Appeals Court Hears Case Accusing Officials of Animal Cruelty for Bow-Hunting Program

Park system conducts organized hunts to combat deer overpopulation


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MONTGOMERY COUNTY PARKS

Several weeks into the Montgomery Parks bow-hunting season, appellate judges in Annapolis on Thursday heard attorneys argue about whether this method of culling deer is animal cruelty.

Bethesda resident Eilene Cohhn has spent about two years challenging a deer-management policy that she believes is inhumane and unnecessary. Her representative, a staff attorney with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, argues that it’s also unlawful.

“The (Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission) has the right to kill deer. They don’t have the right to make them suffer before they die, if that is avoidable,” attorney Jenni James said, adding that using sharpshooters is preferable.

But an attorney for the park system contended that prohibitions against mistreating animals deal primarily with harming pets, not killing deer.

“I would submit that the animal cruelty code really has no application to hunting at all,” MNCPPC attorney William Dickerson said.

James rebutted that she doesn’t believe the archery program counts as “hunting,” in the legal sense. While most people think of hunting as a sporting activity done for fun or for food, MNCPPC established the archery program to help control the deer population, she said. Therefore, it shouldn’t qualify for the hunting exemption to the state’s animal cruelty law, James argued.

The three judges who listened to the roughly hour-long debate pressed James to explain what distinguishes Montgomery County’s bow hunting from similar lawful activities across the state.

“Why can’t they, on their land, authorize the same thing that could be done on Fort Frederick State Park?” Judge Donald Beachley asked, referring to a park west of Hagerstown.

James said the park system’s purpose—to thin the deer herds—and ability to choose other options set this situation apart.

Beachley also referenced a state bear hunting program and asked whether that, too, violates the animal cruelty laws because its objective is population management.

The PETA attorney responded that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has greater authority to run hunting programs than MNCPPC.

The judges spent less time questioning Dickerson, although they did ask him whether the MNCPPC hunt follows DNR guidelines. Dickerson said it did.

They also pushed back on Dickerson’s suggestion that the animal protection laws don’t have any bearing on hunting activities; Judge Andrea Leahy noted that the statute requires hunters to use the “most humane method reasonably available.”

Montgomery Parks in 2015 added archery to its deer management program, which also includes shotgun hunting and Park Police sharpshooting. Through the program, groups of insured archery hunters take aim at deer in parts of Great Seneca Stream Valley Park in Germantown and Watts Branch Stream Valley Park in Potomac from September through January, according to its website.

For about 20 years, MNCPPC has been hunting deer as a strategy for controlling an overpopulation problem that can damage wild habitats and increase the likelihood of car crashes.

It decided to explore bow hunting in parks near communities or other areas where shooting a firearm might be unsafe.

Cohhn said her home backs up to Stratton Local Park in Bethesda, and she often has deer meandering through her yard.

“I’ve gone out at night, and they’re on my porch. They’re the babies,” she said. “They’re beautiful animals.”

Cohhn said she wishes people could coexist with deer, but if officials find it necessary to curb the population, sharpshooting is a more humane approach than archery.

The likelihood of maiming a deer instead of killing it rises with archery, compared to shooting, James said. Deer shot with an arrow tend to die more slowly, she added.

Parks officials report that in its first two seasons, the archery pilot program wounding rate was 7 percent and 3 percent, an indication of how many deer were shot but not immediately killed.

Cohhn filed her lawsuit about two years ago in Montgomery County Circuit Court. After a judge last year ruled against Cohhn and PETA, she appealed her case to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals for consideration.

James said she doesn’t know when to expect the appeals court judges to issue a decision in the case.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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