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Question 2 is All about Compassion
By Matthew Scully
The Bangor Daily News, October 27, 2004

Maine voters are hearing a lot these days from bear baiters, "houndsmen" and various other characters we rarely see in public debates. They're all worked up about Question 2, the anti-cruelty measure on the state ballot next week. Much like the baits these people use to lure bears, Question 2 has drawn them all out for a clear view of the things they do and the standard of "sportsmanship" they represent.

Their obvious anger and resentment at having to explain themselves in public is understandable. If you or I were in the business of baiting or trapping bears for close-range shooting, or setting packs of frenzied dogs upon bears for the delight of trophy hunters, we wouldn't want people asking too many questions either.

Challenged, we would also search for some lofty sounding justification, as Maine's recreational bear baiters, trappers and houndsmen have done by invoking "tradition." Never mind that of the 50 states, only Maine still permits all three practices, and itself prohibited commercial baiting until the 1970s. This whole approach to hunting, we are assured, has been with us for ages, and to prohibit it now would spell the end of a time-honored way of life.

The claim is best answered by bear baiters themselves, when they are addressing one another and not putting on airs for the benefit of the uninitiated. Listen, for example, to this ad from Smoldering Lake Outfitters, a baiting operation in Bridgewater, describing the method:

"Baiting bears is much like training your dog. Since animals learn by repetition, we are conditioning them to the sound of our trucks, human scent, the noise we make while placing the bait. The bears soon associate this routine with the arrival of food; much like Pavlov's dog and the ringing of the bell."

Other outfitters advertise motion-sensors and infrared cameras at the "bait stations." To make the shooting even easier, the bear's daily fare of assorted garbage, pastries and meat scraps is usually placed in a barrel. It remains only for the intrepid sportsman to wait in the assigned tree stand or behind a blind, and when the bear's head is deep in the barrel fire away with a telescopic rifle or compound bow.

Sometimes the wounded bear actually escapes, and that's when the hounds come in. An ad for Sunrise Ridge Guide Services of Bingham, Maine, captures this part of the adventure:

"We will track the blood trail with our hounds to make recovery all but assured. ... Each dog is equipped with a radio collar which emits a unique signal, allowing us to monitor the direction and activity of the dogs. Using four-wheel drive trucks, we attempt to head the bear off, positioning ourselves as close as possible to the chase. While the dogs keep the bear treed, we drive as close as possible, then walk to the tree."

If ease and efficiency are what you're looking for in a trophy hunt, this is certainly the way to go. All that's missing from the picture are skill, discipline, fairness, manhood, and the least sense of honor.

Such practices have been with us for a while, all right -- for as long as a certain type of man has sought moral shortcuts from the rigors of fair-minded hunting. The crassness of it all, to say nothing of the cowardice and sloth, is beyond belief, and rightly regarded with contempt by most hunters themselves.

When appeals to "tradition" fail, the baiters, hounders and trappers then hasten to mention all the revenues their tawdry little industry (about 3,500 ambushed bears annually) supposedly brings to Maine's hunting economy. The argument is false on its own terms – for all the out-of-state slob hunters legal baiting draws into Maine, it keeps many more self-respecting hunters away. Worse, though, the economic argument assumes that voters in Maine are as unscrupulous as the bear-baiters are, willing to sanction any cruelty just so long as it turns a profit.

As for the inconveniences that baiters and hounders will face in changing their businesses, frankly that is their responsibility and no one else's. People who stage cock fights or dog fights, people who make and sell films of sadistic acts on animals, and for that matter people who once made a fine living producing obscenity could all tell you their sob stories of financial loss when the law stepped in to stop what they were doing.

Baiters, trappers and hounders are not the first to discover that there is money in cruelty and vice. And if Question 2 should pass into law, they will not be the first to rediscover the hardships of earning an honest living.

A fair and judicious response to all the arguments voters are now hearing from trophy hunters and their PR firms would be to show them exactly as much empathy as they themselves have displayed. Here, lest we forget, is the sort of person who now asks for your sympathy - a trophy hunter named Steve Chorney recounting his own heroics in a piece in Blackpowder Guns & Hunting Magazine from 2002. We pick up the narrative where he has just come across a bear he had left wounded two weeks earlier:

"To our surprise, the ... bear was sporting massive head trauma. In fact, he actually had a small portion of brain exposed. Upon closer inspection, the gapping wound proved to be a laceration caused from my 100-grain Wasp Hi-Tech S.S.T. broadhead. This explained the deflection of my bolt nearly two weeks prior. Amazingly, the blackie had survived and was still coming to the grain to fill his belly with nourishment. Nevertheless, it also spelled out why he was so aggressive. Moreover, it proved just how tough black bears are. ..."

Thanks for sharing, Steve. But I'm afraid the story tells us a lot more about the bear hunter than it does about the bear – this creature that walked around for two weeks "sporting" massive head trauma.

The story also leaves a good image to keep in mind when you vote on Question 2. In all its simplicity, this referendum is about creatures who need our compassion, and about people who are in no position to ask for our pity.

Matthew Scully served until recently as special assistant and deputy director of speechwriting to President Bush. He is a former literary editor for National Review, and the author of "Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy."