On the afternoon of October 19, 2013, James Rodgers took a stroll through Myles Standish State Forest, a swampy area of protected land that lies about five miles south of Plymouth, Massachusetts. It was a perfect day for a little ground recon. When Rodgers stopped to look at the topo map on his iPhone, the screen showed the concentric whorls, geographic cowlicks, elevation, and sink of the surrounding forest of mixed oak, red pine, spruce: a good range for the quadcopter.
What he was looking for was flight suitability. Whereas fixed wings need room for takeoff, quadcopters require thin ground cover for ease of negotiation. The higher elevation of this little hill, which he had designated Bravo One, was good for both. You could see the full glory of the park, with meadows, little ponds, and a view just over the tips of the trees. Transmission towers gleamed in the distance. Bravo One had a few landing options, some decent camouflage for the operatives, and great ground-control opportunities for the drone pilot.
Rodgers also thought that the infrared on the fixed wing would work well here. “Crazy sight lines,” he said. “A nice sweep.” Good angle of attack. “Bravo One rocks.”
Myles Standish, the patron saint of soldiers of fortune, probably would have approved of drones. As a military adviser to the Pilgrims and, by extension, to Massasoit, the sachem of the Wampanoag tribe, who made the compassionate but ultimately disastrous choice not to exterminate the Pilgrims in the winter of 1620, Standish had employed spies as part of his successful campaign to drive off their mutual enemy, the Narragansett, a tribe with a penchant for spooky psyops, such as delivering a bundle of arrows gift-wrapped in snakeskin to the colony.
Four centuries later, in the forest named for Standish, the main thing that Rodgers and his drones would be looking for, on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, was illegal behavior. “Illegal” could mean the use of crossbows (only legal for the physically disabled), drinking while hunting, laying bait, or wounding deer and then failing to track them down and put them out of their misery. Rodgers was not a hundred percent sure that last one was illegal, but he thought that it should be.
He stopped to take a picture of an empty pack of Marlboros. “Littering. Great. That is illegal.” Every time he saw a shotgun shell on the ground, he stooped to contemplate its overwhelming cylindrical emptiness.
A helicopter hovered overhead. It was uncertain whether the helicopter belonged to a TV news station or, perhaps, the Plymouth County Correctional Facility, the nearby maximum-security prison. Either way, Rodgers had a feeling that it was observing his scrutiny. The prison — where a number of celebrity inmates were incarcerated, including Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, and Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia — was just one more logistical complication Rodgers had to factor in before Monday morning. Prison officials had lately expressed anxiety about contraband being smuggled into facilities via drone drop.
There were other concerns, as well. A month earlier, a recreational R.C.-helicopter enthusiast had accidentally decapitated himself. Aerial photographs of the scene — undoubtedly taken from a real helicopter — showed two still objects in the grass, covered by clean white sheets. There was a larger, rectangular sheet and, about three feet away, a smaller square, like a dropped handkerchief, that presumably concealed the head. After Metacomet, the son of Massasoit, was hunted down by the colonists, they displayed his head, much less discreetly, on a pike in the town square of Plymouth. Around the turn of the eighteenth century somebody filched the rotted jawbone.
When Rodgers heard a gunshot, he stopped to listen with a devastated expression. The senseless killing of unsuspecting herbivores filled him with rage.
“Deer hunting is nothing more than cross-species bullying to the extreme,” he said. If the deer “agreed” to go along with the sport for the entertainment of the hunter, then it might be different, but clearly this was not a consensual activity.
He couldn’t wait to get “an eye in the sky” to put the killers on notice. At Dick’s Sporting Goods, where Rodgers gathered intel on the best local spots to hunt, a clerk told him that his dad had once gotten sucked down into a marsh full of snakes, in nearby Hockomock Swamp, so that might be something to keep in mind. That and the ticks are wicked evil. The clerk also told him stories of satanic worship, child sacrifice, haunted this and paranormal that. Rodgers was not especially concerned about the satanism, but he was worried about snakes and ticks. He loved animals, but everyone has their limit.
The sun emerged from behind a cloud. Copper needles on the path caught fire and the pines turned glossy.
Rodgers trudged through scrub oak and invasive bush clover in his vegan boots, his hunter-orange baseball cap, his polyester bowling shirt, and his wispy birch-blond beard. Every time he came to another item of litter, he stopped, pointed to the offending trash, and said, “See what I mean?” Or mumbled to himself, “The amount of beer cans . . . ”
Rodgers had only been working with PETA for six months, but he’d rapidly educated himself to be the best drone commander he could be. Two months earlier, he’d traveled from his home, on Vancouver Island, to Washington, D.C., for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International convention, the drone industry’s foremost lollapalooza. There he shopped elbow to elbow with NSA contractors and military brass in summer attire.
