Man-eats-squirrel story brings out all the nuts

August 18, 1995|By MIKE ROYKO

Someone recently sent me a copy of a publication called the American Family Association Journal. It contained one of the most unbelievable stories I have ever read. See if you agree: "Jake Landon, a 42-year-old mechanic, is facing multiple counts of aggravated cruelty to animals as a result of his 21-day fight for survival when lost in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York.

"Last April, Landon's pickup skidded on a muddy road and slid into a ravine, where he lay unconscious for possibly two days. He apparently struck his head on the windshield and awoke with no recollection of who and where he was. Dragging a severely injured right foot, he wandered about for the next three weeks, huddling at night in shelters made of pine boughs, surviving on fish caught with a pointed stick and squirrels he trapped then killed with the stick.

"On the 21st day of his ordeal, Landon stumbled into a road, where he collapsed. Two men, now thought to be escapees from a prison, indicated the direction of the nearest settlement. Landon finally reached civilization.

"Landon's highly publicized story caught the attention of Humans for the Sensitive Treatment of Animals. The animal-rights advocacy group pressed the State of New York to bring charges of extreme cruelty to animals with special circumstances against him, specifying the known deaths of at least 10 squirrels and indeterminate number of fish.

"Each count of the Class A felony carries a mandatory sentence of 9 years without parole.

"One argument the state is expected to raise is that the number of animals Landon killed was unnecessarily large, owing to the fact that by moving about he elevated his caloric requirements. Had he conserved his energy and waited for rescuers to find him, he would not have needed more than one small fish and a few berries each day.

"Landon also faces a third-degree charge of failure to wear a seat belt and 21 federal charges of setting fires at unapproved sites on state lands."

At the bottom was a line saying the story was reprinted from the Center for the Study of Popular Culture.

Are you shocked? Many people were when they read the story. Angry citizens phoned New York's state environmental agency to protest the persecution of poor Mr. Landon. Reporters called, asking where they could find Landon to interview him.

It was debated on radio talk shows. Even Rush Limbaugh mentioned it. Which tells us something about how little confidence many Americans have in governmental agencies.

They'll believe anything is possible, including this wacky story.

Yes, as many of you surely recognized, it was a hoax.

Sounding a bit sheepish, Rusty Benson, associate editor of the American Family Association Journal, said: "The story originated a newsletter called Heterodoxy. Someone sent us a copy. It was satire, but nothing on the page indicated that it was satire.

"Sadly enough, we didn't check it out. We got caught on that one."

Bruce Donaldson of Heterodoxy, a monthly newsletter published the Center for the Study of Popular Culture in Los Angeles, said:

"That's from our back page, which is always satirical. The satirical page is to show how crazy this world can get. There are no disclaimers. The regular readers of Heterodoxy know they are satirical pieces.

"We did a thing about an airport shutting down because there were too many seagulls on the runway and the animal-rights groups wouldn't let them get rid of the birds.

"We did another about a girl who couldn't go topless to her senior prom.

"We write about silly things, but they are so plausible that some people believe them.

"The Jake Landon squirrel-eating thing, Rush Limbaugh talked about it. He made a comment that it was probably out of a liberal rag. But it turns out we're a very conservative publication."

And at the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, a spokesman said: "Yes, we had a lot of calls from regular people and from reporters who wanted to know how the case turned out.

"But the whole thing was ridiculous. If someone walked out of the woods after 21 days of being lost and eating squirrels, we wouldn't bring charges against him.

"How can people believe something like that?"

How? Maybe I can explain how.

Recently, a story went around about an artist who makes Indian headdresses. She used feathers she found on the ground, including an eagle feather she picked up at a zoo.

One of the headdresses was used as a gift to Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Federal wildlife officials heard about it. Hillary's gift headdress was confiscated. And the woman who made it landed in federal court, where she was convicted of violating the laws against possession of protected bird parts.

That's right. If you pick up a feather in a zoo or in your own back yard, you can end up as a convicted felon. And that isn't a hoax.

C7 So don't take any chances. And never eat squirrels.

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