Jim Freeman In The Open
October 20, 2013
“Poachers Were My Prey: Eighteen Years as an Undercover Wildlife Officer” is R.T. Stewart’s first-person narrative as told by Chip Gross. If you have read the Wild Ohio publication of the Ohio Division of Wildlife for any length of time, you are probably familiar with Chip’s stories and photographs.
Chip, who is also retired from the Ohio Division of Wildlife, even injects himself into the book a time or two, but the subject and hero of the book is clearly Meigs County native son R.T.
R.T. in his book paints a graphic image of the personalities behind poaching, and dispels any thoughts that it is somehow a victimless crime or just guys “trying to put some meat on their table.”
Poachers are not some sort of Robin Hoods taking from the rich and giving to the poor; they endanger the lives of other people through their recklessness, stealing from legitimate sportsmen and give a black eye to legitimate hunters and anglers.
As a young newspaper reporter working for the Ohio Valley Publishing Company back in the 1990s, and as outdoorsman as well, I took great personal interest in one story that I covered – the arrest, trial and conviction of Michael Barker of Charleston, W.Va.
Barker was a notorious poacher with convictions dating back to 1974, and in 1994 was the subject of a poaching investigation by the Ohio Division of Wildlife. That fall he was arrested by then-Meigs County Wildlife Officer Keith Wood and Special Deputy Dana Aldridge (both friends of mine) following a long car chase that ended, ironically enough, when Barker’s car struck a deer, and a scuffle that ultimately resulted in Barker receiving an 18-month prison term on a variety of criminal charges related to the poaching and the chase and struggle.
West Virginia game officials also seized dozens of trophy deer heads and four full-body mounts from Barker’s home. I remember taking a photograph for the paper of Wood and Aldridge standing in the back of a pickup truck with a standing full-body mounted deer.
At that time I didn’t know the full story behind the arrest, and its role in what was called, appropriately enough, Operation Ego. Poachers Were My Prey helped fill in some of the gaps.
Poachers come from varying socio-economic classes and are motivated by profit, the fun of killing and for bragging rights, or in Barker’s case a lust for large antlers or “hornography,” as it was called in the book.
These are not good guys, and they don’t have any respect for laws and regulations. Rules are meant to be followed by the other guys and don’t apply to them – and in many cases they were involved in illegal drug use or trafficking or other illegal activities including theft (boat motors, all-terrain vehicles, hunting equipment and even goose decoys from peoples’ yards) and even an illegal tire-dumping scam – and who isn’t frustrated by that?
The most nauseating part of the book to me was a description of deer carcasses waiting to be processed for eventual use in Chinese restaurants with the assumption that unwitting people would eventually eat them as sweet and sour pork or in other entrees.
Although it is refreshing to know that investigators are out there protecting wildlife, parts of the book also read like a how-to manual instructing poachers on how NOT to get caught, and describes the traits possessed by those poachers who were difficult or impossible to catch.
These guys actually like to brag on their abilities to overharvest or illegally kill game, and it seems like one of RT’s favorite tactics was to simply get the conversation rolling and let the subjects of the investigation roll it from there. In several instances he was able to openly videotape the poachers who wanted their acts recorded, presumably so they could show the videos to their friends or watch them later.
Once I picked the book up I found myself unable to put it back down, eager to read about R.T.’s continuing exploits. Parts of the book smack of braggadocio, but as Yogi Berra reportedly said, “It’s not bragging if you can do it.” With his outgoing, larger-than-life personality and night-owl tendencies, it is easy to see how R.T. could make contact and eventually gain the trust of these poachers.
Poachers Were My Prey is a must-read for all outdoorsmen, but is written in a simple, easy-to-understand style that should appeal to non-sportsmen as well. It is available for purchase online for Kindle, paperback or audiobook for less than $20.
Jim Freeman is wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District and a long-time contributor to the Sunday Times-Sentinel. He can be contacted weekdays at 740-992-4282 or at firstname.lastname@example.org