On the screen, a deer walked through the woods. Then came the shot. The animal jumped, ran a short distance, collapsed, kicked, and lay still.
The hunter paused the video on his laptop and turned to me.
“What’s it like for you to watch that?”
I took a deep breath.
In my anti-hunting vegan years, I told him, I would have found it repulsive to watch that kind of video footage, of hunters shooting animals. Over the past decade, as a hunter, I have occasionally watched such scenes. I still don’t enjoy seeing them. Though my reaction is not as strong as it once was, discomfort lingers.
Searching for a way to explain, I came up with two quick analogies. I apologized for both, knowing they were imperfect and would sound strange. Now, months later, I haven’t come up with anything better.
The first analogy was sex.
For me, making love is very personal: an intense experience made meaningful by being there, in that specific situation, with that person.
I adore making love with my wife, but am not interested in watching other people do it on screen. As part of a well-crafted movie, I have no problem with fictional erotic scenes. But I don’t care to watch video clips of real people engaged in real sex.
Even if making porn did not involve the exploitation of women, as it typically does, such videos strike me as flat, meaningless voyeurism. The viewer is disconnected from the situation and the people. He is not a participant. Neither his body nor his heart is involved. (I use “he” deliberately, as men are the primary viewers of porn.)
For me, taking a life is also very personal: an intense experience made meaningful by being there, in that specific situation, with that animal. I am not interested in watching other people do it on screen.
Even if the hunt is conducted respectfully—and not merely as fodder for the camera—video footage of the kill usually strikes me as flat, relatively meaningless voyeurism. I am completely disconnected from what occurs. I am not a participant. Neither my body nor my heart is involved.
This imperfect analogy falls apart in several places. Unlike taking life, making love does not involve harm and death. Unlike making love—and many aspects of the hunt—taking life is not something I enjoy. And, yes, I do recognize the hazards of drawing the parallel, given the argument some critics make: that hunters are motivated by a psychosexual urge to dominate.
The second analogy that came to mind was sacred ceremony.
Though I do not follow any particular religion, I respect the power of ritual: an intense experience made meaningful by being there, in that specific situation, with those people. Video footage of other people engaged in sacred ceremonies might be educational. But it strikes me as flat, relatively meaningless voyeurism. It is nothing like participating.
In all three cases—taking life, making love, and performing ceremonies—the medium of video turns a potent, real experience into an impoverished visual spectacle. To the modern ear, it may sound like an odd trinity. Perhaps we have forgotten that the three belong together.
Perhaps we have forgotten that life, death, and sex are—like ceremony—sacred.
© 2014 Tovar Cerulli
*With apologies to Steven Soderbergh
Interesting post… I share your sentiments about filmed sex and ceremonies. My wife and I requested that our wedding not be videotaped- I have no wish to replay it and see any flaws or mis-steps. In our minds it was a sacred event…and perfect.
I don’t quite share the views of filmed footage of hunts- I think the qualities of such presentations vary so widely that its hard to make such distinctions. There are some “kill shots” in hunting shows that are little more than gratuitous and vulgar and (more rarely) a presentation where the scene of the shooting is both well done and a necessary part of the story to complete it. I do agree…it is damned rare to see it.
Over the years working in the TV industry, I’ve seen many kills. They usually leave me hollow. I thought, “I’m not supposed to feel this way, I work in the industry.” But you are right, its not MY kill, its not MY hunt, so the whole point, while educating to a degree, is unnecessary.
I agree with Mike above on the wedding video too. My brother taped our wedding 10 years ago and I have yet to watch it. People think I’m crazy. But if I ever actually film a deer hunt, I doubt I would ever watch that either. I want to remember it how I remember it. Perfect.
Thanks for your comment, Michelle. It’s interesting that you have a somewhat similar reaction even working inside the outdoor TV industry. I was wondering about your experience. “Hollow” is a great word for the feeling.
