Ray Duckler: On bobcats, a tale of two opinions gives us reason to pause

  • Carolyn Sheehan of Weare signs in for the filming of the final scene of the documentary in front of the State House on March 5. Sheehan has had four to five bobcat sightings during the past 30 years. Courtesy

  • Director of photography and co-director Jonathan Olson (left) films a group of volunteer extras for the final scene of “Protect the Bobcat: A New Hampshire Wildlife Story” documentary in front of the State House on March 5. Courtesy

  • Filming for the final scene of âProtect the Bobcat: A New Hampshire Wildlife Story Documentaryâ took place in front of the State House in Concord on Saturday, March 5, 2016.(ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Courtesy

  • Director of photography and co-director Jonathan Olson (left) films a group of volunteer extras for the final scene of “Protect the Bobcat: A New Hampshire Wildlife Story” documentary in front of the State House on March 5. Courtesy

  • Paul DeBow of Plymouth, president of the NH Trappers Association, poses with a bobcat trap. Courtesy

Sunday, March 27, 2016
The state’s bobcats, about 1,500 of them, have lots of friends these days.

Signed petitions show those who support them outnumber the bobcats themselves, 4-1. There’s a documentary defending their right to live, made by an Oscar-winning screenplay writer whose work includes On Golden Pond. Letters have been written, protesters have protested, legislative galleries have been packed, all in the name of the bobcats’ right to live free and not die.

In other words, the bobcat right now is top cat.

“Biologists say they manage themselves and they should not be managed by man,” said New Hampton filmmaker Brenda Olson. “They’re mostly not killed for their pelts. It’s the most disgusting thing I can think of. It’s so frightening for them to be taken away from their families. You can’t harvest a bobcat. You harvest a crop.”

Stories that connect pain to furry animals often bring out the beast in people. Write a story about abandoned puppies or kittens, and emails fly to the Monitor like a bobcat through the thicket.

This animal, it turns out, is admired by many.

Ever since last fall, when the Fish and Game Commission opened the door to bobcat hunting and trapping for the first time in 26 years, bobcat supporters have been growling.

By a 5-4 margin last month, the commission said bobcat season – December for trapping, January for hunting – can exist, now that the dwindling numbers from 1989 have been bolstered. The Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, though, has the final say, with a vote Friday at the State House that is expected to draw hundreds.

“What it is is, these people are horrified,” said Paul DeBow of Plymouth, president of the NH Trappers Association. “They are animal lovers and they try to depict us as these toothless, bearded men who want to rape and pillage nature. Well, I have a full set of teeth.”

As Roger Burnham, general organizer of the Trappers Association said, “No, I have not seen anything like this before.”

Each side has its talking points, the reasons why their logic makes sense and the other side is just plain wrong.

Personally, I’m an animal lover and in fact have two cats, meaning anything I might say here would be biased. So I did some research, made some calls and let some of the characters in this long-running saga have their say.

A study by the University of New Hampshire and accepted by the Fish and Game Commission puts the number of bobcats at about 1,500, up from 200 in the late 1980s. But try telling that to Lindsay Hamrick, state director of the Humane Society.

“The commission ignored experienced and well-respected biologists and scientists,” Hamrick told me by email, “who questioned the validity of the UNH study and the overall population of bobcats in NH.”

Those against the measure say before a bobcat is killed through the trapping process by a shot to the head, it feels great pain and perhaps tries to gnaw off its limb once its paw gets stuck in a trap. Try telling that to DeBow.

“The bars of the foot traps are made out of smooth rounded metal that will grab and clamp, but it’s not going to cut their foot off,” DeBow said. “It catches them right across the pad and the foot goes numb because they don’t have the same vascularization that we have. Many times we show up and the animal is literally sleeping.”

People like DeBow and Burnham insist that the bobcat has become a nuisance, with Burnham saying, “There are 40 or so road kills each year, and that does not includes those getting killed in other ways. A landowner can shoot one if it’s chasing cats or chicken or ducks. They are causing a problem.”

Try telling that to John Harrigan, a longtime outdoors writer and hunter.

“The bobcat regulates its own population,” Harrigan said. “The word I hate most of all is harvest. It’s morally bankrupt.”

Harrigan adds a tasty nugget to the mix. He grew up hunting and fishing, with a specific philosophy: “I was taught to shoot only what you’re going to eat. I don’t think bobcat would even smell good on the grill. You have to call it what it is: a trophy hunt. This is the antithesis of what hunting is all about to most hunters I know.”

I asked DeBow about Harrigan, who I saw as a hunter with years of experience coming out strongly against hunting and trapping bobcats. DeBow added to the colorful narrative.

“John Harrigan is a lovable guy,” DeBow said. “He loves to write articles about stacking firewood and preparing a frying pan, but I look at him like he’s a weekend warrior. It could be his age. You get older, you get softer. Maybe he’s at the grandfather cuddly age.”

Harrigan is 68.

Yep. It’s getting nasty, folks.

There’s even a conspiracy theory that says Harrigan and others are trying to sabotage the commission, get their own people in, wield more power.

“A lot of it is political,” Burnham said. “Certain people would like to have their own people on the committee.”

Meanwhile, Olson, the filmmaker,  recently shot the end to her 15-minute documentary in front of the State House.  It will be shown in the State House cafeteria at 12:15 p.m. on Tuesday, three days before the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules meets.

“I totally trusted the commission,” Olson said. “I’m not into politics, but now that I learned that this goes on, I’m going to keep my nose in it. You can’t fool around with mother nature.”

The documentary is one sided, propaganda, really, explaining that the bobcat is nothing more than a trophy hunt, and even 50 permits per season, as is proposed, are too many.

Birds chirp, streams flow over rocks, ducks swim and Ernest Thompson, who won an Academy Award for best adaptive screenplay in 1982, lends his support to the still-growing bobcat population.

“I wish they could keep coming back,” Thompson says.

We’ll know more Friday. My suggestion is get to the State House early if you want a seat. Most in attendance no doubt will be bobcat backers.

That includes Vincent Greco of Pembroke, Merrimack County’s Fish and Game commissioner. Greco voted against the measure when this whole thing began in October. Then he felt the public outcry and changed his vote last month.

“It was so drastic compared to the people who were for the season,” Greco said. “I think the people who were opposed to this put more time and effort into it. People have an affection for the little critters.”

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