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Coon Hunting and the Internet

May 2012, American Cooner Magazine Cover

It was another day at the office at 100 East Kilgore Road when the big guy, Fred Miller, President and CEO of UKC called from his corner office down the hall. “Steve, can you come down?”   Immediately my thoughts began to run the gamut of possibilities embodied in Fred’s request. Fred was not a micro-manager.  He interrupted the routine of his staff only when he thought necessary or when he had a big announcement to make. Since I wasn’t due a raise, I could only imagine there was something new afloat and Fred wanted to tell the staff about it. I nailed it.

Fred was an innovator and had done much to automate the registration process at the registry since purchasing it in February of 1973. I came aboard as Field Operations Manager in January of 1983, ten years later.  Fred immediately set about to improve efficiency when he bought the registry and often told the story of the ways things were in ’73 under Doctor Ed Fuhrman, the former owner and son-in-law of UKC founder Chauncey Bennett. “Each day at 4:15 a buzzer would sound and everyone would drop the work they were doing, take a roll of stamps out of their desks and prepare the day’s work for mailing.” Fred was equally incredulous at the antiquated systems he viewed on his first visit to the AKC in New York. He wanted to bring the registry business into the computer age and UKC’s success in providing an incredible amount of information for a nominal price can be largely attributed to Fred’s foresight.  When I arrived he had succeeded, with the help of interns from Western Michigan University, in programming each of the UKC coonhound club locations into the UKC mainframe computer, probably an IBM System 34 and soon after I arrived, he updated to the new IBM System 36 computer, the latest in the field of computers for small businesses at that time. A mainframe computer utilized a series of expensive monitors so we were limited initially to one per office. I felt like Mr. Big when I was told I would have my own when I hired in.

Fred’s announcement centered upon his decision to move the office to personal computers. He had enrolled senior staff which consisted of Sara Jonas in Registration, his son John Miller in Publications and me in Field Operations in an “Introduction to Micro Computers” course at local Kalamazoo College. We attended the class in the evening after work in preparation for the IBM PC’s that would soon occupy our desk tops.  We learned the fundamentals such as what is a CPU (Central Processing Unit), a keyboard, a monitor and the basis of the industry standard DOS (Data Operating System). Basically we learned what the thing looked like and how to turn it on. The rest was up to us.

The World Wide Web would burst onto the scene in the 1990’s and forever change the way we communicate and share information but little did I realize that my first day at UKC, January 3rd, 1983 very closely coincided with the implementation of Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and Internet Protocol (IP) on January 1 of the same year. These protocols would make the connecting of existing and future computer networks extremely simple and would usher in the Internet as we know it but that’s getting way too technical for our purposes here.

Fast forward a few years and the subject of Internet access came up at UKC. Fred was adamantly opposed to email, having heard of the horrors of employees utilizing work time to answer a flood of requests that would, in his mind, take time away from the nuts and bolts of our daily work in providing registration papers, booking event dates, and publishing our magazines. By that time anyone whose job it was to deal with the public at UKC had PC’s while the data input people soldiered on with their mainframe monitors. He finally conceded in getting Internet service and linked it to one PC in the Registration office that could be used strictly on an “at need” basis. That opened the door for me to lobby for a website for UKC.  I went to a local web designer and we soon had the first UKC coonhound website up and running. I don’t recall the date but it would have been in the mid 1990’s.

