On a fine autumn weekend last month, Michael Blanton, a 36-year-old boilermaker from Inverness, Fla., took his 13-year-old son, Thomas, on an unusual outing. After drawing a lucky number in a state-operated lottery, Thomas and 29 other children—ranging in age from 8 to 15— had won the right to hunt and kill deer with rifles or shotguns on the 3,800-acre Andrews State Wildlife Management Area near Florida’s northwest coast. But none of the children succeeded in shooting any deer that weekend. Sharon Bailey, a member of a group called Friends of Animals, which has protested the controversial program to encourage hunting by children, said that volunteers spread deer repellent and other substances in the woods to drive the animals out of the area. Other protesters were on the scene when the children and their parents arrived. One of them, complained Michael Blanton, “told me he would rather see kids doing drugs than hunting.”
A series of hunts for young people this fall, sponsored by Florida’s Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, has set off a debate among Floridians who defend—or bitterly oppose—the idea of young children killing animals for sport. It is a controversy that in many ways mirrors the conflicting values of rural Floridians and those—many of them originally from the northern United States— who live in the state’s rapidly growing cities. Many rural residents insist that the hunts bring children closer to nature and encourage bonds between children and their parents (a parent or guardian must accompany the children on hunts).
But opponents of the program say that killing animals fosters violent attitudes among youngsters—and reduces their respect for life in general. Said Arnold Pakula, a North Miami Beach elementary schoolteacher who convinced about half his class of 155 fifth graders to write to state officials protesting against the hunts: “The minute you train a child to use a gun, you’re saying it’s okay to use it.”
State game officials say that this is the fourth year they have run the youth hunts. But this is the first year that widespread protests have been registered. Officials added that the strongest opposition has come from the West Palm Beach and Miami areas. Larry Martin, regional director of the game commission, said that he had tried to persuade people in those cities that the hunts were a good idea because, among other reasons, they harvest the annual surplus of deer. “But they are so closed-minded,” Martin added. “I’ve given up.”
Such Canadian wildlife officials as William McKittrick, hunter education co-ordinator at the Ontario ministry of natural resources, say that the Florida commission’s approach makes sense because there are no gun requirements covering young children. Said McKittrick: “They got into these organized hunts because there is no law to provide some forum of safe firearm-handling. ’ ’
Despite the outcry over the hunts, many rural parents have accompanied their sons and daughters on hunting expeditions—with mixed results. During the first hunt this year, held at the Florida National Guard’s Camp Blanding, about 80 km southwest of Jacksonville, last month, about 40 boys and girls hunted deer on about 1,000 acres. During the two-day hunt, the young hunters managed to kill nine deer.
But when the second hunt was held on the following weekend at the Andrews management area, no deer were killed. According to Bailey, eight members of Norwalk, Conn.-based Friends of Animals—which opposes all hunting of animals—“went through the area and spread human hair, deer repellent and dog excrement” in an effort to frighten deer away from the area. Reported eight-year-old Angela Latmer: “We saw two deer the first day. We haven’t shot any. It was fun watching the deer.” Added her father, Bobby, a 29-year-old mobilehome builder from Ocala, who accompanied his daughter: “It’s not all killing. It’s great just watching the deer walk around. I was brought up in the country, and I want my kid to have different values than people brought up on the streets.”
Meanwhile, protesters have written angry letters to the state game commission as well as to Florida’s Gov. Robert Martinez and other officials. In the debate over the hunts, those in favor of hunting sometimes dismiss their opponents as “bunny huggers,” while animal-rights activists sometimes castigate hunters as “Bambi killers.” Besides objecting to the fact that hunting subjects animals to fear and pain, some animal-rights activists are also critical of the fact that the childrens’ hunts are supported by the state, at the expense of taxpayers.
And among those critics who say that hunting has the effect of depriving children of respect for life in general, Lani Wigand, a member of the Fort Lauderdale-based organization South Florida Animal Activists, declared, “When a child shoots an animal and sees blood gushing out, and sees it die, it has a psychological effect— especially an eight-year-old.”
So far, state officials show no sign of giving in to the protesters. Indeed, two more hunts are planned for this week, and wildlife officials intend to conduct the program again next year. Ultimately, said Anthony La Greca, a sociologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, the controversy reflects the growing gulf in values between new city dwellers from the North and rural people whose families have lived in Florida for generations. “For many young men in rural areas,” noted La Greca, “hunting is almost a rite of passage. But in urban high schools, there is a prejudice against hunting. You keep it quiet.” Now, with about 80 per cent of the state’s population concentrated in the expanding cities, the day of blood sports for Florida children may be drawing to a close.
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