The photographs are disarming: dozens of coyotes, their fur smeared with blood, strewn across the ground while grown men and sometimes children stand over them, proudly grinning from ear to ear.
This is a familiar scene at wildlife killing contests, a little-known bloodsport rarely glimpsed by the general public.
During these events, participants kill the target species for prizes or bragging rights. At the High Desert Coyote Classic in Pueblo this year, teams paid $100 to enter the coyote contest, with 100% payback for the winner and side pots and prizes for “biggest,” “littlest” and “ugliest dog.”
Cut from the same cloth, coyotes and our furry, four-legged friends share many similar characteristics: intellect, inquisitiveness, friskiness and rich and deep emotional lives.
Coyotes have been spotted playing with dog toys and even with dogs themselves. Coyote skeptics need look no further than the recent viral video of a coyote in a play stance, reared-up, enticing his badger companion to join in the fun.
Coyotes and badgers are also known to hunt small prey together, having discovered that their unique hunting strategies complement one another well.
While Americans spend an estimated $73 billion on their pets, governments and individuals kill roughly one coyote per minute using traps, poisons, aerial gunning and other cruel methods.
Persecuted and misunderstood, coyotes die by the thousands in wildlife killing contests across the country.
In Colorado, coyotes aren’t the only victims of these barbaric events. In prairie dog contests, participants use the animals for target practice. Specialty shots include the “red mist” in which the prairie dog’s body explodes; and the “flipper” whereby the bullet’s impact blasts the prairie dog backwards.
As with coyote contests, countless animals are left injured or orphaned. Once the events are over, participants frequently dump the animals, stacked like cords of wood — out-of-sight, out-of-mind for the general public.
Aside from the senseless waste and complete disregard for life, wildlife killing contests disrupt the equilibrium of ecosystems and ignore the free ecological services wild animals provide.
Coyotes control rodent and rabbit populations, keep the environment clean of carcasses and boost bird diversity. Among other benefits, prairie dogs prevent desertification, sustain the endangered black-footed ferret and cycle nutrients in the soil.
While contest participants make grand claims about ridding society of these “pesky” animals — to protect livestock and increase populations of game species, such as elk and deer — in reality, mass killing of wildlife has the opposite effect.
For example, lethal control breaks up coyote families, allowing more females to breed, and may increase pup survival due to reduced competition for food and habitat.
This disruption in the natural life cycle can increase coyote populations and can lead younger, less experienced coyotes to prey on easier targets, such as sheep and other domesticated animals.
In a policy statement, The Wildlife Society — which represents scientists, educators and other wildlife professionals — explained that “justification for the killing contests is often based on flawed use of science,” noting the false claim that coyote killing contests protect deer populations for hunters, as an example.
Over 70 prominent conservation scientists, including four of Colorado’s own, have issued a statement condemning wildlife killing contests as ecologically destructive and counterproductive to sound wildlife management.
READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.
The public is becoming increasingly intolerant of these spectacles, and state policymakers are taking notice. Since 2014, the National Coalition to End Wildlife Killing Contests and local citizens successfully persuaded policymakers in five states — Arizona, California, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Vermont — to ban hunting contests.
The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission will meet in Aurora on March 18-19 where they may consider a petition to ban wildlife killing contests for fur bearers and small-game species (including coyotes and prairie dogs).
READ: Coyotes figured out how to survive in the city. Can urban Coloradans learn to coexist?
Prior to that commission meeting, Colorado’s First Gentleman, Marlon Reis, will present opening remarks at a free screening of Project Coyote’s award-winning film, “KILLING GAMES ~ Wildlife In The Crosshairs.” Project Coyote will partner with the Institute for Human-Animal Connection, the Sturm College of Law and DU Media, Film & Journalism Studies for this event, the second in DU’s new Human-Animal Coexistence Catalyst Series. The Colorado Environmental Film Festival will feature “KILLING GAMES“ in Golden on Feb. 22.
While killing contest advertisements once peppered social media with gruesome photos as if to taunt the public, contest hosts are increasingly organizing their events underground.
When outlawing the contests, the Arizona Game & Fish Commission, among other wildlife agencies, noted “public outrage with these events has the potential to threaten hunting[.]”
Not only are wildlife killing contests cruel and hazardous to the integrity of ecosystems, but they send the wrong message to Colorado’s youth — that hunting is just about cash, prizes and bragging rights, rather than sportsmanship, responsible stewardship and respect for the wildlife who are held in the public trust.
Furthermore, violence and oppression directed at other animals frequently, and throughout history, have gone hand in hand with the oppression and violence directed at women, people of color and other marginalized groups.
Oppression and violence toward animals is inextricably connected to domination and abusive social power structures. When we become accustomed to “killing games” of other animals, we become less likely to respond to the distress and harm of vulnerable human communities.
The mass killing of our wildlife for cash and prizes does not reflect who we are as a state and should be banned immediately.
Camilla H. Fox is founder and executive director of Project Coyote and director and producer of KILLING GAMES ~ Wildlife in the Crosshairs. Katie Stennes is programs and communications manager for Project Coyote. Marc Bekoff is Project Coyote Science Advisory Board member and professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Justin Marceau is Brooks Institute Faculty Research Scholar and professor of law, University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Marlon Reis is First Gentleman of Colorado. Philip Tedeschi is executive director of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection.