It’s good thing Tim Van Fleet, president of the Modesto Houndsmen, doesn’t take young children along when he’s got a dog box filling his truck bed.
“You wouldn’t believe how many people drive by, flip us off or scream something rude,” Van Fleet says. “Its terrible. We’re just taking the dogs we love out for some exercise and we get cussed at. We can’t even hunt bears anymore in California.”
Last year’s passage of Senate Bill 1221 prohibits the use of dogs to pursue bears or bobcats. So Van Fleet and thousands of other hounds and men around the state are left with nothing to chase at this time of year. Their story is cautionary for all hunters. What they’re going through could be the fate of all hunters unless we unite.
Lori Jacobs is the president of the California Houndsmen for Conservation. On a Saturday in mid-October, she piled her grandsons into the pickup before dawn to get them to a midget division football game and her hounds went wild. This was opening day of bear season, and those poor dogs knew it. She was sobbing as their pitiful baying chased her down the drive of her Yuba County home. She lobbied hard to keep the covenant with her dogs, whose every muscle was selected to chase, and she had let them down.
People who don’t structure their lives around dogs read that and think its absurd; canines keeping time? Dog people know better.
Some houndsmen are pursuing “other stuff, getting rid of their dogs, or leaving the state,” said Van Fleet. Some are hunting bears in Nevada or Oregon. Van Fleet was cagey about what his hounds are chasing – raccoon? coyote?
“I’m not saying. They (hunting opponents) will come after that next,” he said.
Every houndsman I talked to said they knew someone who left the state because of the bear ban, but I never found one of these phantom exiles.
The Humane Society, which offered most of the support for SB 1221, learned they can squeeze hunters and we’ll kvetch but we’ll take it. Rip out our hearts and we’ll keep on operating your heavy equipment, digging your wells and keeping your power on.
The houndsmen did everything right in fighting SB 1221. They hired lobbyists, got money from outside the state, softened their image with a woman in front of their organization and schlepped journalists around on hunts that ended with treed bears getting their pictures taken. But it always ended with the image of a puzzled, cuddly bear up a tree with no chance of escape, surrounded by hicks and their snapping dogs. The problem is that hunters didn’t deliver their vote.
I’m a bird hunter who watched the houndsmen’s fight with detachment. It’s not my way, but I respect their tradition and their rights. That was the approach, apparently, that most other hunters took, said Van Fleet. And it handed the election to hunting opponents.
“I sent out hundreds of letters. Only one sportsman’s group, the California Waterfowl Association, sent something to the Legislature in support of us,” said Van Fleet. “These hunting groups, they gotta know they’re coming for them next.”
When hunters gather, someone always trots out this saying: “When all the buffalo are gone, we will hunt mice, for we are hunters and we want our freedom.”
If Chief Sitting Bull really said that, the last few years of his life teach us why. He started too late to unite the plains tribes to fight a government that was so terrified of him, even as an old man, that they forced him onto a reservation. As hunters, we will be heard on the next threat to any hunting right. Or we’ll be eating rats.