Interesting that you haven’t watched your wedding video! I don’t think I would want to watch a video of any ceremony (or hunt) in which I had participated.
Thanks, Mike. My wife and I wouldn’t have wanted our wedding video-recorded either. Still photos, yes. Video, no.
Though I don’t seek out hunting videos, I have seen one or two where the portrayal of the kill was, as you put it, “both well done and a necessary part of the story.” But only one or two.
Tovar – a great piece of writing, and I especially love that you conclude with the reminder that “life, death, and sex are – like ceremony – sacred.”
I do want to share one thought I had in response to your “Unlike taking life, making love does not involve harm and death.” I’m not entirely sure that is always true, particularly if we make the distinction between “making love” and “having sex,” which is so often what people are doing in filmed pornography. I’m not making an argument for or against one’s choice to view pornography, but I do think there is a way we as humans might engage in sex as sport, as recreation, as diversion that can be harmful to us at the level of our soul, and possibly even harmful to us physically through the spread of life-threatening disease such as AIDS. And so, maybe your analogy is not so imperfect after all.
Your observation is valuable. I considered phrasing that line differently and I think your distinction between “making love” and “having sex” is spot on. I agree that the latter can be harmful, perhaps to all involved.
I compare it to sports. Hunting is not a sport for me. Volleyball and softball are my favorite sports as long as I’m playing. I have no desire to watch sports (except when my kids were playing).
“Hunting is not a sport for me.” Amen to that, Robin.
Though I understand the arguments made in favor of using the word “sport” in relation to hunting, it is a term I reject in describing my hunting. It completely misses the heart of what hunting means to me. It also often leads to confusion, as it invokes radically different meanings for different people.
First of all, glad to see you back on here. I know you’ve been busy with worthwhile endeavours, but I have always enjoyed these slices of your perspective and experience.
In this post you hit on something that is certainly not a new idea, but it’s worth ongoing discussion… the comparison of hunting video and pornography. The two are not dissimilar, either in their appeal to certain prurient (for lack of a better word) interests or in the formula for production and delivery.
I’m not going to try a dissection of the two genres here, or any detailed discussion (partly in the name of decorum), but just as some of you express a distaste for public viewing of these most personal (sacred) acts, a lot of folks are excited and engaged by them. At this point, we quickly devolve into value statements of course, and that’s not what I’m here to discuss.
I like what Mike said above, though, about the varying qualities of the videos that make it difficult to make any sort of over-broad judgment. Personally, I enjoy the productions out there that allow me to see myself in the story, and where the kill shot comes as a natural progression of the overall storyline.
Then again, I am not really part of the short attention span generation, and I still prefer long-form prose over Twitter feeds and Facebook.
Thanks for the welcome-back, Phillip. I doubt I’ll return to the weekly posts of yesteryear, but there are some thoughts I’d like to share in the months to come.
Thanks, too, for your comment. You could not have said that in 140 characters. 😉
Long time since you’d posted Tovar, glad to see you haven’t given it up. I’ve begun watching Steve Rinnella and Randy Newburg you tubes of late some show the kill shot, others don’t. Often as in real life it’s impossible to tell if it was a good shot or not.
For me if it’s part of the story it’s appropriate, if not as on some vids on you tube I find it more silly than repulsive.
I’ve spent some time in places where a pig was killed in the small village every day or two, and many chickens, day after day after day. It’s how people get the food they eat. Those people also hunted, every day you’d hear shots.
The village gate always had fertility symbols, tiny wooden AKs, and wooden carved animals in efforts to draw food and fertility inward while scaring off demons with signs of strength. Maybe there is some connection after all.
No open season on any game animal here now except fish, waiting for turkey.
Thanks, somsai. I appreciate the image you conjure, of the village gate with those various symbols that appear so disparate (at least through certain cultural lenses).
Yeppers, that’s why we call it horn porn.
