Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — HOLLEY — The seventh annual Squirrel Slam in Holley last year drew protesters, and this year it was more of the same.
Before the event, a statement issued by the New York chapter of Friends of Animals (FoA) called the contest a “bloodbath” that is “disguised as a fundraiser.” (Proceeds from the event help the Holley Fire Department.)
The participants in the Slam brought dead squirrels to the HFD where they were weighed and prizes were doled out. There was also a raffle. In the statement issued before the event, Edita Birnkrant, FoA’s NY director, said, “Our experiences protesting the event last year showed a sickening, gun-worshipping culture of adults, teenagers and children who celebrated the violence of mass animal killing.”
On Saturday, Birnkrant was on hand and maintained the FoA’s stance.
She said that when FoA was alerted to the squirrel slam last year after six previous years “under the radar” the organization took action because the event “represented a bigger problem.”
Birnkrant said, “This contest rewards children for killing.” She added that contests such as the Squirrel Slam tend to “draw in young kids” which can be “very psychologically damaging and destructive to society overall.”
For a few hours Birnkrant was joined by about 10 to 12 protesters holding signs advocating non-violent fundraisers and speaking out in defense of squirrels as part of wildlife. Double that amount of people were across the street holding signs in support of the fundraiser, while on another corner a handful of people took the opportunity to picket in opposition to the SAFE Act.
Birnkrant, alluding to the anti-FoA protesters, said, “When hunters as a group feel challenged or attacked they unite together.” FoA, she mentioned, opposed to all hunting, not just such contests as the Squirrel Slam. She noted that legislation has been introduced at the state level to ban the contests. However, that legislation focuses only on land animals.
“We’re opposed to fishing derbies, too … but it would still be a huge improvement to stop these,” she said.
Fran Gaylord, president of the Holley Fire Department, said the fundraiser brings in about $4,000 annually, with the money helping to help offset equipment costs. In response to the FoA protesters, Gaylord said the participants in the Squirrel Slam were not doing anything illegal, nor were they partaking in a promotion of violence.
“There is a season for squirrels,” he stated, noting that squirrel season is currently ongoing. Gaylord also pointed out the state-run fishing derby held off of Lake Ontario and a Big Buck Club hunting contest, also managed by the state.
Participants on Saturday, Gaylord explained, must all be licensed hunters. Also, none of the squirrels that were killed would go to waste as the skins would be used for clothing and the meat would be cooked or sold locally.
As for the “culture of violence” mentioned by some protesters, Gaylord steadfastly disagreed.
“We feel we’re not promoting violence,” he said. “We’re teaching young people the proper way to handle a firearm and how to respect it.” It was also noted that anyone under the age of 16 is not allowed to hunt alone in the state.
Ironically, Gaylord said the FoA protests that started last year drove up the Squirrel Slam participation. Up until last year the annual number of $10 tickets sold averaged around 200. Last year 950 tickets were sold, but this year Gaylord said the HFD had to cap the number at 650. “We realized last year we had too many people, but we still sold out this year with no advertising,” he said.
Some of the anti-FoA protesters said many of the profiles they had seen on various FoA social networking websites were from downstate people. Joe Palumbo, of Brockport, said the way of life in Orleans County and rural New York State is different from the New York City area.
“They don’t understand it,” he said. “I eat what I hunt.”
Palumbo, who owns a gun shop in Albion, brought economics into the picture. “Before the Squirrel Slam every year I do almost double sales,” he said. “I sell double the ammo and double the guns the week before this, and obviously I’m busy during hunting season.”
Holley resident Dave Rotoli added, “A lot of good comes out of hunting ... and the firemen here aren’t advocating breaking the law.”
Rotoli, keying on the FoA ultimate goal to ban all hunting, said doing so would negatively affect the environment.
Holley Fire Chief Pete Hendrickson, Jr., said hunting can teach young people respect, and to try to relate hunting to school shootings - something FoA did in its press release - would be wrong. He said all of the hunters in the Squirrel Slam are licensed, and the youngest participants are those who are being taught how to hunt safely by their parents or grandparents.
Shawnmarie Hendrickson, the chief’s wife, added that she did not see anything wrong with the Slam.
“Squirrels are cute, but they ruin gardens and cause damage,” she said. “They’re destructive rodents that I think need to go away, and with this contest nothing is going to waste.”
Birnkrant, however, took the opposing view.
“Squirrels play an important role in the ecosystem, helping to plant trees and shrubs,” she said. She maintained the FoA’ s stance against the Squirrel Slam and like contests.
Meanwhile, a pair of hunters who participated on Saturday said they enjoyed themselves.
“We like the outdoors and we enjoy the bounty,” said John Zastawrny of Kendall, who went on the hunt with his daughter, Anna Standish, also of Kendall.
“I was taught to respect guns and gun laws,” she said, pointing to her father. He added that one of his lessons was not to kill what would not be brought home.
Still, the anti-Slam sentiment was strong.
“Killing is killing,” said Carol Beaton, North Tonawanda.
“There have to be better, non-violent fundraisers,” she said. “I can see hunting if it provides for your family, but not for contests which are more about the killing. This leaves me disgusted and ashamed to be a part of the human race.”
Birnkrant added, “Maybe everyone in this area is so freaking desensitized to this kind of violence…Where is the morality? Where is the ethics? What are these people teaching their children?
She continued, “The best thing we can do for wildlife is to get out of their way, put your guns down, and go read a book. That’s really what this town needs more than anything from what I can see.
“Does Holley really want to be known for this?” she asked.
When told of her remarks, Gaylord said, “We’re rural up here, and hunting is a way of life.”