Thursday, January 25, 2007

Online Hunting Operations Continue to be Challenged: Anti-Hunters and Hunters Agree that Online Hunting is Questionable

What could be weaker than some lazy jack behind a mouse blasting away at an unsuspecting being? Let’s hope this cowardly and questionable practice goes away real soon.


Online hunts targeted

By Kevin McDermott

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — You peer at the image of the antelope wandering across your computer screen. Your hand is on the computer mouse, guiding the onscreen rifle. You wait for the animal to hold still. Then you line it up in your sights, your finger ready on the mouse button.

It could all be part of some unusually realistic computer game, except for what happens next: You click the mouse — and hundreds, even thousands of miles away, an actual rifle fires a bullet at the antelope.

It's called "remote-controlled hunting," the brainchild of a Texas ranch owner whose startling new venture had barely begun before the Texas Legislature shut it down two years ago. Nonetheless, concern that the concept could still become the next new thing in virtual entertainment has set off a volley of pre-emptive prohibitions in more than 20 states around the country, including Missouri. Illinois could be next.

Opposition has come from an unusual alliance of animal-rights activists — one of whom last week called it "pay-per-view slaughter" — and hunters, who view it as the ultimate in unsportsmanlike conduct.

"That's not hunting. It's just not hunting," said Bill Heatherly, wildlife programs supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation, which banned remote-controlled hunting last year.

In Illinois, a bill was filed this month to outlaw the practice, and it could be debated starting next month.

"It really is in poor taste," says Illinois state Rep. Dan Reitz, D-Steeleville. "It gives all sportsmen a black eye."

He said he was unaware of any such businesses coming online in Illinois, but he's sponsoring legislation to ban it, just in case.

"It definitely takes the sport out of it," he said. "If they want to do that, just play a video game."

Virtual hunting party

The issue first arose a few years ago, when Texas entrepreneur John Lockwood began publicizing a (now-defunct) website called "" The concept was to allow subscribers from all over the country to use their computers to operate a remote-controlled rifle on Lockwood's 220-acre ranch in Boerne, Texas, near San Antonio, hunting blackbuck antelope, wild hogs, Barberry sheep and other animals stocked on the property.

The mechanics of it were relatively straightforward: A hunting rifle was outfitted with a webcam in the gun scope and an actuator connected to the trigger, all of it mounted on a wooden platform attached to a small motor and set outdoors on Lockwood's ranch. An Internet user could, from any computer, remotely swivel the gun's position and fire the weapon at animals lured to the firing area with food.

As part of the venture, Lockwood offered to send the heads of the animals to the subscribers who shot them. Live hunts were priced at $300 for two hours, plus the price of taxidermy.

Lockwood couldn't be reached for comment last week. But in an interview with National Public Radio in November 2004, prior to Texas' move to outlaw his business, he defended it.

"There are a lot of people who would like to get into hunting who have never had the opportunity ... (or) have been injured, disabled, who may never be able to ... get out in a field and sit for any length of time," Lockwood said in the interview.

"I know there's a segment of the population that absolutely abhors what I do, and there's a segment of the population that's loving what I'm doing because I'm able to help them," Lockwood said. "As long as it's legal and I can do some good, it's going to continue."

It didn't continue for long. Texas outlawed the practice in 2005. Lockwood replaced the live animals with inanimate targets and silhouettes of Osama bin Laden at which subscribers could shoot via the Internet. The website later was taken down.

Other states, realizing there was nothing on their books to prevent Lockwood or others from bringing the virtual hunting party across their borders, began pre-empting the practice. As of this year, at least 23 states have banned it, from California to Wisconsin to Maine, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

Generally, the prohibitions, including Missouri's, have specifically banned the remote-controlled killing of animals within the state's borders. But Reitz's bill seeks to prohibit Illinoisans from using any software that would allow them to kill animals that are in other states.

It's unclear whether such a far-reaching prohibition would stand up in court — a recurring question with many attempts at limiting Internet activities these days. That's part of the reason that some have argued for a national ban, including U.S. Rep Tom Davis, R-Va., who introduced in 2005 the Computer-Assisted Remote Hunting Act. The measure didn't advance in the last session, but a spokesman for Davis said Tuesday that he was considering re-introducing it this year.

Reitz, one of the Illinois Legislature's leading advocates for hunters, has found himself in unusual agreement with animal rights activists over the issue, a partnership that has played out repeatedly around the country ever since the first virtual shot was fired in Texas.

"It's been an interesting alliance," said Heidi Prescott, a Washington-based official for the Humane Society of the United States, which has been working with national hunting interests to ban remote-controlled hunting. "It speaks to the fact this is an extremely unethical practice."

The Missouri regulation is part of the state's Wildlife Code, listed at 3 CSR 10-7.410 (1)(q).

Reitz's Illinois bill is HB201.

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