Beware! Pictured here are your adversaries—the official enemies of the state. Don’t be distracted by the pretty colors, lovely feathers, or furry critters. These are vermin, and citizens are urged to kill them at every opportunity. The poster, by the way, represents only the top nine targets from a group of notorious killers, presented here alphabetically: bobcat, Cooper’s hawk, crow, English sparrow, goshawk, gray fox, great gray owl, great horned owl, house rat, “hunting” house cat, lynx, porcupine, red fox, red squirrel, sharp-shinned hawk, snowy owl, starling, weasel, and woodchuck. Kingfishers and a number of snakes were later added, and osprey were fair game as well.
While some of the phrases used above—“official enemies … kill them at every opportunity … new job requirement”—might sound like exaggerations, they were, in fact, official conservation policies of New York State a century ago.
It was all part of a Conservation Commission campaign in the early 1900s to eradicate undesirables (their word, not mine) from the food chain. The above-named animals were deemed undesirable in the realms of farming and hunting. They were just doing what comes natural—killing to eat, or gathering food—but those foods included barnyard animals, garden and field crops, and the vaguely defined “sporting” game that hunters treasured, particularly grouse, pheasant, and rabbits. Lest you think eradicate is too strong a word, the actual order in one state pamphlet was, “Destroy the Vermin.”
How successful was the campaign? It depends on how one defines success. As a wildlife management program, it was a failure. But as a branding effort, it was off the charts, even altering the long-accepted definition of a word.
The term vermin once referred to cockroaches, fleas, lice, and other creatures who themselves were associated with the words filthy, dirty, and disgusting. Look up vermin today and you’ll find a second, supplemental description: “birds and mammals that prey on game.” Webster’s Dictionary adds a third meaning: “animals that at a particular time and place compete (as for food) with humans or domestic animals.”
While we don’t see lice as competing with us for food, our state officials once designated kingfishers, ospreys, hawks, and the entire official Black List as the equal of lice. By association, those critters were likewise dirty, filthy, and disgusting, which made it not just OK, but imperative that they be destroyed … and the public bought it. Now that’s branding.
When this program began in the early 1900s, state officials cited “the vital importance of unstinting warfare upon ‘vermin’ if a plentiful supply of game and other useful wild life is to continue.”
In support of that dogma, an official Black List of animals was released. Further, 100 NYS Game Protectors were given official vermin lists and brand-new Winchester rifles, “which they are instructed to carry with them at all times when in the field, and to use for the reduction of vermin whenever opportunity offers. Every protector is required to report to the commission the number and kind of vermin which he kills each month.” It became a contest of sorts: conservation officers literally competed to top each month’s kill list.
It was a start, but 100 officers across the state were hardly capable of killing in numbers that would diminish wildlife populations. Help was needed, so an army-in-waiting was enlisted. In 1919, the reverse side of every hunting license featured the state slogan, “Enlist in the Campaign Against Vermin,” along with these instructions: “Shoot all you can of foxes, cats hunting protected birds, harmful hawks, red squirrels, and other enemies of useful wild life. You will benefit both the game and your own sport.”
In an official booklet, the state also proclaimed, “Every sportsman, every farmer, and everybody else who believes in the conservation of useful birds and animals must enlist in the campaign and do his share. Only by such active cooperation, year in and year out, can a definite check be put upon these harmful creatures, and beneficial results to desirable wild life be effected.”
Did it work? Well, the state had 125 game protectors, but about 25 were assigned to urban areas. The remaining 100 each had to cover an estimated 400 square miles. Those same men were also busy enforcing wildlife laws, taking perps to court, issuing permits, and performing a host of other duties.
Still, the time was found to comply with the new orders. In 1921, they bagged nearly 2,000 crows, 500 cats, and 400 red squirrels. The crow total was admittedly low. The reason? There was “no way to determine the number that died from eating poisoned corn thrown out for them near rookeries” or other areas where they gathered in numbers. No totals were given for the animals taken by private citizens.
