Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Thrill of the Hunt

By Phil Campbell

MAY 11, 1998:  It is Holy Thursday, the day Christians celebrate the Last Supper. Night descends upon Decatur County, Tennessee, until the poplar and beech trees are upright skeletons and the unlighted roads and highways are winding tricks on the eyes. Outside the county’s main fairground’s building, dozens of leashed and penned dogs bark, howl, and bay at the moonlight.

Inside the building, which is nothing more than a barn frame and a cement floor, the people have gathered. They sit at both round and rectangular tables and chew on the white rice and beans on their plates and the words of Benny Jordan on the stage before them. Jordan, a 54-year-old factory worker, moves around on that stage feverishly, building up his passions like a swelling storm, defiant of the benevolent weather outside.

PHOTO BY PHIL CAMPBELL

A coon dog gets a good whiff of his quarry before the coon’s cage is hauled up into a tree.

Wearing jeans and a button-down shirt, Jordan leads the opening ceremonies of the St. Jude-Decatur County World’s Largest Coon Hunt. Despite its boisterous name, the hunt is actually a small event by competitive coon-hunting standards, but it does raise money for the Memphis-based children’s research hospital, and for that reason the residents and hunters are proud.

Before Jordan will introduce some of the notables of coon hunting’s past and present, he has something to talk about.

“There’s a group that’s working day and night to shut this group down. They call themselves the animal-rights activists,” he says, voice low and paced. He uses a microphone to carry his voice across the interior of the building.

“This here group has a page on the Internet to try to shut us down,” he continues. His emphasis leaves little doubt that all the powers of the World Wide Web have been invented just to destroy the coon hunt, that all the forces of technology are being arrayed against the folks of Decatur County and the charity event that was only intended to help sick children. “Everything they stand for, we’re against. They have all these lawyers in Washington, D.C.” He then launches into his interpretation of David and Goliath.

For a moment, the coon dogs stop barking outside. Perhaps they’re pondering the meaning of Jordan’s speech, sniffing around on the dirt grounds, trying to catch a whiff of these “animal-rights activists.”

Ask the people here for their opinion and you’ll get a mouthful, in a clean, hearty drawl that spills forth like water from the Tennessee River. They’ll tell you that their county seat, Parsons, isn’t much compared to Memphis, the Big City. God, however, is more comfortable dwelling in a holler in West Tennessee than He is in a crime-ridden metropolis. Community and security is what’s important here, and people stick by each other no matter what.

And folks of all kinds are welcome in Decatur County – even if they’re not all Southern Baptists. The annual coon hunt draws people from all over the South. One guy even came in from San Francisco, a former Decatur Countian who wanted to share his country heritage with his urban-bred son.

But then come these “animal-rights activists,” and no one can figure them out. One reason no one can figure them out is that they never appear in Middle Tennessee. These activists don’t live near town. They won’t criticize the Decatur County way of life to a resident’s face, but they will throw up protests on the Internet, doctored photos of a raccoon being harassed by a frothing coon dog. The Internet, where anybody can say anything about anybody. “These are the same people who crucified Jesus Christ,” one coon-hunting fan says, with the certainty of someone who’s thought things through. Others aren’t so harsh, but they do wonder if the Florida woman who started this whole thing has ever gotten out of her house for more than 20 minutes a day.

What really gets the Decatur County residents, though, is that the coons that are hunted are never injured during the hunts, much less killed. You’d think that, with all the attention the animal-rights activists have focused on coon hunting, the hunters were slaughtering the varmints by the hundreds, just for the heck of it.

The people look desperately to St. Jude officials to see what kind of effect the protest letters and phone calls are having. Some hospital officials are actually in Decatur County this Easter weekend, helping sell tickets and doing whatever else the organizers need them to do. They spare no praise for the people of Decatur County. “They’re just a marvelous group of people,” gushes David Voye, area director of fund-raising. Asked about the controversy, the Big City fund-raiser won’t say if the hospital will continue to accept coon money or not. “The main thing is,” he says carefully, “we’re trying to do what is best for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.” St. Jude officials waver on the issue until late April.

The anonymous woman who started this ruckus claims to know a thing or two about coons. She has a picture on her Web page of Hobbes, a coon she herself “rehabilitated.” Hobbes’ physical and psychological well-being would be brutalized by a hunt, she writes, calling for a general end to cruelty against coons. She urges people to pray to St. Jude and to write letters to the Pope, as well as to call St. Jude officials in Memphis. “If you believe that there is something superior to humans, a god, a spirit, by whatever name known to you – then join us in prayer, not only for coons, but for all creatures of this earth,” she implores on her page.

Opal Holland knows something about coons, too. The 60-year-old Kentuckian comes down each year to Decatur County for the hunt to act as a volunteer judge. He was so sure that he would be able to catch a coon for the weekend’s events that he waited until the very morning he drove down before even trying. He walked into his animal feed barn and, sure enough, there one was, eating away. He grabbed it with his bare hands, shoved it into a small cage, put it in his truck, and headed south for the fairgrounds.

