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"

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.

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