He was especially impressed by one vendor, Falcon Unmanned, which had used drones to accelerate rescue efforts for lost hikers by crowdsourcing shared video footage. Rodgers thought this strategy could enable animal-rights enthusiasts to collectively spy on hunters.
“The crowdsourcing element,” Rodgers said, “is central to PETA’s overall drones-for-animals vision.” As word spread and more people acquired drones, he hoped, more “hunter-watching” hobby groups would get out there and uplink footage, which would allow others to go online to analyze the data for actionable intelligence.
Rodgers earned his PETA nickname, Man of Action, thanks to the unusual curriculum vitae he sent to the organization. Not that the C.V. itself was particularly action-packed: hemp store, co-op bakery, nonprofit miscellany, etc. The nickname had to do with the physical résumé: knowing he’d have to do something pretty extraordinary to get PETA’s attention, given their fairly high bar for wow, Rodgers used a 3-D printer to manufacture a six-inch thermoplastic action figure in his likeness, complete with a blue puffy vest. He packaged the doll in a PVC bubble with his C.V. and peta’s next man of action for animals! printed on the back, and had it delivered to PETA’s Oakland office.
The doll went to the L.A. office, then on to PETA’s headquarters, in Norfolk, Virginia, where Ingrid Newkirk herself played with it before it was sent back to the L.A. office. There, Tracy Reiman, PETA’s executive vice president, called Rodgers in for a meeting.
As his recon mission in Myles Standish was wrapping up, Rodgers came face-to-face with a trio of pheasant hunters and their dog. He greeted the enemy warmly, en passant. The dog, outfitted with an electronic collar, emitted a warm bleep.
After they passed, however, a ghastly look crossed Rodgers’s face. “The lives of these dogs! There’s tons of stories of dogs getting shot by the hunters, or the dogs are lost, some just abandoned. Just horrible, horrible stories. Then, of course, there’s the kids. We’ll see kids today, I bet.”
He mentioned that Daisy now manufactured a pink BB gun for girls. “Taking your kids out? It’s just bizarre.”
He giggled as he recounted a news story that he’d recently heard. Unbelievable, really. A father and son had both been shot on the same day while out hunting. “Looo-sers,” Rodgers said, with a singsongy lilt. “I think that is actually the definition, if you look it up, of a loser.” To be clear, the father and son did not shoot each other. Nor were they hunting together. The two men merely had the extreme and coincidental bad luck to be shot on the same day. For Rodgers, however, there was something more than aleatory misfortune going on. He saw a kind of self-inflicted Darwinian punishment in the correlation.
Back in the parking area, he studied a bent Division of Fisheries and Wildlife sign as if it might be encrypted. He frowned until he finally deciphered the regulations. Then he saw a pickup parked by the gate with a bumper sticker in the cab window: gut deer?
“People are monsters,” he muttered.
Bridgewater Triangle?” The hunter’s meaty hands were pushed deep into the pockets of his camouflage pants. “That’s where you are right now!”
Rodgers, teeth chattering, was not ready to give a straight answer to what he and his shadowy companions were doing there at five-thirty in the morning, two days after the recon mission, in a minivan crammed to bursting with some very occult-looking electronics. He tried to redirect the hunter’s curiosity by asking about local urban legends, in particular about some paranormal geometry in the area known as the Bridgewater Triangle.
By contrast with the jet-lagged drone operatives, the hunter was a restless, imposing force. He launched right into the story: the mysterious disappearances, a seventy-car freight train that vanished into thin air, strange lights in the sky, an apparition known as the Redheaded Hitchhiker. “There’s been sightings of Birdman and the whole nine yards.”
When Rodgers snickered, the hunter said, “You’ve got your phone. Google it. Type in, ‘The Hockomock Swamp, Bridgewater Triangle.’ It’s been documented by all kinds of scientific people. There’s all kinds of weird shit out there.”
“Birdman?” Rodgers said.
“Body of a bird with the head of a man,” the man said. “That was seen back in the early Eighties by my friend Joe. As a matter of fact, Joe quit the force and opened a gun shop over in Brockton. You can go in and talk to him about it. He’s got photos and everything.” He jerked a thumb to his left. “Over here is the burial ground of the Gypsy Queen. You’ll see all kinds of makeshift graves in the woods.”
The man said that the Gypsy Queen and her people had settled here shortly after King Philip. “You know who King Philip was, right? He was the son, or nephew, of Massasoit, or whatever, and he came out here, and they lived out here.”
But no, Rodgers had never heard of King Philip, another name for Metacomet, who fled here before his grisly, headless end.
The man saw another bow hunter arrive and walk into the woods. He said that they weren’t supposed to hunt before sunrise. Rodgers took note of the potentially illegal behavior.