“If I wanted to kill ’em, I’d kill ’em for eating off my feed,” Holland says matter-of-factly. His steady eyes cast in darkness by the shade of a fishing hat, he holds up a thick, mottled right hand. Among purpled and callused old scars is a new, unbandaged red line. Coons will always put up a fight when they can, but Holland was too quick to suffer anything more than a superficial scratch. The farmer and coon hunter says he’ll let this coon go as soon as the dogs are done barking at it.

To properly coon-hunt in regulation competition, you must do these things: Take your coon dog – be it Walker, English, Black and Tan, or another breed – into the woods at night with three other coon dogs and their owners. Let it go. Turn off all flashlights and listen under the stars. The dogs all make distinctive sounds, so you’d better know what kind of “mouth” your dog has on it. Judging by your dog’s bark, you should be able to tell if it has “struck,” or has gotten on the chase of, a coon. If the other dogs have any sense, they’ll strike at your dog’s coon, too. You should also be able to tell when your dog has “treed” a coon. If your dog has, in fact, run a coon up a tree, it’ll stay up there and howl until it’s literally pulled away. After points have been tallied for striking and treeing, everyone walks their dogs into another part of the woods and lets them go again. The dogs shoot straight off into the thickets and brambles, trying to pick up another coon scent.

That’s night hunting, an impossible sport for spectators to enjoy. Daytime coon entertainment was devised by someone years ago to delight the crowds. Around 3 p.m. on Good Friday, Holland starts the water races. He takes the coon he has caught this morning and partially covers its cage with a dog-food bag. He attaches the cage on a rope and dangles the cage in front of the eight caged coon dogs. Using an old bicycle wheel and pedal, he sends the cage over the pond, reeling it away from him like clothes on a clothesline. The coon scrunches itself into one end of the cage and stays there, a paralyzed, furry ball.

Holland stands next to a small pond with a clipboard. Armed with a megaphone, the Kentucky farmer calls out the names of coon dogs, from Maggie to Hadden’s 100 Proof Jim. The hunters take their dogs to a large wooden box that faces the pond. Eight yelping coon dogs are fit into tiny individual spaces inside the box, once their tails and heads are all pushed in. They are rural greyhounds before an aquatic track. Dogs are scored on two sets of points. The first are awarded to the dog that can swim after the coon and be the first to cross under a rope near the other side of the pond. The second are awarded to the first dog to run up to the tree on which the coon cage stops.

When that’s over, there’s another coon game the folks of the World’s Largest Coon Hunt play, called “treeing.” Holland takes the coon in its cage and attaches it to a different rope, which is attached to a pulley and the high branch on a tree. Dogs are called up, one by one. The coon has not made a noise since it was first dangled over the pond, and it doesn’t say anything now. The dogs’ noses are almost stuck inside the coon cage, to give them the strongest possible scent of coon in their lives. They all bark and howl viciously at it.

Then Holland lets go of the coon, and someone holding the rope yanks it up the tree. Sometimes, the cage spins and bangs against the tree violently. Other times, it just wobbles uneasily. The dog on the ground is let go. If it’s any good, it’ll run to the tree and not stop barking. If it’s not well trained, it’ll lose the scent and wander away, its owner embarrassed in front of the crowd.

The St. Jude-Decatur County World’s Largest Coon Hunt officially ends sometime before Easter Sunday. Many of the coon dogs have struck and treed impressively, raising enough noise to wake the dead. Other dogs mistakenly tree opossums. In the end, awards all the way down to 10th place are handed out in five separate skill, age, and gender categories. Organizers are confident that they will meet their fund-raising goal of $150,000, about $15,000 more than raised the year before, and in a couple weeks they proudly announce their suspicions as fact.

But in the time they count receipts, the people of Decatur County wait tensely for some sort of word from St. Jude. Will they still accept their money? On April 30th, dozens of people pack the conference room of the American Health Center in Parsons. On one side of the table sit five representatives of St. Jude, including Voye and his boss, fund-raising executive director Richard Shadyac. On the other side of the table are four coon-hunt officials. Sitting separately, but just as nervously, are a couple dozen local notables, including the county executive, the sheriff, and private business interests like J.A. and Barb Carrington of Parsons Motor Parts. Reporters from the Decatur County Chronicle and the News Leader are present to record this historic gathering.

The meeting lasts barely 45 minutes, with Shadyac doing all the talking. He presents a plaque to the people of Decatur County. The plaque represents the 23-year bond that exists between the research hospital and the coon hunters. Decatur County officials decide to place the plaque in the county courthouse. An identical one will be placed somewhere at St. Jude.

To the delight of the locals, Shadyac never once mentions the phrase “animal-rights activists.” The question of the ethics of the hunt will never again be resurrected, the St. Jude official says.

“People were sitting on pins and needles [at first],” says Nelda Pritchard, a coon-hunt organizer. “[Shadyac] did let us know that he was looking forward to future hunts and future donations, which tickled us tremendously.

“It was joyous, very joyous, when the announcement was made.”


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