I don’t see the situation entirely the way you do. Personally, I watch hunting TV once in a while hoping I might learn something, which actually happens from time to time.
But to me, the kill, and the animal’s death, is an intensely personal and intimate moment, and it bugs the hell out of me to see it trivialized as it often is. It’s why I’m particularly critical of duck hunting shows – because it’s small game with substantial limits, they can show a LOT of killing in 30 minutes, and it leaves me feeling kinda nauseated, all that killing punctuated by hooting and hollering and rarely a show of respect for a dead bird.
Interesting, Holly. In the past, I’ve thought of “horn porn” as mainly referring to still photos of hunters with especially large, dead animals. But I see how it could refer to video as well.
I have watched a few instructional hunting videos over the years. Thankfully, they did not include much in the way of kill footage.
I appreciate your comment on trivialization. Though I know you and Ingrid disagree in places, it sounds as though you share at least some sentiments about massive gunfire over duck marshes with, as you put it, “all that killing punctuated by hooting and hollering and rarely a show of respect for a dead bird.” Do you encounter that in real life as well as on TV?
It’s the young guys primarily who do it. Most adults in their late 20s and older don’t seem to feel the need. I’m guessing most guys who do it now will grow out of it.
To me, it depends on the context. Most of the videos filmed in United States and Russia, I can’t really stand watching either because it involves a) right-wing politics; or b) it involves strange rituals and sometimes disrespect for wildlife. However, most of the hunting footages and TV shows I watch are largely from Germany, United Kingdom and Scandinavia. There are a few excepts to the disdain for North American televised hunters such as Steven Rinella who I enjoy immensely.
The reason for this is because I think is in context of the filming style. Most of the Scandinavian hunting footages are almost like nature-documentary. A lot of the British and German ones are largely educational where they try to walk the audience through the technique, how to hunt and so on.
Even when it comes to amateur footages, I still prefer the European ones to the North American ones.
and the ironic part is that North Americans think Europe is the land of bureaucracy, yet on the other hand, we have less freedoms than our relatives in the motherland because we have a tendency to participate in knee-jerk politics and are not exactly world-renowned for self-control or rationality.
And I think this is one aspect the hunting community should improve on if they want to be respected by non-hunters. Because honestly, the current model of “horn porn” is what empowers the animal-right movement more than what it deserves. If we reform hunting TV shows into educational medium, then the fringe wouldn’t have any sway over the public.
Also, we can retain a lot more of our hunting privileges instead of seeing them revoked (eg. the debate of banning hunting animals with dogs in North america, where it is seen as sacred tradition in the motherland Europe).
Thanks for this comment, Dave. It’s interesting to hear that hunting-related films from those parts of the world are so different, generally speaking.
Well, now that I mentioned it, I should follow up:
Here’s a hunting film about grouse-hunting in Finland released last year.
Typical format for a famous British TV show:
If you don’t agree with the formats, please offer some critiques. Going to start filming my own episodes and documentaries this fall. 🙂
Thanks for the links, Dave. I’ll take a look when I have a chance.
Tovar — Glad to see you blogging again, and I think this was a very insightful post. I wouldn’t want to carry the analogy out to all of its logical conclusions, except to note that with the proliferation of small, inexpensive video cameras an awful lot of people want to shoot their own videos of both types. And then the question is… How widely to share them, and with whom? And how often do you even want to watch them yourself? Would you rather sit and watch your film from an earlier experience, or go do it again? And once you have a camera, do you want to film yourself every time, or only on special occasions?
