In hunters' world, free speech is a lame duck

Thursday, March 5, 1998

The Chicago Tribune

Even as the imaginations of many in the Chicago are were captured by recent efforts to save two punctured geese -- one in Tinley Park, the other in Oak Brook, both pierced with arrows fired by sickos -- a man charged criminally with trying to save geese and other birds was sitting in the McHenry County Jail.

By "sickos" I do not mean hunters who go into the wild and, to put food on the table or advance the cause of conservation, stalk and kill living creatures. Taking pleasure from participating in such destruction seems peculiar to me, but not sick.

 

The sickos are those who kill animals just for the joy of killing.

State law gives special protection to hunters, no matter what their motivation. The Hunter Interference Prohibition Act of 1983 makes it a crime to "disturb wild animals with intent to prevent their lawful [killing] of a wild animal ... with intent to dissuade," even when the hunt is rigged to the animals' extreme disadvantage.

State law gives special protection to hunters, no matter what their motivation.

Scare off a mourning dove that someone in a camouflage vest is taking aim at, and you could go to jail. Try to talk him out of hunting and into, say, target shooting, wildlife photography or some other pastime in which the suffering and death of innocent creatures isn't the central event, and you might end up doing hard time like Steve Hindi.

Hindi, 43, has been incarcerated since early last month on a charge stemming from his efforts to scare birds away from the now-closed Woodstock Hunt Club, a 500-acre preserve stocked with farm-raised game birds, as well as facilities to lure in and shoot migrating Canada geese.

"I was a hunter for many years," said Hindi in a telephone interview from the jail. "But that kind of hunting is morally and ethically indefensible. I had to do something."

About a year and a half ago, Hindi, owner of a rivet factory and the found of the Chicago Animal Rights Coalition, began leading a group of protesters who performed various antics and made sundry noises over and around the club to drive off the prey and disturb the predators.

The most serious of the five charges still pending against him after several arrests is a harassment-of-wildlife rap -- punishable by up to a year in jail -- for allegedly piloting his motorized hand glider too close to a flock of geese. It's the equivalent of charging a would-be Samaritan with trespassing because he raced into a burning building to save fire victims, but that's the law for you.

He was jailed four days on charges of interference and harassment in September 1996, then released on his own recognizance. The following month, McHenry County Circuit Judge James Franz slapped a restraining order on the protesters. Shortly thereafter, Hindi, who says he was not fully informed on the details of the order, was arrested again -- this time for bearding hunters with a bullhorn from a spot off hunt club property -- and sentenced to 6 months for contempt of court.

What about freedom of speech? To date, courts have not found 1st Amendment violations in laws that insulate hunters from the sounds and sentiments of protesters. This speaks more the powerful traditions honoring hunting in this country that it does to consistent applications of rights of free expression.

Hindi spent 20 more days behind bards in 1996, was released pending an appeal, then reincarcerated Feb. 4 of this year after the Appellate Court upheld his original contempt conviction. He's now asking for relief on various grounds from the Illinois Supreme Court and awaiting trial on the original harassment charges, on which he will face up to an additional one year of jail time.

One of his supporters, Wilmette-based actress and documentarian Robyn Douglass, said that humane officials have now tracked the arrow-stricken celebrity goose of southwest suburban Tinley Park to a spot in the far northwest suburbs less than a mile from the McHenry County Jail -- a poetic coincidence if true.

Hindi hasn't seen it out the jail windows, but said he has seen other flocks of passing geese. "It makes me feel good," he said. "I think maybe, just maybe, they're ones that are still alive because we warned them."