13 Unlucky Animals That Are Killed for Fun

Wildlife killing contests are still legal throughout much of the United States

By Sam Schipani

June 23, 2018

Coyote victim of a killing contest

Coyote victim of a wildlife killing contest | Photo courtesy projectcoyote.org

Every year, thousands of animals are killed for fun (and often, cash prizes) in wildlife killing contests. Participants at these events are given free rein to kill as many animals as possible of a single species in a fixed period of time—or, as is the case in many “varmint” killing contests, several species. These events are legal throughout most of the United States, and sometimes held on public lands. In some places, state wildlife agencies even support wildlife killing contests under the guise of managing species, although this contradicts the latest science.

“They don’t serve any wildlife management objective other than just going out and killing,” says Jill Fritz, director of wildlife protection at the Humane Society of the United States. Fritz emphasizes that there is a clear difference between killing contests and ethical sporthunting, which follows principles like fair chase and using what you kill. The animals targeted in killing contests are mostly classified as nongame species. That means they can be killed in unchecked numbers, using almost any method imaginable. Participants in killing contests often utilize unsporting practices such as using predator-calling devices that imitate the sound of a distressed animal in order to lure targets out in the open for an easy shot. (The companies that make such devices often serve as corporate sponsors for the killing contests.) Whereas hunters are required to have permits and report the number of animals they kill, wildlife killing contests are largely unregulated.

“Killing contests are symptomatic of a bigger problem,” says Camilla Fox, executive director of Project Coyote. “State agencies are supposed to be the stewards of our wildlife. Wildlife is held in the public trust for all Americans, and yet we have this complete abuse.”

Legislators in some states have begun passing laws to stop such practices. California became the first state to ban prizes for wildlife killing contests in 2014, and Colorado soon followed suit with its own restrictions on prizes and take for small game. As wildlife advocates and online commenters increasingly protest publicly organized killing contests in states without such protections, enthusiasts increasingly organize themselves through private social media groups and word-of-mouth to avoid scrutiny (though publications like Varminter online magazine still exist for unabashed enthusiasts).

“The people that hold these contests know that it looks bad, so they go to great lengths to hide this from the general public,” says Michael Kobliska, vice president of Showing Animals Respect & Kindness (SHARK), an organization that documents events involving animal cruelty. “Seeing animals thrown away like trash is a very offensive image to a lot of people. It’s slaughter for the sake of slaughter.”

Here is a list of 13 unlucky animals that are still killed in wildlife killing contests across the country.



Coyote killing contests are likely the most pervasive sort of animal roundups. At least 42 states have year-round open seasons on coyotes, and since they are not a protected species, they can be killed in unlimited quantities. Couple this with a nasty reputation inherited from ranchers—who fear coyote attacks on livestock—and a little bad blood can turn into a bloodbath. While many other killing contests are organized through underground Facebook groups and word-of-mouth, coyote contests are often advertised openly online on sites like Coyote Contest and Call-In the Country. Some states—Georgia, South Carolina, and Utah are examples—even have state-sanctioned coyote bounties under the guise of “predator control.” There is some good news, though: Vermont recently banned coyote killing contests, and some legislators in New Mexico have sought to do the same.


In western New York, there’s a whole event—the  annual Hunting WNY Fox Bowl—dedicated to killing foxes. More often, though, foxes are lumped in with coyotes in sweeping “varmint” killing contests. Foxes are sometimes considered inferior catches because they are smaller, which often means that they are killed in greater quantities to accumulate more numbers or weight for the final tallies. The results are not only gruesome but also ecologically damaging. Removing carnivores from ecosystems in such quantities can lead to a “catastrophic cascade effect within that ecosystem and can reduce biodiversity and ultimately reduce the health and vitality of that area,” says Fox from Project Coyote.


