Obsessions April 2003

Overkill

"I was always interested in animals," says Thomas Venezia, recently the subject of an extensive criminal investigation stemming from his hunting practices. "I always wanted to be near them"
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Until January of last year, when a federal judge fined him $4,500, confiscated $15,000 worth of his equipment, and banned him from hunting anywhere in the world for five years, Thomas Venezia specialized in bagging waterfowl. Venezia was a hunter and guide in his mid-forties who operated out of Williston, Vermont. A virtuoso with duck calls, decoys, and shotguns, he was able to draw down entire flocks of geese flying a thousand feet overhead. Once the birds were within range, he could kill them with shots that other hunters wouldn't even attempt, sometimes using spectacular, almost instantaneous pivots of his shotgun to dispatch birds flying toward him, head on. "He's brilliant," says Bradley Carleton, an expert hunter who assisted Venezia on several hunting trips. "No question. His focus is extraordinary. I've never met anyone who was that obsessed."

Because of his obsession, for much of the 1990s Venezia was the subject of a wide-ranging investigation involving local police forces and federal agents from the United States and Canada. Events came to a head in September of 2000, at the start of duck-hunting season, when Venezia went to Saskatchewan for a six-day hunting trip with Richard Perry, a client he had previously worked with and whom he considered a friend. In fact Perry was an undercover agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and what he chronicled during those six days in the field reads like a parody of hunting excess. While watching Venezia kill approximately 350 birds, ranging in size from pigeons to a sandhill crane, Perry documented 230 potential hunting violations. The charges against Venezia included using illegal ammunition, shooting from a moving vehicle, killing protected species, and failing to recover downed birds. According to Perry, during the trip Venezia announced that he had the "K chromosome." "I love to kill," he said. "I have to kill."

After the Saskatchewan trip Perry assembled his data and reported them to Canadian authorities, who arrested Venezia at the U.S.-Canadian border in November of 2000, while he was on another trip engineered by Perry. Venezia was held in jail for a week, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and subsequently pleaded guilty to twenty-four hunting violations. The judge presiding over the case found it difficult to contain her disgust and alarm. She fined him $12,000 (in U.S. dollars) and banished him from Canada forever—the first such punishment imposed on a foreign wildlife offender. During his sentencing Venezia struggled to hold back tears.

Venezia returned to Vermont, where he was living with his wife and infant daughter. During his absence his home had been visited by local and federal wildlife enforcement agents—armed with guns and a search warrant—who were investigating his alleged violations in the United States. They confiscated everything remotely related to their investigation, and Venezia suddenly became news. Ronald Maynard, the head of special investigations for Saskatchewan's Ministry of Environment and Resource Management, summed up many people's feelings about Venezia when he told the press, "this guy doesn't deserve to be called a hunter; he's an affront to every ethic of hunting."

Venezia ran afoul of the law at a peculiar juncture in the history of our relationship with animals. Ever since Magna Carta granted limited rights to British freemen, Western society has been slouching toward an ever more inclusive definition of human, and now nonhuman, rights. In the past fifty years the change in attitude toward animals has been accelerated by urbanization, which has drawn much of the population away from daily contact with animals (and hunters), and by the environmental movement, which has required us to think and to legislate beyond species just as the civil-rights movement required us to think and legislate beyond ethnicity.

These are challenging times for blood sports. Even trophy hunters are moving toward "green" hunting—shooting game with tranquilizer darts, a practice that lets the targets live to be shot another day. It's an ethical contortion that would have been laughable even thirty years ago, but a lot has changed in a generation—so much that the British Parliament is currently considering a highly contentious bill that would ban the most iconic blood sport of all, fox hunting with horse and hounds.

However, a lot has stayed the same. Today it remains legal to kill any number of creatures, often for the most whimsical of reasons, despite the fact that animal-rights law is becoming a standard course offering in prominent American law schools and even a professional subspecialty. In New England a hunter can hop, stepping-stone fashion, from "nuisance goose" season (September) to goose and duck seasons (generally October to January) to no-limit crow season (March and April) and on to turkey season (May). Any gaps in this hunting calendar can be filled in with quail, chukar partridge, and pigeon, which are legal much of the year. And those are just the birds.

Hunters give meaning to their sport in a wide variety of ways. One hunter I know kills a single elk each fall and eats the meat throughout the following year. I know of another who will shoot as many geese as he can, gather them into a bloody heap, set his infant son on top, and take a picture. A third told me with heartfelt sincerity that "pulling the trigger is transcendental; it's the desire to become." These three men have little in common other than their passion for the hunt and the fact that they are U.S. citizens fully abiding by current laws.

Thomas Venezia is far from the beer-swilling redneck stereotype of a hunter that many nonhunters are inclined to conjure up. In the spring of 2001 we met at a gas station outside Burlington, Vermont; he arrived in an immaculate gold pickup. He is tall and athletic-looking, with a strong, handsome jaw and brown hair, slightly rumpled and laced with gray. He wore glasses over a pair of deeply set brown eyes that gave him a look of disarming gravity and sharpness. We had barely finished shaking hands when Venezia's gaze abruptly shifted skyward. "See those pigeons?" he asked. I turned to see a small flock circling overhead. "Now they're in range." A half second passed. "That one's dead," he said, nodding toward the lead bird. "So's that one." The behavior seemed almost automatic.

Venezia was raised in upstate New York—prime hunting territory, although he was not from a hunting family. "I was always interested in animals," he told me. "I always wanted to be near them, to push and poke and prod them." A friend's father took him trapping when he was ten, and Venezia got hooked. He trapped muskrats, minks, raccoons, and foxes, and he sold pelts by the hundreds. "I couldn't sleep at night thinking about what was going to be in my traps," he said. "I read a lot and I subscribed to magazines. And I would go and sit down on the bank of a creek and watch." Of waterfowl he asked me, "How does this bird identify the bogeyman?" He then answered his own question: "They're smart, but they're easily exploited by observing their habits. You don't try to change Mother Nature. You try to imitate her."

Venezia worked hard to support his habit. As a salesman for a company that offers "data capture solutions" (handheld devices used in stores for taking inventory), he had a lot of control over his time. He sometimes conducted business by cell phone from a duck blind. Despite his relentless hunting schedule ("Hunting season never really ends if you're a serious hunter," he told me), Venezia made enough to support his family in a comfortable home and to finance his passion handsomely. Before his legal difficulties he owned five boats, including a floating duck blind built on an Army-surplus barge. His basement, according to a fellow hunter, was an extraordinary place. "It was loaded with deer heads," the hunter told me, "so many that it was like what you'd see in a hunting club where families had been hunting for generations. There were all kinds of guns, and hundreds and hundreds of decoys." When the federal and state agents searched the basement, they took firearms, computer records, photographs, mounted birds, deer heads, and Venezia's collection of "jewelry"—in hunters' parlance the metal bands that scientists attach to the ankles of waterfowl for tracking purposes. Shooting a banded bird is a rare and random occurrence—like winning a kind of avian lottery. As a result the bands are prized by many duck hunters. An avid hunter might collect twenty or thirty over the course of his career; Venezia had more than 300.

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