On Oct. 5, one of Maine’s legends was chased by dogs then shot and killed. The attack was no accident. It was planned and had accomplices. The main perpetrator has not been arrested, nor will he be, and no charges will be filed, no penalties exacted.

Why not? Because it’s all perfectly legal. After all, it’s what we do to our animals, and hire ourselves out so others can do it, too.

The victim was a bear called Big John who had become well-known in his part of the world. His photograph appeared in the media in 2010 and 2014 because of his size and the fact that he had already been captured and released twice by biologists from Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife after having been caught in a trap and surviving a gunshot wound.

When his picture appeared for the final time, his corpse was splayed in the forefront against a background of grinning humans all looking very pleased at what they’d done. The headline trumpeted the news: “Hunter Takes Big John.”

The word ‘kill’ is almost never used when deaths like this occur, as if there might be some element of unconscious remorse on the part of the human or, more likely, an intent to conceal what happened. The most common euphemisms – harvested, culled, tagged, bagged, dispatched, taken – are meant to sanitize our reactions, stripping us of compassion towards non-human animals by replacing the language that is truthful to the reality it depicts.

Big John was named by a local reporter who wrote, apparently without regret, about his death and congratulated “a fortunate hunter, a skilled guide and some top-notch hounds who combined forces” to kill this 14-and-a-half-year-old bear.

The reference to “top-notch” hounds refers to dogs especially trained to track bears. Up to six dogs, often with radio collars, can be used to pursue a bear until it’s cornered or treed and then killed by a human.

It would be misleading to describe all this as hunting since it’s the dogs who are relentlessly in pursuit and expend most of the energy; the human simply follows their lead and pulls the trigger.

What was the reaction of one of MDIFW’s leading bear biologists? The biologist said that it would likely take a skilled houndsman to take the bear and praised the hired guide and his dogs, saying he was happy for the guide and the hunter, adding that there are a lot of people who conduct themselves with dignity and grace, and the guide was one of those.

The hunter that the biologist was happy for was John DeSantis III of Wallkill, New York who had come to Maine because it’s against the law to hound bears in his home state. Afterwards, DeSantis dropped the bear’s body off at a taxidermist, but probably not before pulling a tooth from the upper jaw and submitting it to MDIFW as required.

“The big part of it for me was my hounds were involved in this hunt,” DeSantis is quoted as saying. “That’s the sport of it for me … I love running my dogs, and I love hearing them go after a bear.”

“I was ecstatic. I was very honored to take a bear like that,” DeSantis said. “That’s a once-in-a-lifetime trophy to take.”

Big John is no more. A venerable bear that was probably a patriarch among his peers, who – through his longevity alone – had a right to live out the rest of his existence as he chose, and who, considering his near-legendary status, might have been exempted from his fate, is gone, his life cut short, his remains turned into a trophy – a head mounted perhaps over a fireplace, a rug that used to be part of a body. What purpose did the killing of Big John serve? Perhaps so Mr. DeSantis could tell the tale, repeated and no doubt embellished, of how, aided only by a baying pack of dogs and a professional guide who drove the bear into his line of fire, he shot a noble animal to death so he could enjoy the sport of it and, as he said so himself, feel very honored.

Don Loprieno
Bristol