And when nonhunters watch these scenes, what sort of impression does it make? In my limited experience, I’ve shot a few deer that toppled over and never twitched even once. But even a humane, clean kill can sometimes look like something else–a few seconds of death throes that are not fun to watch. And on the rare occasions I’ve seen these hunting videos, I’ve seen way too much whooping and hollering that was disrespectful of the quarry. I’ve even seen some very bad shooting that was not remarked on as being at all unusual. I saw one show, which I won’t name, that involved a wolf hunt. The guy was shooting beyond his effective range, missing some shots, and landing other shots in the gut and hindquarters. You could see the wolf biting at its wounds, and then the guy finally made a lucky shot–his fourth or fifth. The show aired on TV, and apparently no one thought anything of it. That says a lot. But you know… If I were the rifle, optics, or ammo sponsor of that show, I would not be happy with the performance.
Well, Al, your questions about the use of “small, inexpensive video cameras” took things further than my imagination wanted to go, concerning either type of video.
On a more serious note, even quick-kill scenes make a bad impression on some hunters (including this one) as well as on non-hunters.
As for the hunt you mentioned, I find it repulsive that people take such unethical shots, so far beyond what they should, missing and wounding like that. Why on earth would someone do that, let alone broadcast it? (The fact that the animal in question was a wolf raises a host of other issues. Given that I’m doing research related to wolf-hunting right now, I’ll refrain from comment on that.)
So, Michelle, what do you think the market – and, importantly, sponsorship – would be for a show that embodies the respect we’re all talking about here? Reading all these comments makes me think we should all just get together and make a show that all of us would be comfortable watching (and that we would be comfortable showing to non-hunters). Not that I have the time, the energy or the figure for such an undertaking!
I had the opportunity to hunt in Namibia several years ago. One of the most remarkable elements was having an opportunity to take an animal every day. The meat and trophy fees went to local villagers. This gave me an unprecedented opportunity to make a hunting mistake one day, learn from it and correct it the next.
Here in New England, years may pass between opportunities to shoot. Watching hunting shows becomes a way to stay connected to hunting and occasionally to learn from another’s experience.
As well, will I ever have a chance to hunt a Marco Polo sheep? Probably not. Watching the story of someone else doing it gives me a chance to participate, albeit in a much poorer fashion, in remarkable hunts that I will never go on.
Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Elvin.
I can understand watching hunting shows as a way to stay connected to hunting and occasionally learn something. I just have a visceral negative reaction to seeing animals shot on screen. If more shows were the kind that Dave describes (more educational-nature-documentary/story than hey-here’s-another-guy-killing-another-animal), I might be more interested in seeing them.
Another thought, Elvin, related to your mention of vicarious participation in remarkable hunts you will never go on:
I really enjoy seeing films that take me to places I will probably never go in person. I especially like nature and wildlife documentaries. I’m not likely to scuba dive along the world’s great reefs, spend time with cheetahs, get up into the canopy of the Amazon rainforest, or even see a Canada lynx in person, so I enjoy the chance to do so through video. Though I don’t especially seek out predation scenes in those videos, I don’t have a problem seeing a peregrine strike a pigeon from the air or seeing a lion take down a wildebeest.
When human hunting is portrayed, though, I’m much more selective. That’s not because I perceive humans as separate from nature (as some kind of illegitimate predator). In addition to the voyeurism aspect mentioned in the post, I think my selectivity stems from the fact that I see humans as moral beings. I expect humans to have respect and compassion for other animals and to treat the taking of life as a serious matter. When that kind of attitude seems absent, I’m uncomfortable.
I think there are moral dimensions to interactions among some animals, too, but I don’t expect the falcon or lion to feel or demonstrate the same kind of respect and compassion for their prey. In my view, their predation is basically amoral.
As the lone non-hunter and dissenter at this blog, I admit to being taken aback by the analogy here. I understand what you’re trying to say, Tovar, about the vacuous nature of hunter vid-porn. But the parallel you draw — and appropriately disclaim as a hazard of association — is, indeed, a tenuous one to make in the eyes of a non-hunter.
For those of us who care deeply about wild animals and the violence inflicted against them daily, the term “intimate” to describe the act of killing feels [I believe, understandably] perverse. Even in situations that we non-hunters could easily construe as “intimate” — in, say, a wildlife hospital, where we’re hand-feeding animals as just one example — I can’t imagine using the word “intimate” to describe a situation that is clearly hardship and terror for the animal.