Two of the drone operators were out on the grass, setting up a Flash Gordon–looking ray-gun thing called an axial-mode helical antenna. The third operator, a Brit named James Phipps, sat in the back seat of the minivan and worked busily to acquire satellite locations. The equipment emitted staticky clicks and chirps. Phipps’s unshaven face looked tired in the blue-gray light of the laptop.
“There are caves out here with hieroglyphics,” the hunter said. “All kinds of fucking weirdo shit. I don’t go into these woods in the dark. I don’t. You just saw that kid go. Good luck to him. I’ll hang out in the fields, but I ain’t going in the woods when it’s dark. Salem ain’t got nothing on this fucking place.”
The hunter laughed when he learned that Rodgers was Canadian, and the other three were from South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. “You’re a motley crew.” He introduced himself. “My name’s Twitch. They call me the mayor around these parts. You see anybody, you tell them you were talking to the mayor.”
He looked at one of the foreigners, who was setting up a flat, square 2.4 GHz patch antenna on the minivan’s roof in the moonlight. Twitch’s hemi sat alongside a few other pickups there, their occupants visible by the intermittent glow of cigarettes.
Phipps spoke quietly to Lucian Banitz, an Afrikaner from Bethlehem, South Africa. “Will you do me a favor, mate? In my red bag, in the back bottom camera part, there’s batteries and my goggles.”
The third man, Laurens de Groot, from Rotterdam, opened the minivan’s hood and used the battery to charge several devices.
“Charlie will be out here today cutting,” Twitch said. He nodded at a tractor in the dark field. “If you’re here while he’s cutting, you’ll see deer, fucking birds, ’cause they’re out in the corn and they’ll come flying across. You’ll see anything from grackles to woodcocks to pheasants. There’ll be deer, ’cause that’s beautiful insulation for the cold nights. There’ll be ducks. You guys film ducks?”
Rodgers looked at Twitch in the dark. Was this man trying to be helpful, or was he only digging for intel?
Twitch sniffed. An awkward moment passed in the cold dark. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit one, illuminating a grizzled chin. “What, you guys all meet on the Net or something?”
“Yeah, pretty much,” Rodgers said.
“Really? Is this your first day of . . . wildlife watching?”
“Nope.” Like a kid, Rodgers bounced in place to keep warm. “Nope.”
“Now, how’d you find out about this place?”
“Umm. That’s a good question.” Rodgers fidgeted and hemmed. “Just online research. You know, looking for places that are both good for, where there’s going to be, you know, deer and also where, for the plane there, you know, this kind of . . . space.”
Twitch seemed unconvinced. Or maybe he was just a tad nervous after glancing at the small ground station that had spread out like a church picnic around the minivan.
Something began to crackle and beep. A conversation about narrowing a “target radius” could be heard.
Rodgers asked Twitch whether he had deer stands set up in the woods.
“Yeah. I’ve got tree stands set up down there,” Twitch said. “As a matter of fact, if you guys feel like taking a walk, in the light, say, about eight o’clock, there’s a path, and it’ll take you to a back cornfield, and you go to the right, you’ll come to another field, and at about nine o’clock there’ll be three does and a buck that cross the road. They do it every fucking day. I got my stands out there. They’re easy pickings. So I’m gonna take one of those, smoke it, and put it in the freezer.”
Long awkward silence wherein Rodgers said, “Mm.”
“You ever eat deer meat?”
“Really? What’s the matter with you? Don’t you live in Canada? Don’t you have deer?” Twitch fiddled in his breast pocket.
The ailerons of the fixed wing wagged and whirred as Banitz and de Groot discussed something in the clandestine tongue of Dutch.
“We do have deer.” Rodgers’s voice sounded constricted. “Free roaming.”
Twitch pulled a baggie from his pocket and put it under Rodgers’s nose. “Take a sniff.” The vegan recoiled. It was homemade venison jerky.
Twitch said it was a six-pointer he had killed right here last year. He put a plug in his cheek and said he carried the jerky to “torment the fuckers.”
That’s when the drone lifted off. It rose silently into the dark, a lit cross describing intersecting trapezoids around the perimeter of the cornfield. It turned with robotic grace as it hit its programmed waypoints.
Everyone below stared. Twitch’s attention now seized, he looked over Phipps’s shoulder at the screen, on which a red rectangle with plotted numbers corresponded to the grooved pattern of the silent drone above.
“This is footage coming in from the live feed,” de Groot said. He was polite as Twitch leaned over another screen to inspect the grainy black-and-white thermal footage. It looked like the shaky landscape of an animal’s innards as viewed by laparoscope, perhaps, or surveillance images of a fetus. That, or leaked video from the Department of Defense.
