Watching anti-hunting campaigns is like watching political ads: The antis take some tiny grain of truth, twist it beyond all belief and mass-market the idea until it becomes embedded in the public's thinking.
Here's the latest example: the idea that hunting predisposes kids to violence.
Last week, a 19-year-old nutball from Orange County, Calif., was charged with animal cruelty after PETA found a 14-minute video he'd posted on MySpace showing himself torturing a pug puppy and a rabbit. (Click here for a local TV station's take on the story, and its edited version of the video.)
I don't often say nice things about PETA, but I salute the organization for doing something about this. And I have no problem with what PETA cruelty caseworker Kristin DeJournett told the Orange County Register:
“Orange County residents have reason to be concerned. According to leading mental health professionals and law enforcement agencies, perpetrators of violent acts against animals are often repeat offenders who pose a serious threat to all animals, including humans.”
This is consistent with everything I learned covering crime during my newspaper career. If you torture animals for fun, there's something wrong with you. Period.
But look what PETA does with this grain of truth in Wisconsin.A couple weeks ago, PETA decided to take on Northwestern Middle School in Poplar, Wis., because it has a "hunting wall" where kids display photos of the game they've hunted. My friend Chris Niskanen wrote a story about it for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and here's the relevant excerpt:
PETA's Sangeeta Kumar, who wrote the letter to (Principal Ken) Bartelt, said hunting and animal abuse lead to abuse of humans.
"There is a very strong connection between animal abuse and abuse toward human beings," she said. "As far as we're concerned, hunting is animal abuse. In these days of school violence, we shouldn't be encouraging kids to pick up guns."
The operative phrase there is, "as far as we're concerned."
Interestingly enough, around the same time these two stories were making news last week, FS Huntress wrote a post about a letter to Dear Abby from a man who was concerned about his 4-year-old grandson being exposed to hunting. His letter prompted a preschool teacher to share this with Dear Abby:
"(The) children who were the biggest bullies and least socialized were always -- and I mean ALWAYS -- the ones graphically exposed to the killing of animals... The gentle, studious, most popular children never spoke of hunting."
(Note to teacher: Just because they don't talk about hunting doesn't mean their families don't hunt. Duh.)
Now, I'm not suggesting that the preschool teacher had been influenced by PETA's statements last week. But obviously there's a notion going around that hunting for meat and torturing for fun are in the same league, and anyone who hunts - and who knows the sadness that comes with killing an animal - knows this is a bunch of crap.
So if reasonable people understand that hunting does not equal torture, why does it matter that PETA puts out this message?
This brings me back to the political ads. When I covered politics in Virginia, I liked to go out just before each election and talk to random voters on the street to get their take on things. One year, I asked each one the following two questions (among many): What do you know about the candidates for governor? What do you think about the TV ads?
Consistently, voters said they ignored the ads - didn't believe anything in 'em. And consistently, the things voters knew about the candidates came straight out of the TV ad transcripts. Yes, Virginia, there's a reason political campaigns spend millions and millions of dollars on those irritating 30-second spots.
And there's a reason organizations like PETA seize opportunities like the one in Wisconsin to make outrageous statements: It works.
Does that mean we should give up? Hell no. Failing to respond is the worst thing you can do. Just ask California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who let the California Teachers Association attack him with television ads for months in 2005 without responding, then watched all of his reform ballot initiatives go down in flames.
No matter how stupid PETA's remarks seem, the important thing is never to allow those statements to go unchallenged. That story by my friend Chris? The number of comments it has received is 442 and counting. A lot of 'em came from hunters. And it wouldn't hurt to drop by and add your own two cents.
© Holly A. Heyser 2008