Out­ward mo­bil­ity: Para­plegic hunters pur­sue their pas­sion

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FEATURES - By Mark Pratt

BOS­TON >> For more than 40 years, para­plegic hunters have gath­ered in the predawn dark­ness around Mas­sachusetts for an op­por­tu­nity that would oth­er­wise be dif­fi­cult, if not im­pos­si­ble.

The spe­cial­ized deer hunt brings to­gether sports­men and women, vol­un­teers and work­ers from the state Di­vi­sion of Fish­eries and Wildlife for three days every fall.

John Pel­letier broke his back when he fell out of a tree stand while hunt­ing in 2004, and the pro­gram has al­lowed him to con­tinue what he calls his pas­sion. He now takes his .50-cal­iber muz­zle-loader to the Mas­sachusetts Mil­i­tary Reser­va­tion on Cape Cod to hunt every year.

“Some guys get a mis­tress when they hit 40; I started hunt­ing,” said a laugh­ing Pel­letier, 57, of West­port, who uses a spe­cial­ized wheel­chair with what he de­scribes as moun­tain bike tires that give him bet­ter ma­neu­ver­abil­ity in the wild. “These hunts re­ally af­ford me the op­por­tu­nity to get back in the woods like I did be­fore.”

Most states make ac­com­mo­da­tions for dis­abled hunters, said Bill Fer­tig, di­rec­tor of the re­source cen­ter at the United Spinal As­so­ci­a­tion, a New York-based or­ga­ni­za­tion that ad­vo­cates for im­prov­ing the qual­ity of life of peo­ple liv­ing with spinal cord in­juries.

But Mas­sachusetts is among fewer than a dozen states that set aside spe­cial sea­sons and spe­cific hunt­ing ar­eas for the dis­abled. Many of­fer waived or re­duced fees for dis­abled hunters, al­low them to hunt from their ve­hi­cles or al­low the use of spe­cial­ized equip­ment which hunters who have full use of their legs are not al­lowed to use.

“Be­ing able to do what you used to do, or what ev­ery­body else can do, es­pe­cially if it’s your pas­sion, is part of what makes you who you are,” Fer­tig said.

Trina Mor­ruzi, a wildlife bi­ol­o­gist with the Mas­sachusetts Di­vi­sion of Fish­eries and Wildlife who has been co­or­di­nat­ing the pro­gram for 16 years, said it started in 1972 when a group of para­plegic sports­men went to state leg­is­la­tors and got a statute passed es­tab­lish­ing the three-day hunt, held Thurs­day, Fri­day and Satur­day this year.

The num­ber of sites where the hunt is of­fered has grown over the years, giv­ing more peo­ple the op­por­tu­nity to par­tic­i­pate.

This year it was held in five spots — in Wil­liamstown and Mount Washington in the Berk­shire Moun­tains; in a wildlife area near the Quab­bin Reser­voir, the state’s largest body of wa­ter; at the for­mer Fort Devens army base; and on Cape Cod, a site added in 2011.

About 25 to 30 dis­abled hunters par­tic­i­pate every year, along with dozens of vol­un­teers and state work­ers. The state al­lows any­one who doesn’t have use of their legs to par­tic­i­pate, Moruzzi said. In the past, at least two quad­ri­plegic hunters have par­tic­i­pated with highly spe­cial­ized equip­ment, although there were none this year, she said.

Vol­un­teers scout out the woods in the days be­fore the hunt, look­ing for the best places to set up blinds, said Dave Esielio­nis, 71, of Shirley, a vol­un­teer at the Devens lo­ca­tion. They place ply­wood in the woods so wheel­chairs don’t get stuck in mud.

They meet be­fore dawn on hunt days, help­ing hunters out of their ve­hi­cles and es­cort­ing them to the sites. They check on them dur­ing the day, and if they get a deer, they help them haul their game out of the woods.

The har­vest rate for the para­plegic hunt is about the same as the as the har­vest rate for all hunters, Moruzzi said.

CHARLES KRUPA — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In this Fri­day photo, para­plegic hunter Gary Dupuis, Ash­burn­ham, Mass., waits in his all-ter­rain wheel­chair, equipped with a shoot­ing rack for his shot­gun, while deer hunt­ing in Devens, Mass. The Mas­sachusetts Di­vi­sion of Fish­eries and Wildlife of­fi­cials and vol­un­teers have run a pro­gram that gets para­plegic hunters into the woods to hunt for deer dur­ing a spe­cial sea­son. This year’s hunt was held over this past week­end at five sites through­out the state, giv­ing peo­ple who use wheel­chairs a recre­ational op­por­tu­nity they wouldn’t oth­er­wise get.

CHARLES KRUPA — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In this Fri­day photo, para­plegic hunt of­fi­cials and vol­un­teers watch the sun­set as the hunt­ing day ends with­out shoot­ing a deer in Devens, Mass. The Mas­sachusetts Di­vi­sion of Fish­eries and Wildlife of­fi­cials and vol­un­teers have run a pro­gram that gets para­plegic hunters into the woods to hunt for deer dur­ing a spe­cial sea­son.

CHARLES KRUPA — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In this Fri­day photo, para­plegic hunt vol­un­teer Dave Esielio­nis, stand­ing at right, and MassWildlife bi­ol­o­gist John Sheedy, left, talk with hunter Gary Dupuis, Ash­burn­ham, Mass., who points out where he saw a deer ear­lier in the day, as they visit a stand at lunch time in Devens, Mass. The Mas­sachusetts Di­vi­sion of Fish­eries and Wildlife of­fi­cials and vol­un­teers have run a pro­gram that gets para­plegic hunters into the woods to hunt for deer dur­ing a spe­cial sea­son.

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