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. 

US map showing states with bans in place, and states with animal icons representing the types of wildlife killing contests that are still allowed.

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. 

Diagram showing the consequences of a disrupted coyote pack.
If they are not hunted, coyotes form stable packs: Only alpha males and females breed, and scarce food limits litter sizes and pup survival. Killing coyotes allows subordinates and outsiders to breed. With less competition for food, moms have bigger litters and more pups survive.

Organizers and participants claim the contests help reduce the populations of “varmints” and dangerous predators. Those claims are widely refuted by conservation experts, who point out that coyotes, for instance, provide a variety of ecological benefits, such as curtailing tick-borne diseases by keeping rodent populations down. Coyotes also eat animal carcasses, increase biodiversity and disperse seeds. And indiscriminate killing of coyotes doesn’t reduce their numbers in the long run; studies show that when some wildlife populations are depleted by unnatural means, they reproduce more quickly because there’s less competition for resources. Experts also refute the notion that randomly killing native carnivores will save more animals such as deer and turkeys for hunters; native carnivores generally don’t compete with hunters. 

The HSUS investigator, who has attended eight contests in multiple states over the last three years, says the participants have no high-minded purpose. 

“Honestly, it’s an obsession with high-tech weaponry. They are obsessed with it.” 

The participants’ weapons of choice include AK-47 and AR-15 rifles modified with the kind of thermal imaging technology used by the military or the police to locate suspects hiding in buildings or the woods. Video cameras, which enable competitors to record their kills and post them online, are also common. To lure their prey into the open, participants use digital calling devices with loudspeakers that allow them to dial up, say, coyote pup in distress or red fox in heat. Then they wait for the animals to run toward the sound. 

In many cases, the competitors let their equipment do most of the work. They pull up to their spot, turn on the calling device, look through their riflescope and spot the animals coming into the field. “And then they just take them out,” the investigator explains. “The only time they actually exert any energy in all this is when they have to go out into the field to get their dead animal.”

At a contest in Virginia, the investigator captured an image of a truck with the vanity license plate YOTE H8R, short for “coyote hater.” Other trucks were fitted with stickers reading “Coyote Hearse” and “Coyote Taxi.” The contestants convince themselves that they’re performing a community service by killing coyotes and other “undesirable” animals. “They tell themselves and each other that coyotes are bad, they’re evil,” the investigator says, adding that in online chat groups, they’ll refer to coyotes as “fawn killers” to cast themselves as the good guys, the protectors of young deer and the friends of legitimate hunters.

This is not hunting. It’s a killing culture. Literally, it’s just for prizes and fun and bragging rights. ... It’s so disrespectful to the animals.
Katie Stennes, The HSUS

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.

94 foxes were killed in less than 24 hours by a single two-person team.

The high-tech equipment used in killing contests gives participants a conspicuous advantage over the animals, violating the traditional hunting ethic of fair chase, Stennes notes. At larger events, the death tolls can be staggering. At the January leg of the 2020 West Texas Big Bobcat Contest, for instance, a single two-person team killed 94 foxes in less than 24 hours. A practice known as “trolling” is used in Texas contests, where teams of competitors drive around shooting animals from their trucks, which have raised decks with cushioned chairs, gun mounts, flashing lights and calling devices. “It’s just absurd. I mean, if they were not using those devices, they would not even get close to that,” Stennes says. “It’s not hunting—it’s just killing.” 

Wildlife killing contests are more akin to dogfighting and cockfighting—both outlawed in every state—and give traditional forms of hunting a bad name, she adds. Many hunters find the killing contests despicable and have spoken out against them, citing ethical concerns and the contests’ ineffectiveness as a wildlife management tool. 

The movement against killing contests is gaining momentum, Stennes says, noting that of the eight states that currently ban or restrict such competitions—Arizona, California, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Vermont and Washington—seven enacted the laws since 2018, the year the HSUS began investigating the events. The contests are increasingly going underground to avoid public scrutiny—and the lack of public awareness is helping keep them legal in the other 42 states. “When people find out about them, they’re outraged,” Stennes says. “So that’s why our investigations are so critical.” 

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. 

Seriously, there is nothing to justify this, and it is the most crass, callous disregard for animal life that you can imagine.
HSUS investigator

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.”

Photo os Steven Pope and his wife a Humane Lobby Day event.
Advocate Steven Pope of Minnesota (pictured with his wife, Amanda Grimm, at a Humane Lobby Day event) says the movement against wildlife killing contests is gaining traction.
Courtesy of Steven Pope

When Steven Pope of St. Paul, Minnesota, first learned about killing contests a few years ago, he was outraged. The hunters he knows show respect for the animals they hunt, but wildlife killing contest participants display a “complete disrespect for wildlife—you know, doing silly poses with the dead coyotes. So I just didn’t understand the mentality.”

Getting a statewide ban through Minnesota’s legislature isn’t currently realistic, Pope says, “so what we’ve been doing is putting more building blocks down.”  

Working with HSUS Minnesota state director Christine Coughlin, Pope researched killing contests in the state and sent letters to local council members, asserting the practice ought to be stopped. He also helped issue calls to action on Facebook, gathering volunteers to lobby the contest hosts and sponsors to stop supporting the events.

Pope had no luck getting his county commissioners to pass a nonbinding resolution that would have urged the state legislature or Department of Natural Resources to act. But he found a more receptive audience at the St. Paul City Council, where council member Rebecca Noecker agreed to propose a similar resolution, which passed unanimously. “The resolution didn’t make anything illegal,” he says, “but what it did say is that St. Paul’s not going to stand for these types of contests.” 

Pope had a positive meeting with the head of the Minnesota DNR and made a presentation to the state chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America, a hunting and conservation group. He recalls getting “pretty heavy pushback” from a couple of coyote hunters in the league, but eventually the group issued a resolution opposing killing contests. 

His experience advocating against wildlife killing contests has been challenging at times but ultimately rewarding, Pope says. After the St. Paul resolution passed, he did a local TV interview and got “borderline harassing Facebook messages from coyote hunters who looked me up,” he says. On the other hand, several members of the St. Paul council thanked him for calling their attention to the issue. 

“I really think the tide is turning, because there’s more of a spotlight on this issue,” he adds. “And I think if we keep pushing, we’re going to make some progress on this.”


Icon of person with megaphoneGet the word out

Reach out to local legislators or write letters to the editor. Humane policies get passed when citizens speak up about issues that matter to them. For more tips, download the HSUS Wildlife Killing Contests toolkit. Learn More

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