By Jim Krencik
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — HOLLEY — A fire department fundraiser that has largely gone unnoticed for six years — even within limits of the Village of Holley, just east of Albion — was a rowdy affair Saturday.
The “Hazzard County Squirrel Slam” drew a record-number of tickets sold and a large crowd of protesting animal advocates, hunters and bemused villagers outside of the Holley Hotel.
The Squirrel Slam operates much like a summertime fishing derby, but with red and gray squirrels instead of carp and catfish as the target. Participating hunters paid $10 to compete for prizes for bringing in the largest squirrel or heaviest group of no more than five squirrels, and a spot at a dinner and gun raffle.
All 1,000 tickets sold out, 400 more than last year, a major boost for the fire department, which uses proceeds from the Squirrel Slam to purchase equipment not covered under its budget. Although some tickets were purchased by non-hunters, hundreds turned up at judging time carrying squirrels through the crowd.
Event Chairperson Tina Reed said the local response was widely positive.
“We’ve had a lot of support ... in our community this is what people do,” Reed, a longtime member of the fire department’s board, said.
While hunters took to the fields and wooded areas outside of the village, opponents of the event massed in Holley’s public square to rail against what they decried as a killing contest.
“Cash and guns for dead squirrels,” New York Friends of Animals Director Edita Birnkrandt called out, with “Shame on Holley, New York,” coming from her compatriots.
In recent weeks groups like Friends of Animals, Animal Advocates of Western New York and Animal Rights Advocates of Upstate New York had tried to prevent the event from happening. A group even offered to hold an fundraising drive if it was cancelled. The proposal wasn’t accepted by the village, but it spawned a deluge of attention on social media and condemnation from across the country.
“This has gone on for too long,” Birnkrandt said. “People here were outraged, It’s happening in right in their backyard.”
The response didn’t faze the fire department, which proceeded with the event as planned.
“They can call us whatever they want,” Reed said. “I’m proud of what we have here.”
Holley Police Chief William Murphy said the hundreds of calls received by the village from event opponents included promises of peaceful protest from some and threats of violence from others.
“We’ve never had this happen before — it’s a zoo,” Murphy said while officers cycled through the police department’s office.
While the threats are under investigation, the crowds required the 28 law enforcement officials — police officers from Holley and Albion were joined by State Troopers, Orleans County Sheriff’s officials and auxiliaries, and Environmental Conservation Police — to keep the crowds from crossing the line. Only one protester was arrested in the first hours of the event — a harassment charge following a shout of threatened violence.
Everyone had their say in terms alternating between sincere and severe, but the protest/counter-protest was more often festive than furious.
By the end of the day a quadrant of high-school aged attendees treated the event like a homecoming game, heckling and cheering the charges launched from megaphones on either side of the street. Clarence Moyer set off a roar of shouts, cheers and boos when he rode through the demonstrations with one of his squirrels held aloft from the passenger seat window of a pickup truck.
Moyer, 15, has participated in the Squirrel Slam for four years and won the prize for heaviest squirrel last year. He thought the reaction to the event was unnecessary.
“I think this was overrated,” said Moyer, who hunted in the 60 acres around his Hulberton home with his dad, friends Rob and Casey and girlfriend Chloe.
Many of the disagreements were made in conversational tones. Chris Durham, a wildlife rehabilitator from New York City, and a group of hunters talked for several minutes about the impacts of wildlife conservation early in the afternoon.
“This is how I give back,” said Durham, who raises squirrels orphaned after falling from trees and releases them back to the wild. “This is something I believe in. For a police department, fire department or business to (hold an event like this) ... I think of them as being more compassionate than that. I want to think we’re farther along.”
The fury over the event brought out villagers who sat on both sides of the issue, many who said they’ve never noticed the occasion in past years. Bonnie Fleischauer, who lives four blocks from the fire hall, said she thought the postings from her friends were a joke. She later lobbied with Mayor John Kenney and fire department officials to stop the event.
“I’ve supported the fire department, they’re a good group of guys ... always helping people,” Feischauer, an avid animal photographer and former wildlife rehabilitator, said from the main protesting area. “This is so in opposition to what they represent the other 364 days of the year.”
Across the street, supporters of the event said the negative attention had pulled together the small village and the larger hunting community to support the fire department from attacks launched from far outside Orleans County.
“I’ve lived her for 13 years, but I hadn’t heard of it until two weeks ago,” Steve G., who watched from an area that later became the base of the pro-event counter-protesters. “I’m not a hunter, but I support the fire department ... (opponents) tried to implicate this as giving guns to kids. That upset me. This is all done to the letter of the law.”
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation regulates hunting for small game animals like squirrels, rabbits and raccoons. In all areas north of New York City, a licensed hunter can take up to six gray, black and fox squirrels from sunrise to sunset each day from Sept. 1 to Feb. 28. Red squirrels are unprotected and can be hunted at any time without limit.Contact reporter Jim Krencik at 585-798-1400, ext. 6327.