Canned Hunts: Sports Afoul
by Walter Brasch
Ralph A. Saggiomo is an affable sort of fellow, one you probably wouldn’t mind having a couple of beers with, swap a few tales, and discuss just about anything.
He grew up in one of the most rural, most remote parts of the country, and considers himself to have the same values as the Colonials who lived in Pennsylvania more than two centuries earlier. But, he’s also lived in urban America. He was a Philadelphia firefighter for 33 years, the last few in command positions.
After retirement, he moved back to his 75-acre family farm in Sayre, Pa., and continued his work in local civic organizations, becoming president of both the Greater Valley Emergency Medical Services and the Sayre Business Association. He’s a member of the Pennsylvania Governor’s Advisory Council for Hunting, Fishing & Conservation; and was president of the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania, an association that claims about 20,000 members.
For 60 years, Ralph A. Saggiomo has proudly been killing fish and game, both small and large. Name a domestic species, and he’s probably shot at it, wounded it, or killed it.
He says he was told one of his more recent kills was a Dall Sheep; more likely, it was a Texas Dall ram, a lucrative target because of its thick curly horns. The rams, a hybrid of Corsican and Mouflon sheep, are primarily bred to look like the Dall Sheep, native to the mountainous regions of Alaska and the northwest part of Canada. Dall sheep are a challenge to hunters because of their adept ability to escape into the steep mountainous slopes. Domesticated Texas Dall rams pose no such problems.
Whatever he killed-“dispatched” and “harvested” are the terms hunters euphemistically prefer-Saggiomo didn’t have to go more than 3,000 miles to the subarctic mountains, he only had to go about 50 miles from his home to the Tioga Boar Hunting Preserve. Saggiomo’s day of killing, a gift from his family, was in a fenced-in area.
“It was a wonderful experience,” Saggiomo told the Pennsylvania House Game and Fisheries Committee, which was holding a hearing in equally remote Towanda, an hour’s drive east of Tioga, away from the major media and in an area not likely to bring many protestors. The Committee was in Towanda to hear testimony about a bill to ban what has become known as a “canned hunt.” For a few thousand dollars, Great White Hunters-complete with rented guides, dogs, and guns or bows-can go into a fenced-in area and shoot an exotic species. In most canned hunts, the animals have been bred to be killed, have little fear of humans, and are often lured to a feeding station or herded toward the hunter to allow a close-range kill. In some of the preserves-Tioga denies it ever used these techniques-animals are drugged or tied to stakes. Some of the “big cats,” recorded by investigative undercover videos by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and by the Fund for Animals were declawed, placed in cages, and then released; the terrified and non-aggressive animals were then killed within a few yards of their prisons; some were killed while in their cages.
Canned hunts attract not only ethics-challenged pretend-hunters, but ethics-challenged celebrities as well. Among celebrities who have participated in canned hunts, and who mistakenly believe they are hunters and not cold-blooded killers, are Vice-President Dick Cheney, who has been on several hunts in which the kill was assured; and Troy Gentry of the country-rock duo, Montgomery Gentry.
In December 2003, Cheney and nine of his friends-including former Naval Academy and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), and some Texas high-roller Republican party donors-went to the exclusive Rolling Rock Club in Ligonier, Pa., about an hour’s drive east of Pittsburgh. The owners of the country club, being the good hosts they were, released 500 domesticated and penned-up ring-necked pheasants in the morning. Bird Dog and Retriever News reports that about 40 percent of all domesticated pheasants, if not shot by pretend-hunters, either starve or are killed by predators within the first week of their release; about 75 percent die within a month.
At Ligonier, starvation wasn’t a problem. A game keeper told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Cheney alone killed about 70 of the 417 killed that day. In the afternoon, having hardly raised a bead of sweat, the good ole boys slaughtered dozens, perhaps hundreds, of equally tame mallards that had been hand-raised and shoved in front of waiting shotguns for the massacre. No one kept score, but by the time Cheney flew out of the area, the mallards were plucked and vacuum-packed, according to the Post-Gazette, ready for flight aboard the taxpayer-funded Air Force 2. The pheasants the hunting party didn’t keep, according to the Dallas (Texas) Morning News, were donated to a local food bank. However, no one involved indicated which food bank, nor did they acknowledge that preparing pheasant is cumbersome, and that such a donation, if it did occur, was probably more of a public relations ploy or a tax-deduction to justify their killing orgy than community service. Nor does any “donation” alleviate the reality that people in these non-challenging fenced-in grounds kill because they like the excitement of killing a live animal, often mixed with the sheer joy of watching their prey die. After awhile, the animals are seen only as things to be blasted, essentially living clay pigeons; it is an attitude that true sportsmen abhor.
The owners of the country club didn’t say how much, if anything, the Cheney Pot-Shot Safari paid, but others who go to the exclusive country club/canned preserve pay for each bird or duck killed. It’s in the financial interest of the owners to make sure there’s easy prey.
Even easier prey was a black bear named Cubby. In October 2004, Troy Gentry, who had paid about $4,650 for the tame bear, killed it on a private “preserve” in Sandstone, Minn., and then tagged it as if the bear was killed in the wild. There was even an edited videotape of the “stalking” and killing by the singer who envisions himself to be an expert archer. There is no law against the murder of animals if done on private property. But, in August 2006, Gentry was in federal court to defend himself against a violation of the Lacey Act, which forbids the false tagging of any animal.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), with 10 co-sponsors, introduced a bill (S. 304) in February 2005 to ban the interstate transport of exotic animals for the purpose of them being killed on private preserves. “There is nothing sportsmanlike or skillful about shooting an animal that cannot escape,” said Lautenberg at the time he introduced the bill, and emphasized, “In an era when we are seeking to curb violence in our culture, canned hunts are certainly one form of gratuitous brutality that does not belong in our society.” That bill is buried in the Senate’s Subcommittee on the Judiciary. A companion bill (HR 1688), introduced in the House of Representatives by Sam Farr (D-Calif.), with 39 co-sponsors, is buried in the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. Under the Republican-controlled Congress, neither bill is likely to emerge from committee.
For his part, President Bush wants to amend the Endangered Species Act to allow trophy-hunting Americans who kill endangered species in other countries to import them into the U.S. The proposal has roots in the Safari Club International; its political action committee has given about $800,000 in campaign contributions, mostly to Republican candidates, since 2000, according to an investigation by the Humane Society of the United States. The plan has the support of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose former deputy director was chief lobbyist for the Safari Club before his appointment by Bush. He is now with the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
Many of the animals on canned hunts are surplus animals bought from dealers who buy cast-off animals from zoos and circuses; the animals sold to the preserves are often aged and arthritic. Dozens of preserves have bought black bears, zebras, giraffes, lions, boars, and just about any species of animal the client could want, solely to be killed, photographed, and then skinned, stuffed, and mounted. Ralph Saggiomo’s sheep may have come from a breeder in Missouri. The proprietors at Tioga, said Saggiomo, “were gracious, humane and helpful.”
Those “humane” proprietors are the Gee family, which believes their “preserve” is really a private farm. Like ones that grow alfalfa and corn. A 1,550 acre private farm-with a fenced-in area of about 150 acres to make that “sure shot” more probable. And, while people “from all over the world” are killing animals at Tioga, the “farm” operation provides significant “economic benefits” to the community, according to Michael Gee. There are 14 Pennsylvania farms and about 1,000 in the nation that the proprietors believe are the poster children for the Chambers of Commerce and, most certainly, the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service.
This particular “farm,” according to its website, “features high success rate hunting, youth hunts, hunts with dogs, guided hunts, trophy hunts, Sunday hunting . . . virtually any type of big game hunt you can imagine.” Whatever “you can image” costs $70 a day for food and lodging, plus a kill fee and supplementary costs for skinning and mounting. Pay $595 and you can kill a Texas Dall ram, rocky mountain ram, or Corsican ram. Buffalo are at least $1,250. Elk bulls come for $2,000. And, just in case you have trouble killing one of the nation’s 30 million white-tailed deer-1.6 million of them in Pennsylvania alone-during the bow, crossbow, muzzleloader, rifle, or shotgun seasons, just come to Tioga. For $1,000 “and up,” you can get that elusive buck, with a 10-point rack suitable for mounting in your very own trophy room in suburban America. Tioga’s rates are at the lower end of the scale. At other preserves, prices for white-tailed deer, with trophy-sized racks, can be more than $5,000. The costs for some of the exotic “trophy”-class animals, usually found only in sub-Saharan Africa, are well over $15,000.
