WARNING: Content may be upsetting to readers.
At first glance, the event held behind a restaurant in upstate New York looked like an ordinary community gathering.
There were “people with strollers, families, people walking around with beers and coffee and whatnot—almost like a fair,” the Humane Society of the United States undercover investigator recalls.
But something made this community event different: piles of dead animals.
“The stench actually was pretty awful,” says the investigator, who operates anonymously and whose name and gender are being withheld. “Soon as I opened my car door, the smell of 200-plus dead foxes and coyotes was pretty pungent.”
Held throughout nearly all 42 U.S. states where they’re still legal, wildlife killing contests typically target coyotes, bobcats, foxes, crows, raccoons, rabbits, squirrels and even wolves and cougars in some states. Participants compete to kill the most animals in a given time period (usually a weekend), the largest or smallest animals, or even the “ugliest” animal or the one with the bushiest tail. Prizes for the winners often include cash and guns.
Dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of animals are routinely killed at contests with names such as the Coyote Crush or the Critter Getter. Even though they’re legal, many contests keep a low profile, relying on private Facebook groups and word-of-mouth among competitors. But the contests are also woven into the fabric of local communities, with organizers including hunting clubs, farm bureaus, fire departments, high schools and churches; the check-in and weigh-in events often take place at local bars and restaurants. An HSUS investigation in Indiana, for example, showed firefighters helping to drag the carcasses of dead coyotes to a scale to be weighed.
The participants’ claim that they’re protecting farm animals is similarly suspect. Having monitored their online discussions and chatted with competitors in person, the investigator has yet to see a genuine concern for ranchers or the community.
“It’s all for fun. It’s fun, it’s competition, it’s obsession with the high-tech weaponry and gadgets. … Seriously, there is nothing to justify this, and it is the most crass, callous disregard for animal life that you can imagine.”
It’s a vicious circle, the investigator says: Contest participants spend thousands of dollars on high-tech equipment, then try to recoup their expenses by winning the prize money.
Don’t call it hunting
“This is not traditional hunting,” agrees Katie Stennes, HSUS program manager for wildlife protection. “It’s a killing culture. Literally, it’s just for prizes and fun and bragging rights.” HSUS investigations have revealed participants joking about “gut shots” that left the animals’ intestines spilling out. A video from Oregon showed a participant letting his puppy play with a dead coyote. “It’s so disrespectful to the animals,” Stennes says.
The contests target historically persecuted animals such as foxes, bobcats and coyotes—not the species that most hunters typically target. Hunters are governed by bag limits on the number of animals they can kill, while killing contest participants often face no such maximums. The victims in killing contests aren’t killed for their meat and rarely for their fur, Stennes says, noting that the high-powered weapons blast holes that often render the pelts useless.
Maryland’s path to a ban
Dana Stein, a Democratic delegate representing Baltimore County in Maryland, hadn’t heard of wildlife killing contests before HSUS staff showed him photos from the state. “That was enough to convince me that this was not a practice that we should allow in Maryland.” He adds, “I can respect regulated hunting, but no way could I understand this type of slaughter.”
A 2020 HSUS investigation in Maryland “was so pivotal to getting the traction and getting the legislative support [for the ban],” says Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, HSUS Maryland state director, “because I think without it, no one would have believed that this was a problem that we had to address here.”
Stein signed on as the sponsor of Maryland’s bill, which passed the House of Delegates in 2020 but got delayed when the legislature adjourned early due to the pandemic. When the legislature reconvened virtually in 2021, the bill sailed quickly through both the House and Senate with significant bipartisan support, Bevan-Dangel notes, and took effect July 1.
Stein explains: “I think the reaction of most legislators was the same as mine. Number one, they didn’t know it was happening. Number two, when they heard about it and saw photos, they were horrified.”
At one point in this year’s negotiations over the bill, Bryan Simonaire, a Republican who serves as the Senate minority leader, labeled the contests’ slaughter of foxes senseless and outrageous. He even proposed increasing the per-animal fine for violating the law to $100 from $25. (The final bill settled on a $50 fine.) “To have the minority leader, as the floor leader in the Senate, defending the bill and explaining it and urging his colleagues’ support, it was a really great moment,” says Bevan-Dangel, “and I think it shows that these issues do cross party lines.”
The power of the people
Stennes encourages residents of states where wildlife killing contests are legal to lobby their state legislators and wildlife agencies for bans. People can also start locally, asking their city or county representatives to pass resolutions condemning the contests—even if your hometown doesn’t host contests, resolutions can raise awareness of the issue and garner public support.
“Everyday citizens are really critical to this fight to end killing contests,” she says. “Policies are passed when citizens speak up about the issues they care about.”
Adele Rizzuto, a Philadelphia area resident and HSUS humane policy volunteer leader, was inspired to volunteer after watching an HSUS wildlife webinar in 2020. She connected with HSUS Pennsylvania state director Kristen Tullo, who suggested she approach the Bucks County commissioners about a nonbinding resolution condemning killing contests. The resolution hasn’t passed yet, but Rizzuto remains hopeful.
“Rarely are you going to just get involved and then, immediately, Pennsylvania’s banned wildlife killing contests,” she says. “That might happen, but it’s more of a long-term thing. It’s still rewarding as you go. I’m someone who for the longest time just felt a lot of stress about animal welfare, and it’s helped me to be involved and feel like I’m making a difference.”
Rizzuto contacted advocates in congressional districts where killing contests are held, asking them to write letters to the editor or to urge their counties to pass resolutions. She also used her skills as a data analyst to make a comprehensive spreadsheet of killing contests in her state. She and another volunteer met with the leaders of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. The officials weren’t receptive to ending wildlife killing contests in the state, Rizzuto says, but at least they took the meeting.
“We’ve at least stirred up a lot of buzz about it,” she says, “which is a good thing.”