About 300 people from both sides of the animal-rights issue gathered in the pre-dawn chill yesterday at McKee Beshers Wildlife Management Area in western Montgomery County to mark the start of the annual bowhunting deer season. Lined up on either side of Route 190, the opposing sides heckled each other for four hours over the merits of hunting, wearing leather, eating meat and using animals for medical research.
Maryland Natural Resources Police arrested 10 animal-rights activists for violating the state's hunter harassment law, which prohibits interference with a legal hunt. Police made the arrests after hunters said they were being harassed by activists who walked beside them talking quietly and rustling leaves to warn away deer. The 10 activists were given citations and released.
The demonstration and counter-demonstration signaled an escalation of the battle over the propriety of killing animals for sport or research. Animal-rights activists have taken the offensive, removing cats, dogs and monkeys from laboratories and disrupting hunts. But sportsmen said they will hold more actions of their own in the future.
"It's a basic human rights issue, a matter of protecting the natural world," said animal-rights supporter Chrissie Hynde, a singer with the rock band The Pretenders.
Hunter Russell Melanson, a painter from Ellicott City, saw it differently. "I take a lot of satisfaction from feeding my family by my own hand. We aren't an aggressive people. We want to be left alone and do our own thing."
After yesterday's actions, both hunters and animal-rights activists claimed victory. For hunters, some wearing business suits to bolster their image, it was the first time in Maryland that they came out en masse to protect their right to hunt.
"The anti-hunters try to portray us as being rednecks and blood-thirsty people," said Russell A. Nichols, spokesman for the Maryland Bowhunters Society. "What we are trying to show by being there in suits is that many of us are professionals, have families . . . we are the average type of American people."
Animal-rights activists "have been getting the press coverage for the last year," said Nichols, of Hanover, an office manager for the federal government. "We wanted to get our message out that America supports hunting, fishing and trapping."
The activists, some mocking the hunters by wearing camouflage clothing and arrow tips as jewelry, said they won the day by keeping hunters out of the woods and away from deer by forcing them to picket.
"We've got 150 hunters out of the woods so they aren't killing animals today. It's a 100 percent victory," said Heidi A. Prescott, a member of Fund for Animals who went to jail for 15 days earlier this summer rather than pay a $110 fine for interfering with a hunt.
Along the two fronts and in the deep woods it was pure political theater.
Prescott, wearing camouflage-colored pants, T-shirt, vest and hat, "infiltrated" the hunters' side of the line and waved a sign that read, "We Want Deer Dead, We Want Their Heads." Down the line, Nichols attempted to deliver a five-page speech by yelling through a bull-horn but was drowned out as both sides shouted insults at each other.
As the sun rose, the animal-rights activists brought out a television set powered by a pickup truck to show a video of a hog being shot by an arrow. Hunters rushed over to block the view.
Meanwhile, other activists, shadowed by police and reporters, headed into the woods to find hunters. Several times, as the police moved in to warn activists against interfering, the hunters slipped off.
Other hunters led the activists through swamps and cornfields to tire them. Wayne Pelton, of Laurel, did this for about 15 minutes, then quietly unfolded a poncho, lay down and pulled his hat over his eyes. Undeterred, the activists pulled out snacks and waited.
But two hunters who arrived early decided to leave after talking to activists. Their departure turned out to be a partial victory though. The men said they would hunt that day, but only on private property.