VIOLA (AP) -- An animal rights group wants would-be gopher hunters to keep their paws off the critters -- not cut off the animals' paws.
Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, wants a ban on bounties paid for gopher feet during the annual Viola Gopher Count.
''I don't know how primitive the community is, but the gophers, in my estimation, have some moral rights to not having their feet chopped off in a celebration of the town,'' Feral said.
Gopher Count president Marilyn Shea says the Friends of Animals ought to worry more about people.
''If these people lived in the country, and I don't know where they live, they would know that the gopher is nothing but a rodent. It harms machinery and crops,'' Shea said.
The 126-year-old Gopher Count has grown into a kind of reunion in this community about 80 miles southeast of Minneapolis. There's a pie-eating contest, fireworks and a parade. And lots of gopher paws.
People from the surrounding area, often children, bring in gopher paws as evidence that the rodents were dispatched. The bounty on a pocket gopher is $1.25, and the less-troublesome striped gopher fetches 50 cents.
That's the part that bothers Friends of Animals.
''It's pathetic, frankly,'' Feral said. ''I understand it 100 or 200 years ago, but the fact that it goes on in the year 2000 is ridiculous.''
She said a representative from her group, which claims 200,000 members nationwide, would travel to Viola for the June 15 Gopher Count.
Feral said her group in 1988 won a ban on bounties for woodchuck noses in Hopkinton, R.I.
Shea said there are plenty of gophers to go around.
''If they would like to have some of our excess gophers, we would be happy to have them have some,'' Shea said.
Gopher bounties are still common in Minnesota townships, said Kevin Lines, the farmland wildlife program leader for the state Department of Natural Resources.
Tunnels dug by pocket gophers leave the ground above them soft, damaging crop fields, putting livestock at risk of a broken leg, and damaging farm equipment.
But it's tough to kill enough gophers to make a difference, Lines said.
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