Hunting by remote control draws fire from all quarters
HOUSTON — Sliding his computer mouse around until he locates a moving target, the hunter sets the animal in his sites and pulls the rifle's trigger with a click of his finger. Down goes a wild boar. Another trophy bagged.
Yet in this case it's not a video game. It's a new kind of hunting experience in which people anywhere in the world can sit at home and target real game by controlling a gun in a remote location.
To supporters, it's a way to allow the disabled, among others, to enjoy the thrill of hunting. But critics see it as a form of video slaughter.
Indeed, the concept of live-action hunting - done over the Internet - is raising the hackles of everyone from animal-rights activists to hunting groups to gun advocates. As a result, lawmakers in 14 states are now trying to ban the practice, including Texas, where the only such online hunting facility exists.
The first paid hunt is scheduled to occur on April 9 on a ranch outside San Antonio, and many are racing to stop the practice before it gets started. The dispute is raising new ethical questions over what is an appropriate form of hunting, and represents another example of the unlimited possibilities of the Internet and the sometimes public pressure to limit it.
Even the developer of the new online hunting website, Live-Shot.com, says the system is not for everyone. John Lockwood envisions it being used by those who love hunting but are unable to get out into the woods, such as the wheelchair-bound. "The idea of hunting this way doesn't appeal to me," says Mr. Lockwood. "Most of us love getting into the field. But there are many that cannot."
Under the system, a person can control a camera and a firearm, shooting at real targets in real time, from a computer anywhere. For an additional fee, the meat or head can be shipped to the hunter.
Lockwood says the idea evolved out of knowing and working with disabled hunters as a young man. The first person to sign up to hunt through his website is Dale Hagberg, a paraplegic from Ligonier, Ind. Mr. Hagberg says he broke his neck in an accident almost 18 years ago and has only been able to watch hunting on TV.
"I was an avid hunter before I became hurt, and I've missed it ever since," he says through his nurse. Hagberg is excited - and nervous - about his impending April 9 hunt. "I'm sure when I see the animal walk in my view, my heart will start beating as fast as it used to," he says.
In addition to disabled hunters, Lockwood says he has heard from a soldier in Spain who wants to send the meat to his family and a soldier in Iraq who doesn't know when he will hunt again. In all, Lockwood has about 25 people who are seriously interested in online hunting so far.
In a rare alliance, the Humane Society of the United States and Safari Club International, the world's leading trophy-hunting organization, are both supporting legislation banning the practice. "This is not hunting," says Safari Club president John Monson.
"It's pay-per-view slaughter," adds Michael Markarian of the Humane Society.
Concerned that state legislation won't be restrictive enough, his group wants a federal ban on online hunting. "Nobody ever said the wilderness had to be ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliant," says Mr. Markarian. "That is no justification for this practice, and it doesn't give [disabled] people a true hunting experience anyway."
Even groups that help the disabled hunt are upset. The powerful National Rifle Association (NRA), for instance, has a program designed for disabled hunters, but the idea is to get them into the wilderness or participate in shooting events. "We believe that hunting should be outdoors and that sitting in front of a computer three states away doesn't qualify as hunting," says spokeswoman Kelly Hobbs.
Yet the the NRA is also closely watching the anti-online-hunting bills, from Hawaii to Wisconsin to Maine, to make sure they don't affect disabled hunters' special needs in the field - the use of an electronic wheelchair, for instance.
Earlier this month, Virginia became the first state to ban Internet hunting. In Texas, the state Parks & Wildlife Department has proposed a regulatory change that would ban it for animals native to Texas. So far, virtually all the public comments have been in favor of banning the activity. The proposal could take effect in May.
The state, however, doesn't have control over non-native species and that's what Lockwood's customers will be shooting at: Barbary sheep, blackbuck antelope, and wild boar, for instance. "In the grand scheme of things, with all the problems facing wildlife, this isn't really a big one," says Tom Harvey of Texas Parks & Wildlife. "It's more of an ethical issue than a biological or ecological issue."
The biggest opponents may be hunters themselves. "It's not hunting. It's killing," says Jeremy Johnston, a police officer at the University of Houston. "Someone gets on a computer and pushes a button and something dies for no reason. That's not why I was taught to hunt."
For Mr. Johnston, hunting is about relaxing outdoors, bonding with friends, and providing for his family. He says there are so many groups that now help the disabled hunt, there's no reason for such a novelty.
A bill to outlaw Internet hunting for any species will be heard in the Texas House of Representatives Tuesday, and Lockwood recently met with its author, Rep. Todd Smith (R). Lockwood believes those who are most outraged simply don't understand how the system works, who benefits, and how many safety procedures are in place. "I am in full agreement that there needs to be legislation and regulation controlling it," he says. "But people are under the impression that this is a slaughtering machine and, jiminy crickets, that's not what it is."
Hagberg, his first customer, also understands the concerns. "I totally understand why people are upset. But I think that if they knew someone like me, it would change their minds," he says. "I have wanted to go hunting for 18 years, but I haven't been able to. This opened a whole new world for me."