For the last six years, the volunteer fire department of rural Holley, N.Y., has raised money for new equipment by sponsoring a hunting contest to see who could shoot the fattest squirrel. Other than some concerns that cheaters might pack squirrels with rocks before weigh-in, the event has always gone off without a hitch.
This year, the squirrels have gone viral, and the social media campaign to stop Holley’s seventh annual “Squirrel Slam” on Saturday has turned into full-fledged cultural warfare between Americans who feed squirrels and Americans who serve them in pot pies with sherried mushrooms.
Passions are running so high that the FBI had to be called in to investigate death threats against “the whole village board, the police, the firefighters” and virtually every official in the one-square-mile village, according to Police Chief William Murphy, who noted that he neither hunts nor eats squirrels himself.
In the pro-squirrel camp are animal activists, wildlife rehabilitators, a state senator, gun opponents, a New Age minister in Texas who heals wounded squirrels through Reiki massage, and a small subculture of pet lovers eager to spread the word about the unique joys of “homesquirreling.”
Through Facebook postings, online petitions and up to 3,000 emails a day to Holley officials, the squirrel advocates have tried to persuade the fire department to cancel the slam, which offers cash prizes of up to $200 to two-person teams whose five-squirrel limit weighs the most. (“No internal packing or soaking of squirrels for added weight!!!” the rules state.)
Of particular ire to hunt opponents is a new category this year offering a special prize to participants under the age of 14.
In addition to cash awards for dead squirrels, the slam will raffle off rifles, including a semiautomatic .22-caliber assault-style gun similar to one Connecticut police found in the arsenal of the Sandy Hook school shooter – a fact that has further incensed the squirrel advocates.
“BREEDING SERIAL KILLERS,” railed one commenter on the Facebook page dedicated to saving Holley’s doomed rodents.
“Children as young as 12 years old are being encouraged to participate and kill with guns. When I saw that, I just felt our culture is going the wrong direction,” explained Julie Gallagher, who teaches Reiki massage and sends healing energy through pecans to sick or wounded squirrels around the lake where she hikes in Austin.
“I noticed that when I would give an injured squirrel Reiki, the squirrel would heal much more quickly than humans,” Gallagher blogged on her squirrelplanet.org website. “I realized that the mind of a squirrel is free and without concerns. Therefore there are no obstacles to their experiencing complete healing.”
Gallagher said that nasty messages and threats from pro-gun types and squirrel haters prompted her to temporarily dismantle her website after she launched an online petition to stop the Holley hunt.
She was among three squirrel campaigners to collect more than 35,000 signatures begging Holley not to “slam” its squirrels. The squeak heard ‘round the world was echoed by state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Queens) at an Albany press conference he held Monday in defense of the squirrels.
“What the heck is going on in Holley?” Avella demanded. “Picture this little squirrel going to get a nut, probably coming up to the individual, trying to be friendly, and then the kid pulls out a gun and shoots him!”
In Santa Cruz, a woman launched a crowd-funding campaign on indiegogo.com to raise $5,000 to offer the fire department if they would call off the squirrel slam. The New York City-based Friends of Animals promised that its grateful supporters would donate “far more” than what the hunt is now expected to rake in from its $10 registration fees. More than 1,000 tickets –triple the norm – have been sold so far, the police chief said Thursday, with hunters heading in from Buffalo, Rochester and even Pennsylvania.
In a terse statement read at the monthly planning meeting Monday, Holley Mayor John W. Kenney Jr. said that, since squirrel-hunting is legal in New York and the fire department’s fund-raising efforts had the full support of village trustees, the matter is not up for debate.
Friends of Animals state director Edita Birnkrant said she was unable to get through to the mayor or fire chief to make her matching-funds offer.
“The town clerk told me, ‘You don’t understand, every official in this village is 100% behind this event. Our values, our way of life, our culture, is about hunting.’
“I’m pretty sure if we had offered $100,000, they wouldn’t have canceled it.”