Advocate Shares Her Story on Banning Wildlife Killing Contests
On December 18, 2019, wildlife in Massachusetts scored a big win when the Fisheries and Wildlife Board, which oversees our state’s wildlife agency, MassWildlife,[i] passed regulations to end wildlife killing contests in Massachusetts. This victory was achieved after months of testimony, written comments, and grassroots advocacy by Massachusetts residents and animal protection organizations.
Unbeknownst to many Massachusetts residents, these competitions had been held for several years in Granby, Hyannis, and Pittsfield. Participants competed to kill the largest, smallest, or the greatest number of animals for cash and prizes.
Yet in response to overwhelming public opposition at four listening sessions, two public hearings, and over a thousand written and oral comments, MassWildlife has now passed regulations to prohibit killing contests of not just coyotes, but also bobcat, red fox, gray fox, opossum, raccoon, weasel, fisher, mink, river otter, muskrat, beaver, and skunk.
In passing these regulations, among the most comprehensive and forward-thinking in the nation, Massachusetts has assumed a leading role on this issue.
We recently spoke with Carole Dembek, a citizen animal advocate who became an integral part of the successful campaign to end wildlife killing contests in the Commonwealth. Read on to learn about Carole’s experience, how she became involved, what tactics she found to be most effective when making change through a state agency, and her advice for other Massachusetts residents who would like to become more involved in animal advocacy.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you became involved in this effort?
I’ve been involved in a number of animal advocacy efforts over the years. Some of these efforts include the successful greyhound ballot question in 2008, conducting house-to-house search and rescue for companion animals after Hurricane Katrina, and volunteering at the Animal Rescue League in Boston. I am also a licensed wildlife rehabilitator and care for orphaned or injured wildlife until they can be released into the wild. When I heard about the coyote killing contests in Hyannis, and the protests that were occurring on the Cape, I reached out to Elizabeth Brooke at Friends of Cape Wildlife to get more information on the contests and what was being done to end them.
How did the effort evolve from there?
I first talked with Elizabeth in January of 2019. Elizabeth was extremely helpful in bringing me up-to-speed on all the great work that had been done by Cape Cod residents and animal advocacy groups to raise awareness of the contests and get their local officials and state legislators involved. Some of the early efforts had involved considering passing local ordinances or getting state legislators to introduce legislation, but ultimately we were advised that the regulatory process would be the best path to pursue. Right about the time I first talked with Elizabeth, several state legislators had sent a letter to the Commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game, Ron Amidon, to inform him of the public outcry and to request that he hold a public meeting on the Cape so residents could voice their concerns. The Commissioner agreed to hold a meeting within the next couple months. As we waited for the date to be set, I reached out to MassWildlife staff to inquire about the meeting. The staff were very helpful and said that in addition to attending the meeting, we could also submit written comments.
I recognized that this was an opportunity to initiate a letter writing campaign. Early on, there was limited knowledge of these contests outside of the Cape. To be successful, we had to raise awareness across the state and let people know how to contact MassWildlife to voice their opposition to the killing contests.
I reached out to about 10-15 fellow wildlife rehabbers and other friends throughout the state and asked if they’d be interested in helping to end coyote killing contests in Massachusetts. The response was an overwhelming “YES!” I knew how busy everyone was and that I’d have to make it really easy for people to respond. I created several letter templates and mailed 10-20 copies of the letters to this network of friends and asked them to educate their friends, family, coworkers, etc. about killing contests and to ask people to send a letter to MassWildlife. I also included stamped and addressed envelopes. The grassroots response was amazing. One friend brought the letters to her aerobics class, explained what the campaign was about, and asked if anyone wanted to send a letter. Another friend, who is a hair stylist, told all of her colleagues about the contest. They were outraged to hear about the contests and happy that they could just sign a letter to have their voice be heard. Another contact I met through Facebook is a citizen animal advocate and animal control officer on the south shore. She was very committed to ending the contests and found over 200 people to sign and send letters.
What an inspiring example of grassroots activism.
Yes, and within weeks of our letter writing campaign, MassWildlife announced that the first of four public listening sessions would be held on April 4.
Once the date was announced, several citizen advocates on the Cape began to publicize the meeting to ensure a good turnout. They made signs and posted them in local coffee shops and in public places across the Cape. We also reached out to state and national animal advocacy groups to strategize for the meeting. These efforts really paid off as there was a massive turnout at the public listening session—standing room only in a large auditorium.