The first coonhound website of any significance up to that time was Coonhound Central operated by Robert Hardesty in the Northeast. Hardesty put up the first message forum and it was a wild and wooly affair that ran for several years. I met a young man named Mike Nelson while I was at UKC that had a coonhound site called Trax Coonhound Magazine. Mike wanted to sell his site to me but I felt the price was way out of line and couldn’t see how I could generate enough income to make it pay.  As I began to talk to Mike about ways to improve the UKC site he realized my vision was greater than his level of expertise and he introduced me to a guy that has played a major part in the development of coonhound websites for me personally as well as for PKC and AKC, Mike Phillips of Richardson, Texas. Phillips was an engineer for Ericsson, the Swedish communications giant, setting up phone networks around the country when I met him.  He once told me when I asked him if he could do thus and so with the site we were building, “Steve, I can make a website do everything but spit out gold coins.” Mike’s brag wasn’t far from the truth.  Together he and I would develop the PKC site, www.prohound.com, the AKC coonhound site, www.akccoonhounds.com, my personal website, www.plottdogs.com, and a site for the Michigan Hunting Dog Federation.  Mike would also develop numerous sites for individuals and associations within the sport. All have been successful in their own rights and have contributed to the development of a tremendously large online community of coon hunters.   Phillips’ wife Tina is in the Air Force and when they moved to Germany it signaled the beginning of the end of Mike’s long history of hosting of dog-related sites.  He will always stand out in my mind as the most important pioneer in establishing coon hunting-related web sites and was a real champion for our sport behind the scenes.  He was a vigilant guardian as he developed security for the sites that were and are consistently under attack from animal rights-oriented hackers and other sources.

Just how popular has Internet usage by coon hunters become? When I left the UKC, the registry posted its own message forum online and due to its number one ranking among coonhound registries the UKC board has become the most popular as well, logging at last count  an amazing 1 million, one hundred and sixteen thousand, six-hundred and seventy-seven (1,111677) posts in more than one hundred thousand message threads! As evidence that coon hunters take to the message forums in greater numbers than other dog fanciers, the combined total of posts by beaglers, cur and feist fanciers, big game enthusiasts, and “other breed” fanciers on the UKC boards is 186,000 or 16% of the coonhound total. And that begs the question, how has all this attention to the Internet by coon hunters affected our sport?

Obviously improved communication has been the greatest asset of Internet usage by coon hunters. I recall fondly when I was a kid that if my dad lost a dog while bear hunting (this was long before the advent of recovery collars) he had his name and address on the dog’s collar. The dog would show up at someone’s farm and they would write a post card or letter to my dad giving the directions to the house. Dad would wait until the weekend when he could get off work and would drive to the farmer’s house and retrieve his hound. Today, through the wonders of GPS recovery systems, hounds are rarely lost and if they are, and by some stroke of fate the finder fails to contact the loser’s cell phone, a message and a photo posted by either party within hours of the loss usually results in the dog being recovered online.

Ain’t Misbehavin’

With the advent of the Message Forums, initially there was the Coonhound Central board followed by the PKC, the UKC and the AKC boards in that order, came what experts in such things call the “disinhibition effect.” Simply stated, the premise is that people are not “inhibited” online.  John Suler in his book The Psychology of Cyberspace  describes the disinhibition effect this way:
“It’s well known that people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t ordinarily say or do in the face-to-face world.  They loosen up, feel more uninhibited, express themselves more openly.  Researchers call this the “disinhibition effect.”  It’s a double-edged sword. Sometimes people share very personal things about themselves. They reveal secret emotions, fears wishes. Or they show unusual acts of kindness and generosity.  We may call this benign disinhibition. On the other hand, the disinhibition effect may not be so benign. Out spills rude language and harsh criticism, anger, hatred, even threats. We might call this toxic disinhibition.”

Right away it became evident that coonhound message boards were going to be a handful.  To once again quote John Suler: “That anonymity works wonders for the disinhibition effect. When people have the opportunity to separate their actions from their real world and identity, they feel less vulnerable about opening up. Whatever they say or do can’t be directly linked to the rest of their lives. They don’t have to own their behavior by acknowledging it within the full context of who they “really” are. When acting out hostile feelings, the person doesn’t have to take responsibility for those actions. In fact, people might even convince themselves that those behaviors “aren’t me at all.”  In psychology this is called “disassociation.”

Early users, hiding behind the dissociative anonymity that the “usernames” provided, began to flex their muscles, calling out other message forum members, criticizing the dogs of others and picking cyber fights on the boards.  I could see that without regulation and lots of it these message boards weren’t going to be good for our sport at all.

