News: They Got Game 

Legislators back an arcane bill against Internet hunting while a ban on animal torture languishes.

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Getting animal-welfare bills passed in Utah’s Legislature has been like pulling teeth. Even a summer special session called by the governor wasn’t enough to ensure passage of a law against animal torture.

But one Utah lawmaker may have found a bill that animal lovers will like and gun-loving Utah lawmakers can vote for: a ban on computer-assisted remote hunting, also known as Internet hunting. That is, shooting at live animals with a remote-controlled gun via the Web. Click your mouse to fire.

The bill, prefiled for the 2008 legislative session, is sponsored by Sen. Michael Waddoups, R-West Jordan. The man isn’t exactly a vegan. He brought the nation’s only law specifically allowing guns on college campuses. But, Waddoups says, the idea of Internet hunting “just seems so unsportsmanlike to me.”

Waddoups says an outraged constituent brought the practice to his attention. “He was just appalled to think anybody could do that, hunting elk via computer, hunting bear from your living room,” says Waddoups. He had never heard of computer hunting but checked it out with Utah’s Department of Natural Resources, and he decided to sponsor a ban.

Waddoups’ proposal is catching on with colleagues who make a point of carrying concealed weapons everywhere and in a legislature where animal-welfare bills barely squeak out of committees. He’s already got an endorsement from Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, the co-chairman of the Legislature’s sportsmen’s caucus and opponent of Henry’s Law, the proposal to make intentional torture of house pets a felony that was tabled during the special session.

“I’m a huge hunting supporter, but I’m not in favor of Internet hunting. That’s ridiculous,” Christensen says. “I think it does an injustice to hunting all the way around. It gives legs to go after real hunting. Go get yourself a videogame if you want to practice without leaving the confines of the living room. It gives hunting a bad name.”

So it does. But it also doesn’t exist.

The only occurrence of Internet hunting anyone can cite is a single shot fired in Texas three years ago. John Lockwood set up on his small ranch near San Antonio with the idea of selling a hunting experience to the disabled, but Texas regulators stopped the business before it attracted a paying customer. One man tested Lockwood’s Webcam attached to a remote controlled .30-caliber rifle to shoot and kill a wild boar. Live-Shot briefly became a remote-target shooting service. It’s now offline.

But, by then, Internet hunting had become a headline cause with momentum for the Humane Society of the United States, which still lambastes “pay-per-view slaughter” on its Website. The National Assembly of Sportsmen’s Caucuses, a gun-loving state lawmakers group, urged quick action. The campaign became one of the Humane Society’s quickest, with 34 states passing Internet hunting bans since 2005. That compares to the 20 years it took the society to get as many states to pass felony animal cruelty bills, like Utah’s proposed Henry’s Law.

Gene Baierschmidt, executive director of the Humane Society of Utah, says the society knew online hunting wasn’t happening when it asked Waddoups to sponsor the ban. But legislation banning the practice gives the society a rare opportunity to link arms with rural Utah lawmakers. The idea is so awful, “we don’t see anybody opposed to this,” he says, noting that the National Rifle Association and safari-hunting groups lobbied to ban Internet hunting elsewhere.

But it’s not simply a feel-good bill. If hunting via computer were ever to start up again, Baierschmidt says, Utah, with its remote rural spaces, would be a likely spot. The Western United States would seem an inviting place for such practices, with Utah, Arizona and Nevada having no ban on the books.

Waddoups also knows no Internet hunting operations have started in Utah but says he wants to “nip it in the bud” before they do. Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources says laws on state books requiring hunters to retrieve their kill may already prevent the practice, though it isn’t specifically banned.

After the cold shoulder given the animal-torture bill this summer, the computer-hunting ban, “is just something we can work together with people on,” says Baierschmidt. “Let’s try and put something positive up there everybody can agree on.”

It looks like a winner.

Sen. Jon Greiner, R-Ogden—a chief opponent of a failed 2007 proposal that would have let judges include pets in protective orders—says he’s inclined to support the ban. “I thought the whole idea was to be a sportsman. If you shoot it, you clean it and eat it,” he says.

Meanwhile, Henry’s Law still languishes, leaving Utah as one of seven states without a felony animal-cruelty law. Named for a pet dog in Utah that was placed in an oven and lost an eye to a leaf blower, the bill has failed three years running. It is backed by some Republicans, including Waddoups, but ran into opposition from some ranching lawmakers who fear practices such as cattle branding could be attacked. Some lawmakers, including Christensen, have worried publicly about granting animals humanlike rights.

Utah gun rights lobbyist Clark Aposhian—who last summer helped stage an event where four lawmakers unholstered concealed weapons before a no-guns-allowed oil refinery tour—says he will give Waddoups’ bill serious consideration. But he wonders what’s the point of banning Internet hunting.

“My main premise is, if it’s not a problem, let’s not fix it,” says Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council. “I just don’t see a huge pattern, or a pattern of any kind, of this type of hunting. Then again, maybe there is this cottage industry starting up that I don’t know about.

“I know Senator Waddoups. He’s not taken to fanatical things or fleeting causes. I imagine his legislation may be based in something appropriate.”

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