Educational Series: Wildlife Killing Contests are a Senseless Celebration of Slaughter and Cruelty

By Nick Engelfried
Every year, in more than 40 states, countless numbers of wild coyotes, foxes, bobcats, rabbits, prairie dogs, and other wildlife are hunted down and murdered like trophies as part of legalized “killing contests.” These cruel events, which are largely unregulated and unfold far from the public view, are reminiscent of the days in which predators and other “pest” animals were routinely slaughtered on sight. Today, wildlife killing contests remain one of the most blatant forms of persecution of wild species who play vital roles in native ecosystems, but who are disliked by many people.

In a typical example that shows the brutal practices endemic at wildlife killing contests, an investigation by the Humane Society of the United States reported at least 60 animals were killed in the span of less than 24 hours at a contest held in Texas last year. The victims included coyotes, foxes, bobcats, and raccoons, with cash prizes awarded for the hunting teams that brought in the heaviest of each species and for the one that killed the most and biggest animals as measured by combined weight. This type of celebration of the killing of predators encourages the wholesale slaughter of species that play important roles in natural food chains.

While contests targeting predatory mammals have rightly received much attention, events where cold-blooded creatures are killed can be just as devastating. At “rattlesnake roundups” held in many southern states, untold numbers of these shy and elusive reptiles are hunted, skinned, and often butchered for meat. Meanwhile, shark killing tournaments in coastal regions award money to whomever can kill the largest victim. Like other types of wildlife killing contests, such events have been roundly condemned by animal welfare advocates and environmental groups alike.

“These bloodbaths constitute neither wildlife management nor sport,” said Tracie Letterman of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, in a statement of support for legislation that would ban wildlife killing events on U.S. public lands.. “Killing contests aren’t merely retrograde cruelty, either. They destroy native carnivores…who play a vital role in ensuring the health of forest and pastoral ecosystems.”

In fact, as the cruelty that goes on at these events has become more widely known, some states have taken action. Eight states–Washington, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Vermont–have made at least some types of wildlife killing contests illegal, with efforts underway to pass similar legislation in other parts of the country. There are also examples of organizations that hold killing practices voluntarily changing the events in response to grassroots pressure or changing public sentiment. In the town of Whigam, Georgia, the local Community Club announced earlier this year that its annual rattlesnake roundup would be replaced by an educational event that celebrates rattlers and educates the public about their conservation. The Center for Biological Diversity lauded the overhaul as a “new vision [that] emphasizes how cruel and antiquated” killing contests are.

Yet, dozens of other states continue to allow predator killing contests, rattlesnake roundups, and similar mass slaughter events. The one with by far the largest number is Texas, where nearly two hundred such contests are believed to happen each year. In response, animal defenders are now calling for a federal ban on events where wildlife are killed for prizes. As a first step, the proposed Prohibit Wildlife Killing Contests Act of 2022 would make it illegal to hold the contests on federal public lands.

Most wildlife killing contests are rooted in the scientifically outdated belief that the indiscriminate killing of predatory animals is good for people and game species targeted by hunters. Prior to modern environmental laws and management practices, predators like wolves and grizzly bears were systematically slaughtered as a matter of government policy, leading to their near-extinction in the contiguous United States. The thinking was that fewer predators would lead to more deer, elk, and other prey animals. However, the actual result of this government-sanctioned kill policy was devastating for ecosystems.

Today, good wildlife managers understand that healthy predator populations are essential to the overall well-being of an ecosystem. A classic example comes from Yellowstone National Park, where the elimination of gray wolves resulted in elk herds overgrazing sensitive landscapes. Reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone in the 1990s caused elk to resume natural behaviors like being continually on the move to escape predators–with the result that overgrazed streambanks and woodlands were able to regenerate. In fact, predators are vital to the health of entire ecosystems, including the prey species they feed on. Yet, the persistence of wildlife killing contests shows that outdated ways of thinking about predators have not gone away.

Because they usually focus on common predator species like coyotes that are not protected by federal law, killing contests have been allowed to continue even as scientists and wildlife managers’ thinking about the importance of carnivores has shifted. However, while the target species may not be at high risk of extinction, their removal still puts a strain on food webs in the local environment. Fortunately, a growing and increasingly successful movement has come together to end killing contests for good.

As recently as 2013, no U.S. state prohibited wildlife killing contests. The following year, in response to grassroots advocacy, California passed a ban on contests that target non-game furbearing animals. The fact that several other states have followed with similar policies in the years since shows efforts to expose the cruelties of killing contests are working. This should be encouraging for animal lovers everywhere who want to eventually see the events banned at a national level. For the movement to continue winning victories, more grassroots activism will be key.

If you dislike the idea of wild animals being senselessly hunted for sport and prizes, getting involved in the fight against killing contests is a great way to have an impact. Write to your state legislators in support of a statewide ban on all types of killing events, including those targeting snakes and aquatic predators. Or contact your federal representatives in support of legislation like the Prohibit Wildlife Killing Contests Act of 2022. Your letter may be the one that helps convince the next lawmaker to sign onto one of these important efforts.

While the persecution of predators is a centuries-old reality, the movement to end killing contests is in many ways just getting started. With enough grassroots support, it will continue winning fresh victories for animals who have been indiscriminately targeted by hunters for far too long.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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