Letter from Massachusetts — From the March 2016 issue

Killer Bunny in the Sky

A drone war begins between vegans and hunters

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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.

Illustrations by Taylor Callery

Illustrations by Taylor Callery

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.

“Hello.”

“Good afternoon.”

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.

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’s most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Bartók’s Monster,” appeared in the October 2013 issue.

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