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April 7, 2010

Wildlife Thrill Killing

Several states notice an increase in "extreme poaching"

The Humane Society of the United States

raccoon face

Toos/iStockphoto

by Elise Traub

Savagely killing deer with stolen snowmobiles, bartering elk for drugs, tying a dying deer to a tree. This unfathomable wildlife abuse is common enough that it has a name: thrill killing. In this form of poaching, the killer slaughters wild animals for his own perverse enjoyment.

Thrill killers often slay multiple animals in particularly vicious ways and usually don't bother to retrieve their kills.

Recently this disturbing phenomenon has become increasingly prevalent and the trend is gaining national attention. Given the thinly stretched resources of cash-strapped states, as few as one to five percent of poachers are ever caught.

Not every incident is as gruesome as recent high-profile cases, like the Wisconsin juveniles who formed a gang that clubbed raccoons to death and sported custom t-shirts flaunting their offenses, but poaching is a serious crime on the rise. Officials with Arizona Game and Fish reported a 70 percent increase in poaching in 2009. The California Department of Fish and Game dubbed 2008 "the year of extreme poaching."

Other states have noticed similar trends.

Puzzling it out

The reason for this troubling surge is not clear. The economic downturn may lure some to poach for antlers or bear gallbladders, which can fetch tens of thousands of dollars on the black market. Or, with many out of work, the criminally inclined may have more time on their hands.

While the source of the trend remains elusive, wildlife experts agree that poachers rarely commit their crimes to put food on the table. In fact, law enforcement officers report that poachers often possess expensive vehicles, guns, and other equipment.

The rise of poaching, and thrill killing in particular, has attracted the attention of researchers at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay, who embarked on a study of thrill killing in an effort to understand why anyone would anyone treat wildlife so cruelly. They expect to publish their research findings in the summer of 2010.

Part of the solution

Here's what you can do about this serious problem.

Elise Traub is a deputy manager of the Wildlife Abuse Campaign at The Humane Society of the United States.

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