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Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

Occasionally something so disconcerting happens it leaves you gasping for breath.

Such an event occurred last Tuesday when five American white pelicans were shot and killed at Newton Lake in central Illinois. Another wounded pelican is recuperating at the University of Illinois.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is asking anyone with details of this crime to call its Target Illinois Poachers hotline at 1-877-236-7529.

The ridiculousness of this crime can’t be overstated.

Why?

There is no hunting season for pelicans. Because pelicans are protected by the federal Migratory Bird Act, the perpetrators couldn't have had the birds mounted — it’s against the law for taxidermists to mount a protected species.

And, when the bird in question has a wingspan of nine feet, that’s pretty difficult to hide or disguise.

Finally, when the animal in question is that large, it’s not like you’re going to brag about your marksmanship.

It’s a difficult thought, but the reason these regal birds were slaughtered is because some damaged person enjoys killing.

Hunting isn’t for everyone. I understand that. There are many people who simply cannot bear the thought of taking an animal’s life, whether it be a squirrel, a rabbit, duck, turkey or deer.

At no time in my life have I been an avid hunter. By the same token, the experience of hunting turkey, ducks and other creatures can be breathtaking. Although, for the record, I don’t understand trophy hunting. If you are going to kill a creature, eat it.

The vast majority of people I’ve hunted with over the years do not enjoy the act of killing an animal. They enjoy placing themselves in the animal’s environment to pit their instincts against Mother Nature.

Most hunters can recall in minute detail how a hunt unfolds, whether it is successful or not. There are vivid memories of strutting turkeys or ducks landing in a decoy spread that I can summon simply by closing my eyes.

But, there is always that moment when you pick up the animal whose life you have just taken that is spiritually sobering. You see the gaudy colors of the mallard drake. You feel the incredible softness of a rabbit’s fur.

It’s impossible not to be touched by the wonders of nature at that point. At that moment, the finality of your action becomes real.

I spent several years accompanying hunters, armed solely with a camera. I’d heard my friends and colleagues talk about that moment. I never truly understood until I decided it was time to fully experience the hunt.

It is impossible to explain to a non-hunter. I’ve tried.

Unfortunately, unscrupulous people like the person or persons who shot the pelicans give all hunters a bad name. Many people are all too willing to believe that hunters are nothing more than blood thirsty killers.

It’s simply not true.

As for the criminals who committed this act? I hope they are caught and prosecuted. They should forfeit all hunting and fishing rights. They should never be allowed to own a firearm. And, they should be sentenced to years of public service, hopefully cleaning outhouses in state parks.

Most of all, I hope someday they understand the gravity of their actions.

LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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