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February 20, 2013

'Squirrel Slam' leaves town up in arms

HOLLEY, N.Y. — An event that went largely unnoticed in this small western New York village for years, drew  a much different response this year when a crowd showed up to protest the 7th annual “Squirrel Slam.”

The yearly Holley Fire Department fundraiser is much like a summertime fishing derby, but with red and gray squirrels instead of carp and catfish as the target. Some saw it as harmless fun,  but others viewed it as a killing contest.

Perhaps spurred by a social media campaign, calls began flooding into  the local fire department. Some simply complained about the activity, others offered veiled threats, organizers said.

While hunters took to the fields and wooded areas not far from Lake Ontario, opponents of the event massed in Holley’s public square last weekend to rail against the contest. Authorities said 28 law enforcement officials from at least five agencies were on hand to maintain peace.

In recent weeks groups like Friends of Animals, Animal Advocates of Western New York and Animal Rights Advocates of Upstate New York had tried to prevent the event from happening.

“This has gone on for too long,” New York Friends of Animals Director Edita Birnkrandt said. “People here were outraged, It’s happening right in their backyard.”

The response didn’t faze the fire department, which proceeded with the event as planned.

“They can call us whatever they want,” Event Chairperson Tina Reed said. “I’m proud of what we have here.”

At $10 each, all of the 1,000 tickets sold out -- 400 more than last year.  The fire department uses proceeds from the Squirrel Slam to purchase equipment not covered under its budget.

“We’ve never had this happen before — it’s a zoo,” Holley Police Chief William Murphy said.

The fury over the event brought out villagers who sat on both sides of the issue, many who said they’ve never noticed the occasion in past years. Bonnie Fleischauer, who lives four blocks from the fire hall, said she thought the postings from her friends were a joke.

“I’ve supported the fire department, they’re a good group of guys ... always helping people,” said Feischauer, an avid animal photographer and former wildlife rehabilitator, who spoke from the main protesting area. “This is so in opposition to what they represent the other 364 days of the year.”

Across the street, supporters of the event said the negative attention had pulled together the small village and the larger hunting community.

One man who watched from an area that later became the base of the pro-event counter-protesters, said,  “I’m not a hunter, but I support the fire department ... (opponents) tried to implicate this as giving guns to kids. That upset me. This is all done to the letter of the law.”

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation regulates hunting for small game animals like squirrels, rabbits and raccoons. In all areas north of New York City, a licensed hunter can take up to six gray, black and fox squirrels from sunrise to sunset each day from Sept. 1 to Feb. 28. Red squirrels are unprotected and can be hunted at any time without limit.

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Details for this stoy were provided by Jim Krencik, a reporter for The Medina (N.Y.) Journal-Register.

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