SNAPPERFEST: Excusing the Abuse of Indiana’s Wildlife

Snapperfest is a competition that takes place at a campground located in Ohio County, Indiana and centers on the repeated mishandling of native snapping turtles. The turtles are taken from their natural habitat to become unwilling participants in a contest where the person who wrings a turtle’s neck the fastest is the winner, and the turtles are inevitably – the losers.  They are hoisted up by only their tails – an action that can irreparably damage a turtle’s vertebra and internal organs. Additional trauma is inflicted on these frightened animals when they are dropped and thrown by contestants. Once the animals are finally positioned on the ground, contestants attempt to violently pull the snapping turtle’s head out from its protective shell and raise the animal up by the neck before a large applauding crowd.

This weekend activity is conducted solely for entertainment purposes, despite the repeated objections by individuals, including Indiana citizens and animal protection organizations that are repulsed by this abusive spectacle. Contrary to repeated assertions by contest organizers and proponents that turtles are not harmed during these competitions, personal reports and videos show otherwise.

All 50 states have passed anti-cruelty statutes, thereby proclaiming that inflicting cruelty on animals is an unacceptable activity wherein criminal sanctions are warranted. Indiana Code Section 35-46-3 states that “A person who knowingly or intentionally beats a vertebrate animal commits cruelty to an animal, a Class A misdemeanor” and that “A person who knowingly or intentionally tortures or mutilates a vertebrate animal commits torturing or mutilating a vertebrate animal, a Class D felony.” In addition, a person who has a vertebrate animal in their custody, and “recklessly, knowingly, or intentionally abandons or neglects the animal commits cruelty to an animal, a Class A misdemeanor.”

As evidenced by eyewitness accounts and video footage, the abusive treatment inflicted on turtles during Snapperfest appears to violate several of these animal cruelty provisions. For instance, animal “neglect” is defined as “restraining an animal in a manner that seriously endangers the animal’s life or health.”  Eyewitnesses have reported seeing contestants beating the turtles on their backs and picking the turtles up, then slamming their bodies down to the ground. As highlighted above and depicted on the video, turtles in Snapperfest are repeatedly mishandled in a manner that seriously harms the animal’s health and endangers the turtle’s life. Pursuant to Indiana Code Section 35-46-3-7,  the violent treatment inflicted on turtles during Snapperfest is a Class A misdemeanor, and if construed as “torture,” a Class D felony.

As is customary with animal cruelty statutes, Indiana’s provides certain exemptions. In fact, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), the agency entrusted with the welfare of native wildlife inside the state’s borders, has repeatedly claimed that the animal cruelty law does not apply to the treatment of turtles at Snapperfest. The agency justifies this position by claiming that the turtles were captured pursuant to an exception in Indiana Code Section 35-46-3-5-(a)(1), which applies to “[f]ishing, hunting, trapping, or other conduct authorized under Section 14-22.”

IDNR personnel, when responding to concerned citizens, stressed that the animal cruelty protections are not applicable because Indiana Code Section 14-22 “provides an exemption for wild animals that are legally taken and possessed.” Linnea Petercheff, IDNR Operations Staff Specialist, attempts to rationalize the agency’s position, despite its obvious flaws, by claiming that this abusive contest is not exempt because it is viewed as hunting, but rather, the “taking and possession of turtles is an activity authorized under Section 14-22.” In response to raised eyebrows, Ms. Petercheff further rationalizes this abusive treatment by claiming that IDNR “does not specify any methods of euthanasia [emphasis added] for turtles that are taken from the wild under a fishing or hunting license in 14-22 or 312 IAC 9.”

This position is unsupported by logic or law. No reasonable interpretation of “euthanasia” by the agency entrusted to protect wildlife could include this treatment of turtles during Snapperfest. Additionally, the statute’s failure in addressing manners of euthanasia gives possessors free rein to inflict whatever trauma they deem acceptable. Despite IDNR’s repeated assertions to the contrary, Indiana Code Section 35-46-3-5-(a)(1) applies exclusively to the actual “take” of an animal and does not provide protection for abusive treatment once the “take” is completed. Based on this illogical misinterpretation, an individual can essentially avoid any cruelty violations by simply trapping an animal prior to the infliction of unspeakable cruelty.

Despite this being an unfounded interpretation of Indiana law, it is the common position taken amongst IDNR personnel. In fact, IDNR personnel were present during the August 2011 Snapperfest event, yet despite the obvious violations of the cruelty code, at no time did agency personnel attempt to intervene or vocalize disapproval of the harm inflicted on these animals. The agency’s failure to act not only condones this egregious behavior, but also encourages the further infliction of cruelty on turtles and every other animal that can be legally hunted or trapped in Indiana.

IDNR’s misinterpretation of Indiana law raises numerous moral and legal questions that are not only problematic on an ethical level, but are opposed to public policy and legislative intent. Exceptions to the animal cruelty statute were intended to protect individuals from the legitimate use of natural wildlife resources, not to provide opportunities for torturing or mistreating animals for entertainment purposes. Explicitly condoning the abusive post-take treatment of animals speaks volumes to IDNR’s inability, or rather unwillingness, to enforce the animal cruelty statute.

This failure to act essentially renders the cruelty code meaningless as any prohibition against neglecting, beating, or torturing an animal is futile if a person simply has to legally capture the animal first. IDNR’s misinterpretation allowing for this cruel treatment of wildlife is not only a blatant violation of the public’s trust and Indiana law, but if left unchallenged, would effectively negate Indiana’s animal cruelty law by leaving the “other conduct authorized” loophole wide open, allowing a frighteningly broad range of abuses of wildlife to occur.

Ignoring the violence inflicted on animals post-take opens the door for a variety of abuses to Indiana wildlife and violates the public’s trust – a trust placed in an agency in which the Director is mandated to “provide for the protection” of wild animal populations and “pursue a program of research and management of wild animals that will serve the best interests of the resources and the people of Indiana.”

In response to IDNR’s erroneous interpretation of Indiana law, The Animal Legal Defense Fund and Best Friends Animal Society submitted a petition for rulemaking (“Petition”) to the Indiana Natural Resource Commission (“Commission”) to correct IDNR’s error and promulgate rules clarifying that the Indiana Code Section 35-46-3-5-(a)(1) exception applies solely to the take, and not the post-take treatment of wild animals—thus, rendering the conduct exhibited at Snapperfest a violation of the cruelty code. Furthermore, the Petition urges the Commission to promulgate rules to clarify that the animal cruelty exemptions in Section 35-46-3 do not pertain to the post-take treatment or possession of animals, regardless of whether an animal was taken pursuant to a lawfully issued license or permit.

Shortly following the filing of the petition, IDNR announced that the camp ground would not be hosting this objectionable competition in 2012. Whether the end of this competition is permanent or not is yet to be determined.