“In the wooded area here, the infrared actually penetrates the foliage,” Phipps said.
Out of Twitch’s hearing, Rodgers said that the infrared was like having “animal-rights Superman X-ray vision.”
“So are you guys independent?” Twitch asked.
“No,” Rodgers said. “No. . . . We’re just like, sort of, hobbyists.”
“What, is that on autopilot now?” Twitch asked.
Beep bip bip bip beep.
“That’s the telemetry,” Phipps said.
“There’s the Birdman.”
“It very well could be,” Twitch said.
Next came a bird’s-eye view of the parking lot, with halos around the trucks’ headlights. Then the drone veered east, over the marsh, and a gleaming white snake came into view. This was the river, which now turned on the screen, rotated, gyrated, rattled, and spirit danced.
“Wait a minute, now, this is gonna show heat?” You could see Twitch’s own internal target radius repatterning. “It’ll show up, what, yellow?”
“Bright white,” Phipps said.
After a minute, a smaller, vertical spot appeared.
“That’s a deer,” Twitch said, agitated. “That’s a deer right there, buddy.”
More spots crept out of the dark graphite woods. A herd of sulfur-white blips moved gingerly across the screen.
“Cra-zee,” Rodgers said.
“And that’s just in really thick vegetation,” Banitz said. “And we’re seeing them clearly. Clear as day.”
“Shit. I gotta get one of these for fucking hunting.” Twitch’s cigarette glowed in his palm. “What’s that? That’s white — right there. Water hole, maybe?”
“Yeah, you’ll find that you get rocks and things that look like deer,” Phipps said. “Basically — obviously — the rocks store heat during the day and they give a false positive reading.”
“Right,” Twitch said. “But if you see it move . . . you know.”
“It’s bright white there. There’s somebody down there,” Phipps said. “That looks slightly human.”
“That’s deer! See them moving?” Twitch was quite exercised. “That’s deer! Holy shit! I know where that is!”
Rodgers, jocular: “Don’t do it, Twitch, don’t do it!”
“Go out and blast ’em.” The hunter was all but greedily rubbing his palms.
De Groot noted that the bow hunters appeared to be concentrated mostly on the other side of the treeline, near the swamp. “That’s where they are.”
Banitz pointed to one moving blip. “He’s gone that way.”
Suddenly, Twitch was gone. A truck engine rumbled. Was he going to use the drone recon to find and shoot a deer? How weird it would be to see him on the screen, cutting open the belly of a buck and wagging his middle finger back up at PETA’s spies.
All eyes turned to the speck in the sky. A minute ago the quadcopter was on the ground. But then, with a noise like a nest of wasps doused with rum, it was 400 feet overhead. The only person not looking up was Phipps, who stood like a blind sleepwalker in knee-high muck boots. He had a chunky Futaba R.C. controller in hand and thumbed the gimbal sticks while crouched over. On his head were Zeiss cinemizer 3-D goggles — indeed, he was looking in the opposite direction from the quadcopter he piloted. It was still gray at ground level: 7:01 a.m. But the screen mounted to the heliaxial tripod showed the drone’s POV as it pulled even with the bluffs of the cloudscape — the altitude indicator registered 242 meters. On the screen you could see the sun cracking over a tilted horizon, and then the drone suddenly dived back toward the earth.
Birds were starting to wake now — a giant oak that anchored the end of the cornfield was mobbed with blackbirds that filled the air with a shrill scree scree scree — and as the drone banked, the screen revealed a high-def shroud of sunlit mist rising off the forest.
“That is stunning,” de Groot said.
De Groot was not only a drone activist but a veritable god in the pantheon of eco-warriors. Before founding ShadowView, a nonprofit that deploys drones to chase poachers in Africa, for which both Phipps and Banitz were U.A.V. pilots, de Groot was a member of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an organization that makes Greenpeace look like a bunch of sedated kittens. De Groot became a star after Animal Planet started to document Sea Shepherd’s fight against Japanese whalers for the reality show Whale Wars. (Commercial whaling was banned in international waters in 1986, but the Japanese have continued to hunt off Antarctica under the thinly disguised cover of scientific research.) He was nearly killed in 2010, when his ship, the Ady Gil, was rammed by a Japanese harpoon vessel (Season 3, Episode 6, “Sliced in Two”). His efforts brought much-needed attention to the cetaceans’ plight. Sea Shepherd’s founder, Paul Watson, often said that if an action wasn’t filmed, it didn’t happen. Showing viewers what it looked like when a grenade-tipped harpoon exploded in a minke whale, for example, helped build a groundswell of opposition that recently forced Japan to reduce by two thirds the number of whales it would hunt for such “research.”
