David Riley, ROC 6:48 p.m. EST February 22, 2014
HOLLEY – It was a wet boot and an appetite, not another protest against his hometown’s annual squirrel hunt, that coaxed 17-year-old hunter Zach Kimmel out of the woods on Saturday morning.
As soon as Kimmel finished drying out and wolfing down breakfast at Sam’s Diner, he and a buddy planned to rejoin the contest, dubbed the Hazzard County Squirrel Slam, for their third year in a row. They said the first seemed like little to get excited about in their small village, where they grew up hunting.
But last year’s event caught the eye of animal advocacy groups, and it drew international attention and dozens of protesters who decried the fundraiser for the Holley Fire Department as a twisted celebration of mass animal killing and violence.
The protests did little to change Kimmel’s mind about signing up for the slam again.
“It’s what we do up here,” he said, clad in camouflage. “I’ve been hunting since I was 10 years old. It’s been my life.”
Indeed, while some hunters described annoyance with what they viewed as misconceptions about their tradition, many seemed to go about the morning unfazed.
Protesters seemed equally undaunted in their continued opposition to the slam, which offers prizes for the heaviest squirrels bagged.
“It’s what we do up here. I’ve been hunting since I was 10 years old. It’s been my life.”
— Zach Kimmel, 17
Edita Birnkrant, New York director of the group Friends of Animals, said some hunters and their children taunted protesters with dead squirrels last year. She described more of the same on Saturday.
Representing Friends of Animals, from left, Edita Birnkrant, Nicole Rivard and Marcus Pierno protest against the Holley Squirrel Slam outside of the Holley Fire Department on Saturday.(Photo: CARLOS ORTIZ staff photographer)
“Making killing a fun activity — rewarding it, making it into something that’s a fun game — I think it’s something that desensitizes children to violence,” said Birnkrant, who returned to Holley on Saturday.
She said the group of protesters was smaller than last year’s, noting the windy weather kept some away.
The volunteer fire department has held the event for eight years. Amid last year’s outcry, it sold 1,000 tickets for $10 apiece. This year, the department offered only 650 tickets, saying the event had grown too large, and spread the news by word of mouth alone.
Still, the slam sold out in three weeks and should net the department about $4,000, helping to pay for costly equipment, said its president, Fran Gaylord.
“They have the right to voice their opinion and we have the right to do it,” Gaylord said of the protesters.
Hunting season for gray, black and fox squirrels runs until Feb. 28. Hunters can kill no more than six per day. Participants in the slam can bag five.
Eric Fredendall and his father, Doug, had bagged six squirrels by the time they stopped at Sam’s Diner for lunch.
Standing outside, they groused about out-of-town protesters and described hunting as part of a more self-sufficient way of life. People do eat squirrels killed during the slam.
“I grow a garden, too,” Eric Fredendall said. “It’s a different lifestyle than I think a lot of suburban and city people would understand.”
“Just because something’s been a tradition for a long time doesn’t mean it should be one forever.”
— Edita Birnkrant, NY director of the group Friends of Animals
Cliff Germeo, of Germeo Farms, complained that squirrels eat his corn and soybean plants.
“They should shoot more of them,” he said. “That’s my theory.”
Birnkrant, who lives in New York City, said local people are among the protesters and were the first to raise an alarm about the event.
Friends of Animals is not trying to ban hunting altogether, but hopes to pass pending state legislation to ban killing contests, she said.
“Just because something’s been a tradition for a long time doesn’t mean it should be one forever,” Birnkrant said.