The owner of a Sag Harbor hunting preserve, a facility that has been raising mallard ducks and pheasant as game birds since 1940, stepped into a crossfire of protests during last week’s Southampton Town Board meeting, when nearly a dozen residents of Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor attacked him for the farm’s practices.
The consensus among protestors was that the Spring Farm Hunting Preserve in Sag Harbor, owned and operated by David Schellinger, is nothing more than a shooting gallery because the birds raised there have little chance to evade hunters. Many voiced the opinion that raising birds only to be released as targets was not a genuine sport, such as hunting birds in the wild, and others charged that such a facility promotes animal cruelty.
In an interview this week, Mr. Schellinger explained that those opposed to hunting have been trying to shut down his business for years. He said that those attending last week’s town meeting were there to protest the pending opening of a pet store in Hampton Bays, but decided to target his business as well. “They were telling everyone about it, so they could get as many people to show up as possible,” Mr. Schellinger said. “A friend told me about it, so I showed up as well.”
Town Supervisor Linda Kabot defended hunting as part of the culture and tradition of the East End and said that Spring Farm was not the only such preserve in the area. She noted that she was born and raised in Westhampton, on Old Country Road, and that coming across wild pheasant, quail and turkeys was common. Mr. Schellinger, who took to the podium after the protesters, said his preserve attracted hunters from all over the world, not just Long Island, including business leaders, town officials and professionals of all stripes, including priests and ministers.
But for the protesters, these explanations did not fly.
Don Mader of Sag Harbor said he counted 37 bird carcasses on April 2 while hiking with his dog along the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike, which abuts Spring Farm. Alice Simmons of Bridgehampton said she travels often along the highway and that many times she has seen disoriented birds flying into traffic or crossing the road. Ms. Simmons said she has witnessed near accidents as cars swerve to miss the birds. Ms. Simmons was also critical of the fact that she has seen pheasants with blinders over their eyes.
Zelda Penzel, president of People for the End of Animal Cruelty, or PEACE, called hunting on Spring Farm the “sport of cowards,” and criticized Ms. Kabot for justifying the hunts there as tradition.
Mr. Schellinger, defending his nearly seven-decade-old family business, said claims of animal cruelty were wrong and that his birds were healthy and well cared for. He declined to say how many birds are raised each year at his facility, or how many are used during a typical hunt. Mr. Schellinger also would not say how many hunts are held at his preserve during the season, which runs from September 1 through April 15.
What takes place on Spring Farm, he added, is not “canned” hunting, as some, including Ms. Penzel, have alleged. Mr. Schellinger explained that canned hunting provides no escape for prey, with shooting going on in a fenced-in area. His birds could either fly away or escape into the natural landscape of the farm, he said.
Mr. Schellinger also noted at last week’s meeting that he was well within his rights to raise the birds and conduct the hunts—a position backed up by Ms. Kabot and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Aphrodite Montalvo, a spokeswoman for the DEC’s regional office in Stony Brook, said in an interview that Spring Farm is a licensed facility and that no complaints are on file against it.
“The New York State DEC issues licenses to individuals who meet certain minimum criteria as outlined in Environmental Conservation Law,” Ms. Montalvo said. “These individuals must apply for special licenses prior to establishing a hunting preserve and are responsible for following all state and federal mandated regulations.”
In 2001, the Town of Southampton purchased the development rights to the 125-acre farm for $6.74 million, according to Mary Wilson, the manager of the town’s Community Preservation Fund. The acquisition of rights prevents the land from being developed, though Mr. Schellinger still retains ownership to it. Ms. Kabot was quick to explain this to the residents who spoke out against the farm, many of whom believed that the preserve was owned and maintained by the town. Ms. Kabot also said that those development rights allowed for the continuation of the working farm, which includes the harvesting of birds for hunting.
In a follow-up interview, Ms. Kabot referred to the Schellingers as pillars of the community and said she did not subscribe to the views expressed against the hunting preserve at last week’s meeting. “I think it was extremely distasteful that some people chose to target the Schellingers in order to promote an agenda against canned hunting,” Ms. Kabot said, “a practice which doesn’t occur on their property.”
Assistant Town Attorney Joe Burke said that the DEC, not the town, regulates hunting on the property and that Mr. Schellinger held a state license to operate as a game preserve. Under this particular DEC license, the hunting season runs from September 1 though April 15 and there is no bag limit on birds.
Craig Kessler, the regional director of Ducks Unlimited on Long Island, who has hunted for most of his 59 years, both in the wild and on Spring Farm, said blinders are put on pheasants to keep them from fighting with one another and that they are removed before the birds are released for hunts. An experienced hunter, Mr. Kessler said hunting the birds on Spring Farm is not as difficult as in the wild, but was still an important part of the sporting world and helps to conserve the tradition of hunting on Long Island.
Ms. Kabot said that, until the protesters showed up at Town Hall last week, she had not heard “one peep” about car accidents on the turnpike due to errant pheasants or ducks, and that the traffic concerns expressed to her regarding the turnpike have been about blocked driveways, limited sight visibility from adjoining streets, U-turns and truck stop issues. “I’ve heard concerns about deer,” Ms. Kabot said, “not ducks or pheasants.”
While acknowledging that some birds are likely to fly off his property and that hikers could come across dead ones, Mr. Schellinger explained that hawks, owls, raccoons and foxes, the numbers of which have increased due to a decline in trapping, kill many of his birds. He also stated that a growing population of varmints is the reason why there are no longer native grouse, woodcock and quail on Long Island.
Virginia Frati, who runs the Wildlife Rescue Center of the Hamptons in Hampton Bays, said she has taken in wounded birds that have escaped from Spring Farm. There was a possibility of disease being spread from wild birds to birds raised on the farm, she said. Mr. Schellinger said these concerns could apply to the entire East End and that it was unfair to single out his farm.
But for Town Councilwoman Anna Throne-Holst, what is most troubling is the potential environmental hazard posed by the large number of ducks that allegedly congregate on the farm’s pond. Ms. Throne-Holst said she was concerned about bacteria and diseases, and that she would like to have an inspection of the grounds to ensure that no such dangers exist.
“I understand that hunting is legal and that this is a state-licensed preserve,” Ms. Throne-Holst said. “But I also understand that if there are health or environmental issues, or safety issues, or issues of animal cruelty, then it is the town’s responsibility to look into that.”
Mr. Schellinger said this week that he had no problem with the town inspecting his property and that the claims that there were “more ducks than water” on his pond were false.
Accompanied at last week’s meeting by his wife, Mary, Mr. Schellinger told Town Board members that he could return with hundreds of supporters at their next meeting. “The real reason behind all of this is to eventually outlaw hunting altogether,” Mr. Schellinger said.
Not everyone who addressed the Town Board last week blasted Mr. Schellinger’s business. Antonia Salm, whose family also operates a hunting preserve in North Sea, told protesters that before they criticize the treatment of the birds on Spring Farm, they should think twice about eating chicken or turkeys. “These animals are treated less humanely than the birds on Spring Farm,” she said.
Mr. Kessler said all the nature and wildlife refuges on Long Island were at one time hunting preserves and that hunters were the pioneers of land preservation. “What I’d like to know,” Mr. Kessler said, “is whether all these ‘green’ people and activists would prefer to have a hunting preserve on Spring Farm, or a strip mall or subdivision?”