De Groot has unimpeachable cred as an activist. It’s hard not to indulge in a little hero worship in his presence. And yet it’s not entirely clear how one equates going up against global eco-criminals and the industrial-scale genocide of endangered species with today’s mission in the cornfield. Saying such a thing, of course, is not equivalent to assigning relative value to different forms of life. There is no hierarchy when it comes to suffering. Indeed, one could be a puritanical weenie and taunt PETA by asking how it feels about conducting a joint operation with Lucian Banitz, who works with a company in South Africa that specializes in spraying crops with insecticides. There’s a whole page on the PETA website devoted to peaceful alternatives to killing “uninvited guests” — not to mention a recent legal action taken by PETA against Backyard Brains, an educational company that sells a kit to let budding neuroscientists implant electrodes into the thorax of a cockroach to then pilot the bug (the “world’s first commercially available cyborg”) via a smartphone app called RoboRoach. The moralistic pause here is more to pose a question about the ethical use of spectacle. How much does a constant saturation of media stunts, which increasingly seem to draw more attention to PETA than to its right and righteous cause, hurt real action, which depends on mass media for its effectiveness? What happens when you cry wolf one too many times, and then when there’s a real wolf caught in a real trap nobody bothers to tune in?
As the quad banked north, the altimeter read 150 meters. On the screen: rapid cuts over a band of forest, a blip of stuttered cornfield that yielded to blurs of meadow — milkwort, pokeweed, and buttonbush at 60 mph — and it went like that for a while, a rhythmic succession of stubble, treetops, and brunette meadows. Then, on the screen, the glint of pickups and a huddle of tiny figures in orange hats. As the drone closed in you could see the men looking up to the sky. Beeps accelerated like a heart-rate monitor as it ziffed past the John Deere tractor. Then came the look of recognition on the men’s faces: the gosh-faced animal-rights activist, the man in goggles holding the black box, the grinning Dutchman. The shadow of the quad clipped the ground as it buzzed overhead like a weed whacker. Then it rolled, juked, and dashed back out around the perimeter of the field, like a cat flying over the treeline, heading toward the south forty and the giant oak mobbed with blackbirds.
As the drone closed the gap, the tree exploded in slow black specks. Catching sight of three orange blips in the brown meadow, SSW, the quad airbraked, circled, dropped, and hovered at the approximate eye level of a trio of shotgun-armed hunters. One of the men turned in surprise and saw the UFO.
Out of the stirring grass, something pounced into view.
“Hounds! Hounds!” A British voice shouted, but before the dogs could defend their masters from this warrantless intrusion, the quad pulled up and retreated, leaving behind the baffled Norman Rockwell tableau below.
At 8:08 a.m., shortly after the first gunshot of the day, there was a commotion in the parking lot. A Dodge Caravan pulled in, and out piled a gang of attractive women. They were dressed in matching blaze-orange cargo pants, orange caps, black high-heeled boots, and revealing sleeveless zipper vests, and generally acted like they owned the place from the minute they hit the ground.
The hunters gawked at this sudden apparition of sparkling cleavage on the brisk autumn morn with a look of bewildered dread. Clearly, the women’s arrival signaled that the day was about to take on a distinctly weird and unwelcome tenor. This sense was emphasized — as if it required emphasis — by the two professional photographers who had been hired by PETA to document every moment. There was one female photographer with a Nikon D4, dressed more appropriately for the weather, and a hipster with dreads, in a red-and-black-plaid hunter’s flannel, possibly worn ironically, who was armed with a Nikon D7000 rigged out for video. The hipster’s name was Tommy Jay, and as he took in the glory of the day, he said, “Man, it’s so beautiful out here, I’d love to smoke a spliff!”
The women in high heels all carried clipboards, and their orange foam trucker hats were embellished with blue-winged rabbits; the same little lagomorphic pegasi appeared on the backs of their black zipper vests with the words air angels. To make the hubbub official, they slapped a few giant magnetized banners to the sides of the minivan:
peta’s air angels
protecting wildlife with drones
Rodgers told Lindsay Rajt, the woman who seemed to be in charge of this newly arrived agitprop division, that he had already discovered some potentially illegal activity, i.e., hunting before sunrise. Rajt responded with a knowing shake of the head, as if to say that was exactly the sort of hairy baloney she expected to find today. Rodgers reported that he’d taken the initiative and called the authorities, and Rajt said that was the right thing to do. Then, while the other women stood around shivering and looking a little lost, Rajt strutted back and forth and talked on her phone, evidently in communication with a missing angel who had become detached from the squadron on the way to the park.
Meanwhile the hunters went about their business, slowly, pulling gear from their pickup beds, talking quietly among themselves, and pretending not to notice or to care too much.