Tioga, like most preserves, guarantees a kill. The clients are told they “may hunt as long as you wish until you get what you wish.” No hunting licenses are required, there are no limits, Sunday hunting is permitted, and “kills are usually made from 25 to 100 yards.” This “farm” even tells prospective clients, “Wild goat and sheep with large horns are numerous. Hunting them is great sport for the hunter.” The rocky mountain ram, with “their big, sweeping, curled horns make a great trophy,” the Gee family tells prospective clients. Of course, there are some restrictions. No one under the age of 10 is allowed to shoot.
Heidi Prescott, undoubtedly feeling like a peace activist in a convention of Army recruiters, was the only one at the House committee hearing who didn’t fish, hunt, or had close ties to the hunting industry. Prescott is senior vice-president of the Humane Society of the United States, which has a membership of 9.5 million, more than three times that of the National Rifle Association. Prescott showed members of the committee news stories and a separate undercover videotape of canned hunts. Before the hearing, Michael Gee had told a local newspaper that animal rights groups “just try to bring up extreme cases to prove their point,” and use it as a “stepping stone” to ban hunting. “If she says anything in that video is from Tioga, that’s a lie,” Pete Gee, Michael’s father, retorted to the undercover investigation by Emmy-winning investigative reporter Melanie Alnwick of WTTG-TV (Fox News), Washington, D.C. The news story-but not the videotape of the brutal killing of a boar, probably at another game preserve in Pennsylvania-was filmed in early May 2006 at Tioga, according to Aaron Wische, WTTG’s executive producer for special projects.
Most “kills” on the “farms” are from animals bleeding out. Animals suffer minutes to hours, says Prescott. Canned hunting, says Prescott, “is about as sporting as shooting a puppy in pet store window.” Most sportsmen agree with her. The concept of the “fair chase” is embedded into hunter culture. The Boone & Crockett Club and the Pope and Young Club (bowhunters), two of the three primary organizations that rate trophy kills, refuse to accept applications from persons who bagged their “trophy” on a canned hunt. The Safari Club does allow persons to seek recognition, but only under limitations that most preserves can’t meet.
Members of the committee weren’t convinced that canned hunts need to be banned. Rep. Tina Puckett (R-Towanda) told a reporter before the hearing she believed banning the canned hunt “could be the beginning of an attempt to say ‘no preserve hunting,'” which then leads to no hunting.” She said she wouldn’t favor the bill “because of those down-the-road concerns.” Rep. Thomas Corrigan (D-Bucks County) says he submitted the bill, which carries 38 cosponsors, for consideration because canned hunts are “unsporting, cruel, and tarnish the image of all hunters.”
The House committee kept throwing pointed questions to Prescott; she adeptly batted them back.
The bill that prohibits canned hunting would also be the first step to eliminating all hunting. Not so, said Prescott. Of the 22 states that already ban such practices, “the hunting culture is still strong.” She pointed to Montana, which has one of the nation’s strongest hunting cultures. In 2000, following a hunter-led initiative, it became the first state to ban canned hunts, reinforcing the values that true sportsmen believe in fair chase.
The state’s 900 deer and elk farms would be banned. The bill specifically excludes deer, elk, and all other cervidae.
The bill would prohibit farmers or butchers from killing livestock for food. “No judge in his right mind would interpret it that way,” retorted Prescott, who said the Humane Society “would be happy to work with representatives to amend it if members were truly concerned about it.”
Ralph Saggiomo, according to his official biography published by the Governor’s Advisory Council for Hunting, Fishing & Conservation, has a “love for the outdoors,” and has “spent the greater part of his life enjoying the outdoors and has been able to pass his passion on to all of his children, who have become successful hunters, fishermen, and trappers. His grandchildren are now carrying on the tradition, which his father and grandfather passed on to him.” Although still active in the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania, if Saggiomo was a sportsman, he wouldn’t have shot a domesticated animal that was lured into his sights and had no way to escape. If he truly understood the beauty and grandeur of the outdoors, he would have allowed animals to live their lives without the intrusion of people who kill not for food or clothing but because their hormones are infused with the ecstasy they get from the kill and the resultant “trophy,” which he says now hangs in his den.
Walter Brasch is an award-winning journalist and university professor. His current books are America’s Unpatriotic Acts: The Federal Government’s Violation of Constitutional and Civil Rights, and ‘Unacceptable’: The Federal response to Hurricane Katrina, both available at amazon.com, borders.com and most major on-line bookstores.