknowledged getting a $2,500 check after one of his hounds was killed. I asked him whether he was sorry it had happened.
His response surprised me. No, he wasn’t sorry, he said, because hunting is what hounds crave doing, and preventing them from it is denying their nature and lessening their quality of life.
I could have argued that hounds were bred in the first place from wolves that willingly came to live with us tens of thousands of years ago. In exchange for food and shelter, wolves came to love and protect us. We exploited their pack mentality to train them into useful companions, and we used selective breeding to create dogs with specific traits, such as scent hounds.
I could have told him that wolves and dogs are 98.8 percent genetically identical. And I could have shown him videos online in which wolves romp and play with dogs they encounter in people’s backyards and dog parks.
But I know better than to try changing another person’s deeply entrenched beliefs with a few facts. Besides, he was a polite, honest and likable guy. I changed the subject and we enjoyed an agreeable conversation until the plane landed in Denver.
In a few days, he’ll be out hunting bears with his dogs, and I’ll be reading over this story, hoping it will provoke some readers to question the hunting of bears and wolves, particularly with the use of dogs, bait and other cruel techniques.
In 2013, the Humane Society of the United States commissioned a Mason Dixon poll of Wisconsinites’ attitudes toward wolves:
This story is the first in an ongoing series titled “Cruel Wisconsin.”