WASHINGTON -- Vice President Dick Cheney's Christmas card arrived in the capital's mailboxes last week with this suddenly apt quotation from Benjamin Franklin: "And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?"
Franklin made the remark at the 1787 Constitutional Convention to argue that because something as small as a sparrow's death comes to God's attention, clearly God has a voice in the affairs of men. Therefore, Franklin argued, a prayer should open the daily sessions held to write the founding document of the United States. (Franklin lost the argument, but his passage won a place in history.)
All of which brings us to Mr. Cheney's bird-hunting trip at the exclusive Rolling Rock Club in the hills of southwestern Pennsylvania last Monday, when he and nine others in his party shot some 400 out of 500 pen-raised pheasants released for the morning hunt. No one might have noticed the episode if The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had not reported it, including the detail that the vice president had shot more than 70 of the ring-necked pheasants himself.
As a result, a lot of other people noticed the fallen birds: hunters who pursue birds in the wild, the Democratic presidential candidates and the Humane Society of the United States, which likened the shootings to the first day of the Iraq war.
"This can only be called a shooting-gallery operation," said Wayne Pacelle, the senior vice president of the Humane Society, who pronounced himself outraged. "Hunting is supposed to involve some opportunity for the animal to evade the hunter. Hunting in this setting is reduced to mass killing."
Mr. Cheney, who almost never speaks to the news media, had no comment on his trip or the identity of his hunting companions, and his office provided only sparse information. White House officials also declined to release photographs they have of the vice president in full hunting mode. But the vice president's spokesman, Kevin Kellems, did say that the pheasants were cleaned, packed and sent to those less fortunate.
"The birds don't go to waste, they go to hunger relief charities," Mr. Kellems said.
Mr. Kellems, however, said he could not provide the names or locations of any charities or soup kitchens that received the birds and did not know how they were prepared, when they were served and who in fact ate them. (Pheasant under glass was an aristocratic dish of an earlier era; today's pheasant aficionados say the birds are delicious, although bony, and can be tough if improperly cooked.)
Details of the exact nature of the hunt were also hard to come by. Officers at the private Rolling Rock Club, which meanders over 10,000 acres in Ligonier Township about a 90-minute drive from Pittsburgh, did not return numerous calls seeking comment. Employees reached in the club's dog kennels said they had been ordered not to speak to the news media. The employees added that they did not know what had become of Scott Wakefield, a dog handler at the club who was quoted by The Post-Gazette as saying that 500 birds had been released from nets for the hunt.
If nets were used, bird-hunting experts said, Mr. Cheney and his party were probably prepositioned with shotguns on the ground or in blinds in trees. Another possibility was that the birds were released from a tower, with Mr. Cheney and the others ready for them on the ground. A final possibility was that the pheasants were released early in the day or the night before, and Mr. Cheney and his companions then went after them on foot.
Whatever the case, hunters generally do not embrace any form of the practice as a substitute for the real thing.
"I don't see anything terribly wrong with it, but I don't think it should be confused with hunting," said Sid Evans, editor in chief of the outdoor magazine Field & Stream. Shooting pen-raised birds, he said, "is a great way to train dogs, and it's a great way to educate young hunters."
Mr. Cheney often hunts in the wild, and his office would not discuss how frequently he shoots pen-raised birds at private clubs. The Post-Gazette reported, however, that Monday's trip was the second time Mr. Cheney had visited Rolling Rock. The newspaper also said Mr. Cheney had spent Monday afternoon at the club shooting an undetermined number of mallard ducks.
In October, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a Democratic presidential candidate, blew two pheasants out of the Iowa sky in two shots of his 12-gauge shotgun, a display meant to show his prowess as well as his support for the rights of hunters and an assault-weapons ban. Mr. Kerry downed the birds in a cornfield, not at a private club.
"Something here doesn't add up," said David Wade, Mr. Kerry's spokesman. "The Bush administration says the economy is improving, but their millionaire vice president has to hunt for his own food."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company