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Quackscam and Cockatiels

Libertarians limber up their guns on the Illinois

Illinois Times

January 2, 1981

In round figures, the history of the Illinois River valley over Beardstown way is the pillage of that stream's natural resources by heedless humans. 'Tain't funny, but the practice of what in a different context would be called genocide of alien species by the locals has been going on so long that it is sanctioned by tradition.


News of a big-time crackdown on wild game violations led me to contact Calvin Trillin, the New Yorker writer. I thought the story had possibilities for his U.S. Journal series. So did he, and the resulting piece ran in the March 9, 1981, magazine under the title, “Quackscam.”


I summarized the story for my readers at Illinois Times. It would have been pointless and pedantic to remind those readers that state and federal game laws are the only reason there are any shootable animals left along the river, so I didn't. The poachers don't see it that way, certainly. You knowliberty.


It's been a tough year to be an animal in Illinois, beginning with the Chicago Bears and ending with the arrests in early December of more than thirty men on charges of poaching along the Illinois River near Beardstown. The men (the first of the sixty or so expected eventually to be charged) were part of a ring uncovered by state and federal conservation officials which was devoted to the killing and sale, in various forms from steaks to stuffed, of a veritable ark of endangered or otherwise protected fish, game, and fowl.


The affair, wittily dubbed "Quackscam" by the staff of the Virginia Gazette Times, is a sordid tale involving everything from illegal duck-pluckers to stolen boat motors. Game theft has been a problem along the Illinois for decades. Like welfare cheating and income tax evasion, it affords a means by which the occasionally law-abiding may privately enrich themselves at public expense, and like welfare and tax cheating it has become a way of life among certain families.


As that great English countryman, William Cobbett, wrote in 1825, "the great business of life, in the country, appertains, in some way or other, to the game." Cobbett knew that out in the sticks, "all circumstances seem calculated to cause never ceasing concord with its accompanying dullness." It is understandable that a man living in, say, Rushville, and who makes his living stuffing ex-pigs into weiners down at the Oscar Mayer plant might get the urge to shoot something once in a while. His city cousins, in a similar fix, shoot each other; he might, like the Beardstown businessman described in the St. Louis Globe Democrat, sit in his favorite bar until eleven each night, then go out and grease a deer. Same thing.


The Cass County economy has long depended on the organized destruction of creatures careless enough to alight there. Until recently, the trade with vacationers in cabins, guides, boats, and guns was brisk. (Their clientele included Chicago hoods who liked to relax by shooting at something that didn't shoot back.) What was remarkable about the Quackscam revelations was not the fact of the slaughter, then, but the catholicity of the definition of the term "game" 'in those parts. In addition to deer and duck, agents captured a stuffed bald eagle (reportedly worth $2,500), owls, flying squirrels, a sea gull, a marsh hawk, a great blue heron, an American bittern, a cedar waxwing, even a robin. One renegade was caught en flagrante delicto with a freshly killed beaver. Another was charged (according to the Gazette Times) with "one count of having a woodpecker without proper permit."


For years environmentalists have been blaming steady decreases in waterfowl populations along the Illinois on the draining of backwater lakes, sedimentation, and pollution. Not so, apparently. One arrestee reportedly told agents he'd killed 547 wood ducks all by himself last season. (Many such birds apparently were taken out of season from baited ponds.) It seems to me that ducks have quit coming to the lower Illinois for the same reasons that people are moving out of Detroit. They may be dumb but they're not stupid.


There are indications that folks around Beardstown are unrepentant. State Sen. John Knuppel, who reportedly has been retained as counsel for some defendants, has said it would be hard to seat a jury that would convict the Quackscammers because local opinion sanctions the theft of public resources. That's a subject a state legislator ought to know something about, but I suspect that the failure to see such larceny as a crime shows a failure to recognize the notion of public resources in the first place. The Gazette Times, which editorially deplored the poaching, still referred to the arrestees sympathetically as "victims of the [Dept. of Conservation's] action," and hats are being made in Rushville that bear the legend, "I was a victim of Quackscam." I would have thought that it was the rest of us who were the victims of Quackscam, but then things always seem more complicated here in the city.


There are other victims too. While conservation officers were plotting their Quackscam busts, Illinois schoolchildren were casting ballots to elect a state animal. (L. pointed out that the vote really was to choose a state mammal—we have a state bird, and thus already have a state animal—but I reminded her that expecting precision of language from school bureaucrats is being elitist.) The white-tailed deer won, with 694,658 votes. The vote among the Quackscammers was in favor of the white-tail too; one of those charged bragged that he'd killed 500 deer in the last ten years.


The Quackscammers, though deserving of the opprobrium heaped on them, are scarcely alone in their guilt. Some of those deer heads were sold to trophy-less hunters who wanted to take something home to brag about; they thus stood in the same relationship to the poachers as johns who go scot-free while the prostitutes they solicit are busted and fined. Instead of stiffer poaching laws we should trust instead to the free market. How much would the head of some handsome 17-point poacher be worth to a Sierra Clubber? As much as the a bald eagle is worth? Surely less, but enough to make it worth one's while to bag him.


Just two days before the Quackscam story broke, authorities discovered more than 100 animals dead of neglect in a pet shop in Jacksonville. The body count was as follows: four rodents, seventy tropical fish, one bird, thirty-eight reptiles (including iguanas), and an assortment of hermit crabs. Charges were filed against the owners, and we may assume that justice will eventually be done.


In the meantime, however, we may amuse ourselves with speculation about some of the more curious aspects of the case. I was surprised, for example, to learn there is a market in Jacksonville for pet hermit crabs. I was also tantalized by this sentence in the State Journal-Register: "Police also found the [sic] 47 snails in the store, but have been unable to determine if they are dead or alive." The State of Illinois's personnel department has the same problem, of course. My advice would have been for investigators to wait until 4:20; if the snails got up and rushed for the elevators they were alive. If they did not, they were dead—or on civil service.


I was surprised to hear that killing tropical fish falls under the state's animal cruelty statutes. Most of the people I know have kept tropicals at one time or another, including me. There isn't one of us who couldn't curdle the humane society's blood with tales of guramis boiling alive when the tank thermometer ran amok, or accidentally bleaching the buggers by neglecting to neutralize chlorinated water before refilling one's aquarium. Perhaps that's why people were so shocked at the news from Jacksonville: By killing the animals before the customers could get them home where they could do it themselves, the owners had taken all the fun out of pet-owning.


One of the survivors (already hard at work on a book no doubt) was a female cockatiel, a smallish, crested Australian parrot related to the cockatoo. I confess to a lifelong prejudice against keeping  exotic animals as pets, perhaps because most such unhappy animals seem to be bought by beauty shop operators. I object to the practice on the same grounds I object to performances by East European family circuses: in each case they represent the systematic exploitation for profit of one species by another, higher species.


What makes an animal exotic, of course, is distance. I wonder whether tourists prowling the back alleys of Lagos or Kuala Lumpur encounter corn root worms imported for sale as terrarium pets. That miserable cockatiel gave me an idea. Instead of resorting to firecrackers and blinking lights to disperse the estimated 30,000 starlings that infest the Statehouse in Springfield, workers might capture them and export them to foreign pet shops. They don't have starlings in South America yet. Maybe we could trade them for soccer players. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

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The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

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Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

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Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

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Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

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Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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