RICHMOND — There are few places Kevin Baker would rather spend time than in his shop crafting knives, bows and arrows from turkey feathers, rattlesnake skin and other discarded bits of animal carcasses. Wearing a worn leather hat and steady gaze, he can make fire with two sticks in 60 seconds flat.
But when Baker tried to profit from his work at a hunting show a few years ago, he ran into a modern-day roadblock: a Virginia state law prohibiting the sale of wild animal parts. He left that day with a citation — and a determination to change the regulations.
“Sometimes, I’ll get a bee in my bonnet and it’s hard for me to let go,” said Baker, who seems slightly out of place living in suburban Richmond. “If I can figure out how to make a fly swatter out of a coyote’s tongue, I want to be able to sell it.”
Baker is part of a growing movement of primitive technologists — people who want to reconnect with the past using materials found in the wild.
The trend is playing out in pop culture with a proliferation of survival shows from the Discovery Channel’s “Naked and Afraid” and “Running Wild With Bear Grylls” on NBC, to the Paleo diet, which is based on foods eaten by early humans. Even “The Hunger Games” series perpetuates a back-to-nature aesthetic with its archer heroine, practitioners say.
But this fascination with the prehistoric creates a conundrum for Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, which must find a way to protect animals from becoming commodities prized by poachers without squashing modern man’s desire to celebrate the outdoors.
This year, the problem has attracted the attention of the General Assembly, where three bills seek to strike the right balance.
Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William) has a bill that would direct the state to adopt regulations allowing hunters and trappers to sell products made from legally killed wildlife — “except when the manufacturing or sale of such products is detrimental to public health or sound wildlife management.”
“We really do need to bring some rational policy to the forefront on this,” he said. “It seems to me, if you have shot a turkey and you want to use the feathers to make some authentic period pieces or other devices from antiquity, that’s perfectly fine.”
A similar bill filed by Virginia Sen. Bryce E. Reeves (R-Spotylvania) would limit the rules to the sale of products from fur-bearing animals — think bobcat, beaver, otter, fox and coyote — and allow the sale of implements made from parts of wild birds and other animals.
Reeves filed the bill at the request of the Virginia Trappers Association, whose members have seen the fur market bottom out in Russia and China and are looking for ways to profit from animal parts they might otherwise throw away.
“It’s been a problem for a long time, said VTA President Art Foltz.
And Del. G. Manoli Loupassi (R-Richmond) filed a bill specific to Baker’s plight. It’s already legal to make and sell turkey callers from turkey carcasses; his bill would legalize the sale of tools made from turkey toes and feathers. A spokesman for the state declined to comment on the bills while they are under review.
“Wildlife is held in public trust and it’s always been a concern where people could profit from the sale of wildlife,” said Lee Walker of the Game and Inland Fisheries Department. In the end, he said, it comes down to poaching.
The illegal killing of bears for their gallbladders, which officials say are sought after in some Asian cultures for their medicinal properties, has garnered much attention over the years in Virginia, with federal sting operations and mass prosecutions. People will also poach deer, as well as ginseng, wild onions and shelf fungus.
“It absolutely is a problem. We have a huge problem with poaching here in the park,” said Bridget Bohnet, deputy chief ranger at Shenandoah National Park. “If it has value to it, they will poach it.”
Hunting is not permitted in the federally protected park, but Bohnet said any loosening of state restrictions could increase demand in certain markets and encourage poachers whereever they have access to nature.
David Steger, president of the Virginia Bear Hunters Association, also worried about turning animals into commodities.
“I don’t think we would benefit and I don’t think our wildlife would benefit if we start commercializing the parts,” he said. “I don’t think you could put a price on our wildlife. It’s for everyone to enjoy.”
Baker, the 47-year-old Bon Air craftsman and father of three, said he started making bows and arrows by hand out of frustration with the commercialization of archery. Everywhere he looked, he said, he saw pricey gear on display, such as night-vision goggles and heat sensors, and was eager to return to what drew him to the sport as a child.
“Hunting used to be a tradition and a family thing; now, it’s just become a money-making profiteering scam as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “The idea is to enjoy nature, enjoy what you’re pursuing and not get caught up in this competition.”
Today, he’s preoccupied with the minutia of the animal world — “Did you know deer sinew is stronger than steel?” he asks — and flint knapping, the art of shaping stone into tools.
That kind of lifestyle makes perfect sense to William Schindler III, a professor of prehistoric and experimental archaeology at Washington College, in Chestertown on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
His research aims to uncover lost knowledge by making tools from start to finish. Plus, he said, there is something romantic about using natural materials the way humans did 200,000 years ago.
It’s not unusual for laws like Virginia’s to thwart primitive technologists, he said. But Schindler, a proponent of what he calls nose-to-tail eating, said other states take a different view, and hunters can be fined if they don’t use a certain amount of their catch for food.
“What if we turned it on its head?” he said. “Not allowing people to make use of the whole animal is a real shame.”