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BEAR OF A PROBLEM : WISH GROUP DEFENDS BOY'S HUNTING TRIP.

Byline: Susan Goldsmith Daily News Staff Writer

They are in the business of granting wishes to dying and very sick children.

It is an uncomplicated, philanthropic mission of taking terminally ill youngsters to Disneyland, to meet celebrities and on shopping sprees.

But a Minnesota teen-ager suffering from a brain tumor has changed all that. Eric Ness asked the Make-A-Wish Foundation for a trip to Alaska to hunt a kodiak bear and got it.

The decision has hurled the charitable group into a political vortex - the debate over animal rights.

While Ness and his father scour the Alaskan woods for a kodiak bear, officials from Make-A-Wish are making the rounds of newspaper and broadcast interviews - hoping to stop an avalanche of bad publicity.

``Our wish family is in a state of shock,'' said Douglas Elmets, a 38-year-old public affairs consultant from Sacramento who serves on the Make-A-Wish Foundation board. ``These activists want to destroy an organization that has done so much for so many.''

For the past week, the organization has been fielding thousands of phone calls from animal rights activists who are furious the group granted the boy's bear-hunting wish.

And the protesters have gone public with their outrage, urging Make-A-Wish donors to pull financial support for the group.

For an organization unaccustomed to controversy, it has been a fast and troubling induction into the world of politics.

Even though it was the Minnesota Make-A-Wish chapter's decision to grant the boy's wish, the national organization is supporting the branch office, Elmets said.

``America is a mosaic of lifestyles and values. This is a kid who grew up hunting and fishing his entire life,'' Elmets said. ``Should this be the Make-A-Politically-Correct-Wish Foundation?''

Animal rights activists say the debate is not about political correctness, but about the humane treatment of animals.

``It is absolutely unconscionable they granted this wish,'' said Lila Brooks, director of the Hollywood-based California Wildlife Defenders. ``They should have told him this wish was not feasible and was cruel. . . . I will never support Make-A-Wish because of this.''

Because of the uproar, Elmets said Make-A-Wish is now polling its 82 branch offices to determine whether hunting-related wishes should be categorically denied or granted by chapters that deem it acceptable.

In Los Angeles, the local organization has a standing policy against granting any wish that involves the use of a firearm, said Judith Lewis, the local Make-A-Wish executive director.

Since Wednesday, Lewis said, the Los Angeles office had received 1,700 angry phone calls and scores of letters about the bear-hunting wish.

``All we have done is answer phone calls. No other work has gotten done. No wishes have been granted,'' she said. ``We just hope that the people who have withdrawn their (financial) support will rethink their position and continue to help these kids.''

More than $4,000 for the Minnesota teen's Alaska trip was paid for by the Arizona-based Safari Club International, which also has been trying to control the fallout from the decision for the last few days.

Safari Club officials make no apologies for their support.

``Hunting is a legal activity that is done by over 17 million Americans,'' said Gray Thornton, membership and chapter director for Safari Club International, which is based in Tucson, Ariz. ``Our concern is that Make-A-Wish is being vilified by a vocal minority trying to impose its view on mainstream America.''

Ness arrived in southeastern Alaska over the weekend with his father. The two are now raking the state's forests with a wildlife guide, hunting for a kodiak, the largest brown bear, Thornton said.

``It's called spot and stalk hunting. They're using binoculars to find the animal but brown bears are difficult to hunt because they're elusive and it's big, big country,'' he said. ``The success rate of brown bear hunting is Alaska is about 13 percent.''

Thornton pointed out that people in rural areas throughout the country have expressed support for the Make-A-Wish decision.

``It's the people in urban areas who are upset about this,'' he said. ``Those are the people who are very removed from the life and death struggles of nature.''

Madeline Bernstein, executive director of the Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals/Southern California Humane Society, disagrees, saying the decision to grant Eric's bear-hunting wish demonstrates a callous regard for life.

``We're trying to teach people respect for life and empathy for animals,'' she said. ``Gratuitously killing a brown bear is not the kind of message we think Make-A-Wish should be involved in.''

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PHOTO (color) Douglas Elmets says the foundation is in a st ate of shock.

Terri Thuente/Daily News
COPYRIGHT 1996 Daily News
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 21, 1996
Words:770
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