Cleaning up Dodge City
Shortly after bringing the PKC message forum online, what I have come to refer to as the Roofer/Racet/Coma wars (those of you who were around in those early days back in 2005 will recognize the term) and other such online feuds prompted us to require full disclosure in terms of who authored posts on the PKC boards. We implemented a first and last name registration policy. We posted rules of conduct for board usage and also implemented a “two-strikes-and-you’re-out” policy for offenders meaning that the first questionable post was deleted and that deletion would serve as a warning. The second questionable post would result in the individual being banned from the board. The effect was amazingly positive. I’m a firm believer in full name disclosure for message forums which tends to neutralize the disinhibition effect. We implemented the same policies when I came to AKC with the same result. The downside to full name disclosure is that this type of control by message board hosts does inhibit some viewers from posting at all. It naturally follows that message board participation on the UKC board would be greater than with the boards of PKC and AKC given that the UKC coonhound community is the largest in the sport.  The fact that UKC does not require full name disclosure of its participants also contributes to the tremendous activity their board receives. It also requires a much more diligent monitoring effort and despite best efforts, more controversial material may surface on that board from time to time.

What effect has the Cyber Coon Hunter on our sport? One area for which no statistical data exists is in the area of the effect the Internet has on actual participation in the sport.  Are more hunters doing their coon hunting online than actually going to the woods? Has the drug store or coffee shop coon hunter of old become the Internet coon hunter of today? Is time spent in front of a monitor taking the place of actual hours spent out hunting? If so, what effect is this having on the quality of our dogs and is Internet use having an overall negative effect on the sport?
Old timers and those known to be top trainers and handlers will tell you there’s no substitute for actually hunting the dog in order to finish and to maintain a top-winning coonhound.  There’s no doubt many coon hunters today, in part due to time restraints attributed to family and work,  are not hunting as much as did the hunters of yesterday. Many hounds are hunted only in competition, either in a one-hour midweek event or on a weekend sanctioned hunt. But just how many hunters, feeling the need to be involved in the sport, are opting to sit down at the computer rather than put on the boots and light, load the hounds and drive out to the woods?  I’m sure nobody knows for sure but perhaps the registries or publishers, in order to forecast the future of the sport, should perform surveys to that end. The results may be very telling. One quick check would be to note the time most message board posts are made to determine how many are being made in the early evening hours when a hunter would otherwise most likely be out with his or her hound. I would be leery of buying a hound from, or sending a hound to be trained by someone that spends all the evening hours online.  That little tip didn’t cost you a dime.

Vendors will tell you that Internet sales are important but there’s no substitute for actually going to the major events.  Otherwise they would not put so much time and effort into the logistics of having their booths at those events. But significant online sales tell them that Internet coon hunters want to have all the latest gear, even if they may actually be hunting less. In my opinion the success vendors are experiencing today despite the economy and an overall decline in the number of individuals actually engaged in the sport may be, in part, proof of this theory.  I can see images of cyber hunters out there, all geared-up in their boots, lights, GPS trackers, electronic trainers and squallers, and saturated in mosquito repellant as they surf the coonhound message boards.  Ridiculous perhaps but the idea is the same.  If hunters are spending training time on the computer, the sport, in terms of producing better hounds, has to suffer overall.

On the other side of the coin, the Internet may create interest in the sport in ways we never thought possible. Young people, surfing the web may be intrigued by the exciting aspects of nite hunting, may be influenced to join peers of their age group and may seek out clubs in their areas in which to participate all because they were introduced to the sport online. Older hunters may find in the Internet the opportunity to stay in tune with the sport long after their bodies have signaled it’s time to quit. There’s no doubt the information super highway delivers information on the whereabouts of good hounds, and those not so good, at warp speed and enables a prospective buyer to shop several hounds before deciding to make the long drive to hunt with the dog or to breed a female. The convenience aspects of Internet coon hunting are many and likewise are the pitfalls.  Prospective buyers may buy into online hype rather than actually going out and mashing mud behind the hound before breeding or buying and therein lies the danger. Of course that same danger lies in printed ads in coonhound publications.  Hunt before you buy is good advice no matter how one finds a hound of interest.