Also, in preparation for the listening session we connected with the MSPCA, who in turn was connected with several other animal protection organizations. The MSPCA, HSUS, ALDF, and Project Coyote were able to send action alerts to their thousands of supporters, encouraging them to contact MassWildlife in opposition to the contests, and these groups also provided testimony at the hearings and listening sessions.
Ultimately, the letter writing campaign happened in several waves over the course of almost a year: 1) to ask the Department of Fish and Game to set a date for first public meeting; 2) to ask MassWildlife to draft regulations banning wildlife killing contests; and 3) to ask the Fisheries and Wildlife Board to approve these regulations. My network was amazing in their commitment to ending these contests and their ability to tap into their own networks to educate people on the issue and get letters sent to MassWildlife.
In addition to the letter campaign, I wrote several Letters to the Editor (LTEs) and submitted them to local and regional news outlets. I also worked with several friends in other parts of the state to write and submit their own letters to local papers. We wanted to be sure that MassWildlife knew that the public was aware of what was going on, and to continue to raise that awareness. At the end of each LTE we provided the e-mail address for MassWildlife to make it easy for people to get involved. In the end we had about ten letters published in various news outlets across Massachusetts.
What was it like providing oral testimony at a listening session? Were you nervous? If so, what helped you push through that?
I had never attended a listening session or public hearing before so I didn’t know what to expect. I wrote out my comments and brought them with me so I wouldn’t forget what I wanted to say. I also thought it would be important to show the public what these contests are all about so I downloaded a couple graphic photos of dead coyotes from the contest sponsor’s Facebook page and made large poster board pictures. I asked a couple of my rehabber friends to hold up the pictures while I spoke. I’m not a big fan of public speaking but I was very passionate about this issue. Any nerves I may have had disappeared when I heard the hunters speak and heard them defend the killing contests.
What key pieces of advice would you share with other citizen advocates?
- Educate yourself on the issues. It’s important to know the facts so you can be a credible advocate for the animals.
- Always be polite and professional with everyone; you never know who will end up being an ally, or for whom you may become a trusted resource.
- Resist the temptation to engage in negative back-and-forth discussions on social media. It’s not helpful and you can lose a lot of credibility.
- When it comes to Letters to the Editor, don’t worry about necessarily getting into The Globe or other big papers. Local and regional papers make a difference.
- When organic efforts come together like this, it may take some time to figure out who you can work most effectively with and whose tactics you believe are the best approach. You might need to feel out who you connect with the best and go from there. Don’t be discouraged by this; it’s part of the process.
- Use social media to your advantage. When I wanted to know how many coyotes were killed in the Hyannis contest I went on the sponsor’s Facebook page and counted the bodies of the dead coyotes. I also was able to find the names of the hunters and matched them up with the photos. I discovered that the winner of the contest killed 21 coyotes. This piece of information was not known to MassWildlife or the public so I made sure to include it in my testimony at the public listening session.
- Keep your message clear and succinct. Also, when providing testimony, prepare your comments in advance to make sure you hit your key points.
- I was impressed that MassWildlife summarized all of their public comments and in great detail. They counted literally every single email, letter and piece of testimony. We learned from MassWildlife’s presentation on the day of the vote that they received nearly 2,000 comments on the issue, over 90% of which were opposed to the killing contests. Your voice matters!
What’s on deck next for you?
My husband, also a licensed wildlife rehabber, and I are currently overwintering 6 orphaned red squirrels that were too young to be released in the fall. We’ll take care of them all winter and release them in the spring. I’m also helping wildlife rehabbers in Australia as they care for the thousands of animals affected by the bushfires. For example, one home-based rehabber posted on Facebook that she desperately needed fruit to feed the 200 flying foxes she had saved from the fires. I found out where she was located, went online and placed an order for fruit at her local grocery store. A big shipment of apples, grapes, and bananas were delivered to her the next day. That was something I could easily do, and was happy to do, and now they’ve got the food they need. We can all make a difference and it doesn’t take much.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
We’re always looking for more people to become licensed wildlife rehabbers. If anyone is interested in more information, they can visit the Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Massachusetts (WRAM) website at https://www.wraminc.org/.
- Learn more about wildlife killing contests.
- Learn about living humanely with wildlife.
[i] In Massachusetts, the Department of Fish and Game oversees several state agencies, including the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, which is known as MassWildlife. The Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife Board is made up of 7 members appointed by the Governor and is responsible for overseeing MassWildlife.