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.

In a good year more than 100 million waterfowl migrate across North America (of this number some 20 million will be killed by hunters), and only a tiny percentage of these birds are banded. Robert Rooks, the chief warden for the State of Vermont, explained to me that in order to collect 300 bands "you'd have to shoot thousands of birds."

Hunting to excess is practically a New World tradition. European settlers, freshly arrived from a continent in which natural resources had been limited for centuries, were awestruck by what they encountered—seemingly endless forests, millions of buffalo, billions of passenger pigeons. In a letter written from Florida in 1831, John J. Audubon, a forefather of the conservation movement, observed, "The birds, generally speaking, appeared wild and few—you must be aware that I call birds few, when I shoot less than one hundred per day." But by the 1870s many animal populations were in free fall, and hunters were largely to blame. During a trip out west in 1848 Audubon had engaged in the popular sport of buffalo coursing, in which a rider armed with a pistol or a carbine would gallop into a herd of stampeding buffalo and kill them at point-blank range. When the shooting was over, little was taken from the carcasses but the tongues, which were considered a delicacy. Lewis Squires, one of Audubon's companions on that trip, became so enamored of the sport that he begged to stay on after Audubon continued westward. He then killed so many buffalo that he confessed himself "almost ashamed."

But Audubon saw the writing on the wall. "Before many years," he wrote in his Missouri River Journal in 1843, "the Buffalo, like the Great Auk, will have disappeared; surely this should not be permitted." It would be three decades before Congress passed protective legislation. By then the U.S. buffalo herd had been reduced to fewer than fifty animals. The passenger pigeon was not even that lucky: it was driven to extinction by a combination of habitat loss and market hunting. During a single month in 1878 market hunters took more than a billion birds from one colony in Michigan.

To say that hunters from earlier eras "didn't know any better" is both naive and revisionist: all successful hunters have an intimate understanding of their environment. American colonists in Rhode Island demonstrated that understanding as early as the 1640s, by passing a law to protect deer. By the 1700s such restrictions were common along the eastern seaboard, although they were rarely enforced. Like cod fishermen today, Americans who hunted game for profit were relentless until their quarry grew so scarce that pursuing it was no longer remunerative. By the mid-1800s deer, beaver, and wild turkey, to name just a few of the most commonly hunted animals, had been all but extirpated from the northeastern United States. Opposition to the slaughter was growing, however. The urban upper class was spawning sportsmen's clubs organized around the need for restraint—not least because their members had limited opportunities to hunt, and conservation would improve their chances of bagging something. Meanwhile, market hunters were shooting all week long, sometimes with light cannon that could bring down a hundred geese at a time. The clash between the working-class market hunter and the wealthy, politically connected recreational hunter laid the groundwork for the culture of conservation that exists today. It also provides background for understanding the intense hostility that Thomas Venezia engendered in Vermont's close-knit, highly disciplined waterfowling community.

Venezia was a commercial guide in a state that has no guiding tradition. Unlike its neighbors Maine and New Hampshire, Vermont has no licensing or certification requirements for hunting guides—and although the Missisquoi River delta, in northwestern Vermont, boasts some of the finest waterfowling in New England, Venezia was the only person working there as a professional hunting guide. His talents as a salesman were instrumental in both his success and his downfall as a hunter. Like salesmen, serious hunters are deeply concerned with territory. Ideally, they want at their disposal a large area that is attractive to game and inaccessible to other hunters. Public land doesn't always fulfill the second criterion, so an ambitious hunter may try to secure exclusive access to private land. Leasing private land for this purpose is standard operating procedure in the American South, but it is a relatively new practice in Vermont, one of the few states in which hunting is still considered a right rather than a privilege: all of the state's private rural land is open to hunting unless bans have formally been posted. Leasing arrangements for posted land are often under-the-table deals sealed with cash and a handshake, and Venezia approached them with his characteristic zeal. "Tom is a master negotiator, a master bargainer," Bradley Carleton told me. "He drove the roads and found the fields and got permission like no one you've ever known."

Venezia's persistence paid off. By the mid-1990s he had secured exclusive rights to large swaths of prime hunting land across Vermont and New York. "Other guides and locals were really upset," recalls a hunter who assisted Venezia on guiding trips, "because he would move into areas they were already hunting on, or he'd get on land they'd never been able to hunt."

