There's flip side to age discrimination

October 27, 2005|By CANDUS THOMSON

The year: 1764.

The place: A royal apartment in London.

The players: Herb I. Vore, an animal-rights activist, and Leopold and Anna Maria Mozart.

Herb: "Your Wolfie is only 8 years of age. That's too young to be composing. He should be out playing with the other boys and catching disfiguring diseases. He must act like a child and leave the music business to the grown-ups, like Lawrence Welk."

Leo: "But he is the toast of the town. He and his sister have performed for the king of England. He has already written a symphony, two sonatas and three minuets. Does it matter that he is 8 years of age?" (This dialog was approved by Orioles announcers, who talk like this.)

Herb: "Some of those notes he's using are sharp. He could get cut. He'll have plenty of time later to write that adult material."

Leo (sighs): "OK, I'll tell Wolfie to start decomposing."

Unfortunately, there's a fairly large group of people that is having Herb-like thoughts about Sierra Stiles, the Garrett County 8-year-old who shot this season's first black bear, if e-mail and voicemail messages are an accurate indication.

Those folks say they are shocked, shocked that state regulations allowed a girl that young to be in the woods with a hunting rifle, and that she actually used it successfully.

An informal online poll of 259 people by WBAL shows 56 percent favor an age limit.

Never mind that Sierra easily passed classroom and field tests that have stumped some adults. Forget that she demonstrated confidence and smarts and patience and poise beyond her years in the woods with her dad Monday morning.

Nope, Sierra should have been prohibited from participating in a family activity she enjoys because, well, she's too young.

I guess there are those who might have warned Earl and Kutilda Woods not to let their 2-year-old son, Tiger, go on national TV to swing a club with Bob Hope.

Or counseled B.J. and Bo Wie to stop golfing with 9-year-old Michelle when she began beating them.

Or scolded Yo-Yo Ma's parents for giving their 4-year-old tyke an oversized fiddle instead of "Grand Theft Auto" for his Playstation 2.

Be all you can be, kids. Or not.

Truth be told, Sierra's kind of a slacker compared to that Tennessee prodigy, Davy Crockett, who, "kilt him a b'ar when he was only three."

Sadly, young Sierra's accomplishment is about to be twisted into something evil by adults with a bigger agenda.

"A terrible cruelty," is what Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, called it. We'll be lucky if he stops there.

However, having already failed to block bear hunting, Sunday hunting and mute swan eradication, I'd be willing to bet that Markarian and others are already shopping the idea of a minimum age to certain state lawmakers. After all, if you've been unable to stop hunting, the next best thing is to cut off the next generation.

In Maryland, where for every 100 hunters lost, only 89 take their place, it becomes a waiting game. A minimum-age law accelerates the clock.

Attention, Del. Barbara Frush of Prince George's County, your bill is ready for pickup.

It's not like this would be the first attempt by the anti-hunting crowd. Two years ago, it was Norm Phelps, the 64-year-old "spiritual outreach director" for the Fund for Animals, who unsuccessfully lobbied the Department of Natural Resources and the Ehrlich administration to prohibit youth hunting.

Fortunately, the momentum seems to be going in the other direction.

While 20 states have a minimum age of 12 or older, 30 states allow youth hunting after meeting certain requirements, such as completing a hunter safety course and being accompanied by an adult.

(For you Crockett fans, Tennessee, "the greenest state in the land of the free," is in the latter category.)

Three pro-hunting groups - the National Wild Turkey Federation, the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance - have started "Families Afield" to lobby those 20 states to allow parents to decide when their children are old enough to accompany them hunting. Wisconsin and Ohio lawmakers are considering bills to do just that.

According to Families Afield, 21,000 of Maryland's 145,000 hunters are ages 6-15. All of them were required to complete a 10-hour course of classroom instruction, a shoot-don't shoot field exercise and a session on a firing range.

I'm guessing most of WBAL's poll takers didn't know that.

Ask the officers who enforce Maryland's game laws and they'll tell you they see more safety violations committed by older hunters with an accumulated lifetime of bad habits than by freshly minted youth hunters.

A national database that tracks hunting safety confirms that impression. Of the 849 hunting accidents in 2002, hunters 11 and younger accounted for 28 of them, or just 3 percent.

In fact, the most recent fatal accident in Maryland involving a young hunter was caused by an adult. A 10-year-old boy shot himself with a crossbow while in a tree stand. But in that 2003 case, his father didn't take him to the required safety course and gave him faulty equipment.

"We have a mental test and a physical test. Sierra passed both," says Paul Peditto, director of DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Service and father of two. "What's broken?"

Only the record played by the anti-hunting crowd and the lawmakers who listen to it.

Opening day by the numbers

0 Court challenges to stop the season

1 Protester in a bear suit

2 Successful girl hunters

14 Bears with radio collars

42 Hunters with radio collars

60 Birthdays separating the youngest and oldest successful hunters

184 Average bear weight, in pounds

378 Largest bear, in pounds

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