Will Facebook replace the Message Boards? Enhanced communication within the sport has been the greatest benefit gained through the Internet. And as important as the coonhound message boards have become, new vehicles are now available that enable coon hunters to communicate at levels never before possible. Entrepreneur Sean Parker, whose net worth reached $2.1 billion in the third quarter of 2011, was the founding President of Facebook, the social media craze that is already changing the way many coon hunters and coonhound enthusiasts communicate.
The advantages of Facebook and the less popular but effective Twitter, over the message boards are many. Unlike the message boards, users may “choose” those with which they wish to communicate to the exclusion of anyone else.  Users send “friend” requests to other users and if accepted, they reap the opportunity to enter the friend’s online community, noting not only the friend’s posted thoughts but also viewing personal information the friend has chosen to post on their “wall,” another name for what amounts to a personal web page. And coon hunters are using Facebook in ever-increasing numbers. Currently I have responded to more than 700 friend requests on my Facebook page, mainly consisting of coon and big game hunters.  When a request is received, the number of mutual friends shared with that individual is posted, giving me a pretty good idea of the type of person that originated the request. If I make a bad choice, evidenced by the type of posts that appear on my wall from the individual, once they become my friend, I can “un-friend” that individual and I don’t have to view his or posts any more. More importantly, I don’t have to wait for a message board monitor to do the job for me.  Unlike the message forums which consist of a potpourri of posts of every description, and in many cases from unknowns, Facebook allows me to communicate with those I have chosen and no more.

The greatest benefit of Facebook over message boards in my view is the ability to communicate with those from whom I wish to hear, from all walks of life, not just the hunting community, and to do so with the smallest amount of effort in the shortest amount of time.  Twitter is another social media vehicle that permits me the opportunity to follow the daily ramblings of individuals of my choosing. There’s a very stingy limit of characters one may compose in a “Tweet” and I use it mainly to keep up with sports figures and politicians that I wish to “follow.”  It’s a simple “what’s on my mind” kind of thing that isn’t nearly as involved as Facebook and to date, coon hunters haven’t embraced it.   I am following 10 personalities on Twitter, none of them coon hunters and I have three that are following me. Contrast that with the 700 Facebook friends I have and you get the picture. Facebook’s “Ego Wall” Effect
Whereas it has generally been considered poor taste to brag about the accomplishments of one’s dogs in printed news columns or in online message forums, there’s a different environment on Facebook in regard to boasting of one’s accomplishments in dog shows and to a lesser but increasing degree, in Nite Hunt competition. Users are routinely posting their “wins” for their friends to see, much as one would use the phone to call a close friend or perhaps the owner of a dog one is handling and to give the results of the night’s hunt or the day’s activities at the dog show. Apparently, displaying one’s “ego wall” of achievements on Facebook is as acceptable as having a guest to your home tour of your trophy room.

CONCLUSION
There’s no doubt the Internet has enhanced the sport of coon hunting from a communications standpoint and it can be argued that it has hindered the performance of our dogs and the quality of the outdoors experience for many of us who have fallen for the lure of the monitor over the call of the wild.  But, for many others of us, especially old school guys like me, there’s no substitute for the friendly feel of a good book or favorite magazine in hand at the close of a long or weary day.  I’ve especially enjoyed reading my coonhound magazines since my retirement to the mountains. And, although I enjoy the economy and convenience of my Amazon Kindle electronic reader, I had to purchase a book cover for it so I could have the comfort and security I feel with a good book in hand when I read. No computer screen can take me to faraway places, along sweet-running streams and bring the call of the hounds to heart like turning the pages of the real thing. Even when I sat down to proof read this article before sending it along to the publisher, I had to print it out and hold it in my hand.

The Internet will impact our sport, no matter whether we accept it or not. It will be up to you and me to keep things in perspective, to remember that there’s no substitute for hunting our hounds if we wish them to succeed, and that words spoken, or typed as the case may be, have an effect on those that hear or read them. It’s our job to ensure that they result in something good.  In closing, pardon me as I paraphrase Psalm 19:14:
Let the words (that I type), and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.

By, Steve Fielder

American Cooner May 2012 Coon Hunting and the Internet – Steve Fielder