In the Champlain Valley, which straddles western Vermont and eastern New York, April still qualifies as winter: leafless forests rise like gray stubble over the white hills, and spring feels a long way off. Despite the recent sprouting of McMansions on the farmland around some of the area's bigger towns, the largest manmade structures on the landscape tend to be barns, and many of them are still owned by families who have been working the land for generations.

One local farmer, Bud Bodette, raises cows on the banks of Hospital Creek, in Addison County, Vermont. He has lived in the area for more than sixty years, and has seen a lot of changes. "I used to be a pothunter," he told me one spring. "I hunted to put game in the frying pan. But people look down on that now." Bodette is one of the landowners Venezia paid for hunting rights, and he believes it was Venezia's leasing arrangements, rather than his hunting practices, that drew the sustained attention of state and federal agents. "Tom stepped on a lot of toes—a lot of important toes," Bodette told me. "Game wardens competed for this land too, and they have connections. Somebody had to have some clout to have a federal agent on Tom for that long."

Some of the toes that got stepped on may have belonged to Bill Crenshaw, who has been a state wildlife biologist since 1973. Diligent and soft-spoken, Crenshaw is well respected by wardens and hunters alike. He's also a duck hunter and a good friend of Bodette's. For years Bodette had given him permission to hunt a blind on Hospital Creek. In the early 1990s Venezia leased hunting rights to Bodette's land. He invited Crenshaw to stay on, but only if he agreed to share the leasing cost. Crenshaw declined and was forced to hunt elsewhere. "When you're a hunter who's always asked permission and made an effort to have good relations with the landowner," Crenshaw told me, "it stings to lose a spot you've hunted for years."

Fences are built to keep cows in, not to keep neighbors out. So goes a Vermont adage. But Venezia wasn't a native Vermonter, and he didn't behave like one. Loud, brash, and confrontational, he was known for blocking public boat ramps in the dark hours of the morning in order to keep other hunters from getting onto the water before he did. If a hunting party managed to beat him to a coveted spot, Venezia would set up right next to it—a serious breach of hunters' etiquette.

"Vermont duck hunters, as a group, are very courteous and conscientious," Crenshaw told me. "I've been doing this for twenty-eight years, and I got more complaints from more people about Tom than about anyone I've ever known." The list of grievances included driving in people's fields, overbagging, even dispersing clients from his hunting blind and stationing them around parts of Missisquoi Bay with flashlights in the predawn, to discourage competition by making it seem that the area was already full of hunters. And it wasn't unusual for Venezia to shatter the stillness of dawn on the bay with cries like "Lock and load, boys!" or—to the flocking geese—"Come over here and I'll give you the nasty sting of steel!"

The federal officers I interviewed were careful to say that Venezia was pursued so aggressively because he was breaking the law, but it's clear that this was only part of the motive. "It's really about hunter ethics," Bill Crenshaw told me. "People wanted something done about him." Robert Rooks explained the case a little differently. "To keep citing him for individual infractions would have been ineffective," he said. "The goal of this investigation was to shut him down—to stop him from continuously raping the resource."

This it has done, and more. In losing his hunting license for five years Venezia received the same punishment one gets for accidentally shooting a person in the field. In addition to being fined, put on probation, and required to do a hundred hours of community service, he has been ordered by the court to seek psychological counseling—a first for a federal wildlife offender. Although all of this amounts to stiff punishment, Kim Speckman, the federal agent responsible for assembling the U.S. case against Venezia, believes that for him the hardest part of all was the loss of his "jewelry" collection. "I can guarantee you that the thing that hurt him the most was giving up those bands," she told me.

Venezia has also suffered another penalty, one that small New England communities have always been good at inflicting: he has become an outcast. "He's a social pariah in the outdoor community," Bradley Carleton told me. Mark Farrell, another regular on Missisquoi Bay, concurred. "The shame factor is huge," he said. Venezia appears to be feeling it keenly. "You can't imagine the pressure this is putting on me from all different angles," he told me. "I don't have any pride now. I wish I could run and hide somewhere. I wish I could disappear." He seems to be trying: since his sentencing he has divorced his wife and moved away from the area.

But hunting will always be in Venezia's blood. This became clear to me on the morning we first met, when those pigeons flew overhead. After he drew a bead on them, I asked him what he was seeing. Despite everything he had recently been through, he looked at me and said simply, "Fodder."

John Vaillant lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he is working on a book about the logging industry.
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