I know what you all are saying about killing being an intensely personal act for you. But intimacy implies familiarity, mutuality and often benevolence. And for the animal, it is the end of his or her life, sometimes in horrendous ways when you look at the grand spectrum of hunting and trapping activities and legal practices.
Although hunting and killing is by nature injurious to the physical body, to me it so degrades the experience of another living, sentient, intelligent being to suggest that your taking of his or her life is spiritual, respectful, intimate or any other term we humans generally use to describe a consent of spirit and intent.
I understand your concerns and objections, Ingrid, as they echo many of my past (and some of my current) perspectives and feelings. Note, however, that I did not use the term “intimate.”
Do you think that gardening can be a spiritual or respectful practice? If so, is that predicated on the earth’s consent? (I realize, of course, that you won’t see this analogy as terribly fitting, given that gardening is not focused on taking an animal’s life.)
Along related lines, we might also think about what we mean by “violence.” This essay and the comments that follow it are worth considering, I think: http://www.humansandnature.org/blog/nature-violence
My apologies for including you in the “Tovar and I” comment!
Tovar, your point is noted and I’m in agreement about violence being a broader designation than the one I allowed. I’m not sure how to articulate my counterpoint except to say that I know everyone here understands the distinction between picking an apple — and severing the head of a duck or dog. For anyone who doesn’t (and I’ve met a couple who come close, among varmint hunters) I’m obviously not going to make one iota of a difference on a philosophical level.
Does industrial agriculture, both animal and plant, wreak a form of mass harm on the earth through various means (slaughterhouses, pesticides, etc.) Yes, absolutely. So do certain forms of hunting (coyote killing, prairie dogs, etc). Pointing out the flaws in another model doesn’t absolve the practice in question of its problematic issues. There are at least two logical fallacies riding on a supposition like that.
I think it’s quite clear what we’re generally referring to when we speak of individual violence against another human being. And rarely do we find people using consent in gardening as a defense for killing another human, no matter what gardening entails. Why should it be so different with other species who share so much of our physiology, nervous system response and — science is finding in many cases — so much of our emotional and psychological acuity? Does compassion toward an individual of another species really come down to syntax in the view of some?
That being said, I do believe the tenets of non-violence ought to extend to the earth at large, to trees, to plants, to water systems and forests. It pains me deeply what we do as a species. And some of that does ride on intent. Buddhists and Jains understand that ‘no harm’ is an impossibility in this existence and focus on least harm without intent to kill. I’m sure that’s where I differ with almost everyone on this board.
The essay to which you directed me actually speaks to this issue. We have not built our infrastructure and highways with the intent of least harm or non-violence, except in those areas where wildlife corridors are being constructed. In terms of the opossum, the comparison is a bit flawed when you look at both the docile nature of the species and its ecological role. Were humans out there cleaning up carrion, I might be able to construe a comparison.
In terms of hunting and trapping, violence takes on a different dimension because we certainly don’t need to kill as much as we do and in the ways we do. I compare my experience with Snow Geese in the Skagit Valley. Predation by non-human predators in no way resembles what that field full of goose hunters does to a flock in a matter of minutes. An eagle’s multiple passes over the course of a day often results in no casualty among the geese. Hardly my experience watching waterfowl hunting there. Our violent actions across the board are excessive when compared against the natural standards used to rationalize our own behavior — and for myriad reasons, I think they deserve a different scrutiny.
Your points are well taken, Ingrid. The difference between picking an apple and killing an animal is, as you know, part of why I feel the latter act demands to be treated far more seriously. And I certainly don’t advocate absolving hunting of scrutiny. My question about consent in gardening was simply directed to your suggestion that a human practice cannot be sacred or respectful unless the non-human party consents.