Tommy Jay, the photographer, ushered the angels to the edge of the cornfield. They warmed up for the camera, mugging and moueing. Soon enough, the lost angel arrived and joined the others. The drone boys tittered as she strode by, and one said, “Watch out for the guns.” Rodgers snickered, too, even though he would be sure to point out, within the hour, what a pig (with apologies to pigs) one hunter was for asking, “Why’s everybody looking so sexy today?”
The two photographers flanked the angels like sheepdogs. “Hold on, hold on, hold on,” Tommy Jay said. He arranged them around a forage harvester that smelled of manure for a few glamour shots.
Rajt broke away when she saw a hunter approaching. The angels swaggered out into the field like a team of vegan superheroes to confront this wary middle-aged man who was returning from the woods empty-handed.
A standoff ensued when the man realized he was cornered.
“Are you guys with an aviation magazine?”
“No, we’re kind of in the aviation — uh — we’re flying some drones today!” The semicircle of angels radiated telegenic indignation.
The hunter, who flinched at the rapid-fire clicks of the shutter, said that he had seen the drone go up that morning before the sun rose.
Several very excited angels said: “Oh, you did?”
He shifted the rifle on his shoulder and looked almost apologetic. “I wouldn’t fly them too close to the highway, though. People might think they’re . . . ” He trailed off, clearly discomfited by the paparazzi act.
“Yeah,” Rajt said.
“They’re very quiet,” the hunter said. “Is it electric?”
“Mmm-hmm,” one of the angels said.
“It’s a beautiful day out today,” Rajt said.
“Yeah.” The hunter cast an eye to the woods.
The shivering angels lingered behind Rajt. Each clutched a clipboard to her plunging neckline and waited for the showdown to begin.
In the background one could hear the buzz of the quadcopter swooping around.
Rajt asked: “So do you come out to this site very often? Are you familiar with it? We heard it’s haunted.”
The hunter raised his eyebrows.
“We’ve been told stories from people in the area who, uh, think the woods out here are haunted.”
The angels nodded.
“Oh,” the man said. “The swamp?” He adjusted the gun on his shoulder. “The Indians used to think it was haunted.”
“Oh, is that the source of the rumor?” The man was taken aback by Rajt’s snappish tone. She regarded him as if he’d just personally maligned the headless soul of Metacomet.
Another angel took a stab. “You ever see anything strange out there?”
“In the mist? In the river?” There was a lot of goose-bumped, ethical flesh facing off against the hunter. “The mist that runs through looks kind of interesting. . . . But I don’t believe in ghosts.”
“What are you hunting today?”
“Wild turkey. Until the pheasant moved by. But I came for turkeys.”
“Did you hit anything?”
“No,” the man said. “Not today. It’s open for two weeks.” He looked at the angels, and, warming somewhat to the situation, said in a less uptight voice, “So what’s your mission here today?”
“Well, we’ve got the drones out and about and they’re watching for any — we’re watching wildlife. You know. And if we happen to see anything illegal, we’ll report it.”
“Yeah.” Shifting back into interrogation mode, Rajt asked: “So what got you started doing this?”
The man looked at the angels as if he might be starting to feel a little sorry for them.
“Um. My dad got me into hunting.”
“So when you were a kid, kinda, he took you out?”
“Sixteen years old, yeah.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Rajt said. “Yeah.”
“Yup. Keeps me out of trouble.”
Rajt adjusted her zipper. “Any chance we could persuade you to shoot with a camera instead of a gun today?” She laughed as the photographer Uzi-ed the man with her Nikon D4, and gestured toward the ugly corn stubble that surrounded us. “You still get to enjoy the beautiful outdoors, see the animals.”
“Yup,” the man said.
The man looked like he was waiting, almost as though he were inviting a more compelling reason to stay, but then, in a cheerful tone, he said, “I’m gonna go up in the field. If I catch a turkey, and you guys are here, I’ll bring him back.”
“Oh, please do!” Rajt’s delight at the thought sounded genuine. “I’d like to see it!”
“Enjoy yourselves,” the hunter said.
After the man walked off, Tommy Jay continued to prance around the angels, documenting the authenticity as this moment sunk in: their first encounter with Man the Hunter.
Rajt talked to one of the angels about release forms, which they evidently forgot to ask the turkey hunter to sign.
“I mean, I went to school with a lot of hunters,” the youngest angel said in semi-amazement, “but I haven’t ever been in a field.”
They watched the drone fly for a while, cheering and visoring their eyes with their pale white hands until the quad came to a quivery landing. As Phipps removed his goggles, his hands were visibly trembling. He quakes, he said, because the experience is so overwhelming.
“With the goggles you’re completely immersed in the system,” he said. “You’re in the system.”