Bobcats are considered the cream of the crop in many  predator hunting competitions. Among the piles of dead coyotes and foxes at such events, the occasional bobcat is thrown into the mix, often earning a higher point value. In 2015, Mother Jones reported on the West Texas Big Bobcat Contest, where the team that brings in the heaviest bobcat wins the grand prize (teams must also kill either five gray foxes or five coyotes—no mixing of the two—to qualify for the grand prize). That year, $76,000 in prize money was at stake; a team that bagged a 32-pound bobcat went home with more than $31,000.


When European settlers colonized North America, they saw large carnivores as a threat to civilization as colonists began hunting species for game and expanding agriculture. These fears manifested in laws that were enacted to extirpate predators from the continent, like a 1630 Massachusetts Bay Colony law that put a bounty on dead wolves. Today, a fear of wolves lives on. When wolves were delisted as endangered species in certain portions of their range, the management of their populations was transferred to the states, many of which opened trophy hunting and trapping seasons on the species; such bounties on wolves often include pup carcasses. Meanwhile, wolves are often added to the list of targets for other predator killing contests (though not always successfully). In 2017, the Bureau of Land Management settled a lawsuit with environmental groups in Idaho requiring the agency to inform the public whenever the agency receives an application for a predator killing contest. But the group Idaho for Wildlife, which hosted the killing contest that started the lawsuit, saw the decision as a win; the group’s executive director said that even though the contest had been put on hold for years after participants weren’t able to successfully kill any wolves, they hope to bring the contest back (though they may shift their target to avoid attracting “wolf nuts”).


Because woodchucks have adapted so well to living alongside humans and the woodland edge habitats we create through suburbanization, they are often considered a nuisance. They burrow under decks and outbuildings and gorge themselves on flowers, fruits, and vegetables in gardens across the eastern and midwestern United States. But woodchucks serve an important role as soil engineers and seed dispersers; besides, wantonly eradicating a large number of woodchucks eventually leads to more population booms. Woodchuck killing contests are also cruel: Springtime hunts leave babies orphaned, and wounded woodchucks are often left to suffer. Hunting WNY boasts that its annual woodchuck “derby” (sponsored by D&H Transport and Savage Arms) is “one of New York’s largest,” with over 100 participants every year. Currently, there are no protections for woodchucks under the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.


In Idaho, yellow-bellied marmots (known locally as “rock chucks”) are popular killing contest targets. The 2018 Idaho Rock Chuck Derby was hosted in Castleford, Idaho, last May with a bevy of local sponsors, as well as a beer garden, food, and live music. The Hannah Bates Memorial Rock Chuck Derby in Bliss, Idaho, held in honor of a local 20-year-old woman who died of cancer in 2008, raises as much as $300,000 every year to support school athletic programs, local nonprofits, and children’s cancer support groups. The Facebook group “Rockchuck derby [sic]” keeps track of events held throughout the state for those who want to participate.

Prairie Dogs

Even though some prairie dogs are considered species of special concern, prairie dog hunting is legal and unfettered (without limits on the season for these nongame animals, hunting pregnant or nursing prairie dogs is fair game) in most of the states where prairie dogs live. Prairie dog burrows and holes are a nuisance to ranchers and farmers, so gun shops throughout the Midwest, Mountain West, and Southwest hold prairie dog killing contests as promotions. In 2013, a gun shop in New Mexico publicly advertised a prairie dog killing contest: The hunter that brought in the “most tails”—high-powered rifles usually blast the little rodents to smithereens, leaving only the tails—had their choice of a shotgun or a pair of semi-automatic rifles.


Squirrels, unlike many of the other animals catalogued here, are considered a small game animal in many states, so “squirrel slams” usually take place at the end of squirrel hunting season. While there are limits on the number of squirrels that can be killed in one day, pregnant squirrels are considered especially attractive targets to win the weigh-off. Protesters have been drawn to the annual Hazzard County Squirrel Slam in upstate New York, which serves as a fundraiser for the county’s fire department, but a lawsuit challenging the legality of the event was dismissed in 2017. Still, the New York State Assembly is considering a law that would ban “any contest, competition, tournament, or derby where the objective of such contest or competition is to take wildlife.”