The “competition of sorts” among game protectors became reality through fish & game clubs across the state. Some were actually founded for the specific purpose of complying with the state’s plea for help. Many clubs held contests, applying point systems to each animal on the list and awarding prizes to the winners. “Contest” was in some cases a misnomer: in many cases, it was a year-round process punctuated by periodic awards.
Each conservation commissioner urged the public to partake. In 1927, Llewellyn Legge said of the Black List animals, “I it should be the object of every sportsman, when afield, to kill any of the vermin he sees…. Game clubs should organize vermin days and see that their territory is free from enemies of our game birds and our insectivorous birds.”
Surprisingly, the so-called “animal preserves” owned by hunting clubs and wealthy individuals came under attack for effectively providing safe havens for vermin. Game Protector E. T. Townsend said, “There is no shooting on a refuge, and vermin is always smart enough to be the first to recognize this fact.”
In a 10-month period ending in January 1930, one six-county area (out of more than 50 upstate counties) reported the following vermin dispatched: 21 weasels, 11 goshawks, 1 rattlesnake, 1 red fox, 106 hawks, 26 great horned owls, 26 snapping turtles, 181 predatory cats (“hunting” house cats), 188 water snakes, 36 black snakes, 170 red squirrels, 68 milk snakes, 43 crows, 167 purple grackles, 694 starlings, 406 English sparrows, 1 hedgehog, 146 woodchucks, 80 kingfishers, and 5 house rats.
By then, officials had begun blanketing the branding plan with newfound sensitivity. Rather than flooding the media with kill totals, the state said results were attained by “protectors who are instructed to humanely destroy such animals when found afield.” No one explained the difference … being shot by a rifle or humanely destroyed by one. Again, great job of branding.
Six months later, a six-county area reported the kill for June: 144 crows, 140 purple grackles, 135 starlings, 144 woodchucks, 93 water snakes, 65 English sparrows, 31 snapping turtles, 28 black snakes, 27 red squirrels, 17 cats caught hunting, 14 kingfishers, 12 milk snakes, 5 Cooper hawks, 4 sharp-shinned hawks, 3 great horned owls, and 3 weasels.
Another sampling, this one from 150 game protectors in 1936: 588 cats, 2577 crows, 266 red squirrels, 826 starlings, 482 snakes, 214 hawks, 209 porcupines, 234 sparrows, 77 owls, 169 rats, 476 woodchucks, 113 dogs, 46 kingfishers, 56 weasels, 193 turtles, 24 foxes, and 6 hedgehogs.
This practice went on in some form for decades. With the body counts coming only from 100 to 150 on-staff game protectors, it’s staggering to contemplate the numbers generated by game clubs and thousands of individual hunters and farmers, all engaging in vermin elimination year-round.
Some animals were fortunate to avoid the Black List. Two main factors were addressed: diet as determined during autopsies, and the value of an animal’s fur. Birds of prey who mainly fed on other harmful birds or on insects were placed on the official White List as beneficial to nature and man.
One problem with that: the average person can hardly discern one hawk from another, yet shooters were simply given a list and told to fire away. They could also shoot ospreys, but it wasn’t required. No one explained how shooters would recognize the five hawks on the protected White List.
Other critters like skunk, mink, and raccoon caused damaged, but the dollar value of that damage was more than offset by the market value of their fur, which kept them off the Black List. They couldn’t be killed as vermin, but were instead preserved for harvest by hunters and trappers.
Things have changed, but with the occasional excitement over snowy owl appearances, it seems hard to believe they were vermin for so long, and had no protection until 1960. As former members of the Black List, they were once sanctioned target practice, of less value than clay pigeons.
Today, instead of simply arming the troops and declaring war, we’ve used science to study animal behavior and arrive at different solutions. The result: “nuisance animal” laws, perhaps not a perfect system (after all, what is?), but quite an improvement.