Rodgers choreographed the operators and angels around the minivan’s tailgate, trying different arrangements of girl-boy-girl, boy-girl-drone, boy holding drone, and girl petting drone while boy bragged that this machine he’d built was pure, bare-bones, and raw. “It’s function. Pure function,” Phipps said. “Nothing more, nothing less.”
He diddled an airfoil with his thumb and forefinger. The blades were carbon fiber: the same material as the shafts of the fearfully named arrows of the enemy: Mayhem, Predator II, Nightfall, Mutiny Slasher, Bone Collector Jr.
“We pretty much have the same capabilities as any military in the world,” Phipps said, then blew a spider off the GPS screen. “Excuse me, little spider.”
The angels cooed.
A PETA-branded hobby drone, also called Air Angel and available at that time for $324.99 online, was brought out to be photographed. Rodgers called it the Sky Bunny. Phipps held it, but he looked slightly embarrassed to have to handle it.
Rodgers, whose responsibilities seemed to have shifted from special ops to photo ops, snapped his fingers and let loose a two-burst dog whistle when he spied a new target. “Angels! Angels!” He pointed at an approaching hunter. “We’ve got more people coming this way. More hunters!”
Rajt moved to intercept a heavyset man dressed more or less like a Navy SEAL, in full camo, compound bow in hand. He winced. “Is this like for a paper or something?”
“I’m with PETA. The animal-protection group? We’ve got our drones today that, basically —” She paused and adjusted her tone as if speaking to a kindergartner. “They’re like these little helicopters and they go up in the air and they have cameras on them.”
“Yeah.” He knew what a drone was. He was an engineer for a company that designed routers for hospital operating rooms: hardware that communicated signals from a surgeon’s endoscope, or any other mode of medico-surveillance, to remote specialists for virtual consultation. He fidgeted with the cam pulley on his bow.
“We’re also taking footage,” Rajt continued, “and if we see any illegal activity we can report it to the authorities as well.”
“So what do you think about this idea of the PETA drones out, up watching, like eyes in the sky?” Rajt cocked a hip.
“Uh. I think it’s great. I mean, the more goofballs you get out of the woods the easier it is on the hunters, right?”
“The goofball hunters, you mean!” She laughed.
“If you want to stop illegal activity, that’s awesome. I also don’t want to shoot a deer only to find out he’s already got three other holes in him and he’s weak and he’s dying. You want an animal that’s had his run out there. He’s had his shot. You know? The last thing I want is a guy out there who doesn’t know what he’s doing. That’s what happens when, you’ll see like an — oh, what are those big black birds? I remember seeing one recently in the newspaper. He had an arrow stuck in him.”
Rajt was deeply grieved. “Oh Jesus.”
The man’s tone became more sympathetic and pastoral. “You’re supposed to use a bladed tip, so it will kill them, but if you use your field tips, that arrow’s just going to put a hole in them, chances are it’s not going to kill the animal. So you need these blades.”
He showed her one of the broadheads on his riser-mounted quiver. It had three razor edges and looked like the embryonic stage of a throwing star. “What a gun does is, it’ll hurt the animal with trauma. So it’ll bust up his organs inside as the bullet goes through. But the arrows . . . ” He looked at Rajt’s stricken expression. “Oh, I’m sorry. You’re —”
“Oh no.” She shook it off like a seasoned martyr. “The gore is nothing new to me.”
He looked at her. “So the arrows, they have blades that’ll cut arteries and veins and bleed the animal out. So if you don’t have that, you’re not going to damage any veins, it’s probably going to live. It may not live long, but he’ll have plenty of strength to evade the hunter, and he’ll suffer.”
Rajt rallied enough to share a statistic that she had read: only 6 percent of Americans hunt. She believed this suggested that civilization had moved past the point that we need to kill in order to survive. The hunter retorted by asking, yeah, but what if things go dystopian? The way we’re all pretty sure it’s going to turn out, right? What if, he said, for any number of reasons, civilization is upended, whether that means the robots take over or whatever, and we’re suddenly without the luxury of vegan health-food stores? “You’re telling me six percent of the population is then going to survive? I find that horrible.” Even in that nightmare scenario, he suggested, it was possible that we could still achieve the balance achieved by Native Americans. “They hunted. They didn’t overhunt. They were part of everything. And they had reverence.”
Rajt said, “They were doing it in quite a lower-tech way than I think what we’re seeing out in the fields today.”
The hunter looked at his space-age bow and agreed.
“If you’re here as a hunter,” he said, “you’re here to get food. And you have to be humane. We have to take the place of the predators right? There’s not a lot of wolves anymore, not a lot of bears. The coyotes are starting to come back, but they’re scarce. So if you’re going to keep the animals from overpopulating you have to take that place.”
