Sunday column: Legislators deal with snakes, buzzards and jackasses

You might say state legislators are taking a walk on the wild side in the current session, albeit in somewhat meandering fashion, as they consider a bunch of bills that involve the killing or control of Tennessee critters.

Consider last week’s meeting of the House Agriculture Subcommittee, where the two most notable animal actions were:

n Approval of a bill authorizing the killing of wild animals in self-defense (HB135) at the urging of sponsor Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby. Faison explained that he was inspired to produce the proposal after killing a copperhead in his yard when a bunch of kids were roaming the premises, then posting about the episode on Facebook — only to have a friend point out he had doubtless violated state law by causing demise of a venomous reptile native to our state. So, having confessed to breaking the law, he set out to provide “some level of protection” to those who, unlike himself, might be prosecuted in the future.

As introduced, the bill would have allowed killing critters when they are threatening property, not just people. That provision was deleted after Rep. Ron Lollar, R-Bartlett, said it made him — and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency folk — “nervous” about the possibility that “people would just be shooting things left and right” and claiming they were defending something or other.

As amended, the bill mirrors state law on when people can use deadly force against other people, Faison said. Given that law includes a car within its “castle doctrine” and “stand your ground” provisions, Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, inquired: “If I’m in my car and that snake shows up, is it OK to kill it?”

No, replied Faison, because the car itself would provide a reasonable defense against snakebite. However, “if a bear was reaching through the window,” lethal force would be in order.

n Approved a bill (HB1185) by Rep. Pat Marsh, R-Shelbyville, that substantially increases financial penalties for illegally killing a deer, bear, elk or wild turkey.

In the case of deer, elk and bears, the bill is blatantly discriminatory on the basis of gender. Illegally shoot a male bear and the penalty — depicted in the bill as restitution to TWRA — is $1,500 (versus as little as $200 now, regardless of gender); for a female bear it’s $3,000. The discrimination is the other way on deer and elk. Illegally killing or possessing a female deer falls under a general $1,000 penalty — the same as for turkeys (again, up from the current $200). But for antlered male deer, there’s a new point system: $500 for each point of the animal’s antlers for those with eight to 10 points (that’s $5,000 for a 10-point buck) or $750 per point when the deceased deer has more than 10 points on its antlers.

The panel also approved a bill (HB1051) that would allow fox hunters to let their dogs chase foxes in more places, more often. Sponsor Rep. Tim Wirgau, R-Buchanan, remarked that the measure deals with “one of the wackiest bills we have had up here.”

The panel put off until this week approval of a bill, already endorsed by a Senate committee, that would decriminalize the killing of black buzzards in Tennessee, even though they are protected by federal law.

The black buzzards are reportedly preying on newborn calves and even trashing property. Pictures shown to the Senate committee of damage from a Jackson County buzzard attack included shots of deceased buzzards that, it would seem, were dispatched illegally under current laws by a homeowner defending his property from attack.

Also approved was a bill (HB1185) that somewhat liberalizes the rules for chasing foxes with hounds. And domestic animals were not ignored, thanks to the panel’s OK of a bill (HB455) that repeals an 1858 statute declaring that the owner of any ”stallion or jackass over 15 months old” is subject to a $5 fine if it roams onto someone else’s property.

Maybe there’s a trend here. At least insofar as buzzards and snakes go, legislators are moving to declare that laws now being unofficially ignored will become officially ignored. That would be honesty in government and a good thing, right?

Perhaps even setting a precedent into areas involving activities of the species Homo sapiens.

That’s not likely, though. Our species is much better represented in Legislatorland than the wild side. There are no lobbyists for buzzards, foxes and snakes — at least not literally.

Note: This is a slightly revised version of a column written for the News Sentinel, also appearing HERE.