On Saturday morning, teams of hunters young and old will rise early and head into the woods of South Jersey.
They will be looking for squirrels. Preferably large.
This weekend marks the First Annual Family Squirrel Classic, hosted by the Inskip Antlers Hunting Club in Winslow. It is billed as a celebration and event to introduce new hunters to a centuries-old tradition.
But to some, it is an abomination.
The protesters, including members of the Animal Protection League of New Jersey, plan to protest the competition Saturday morning in front of the hunting club. To them, the hunt is nothing more than a killing contest, made exponentially worse by the inclusion of children.
Cody McLaughlin, a spokesman for the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance and a small game enthusiast, describes squirrel hunting as a peaceful time in the woods, with less pressure than hunting larger game like deer. Most people hunt squirrels with small 22-caliber rifles, though McLaughlin said some people prefer to use a bow.
The hunters will likely be out in the woods around 6 am on the morning of the contest, McLaughlin said. The weigh-in will be open at the hunting club from 8 am to noon. The rules of the contest are simple: the biggest squirrels win.
Hunters will be able to work in teams of up to six people, which McLaughlin says allows teams to be large enough to include children.
As barbaric as this may sound to non-hunters, squirrel hunting is actually nothing new. People have been killing and eating squirrels in New Jersey for as long as people have, well, been living in New Jersey. And while this may be the inaugural iteration of this particular event, McLaughlin said squirrel hunting contests are a long-standing tradition in South Jersey.
“What’s going on down there is a perfectly safe, legal, time-honored tradition of getting outside and enjoying our natural resources,” McLaughlin said.
But for people like Janine Motta, director of programs for the Animal Protection League of New Jersey, tradition isn’t enough to justify this contest.
That’s why members of his group and other animal rights activists plan to protest outside the hunting club on Saturday morning.
Motta makes it clear that while he is firmly against the killing of any animal, he understands that hunting is legal and regulated. What makes this situation different for her, Motta said, is that the pageant is sold as a family event. She argues that it only serves to “[desensitize] children to the plight of animals.
“Having a family event that revolves around killing and bringing children into this is inconceivable,” Motta said. “What is the message here? Does the family that kills together stay together?
The protest, according to a Facebook event, is scheduled for 6:30 to 8 a.m. and more than 30 people have indicated they plan to show up.
That moment could disappoint the protesters a bit. McLaughlin points out that the hunters will be in the woods, not the hunting club, during those first few hours.
In the week leading up to the contest, opponents of the hunt have tried to pressure local officials to cancel the event.
Winslow Mayor Barry Wright said the City Council has been inundated with emails and calls urging the event to be cancelled. He described some of the messages as threatening and aggressive. One caller, Wright said, threatened to “kill him” if the squirrel hunting contest was allowed to continue.
“I have never been addressed in emails, verbally or anything the way some of these animal rights people address me,” Wright said.
Wright emphasized that Winslow is not opposed to the hunt and that the city has no place to step in and cancel the event.
But Wright said he is uncomfortable with hunting contests. That’s why he joins the Camden County Freeholders in asking the state legislature to ban these types of events in New Jersey.
“Contests that reward people for killing the most targeted wildlife are unacceptable,” said Freeholder Jeffrey Nash. “The vast majority of the time, the animals that perish in these contests are not used for their meat and their slaughter does not benefit the ecosystem.”
But as for Saturday? Wright said she will be in Washington, DC, away from the drama, to watch her daughter play in a volleyball tournament.
Michael Sol Warren can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MSolDub. Find NJ.com on Facebook.
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