“From what I’ve read, um, well, I’m from West Michigan,” Rajt said. “So preface it with that.”
“And we have a big problem with deer. And I always heard growing up, people always said, ‘Well, I hunt, we have an overpopulation problem.’ The thing is, I’ve never met anybody who said, ‘Yeah, we had a real problem with deer, but thankfully, three years ago we had a hunt and now the problem’s solved.’ ”
The hunter nodded. “I know hunting alone can’t replace all the predation that’s gone,” he says. “It’s really just adding another hole in the bucket. Think of the habitat as a bucket, and the population of animals being poured into it are your growth, and then there’s holes in the bucket. And the bucket goes up, and the bucket goes down. Some of the ways the bucket goes down is predation, and that’s where the hunters come in.”
She asked with a smirk why, if hunters were so concerned about the population issue, they didn’t shoot more pregnant deer.
The hunter looked completely weirded out by the question.
“So when I look at a deer, for example, or I look at a wild turkey,” she said, “I have this feeling of awe and kind of wonder. They’re out there in nature and they’re doing their thing, you know?”
The hunter nodded. “Sure.”
“And I want to take their picture.”
“So what is it that makes you have kind of an opposite impulse and you want to kill them?”
“My impulse is not opposite at all. The beauty of nature is in the cycle of life and death. You have to find your place in that cycle. My view comes from looking at the bigger picture.” He played the arrow against his thumb. “There are observers.” Here he nodded, respectfully, at the circle of observers who stood in judgment of those who would step without apology into the arena of life and death. “And I think observers aren’t going to understand unless they decide to take a place in there.”
On entering the McDonald’s parking lot in Middleboro, Rodgers recalled a bit of trivia about how the only thing Anthony Bourdain refuses to eat are Chicken McNuggets. He’ll eat lightly grilled warthog rectum, Rodgers said, but McNuggets are just too wretched.
PETA was using the McDonald’s as its final base of operations. They were here for the free Wi-Fi, so that they could cut and upload a one-minute video that they would release to the media within the hour. It would get 52,000 YouTube hits and more than 13,000 blog views, and be picked up by every news outlet from Field & Stream to Al Jazeera.
The location was practical, yes, and tastefully ironic, given that if anyone could be said to be PETA’s archenemy it would be McDonald’s. PETA runs a substantive and properly upsetting website called McCruelty, where you can learn about Unhappy Meals and check out the Twitter feed of Evil Ronald McDonald (@EvilRonMcD, location: “Rotting in your colon”): “I love to kill animals and turn them into really cheap and disgusting food that your kids love because I give them a toy that cost me $.0001 to make.”
The group needed a few action shots of the Sky Bunny doing something more gripping than sitting on an angel’s lap for the media release, so they took the drone for another flight nearby. Rodgers took the controls, wobbling an iPhone to steer the blue-and-white drone, which bobbed and wove over a dirt pit.
“Go Sky Bunny!” he shouted.
Over the buzz of its plastic rotors, the jocular scoffs of the drone pilots could be heard: “Well, it flies, which is fantastic,” de Groot said. “And it makes a real good toy, and if I was like six years old I would love it.”
“Fifty percent of these are broken in the first two days,” Phipps added. “The other fifty percent fly away. So, a hundred percent are lost. But for what they are, they’re a great bit of technology.”
As PETA itself is fond of saying — see, for example, its 2003 Holocaust on Your Plate ad campaign — there’s no such thing as bad P.R.
While Rodgers waited in the minivan, he watched a pickup with the corpse of a deer lashed to the tailgate enter the drive-thru. Then, a few minutes later, another.
“Surreal,” he said.
He chewed an energy bar and watched the drive-thru traffic inch forward. Unbelievably, a third truck with a blood-caked deer strapped to the back arrived. A pretty happy-looking dog rode shotgun.
After PETA’s video of the Sky Bunny was released, hunters began to search for shielding technology to defy the drones. When PETA caught wind of this, they hinted at new secret programs and Kevlar-plated drones. A lot of hunters, however, seemed to think that getting their own drones wasn’t such a bad idea, not only to conduct counterespionage but to track down prey, just as Metacomet’s men had adopted the colonists’ flintlocks to better chase off the white invaders. In the end, maybe all PETA had done was to give its enemies an idea, and a few years down the road, we’ll see a full-blown unmanned aerial war over the sacred hunting grounds of America, where the deer and the pheasant are only collateral damage.
When pressed for details on future ops, Rodgers said that he couldn’t give specifics, but he suggested that PETA was, indeed, engaged in secret tests: “Suffice to say we’ve been working with some contractors to explore urban applications.” For now, though, it remains just another classified surveillance program.