For more than 40 years, paraplegic hunters have gathered in the predawn darkness around Massachusetts for an opportunity that might 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.
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“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.