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Canned Huntsby Don H. Meredith © 1999
(published in the November/December 1999 Alberta Outdoorsmen)

OWCFirst Place, Magazine Column
Outdoor Writers of Canada
2000 National Communications Awards

How will shooting captive animals affect
hunts for wild elk

"Does shooting an animal soon after it has been released from captivity develop respect for that animal and its environment?" — Ann Causey, 1992 Governor's Symposium on North America's Hunting Heritage.

The high, heavily wired fence running next to the road indicated I was passing a game ranch, one of several hundred in Alberta. As my car crested a rise I saw a group of animals sunning themselves on top of a bald hill. They were impressive: a six-point bull elk, some elk cows and a couple of four-point buck white-tailed deer. They were all lying down together several hundred metres from anything that remotely looked like cover. I stopped my vehicle to get a better look. As I approached the fence, all eyes watched me, seemingly unconcerned. Finally, one of the bucks arose and walked towards me as if I might have something for it to eat. As I watched him stop and look at me curiously, I asked myself, "What's wrong with this picture?"

My mind raced back to the words of a wildlife officer from Colorado speaking to a meeting of Alberta Fish and Wildlife Officers. "The one message I want to leave with you today," he said near the end of his speech, "is don't allow game ranching in your province!" It was the early 1980s when game ranching was not yet allowed in Alberta, although it was a topic of heated discussion. Ranchers were lobbying the government to permit them to raise domestic elk for the antler velvet trade in Asia.

Colorado had several years of experience with elk ranches and the officer had been invited to the meeting to explain the enforcement problems associated with the business. He warned that allowing game ranching opened a whole "can of worms" of problems that went well beyond enforcement issues to the health and viability of domestic livestock, indigenous wildlife and hunting. Unfortunately, much of what he warned about has come to pass in Alberta.

After declaring that Alberta would never allow game ranching in the province, the government turned about face in the mid-1980s and permitted ranchers to diversify their businesses by raising elk and selling antler velvet and breeding animals. To placate a concerned public that could see where this was leading, the government promised that hunting would never be allowed on these ranches.

Tuberculosis soon broke out on many of the ranches and several thousand elk had to be killed at public expense so they would not infect other domestic livestock and wildlife. But that didn't deter the ranchers or government.

It wasn't long before the government allowed ranchers to sell elk meat and raise other species of ungulates. Now, there are more domestic elk on game ranches than elk in the wild. We have followed Colorado down a dark, slippery road.

The velvet trade proved quite profitable for many ranchers. But when the Asian economy hit the skids a few years ago, profits dried up and ranchers sought other sources of income. It was only natural they would suggest paid hunting of some of their captive animals. It was allowed elsewhere (e.g., Saskatchewan), why not Alberta?

Why not indeed. If someone is willing to pay money to go shoot an animal that has been freshly released from captivity, why not let him? We already do it for wild boars and game birds. Why should we be concerned?

If there is an issue that will ultimately kill hunting for the average North American, it will be "canned hunts." Unlike some people, I don't believe hunting will ever be totally eliminated. The rich will always have ways of ensuring they can do what they want to do. That indeed is what happened in Europe where hunting is only available to the few who can afford it.

But we are not Europeans. We are North Americans with our own unique wildlife heritage and history. Many of the people who settled this land did so because they wished freedom from the oppression they found in Europe, including not being able to hunt wild game — a cultural heritage they felt should belong to everyone. But we descendants of those settlers are selling off that heritage to the highest bidder. And now we are pressuring our government to further degrade that heritage by allowing the highest bidder to kill a formerly wild animal as it comes to feed out of his hand.

Such an activity is not hunting. It is simple slaughter. But unfortunately, the public will not view it that way, and many hunters will decide they've had enough of the degradation of their image and quit. What's worse is that many young people will only see this negative image and not even consider hunting an outdoor activity worth pursuing. Hunter numbers will continue to fall and our wildlife heritage will continue to lose its most valuable supporters.

But the real crime is what game ranching is doing to our wildlife in the public's eye. North American wildlife has always been owned by the public and managed by government for the public good. Its use is allocated by law so that everyone has equal access to the resource and is not barred from such use by financial or social status, or lack of land ownership. But game ranching has turned our wildlife into a simple commodity like so many pounds of beef or barrels of oil. Do you have some wildlife habitat that needs protecting? Why bother? Game ranches are doing without it, and at a profit too.

Want a trophy to hang on your wall and impress your friends? Just fork over a few thousand dollars, pick one out of the herd, and shoot it cleanly and neatly. Don't worry about the mess, it will be cleaned up for you.

As I gazed into the vacant eyes of the little buck whose freedom was denied by the wire between us, I wondered what other freedoms had been bartered away in the game ranch bargain. The freedom of our children to choose to hunt or not? to see something wild and free? to have a healthy environment for themselves and their children?

No, Ann Causey, shooting a wild animal in captivity does not develop respect for that animal and its environment. It debases both, and in so doing, degrades who we are as citizens of this planet.

Next month, Guided Hunts.


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