Killing deer for twisted thrill on rise
Harrisburg — Brian Witherite sees his share of poaching.
As a wildlife conservation officer for the Pennsylvania Game Commission in southern Somerset County, along the Maryland and West Virginia borders, he gets criminals from three states. Usually, they act similarly, though.
They shoot deer, then they take parts of them: antlers, backstraps, something.
Not this time.
Recently, Witherite was called to investigate a case of three deer being shot, a doe and a fawn in one field, another doe in another. All were killed with a high-powered rifle.
The poachers knew that; in one field, they actually drove into the clover, driving over the fawn and driving up to the doe, stopping to get out and look at it, before circling back out of the field.
They never touched the deer.
“I haven’t come across that,” Witherite said. “Everything was just left. It was just killing something to kill it. That’s a shame.”
Such activity – referred to as “thrill killing” – is becoming increasingly common across the state, though.
“That’s one of the biggest trend changes we’ve seen in the last decade, a lot more incidents of thrill killing, multiple animals being killed for basically no purpose other than to kill them,” said Rich Palmer, director of the commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Protection.
“We’ve had cases in all regions of the state.”
In some instances it’s been one or two deer shot at a time and left to rot. In others, it’s been 50 or more deer killed for no reason over a period of several weeks, Palmer said.
There seems to be no single motivation behind the activity, and no single definition of a thrill-kill poacher.
“Some of it is that it just seems to be something to do,” said Dan Sitler, a wildlife conservation officer in Washington County who’s investigated at least a half dozen thrill kills over the last few years.
“You talk to some of these people when you catch them and they don’t really have a solid reason for doing it other than it was something to do.”
Thrill-kill poachers tend to be a little younger than average – less than 40 – so that may be an issue, Palmer said.
“With the younger ones in particular, it’s sort of the challenge of doing something illegal and not getting caught, with the added thrill of doing something illegal with firearms and live targets,” Palmer added.
Some are much younger, said Rod Burns, a wildlife conservation officer in Armstrong County who, like Witherite, dealt with all manners of poachers when he was in Greene County. That might be an issue, too.
“I suspect some of this might be kids, ones who shoot a deer or two or three and can’t take them home because their parents are waiting,” he said.
It seems clear that thrill-kill poachers do have one thing in common, though: they’re unpopular even amongst their own kind.
There may be a few – a very, very few – poachers who shoot deer because they are hungry, said Burns. More shoot big bucks illegally for bragging rights or to win things like big-buck pools, while some shoot deer to sell or trade for illegal drugs, he said.
Many have long, varied, sometimes even violent, criminal histories.
“You see a lot of felons, and people who probably should be felons, or who are working on it,” he said.
Even those people look askance at thrill killers, he said.
“A poacher is a poacher. But the ones who shoot deer and let them lay, that’s bad stuff. Even other poachers don’t like that,” Sitler agreed.
To combat the problem, the commission has begun targeting poachers and thrill killers with large-scale, organized task forces. One was done on a statewide level using conservation officers, deputies, Fish & Boat Commission officers, state forest rangers and state police, including with air power, last fall.
Smaller, regional task forces were worked as well. More of both will follow, Palmer said.
He’s hoping stiffer penalties will help, too. Whereas once the penalty for shooting a deer illegally was comparable to a parking ticket, it can now bring a fine of $1,500; shooting five or more in a single episode is a felony that carries fines of up to $15,000 and 36 months in jail, he added.
“Eighteen months ago, you could have killed every deer in Pennsylvania and never done a day in jail. That’s not the case now,” Palmer said.
Sportsmen have increasingly been lending a watchful eye, too. Calls to the commission’s tip line topped 500 last year, more than twice the number received a few years ago, and tips have been coming into the regional offices, as well, Palmer said.
All calls are anonymous and can lead to rewards, though many turn them down, Palmer said.
That vigilance is especially needed at this time of year, when the sale of hunting licenses, cooling nights and bucks shedding their velvet all combine to increase poaching activity, Palmer said.
Burns encouraged sportsmen to call. “Any call can lead to evidence or help establish a pattern or give us the tip we need,” Burns agreed. “We might already be working an area and that tip is what gives us the last bit of information we need, or it might start an investigation.”
Witherite is looking for help with this most recent thrill kill.
“I’m hoping we can catch a break somewhere along the way here,” he said. “For this stuff to be happening is a real shame. It’s a total disregard for the resource.”