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Warning for hunters: wear safety harness

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ATLANTA -

One minute, Chris Owens was in a tree stand 40 feet in the air. The next, he was on the ground, paralyzed.

Owens knows the rules of hunting: treat every firearm like it's loaded, make sure you're visible to other hunters, but Owens says a lot of hunters make a critical mistake. They go up in a tree stand without an anti-fall safety harness.  

Owens says, "Wear a harness, because God knows what could happen.  The floor could break. You could fall asleep.  I'll tell you the way I got hurt, I wasn't hunting."

More than 20 years ago, Owens was using his deer stand and harness to cut high-up pine tree limbs outside his home.

"I went up three trees just fine -- 40, 50, 60  feet, cutting down these dead limbs," Owens said.

But when he went up the fourth tree, he left the harness on the ground and then he fell about 40 feet.

"I (had) never, never broken a bone in my entire life and I've been as active as I could be," Owens said. "And then, whenever I fall, I break three neck bones and a back bone."

Owens, who is now 50 and working for The Home Depot, spent months at Shepherd Center in Atlanta learning how to live as a quadriplegic. He also learned how to use adaptive equipment to get back to hunting from his wheelchair.

Shepherd therapist Chris Ravotti says getting back outdoors is key, because, "It gives a person a reason to get out of bed, a reason to get dressed, a reason to eat breakfast because they have something to do, because they've learned it here at Shepherd."

But Ravotti says hunting has risks, "I mean there are so many people walking through the woods that trip, fall, break legs, break ankles, shoot themselves in the foot."

Patients usually end up at Shepherd Center because of falls, and that's where the safety harness comes in. Some hunters don't use them, because they find them too binding.  Owens disagrees, saying,  "You just hook it up to the tree, it's on your body and it doesn't bind you whatsoever."
 
Owens says if you climb enough, you will eventually fall.  He says make sure there's something there to catch you.  

"Wearing the safety harness is something that I wish I would've done that day. I wouldn't be in this chair today," Owens said.

Here are the "Top 10" hunting safety tips from Shepherd Center's Injury Prevention Program:

1.     When using portable or ladder stands, ensure the stand is securely fastened to the tree before climbing.
2.      When hunting off of the ground, always wear an anti-fall, full-body harness system at all times. Ideally, this harness should have a descender attached.
3.      Always use a haul line to pull your gear, including your UNLOADED firearm or bow, into the tree stand. Never climb with anything in your hands or on your back. You should use this haul line to lower equipment to the ground after your hunt is finished.
4.    Avoid taking medications that may cause drowsiness before hunting. Never hunt while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
5.    Treat every firearm as if it were loaded. Be cognizant of the firearm's muzzle at all times.
6.    Clearly identify the target and what is in front of and behind it.
7.    Keep your finger outside of the trigger guard until you are ready to shoot.
8.    Dress properly and be prepared for the worst possible weather conditions. Being cold or wet can increase the likelihood of a fall or accident.
9.    Have in place a rescue plan, including the use of a cell phone or signal device. Ensure that your cell phone has coverage in the area where you will be hunting.
10.    Put hunting plans in writing, or text/email them to a friend or family member. Include dates, times, location and expected time of return. Also, in a spot that is visible from the outside of your vehicle, leave a printed copy of your hunting plans.

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