Gun clubs across the northeastern United States are known to hold “crow downs” in the early spring. Besides the fact that crows play an important role as scavengers in these ecosystems, the birds have spectacular memories and can pass down trauma to later generations. Crow shoots are legal if they are within the bird’s hunting season, but they are increasingly going underground as the public responds to the wanton murder of murders. This March, a local hunting club in central Vermont canceled a crow shoot after a social media firestorm against the business that organized the event. In response, crow hunting enthusiasts on the website Crow Busters reminded each other on message boards to keep a low profile for crow killing contests; one commenter wrote, “You just have to be smarter than the anti's [sic] today, don't advertise what you are doing.”


Their epithet as “rats with wings” have made pigeons a killing contest target in some places. Pennsylvania likely hosts the most pigeon killing contests. In 2016, the state had at least 25 pigeon shoots; whereas across the rest of the country, there were only about five. Proponents of such events claim that killing contests are an effective way to manage pigeon populations, but pigeons are sometimes brought in for the events to ensure that there are enough birds to satisfy the bloodlust. “They capture pigeons in New York City and ship them to other states,” says Kobliska from SHARK, who has been tracking and recording pigeon shoots for years. “It’s hard to claim that there are too many, and then on the other hand you have to ship them in. But people don’t really question it.” The questioning is beginning, though, especially for contests held publically. Senator Jim Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican, used to hold an annual pigeon slaughter fundraiser, but he put an end to the practice last year. Last spring, the Alabama Forestry Association held a state-sanctioned pigeon slaughter; after a public outcry resulting from SHARK’s disturbing footage of the affair, it was cancelled. 


Rattlesnake roundups are less contests than pageants of extreme cruelty, as “hunters” are paid by weight and are awarded cash prizes for bringing in the most and biggest snakes. Many people—ranchers especially, who worry that snakebites threaten their livestock and families—believe that the only good snake is a dead snake. But such fears are misguided: The last USDA report on cattle deaths attribute none to rattlesnake bites, and the CDC estimates that only five people are killed by venomous snakes in the United States every year. In 2016, the festival took in a record haul of 24,262 pounds of rattlesnakes; in 2017, organizers capped that number at 6,500 pounds.


As if sharks didn’t have enough to worry about with commercial fishing, shark killing tournaments are grisly spectacles that reward participants with trophies and cash prizes for hooking, bleeding, gaffing, and suffocating sharks. Jaws-inspired fear fuels these contests, but some events try to justify the slaughter by saying that only large sharks are targeted and this helps shark populations grow. SHARK’s 2017 undercover investigation of a New Jersey shark tournament showed that small sharks are killed anyway. Sharks of all sizes are essential species in ocean ecosystems. As apex predators, they help keep the food web in balance, and since sharks are slow to reproduce, eliminating mature sharks can throw ocean ecosystems out of whack.

Cownose rays

When cownose rays migrate to the Chesapeake Bay to give birth, they are met with a nasty surprise. Pregnant rays are shot (often with bowfishing equipment, as the contests are funded by bowfishing manufacturers trying to popularize the sport) and ripped from the water, where they are sometimes beaten to death with baseball bats. As the rays die and their fetuses are expelled, the unborn rays are shoved back inside the dead mothers in order to increase the total weight of their kills. The contest’s proponents claim the rays eat the oysters essential to the Chesapeake Bay economy, but according to Mike Kobliska at SHARK, the science says the exact opposite. “They help the ecosystem in many ways,” he explains. “These are such gentle animals; they are not hurting anyone.” SHARK released an investigation of a 2015 contest that successfully persuaded the Maryland legislature to enact a two-year ban on cownose ray killing contests. The legislation is set to expire in July 2019.

Correction: This article has been amended to reflect the fact that there are currently no rattlesnake roundups in New Mexico. In addition, events taking place in Pennsylvania are not wildlife-killing contests; snakes collected for those events are returned to where they were captured after the festival ends.