By Bob Frye
Sunday, October 26, 2008

A broken back suffered while stationed in Bosnia with the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division in 1995 changed Robert Morris’ life in many ways.

He’s an “incomplete paraplegic” now. That means he can stand and even walk very short distances with the help of his braces and/or canes. But the once-active outdoorsman spends much of his time in a wheelchair.

That does not keep him out of the woods, though.

The 37-year-old who grew up in Vanderbilt and now lives in Grindstone, is as passionate a hunter today as he ever was. Any frustrations he experiences are generally the same ones felt by anyone who’s tried to cross paths with a particular wild animal in a particular season at a particular place.

“Sometimes, on these doe hunts, the deer I want to shoot at are busy getting out of there. And the ones I can’t shoot at, like bucks, stand there and look at you,” he said.

But at least he’s getting out. That’s more than many would-be handicapped hunters are doing.

No one knows just how many disabled hunters there are in Pennsylvania. The state Game Commission issues permits to those who need to hunt from a vehicle, but spokesman Jerry Feaser could not say how many have been issued. It’s true, too, that once a permit is issued, the commission does not track it, so some permits on the books may belong to hunters now deceased, he said.

What is known is that, according to statistics from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 39 percent of the nation’s residents participated in wildlife related recreation in 2001. Just 12 percent of America’s disabled did the same.

Not surprisingly, physical limitations were identified as the primary limiting factor in keeping them from getting outdoors.

“Nature is not always wheelchair friendly,” as Morris said.

There is help available, however.

Over the past three days, for example, South Fayette Township held its sixth annual doe hunt for disabled sportsmen. Thanks to a corps of volunteers who do everything from put on deer drives to drag dead deer out, and donations and grants that provide any needed equipment, the township was able to get as many as 10 handicapped hunters a day into the woods around Boys Home Park and the Alpine Club.

“Our philosophy is, we take away the can’t,” said Jerry Males, the township’s director of parks and recreation. “We can’t do anything about the want, but we’ll take away the can’t.

“I tell these guys that if they can get to my doorstep, I’ll get them hunting. And if they can’t get to my doorstep, we’ll go get them.”

Sometimes, South Fayette’s disabled hunters — like Morris, who’s participated every year but one — kill deer. Always, though, they have fun, like when they gather with volunteers for lunch. It was chili Thursday, stew Friday, and a pig roast Saturday.

“This is as much about the social experience as it is about hunting,” Males said. “It has very much a hunting camp atmosphere.”

There’s a real demand for such events, said Illana Burkhart, program coordinator for the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Wheelin’ Sportsmen, an initiative aimed at getting the disabled into hunting, fishing and the like. About 20,000 disabled sportsmen attended Wheelin’ events nationwide last year alone, she said.

“And I think we could easily triple that,” Burkhart said. “I get 10 to 15 requests a day from people looking for events to go to, and we just don’t have anything started in some areas yet.”

But so much more could be done, Males said. It just takes organization.

“We’re trying to show people that you can do this,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be big. If you can only take four or five guys out, that’s four or five guys. That’s a start.”

It’s one that’s appreciated, too, Morris said.

“There are a lot of good people out there working hard to give people opportunities to hunt that maybe they wouldn’t have otherwise,” he said. “It’s a good thing.”


Bob Frye can be reached at [email protected] or 724-838-5148.