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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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?

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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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