Broadly speaking, I agree with you that the tenets of non-violence should be extended to the earth at large. As you know, however, I don’t think that no-intent-to-kill-ever is the only valid expression of those tenets. (And most Buddhists, of course, are not vegetarians, despite the karmic gymnastics sometimes involved in their procurement of meat.) I believe we can live by ecological principles and with compassionate intent toward the earth and other beings, and still participate in ecosystems as predators. Would a traditional hunter-gatherer culture opt for the kind of devastating infrastructures we have built? I think not. Only an agricultural/industrial society would wreak this kind of havoc.
Do we need to kill as much as we do, or in the ways that we do? No, I doubt it. On the other hand, one set of hunting practices does not implicate another set. We have come to this juncture often in the past: me speaking of my experience hunting individual deer and making a swift kill, you speaking of your experience witnessing mass killing and frequent wounding. The two are very different. Were you in the woods with me, or I in the fields or marshes with you, the distinctions might be clearer. 🙂
In this post, of course, I am not defending hunting in general or a particular practice. I am expressing my discomfort with how killing is often portrayed, and offering a bit of cultural critique (and scrutiny) along the way.
“In this post, of course, I am not defending hunting in general or a particular practice. I am expressing my discomfort with how killing is often portrayed, and offering a bit of cultural critique (and scrutiny) along the way.”
I do understand that and my original comment reflected my feelings about that content and its associations. Of course, when one gets into individual definitions of violence, spirituality and so forth, the discussion does tend to digress. I’ll reel my own part back in and just address the spiritual angle you asked about.
I know it comes down to how individuals perceive the spiritual or sacred. My personal belief about spiritual endeavors is that they, on some level, entail love and compassion. Perhaps it goes back to a simplistic assessment in my first world religions class, where we discussed the universal, underlying tenet of love in most spiritual traditions — the one sometimes suffocating under the heavy doctrine of religion.
To me, I can’t find any way to view killing and causing suffering as a loving act. Making decisions to mercifully and painlessly end deep suffering is another topic, of course. In terms of gardening, to me, the act of nurturing — humans, plants, other animals — is often born from compassion. Destroying life, especially considering the exhilaration that many take in the process, strikes me as the antithesis of peace, love and understanding. Killing a wild animal involves so much outside the “personal.” It affects the life of the animal him or herself, the animal’s kin, and also the other people who are subject to the acts of violence by virtue of proximity. It seems to me that a spiritual quest would take into account ancillary effects on others.
“I know it comes down to how individuals perceive the spiritual or sacred.”
Indeed, it does. There was a time when I would have agreed that all truly spiritual practices and endeavors entail the kind of love and compassion you have in mind. Now I see spirituality and the sacred more broadly, encompassing more practices from more traditions and a wider sense of the ways in which one can meaningfully commune with the world.
There is always the risk of being consumed by cultural relativism when, in fact, there must be discernment and some judgment about what constitutes a compassionate existence toward others. If compassion and justice are not at the core of building and maintaining a civil society, then what is?
Out of genuine curiosity, Ingrid: When farmers (growing everything from beans and fruit to salad greens) kill deer to reduce crop damage, is there an attitude or mindset with which you would like them to commit that act? Can you imagine it being done respectfully or treated as sacred in some way? Beyond the various hard-to-avoid consequences of our agricultural system, can you imagine humans voluntarily participating in predation in good and respectful ways?
There was a time when I would have been disturbed by any talk of respect or the sacred in connection with killing. (If I believe an act is wrong, then any attempt to spin it, dress it up, or excuse it only makes it worse.) And I’m still cautiously skeptical. I want to know how the person really feels. Lip service is not enough.
As you know, I once considered intentional harm the ultimate evil, but am now more at peace with the occasional intentional kill for food — a practice that reminds me of, and keeps me in touch with, things I feel are important — than I am with all the other unintentional (and largely purposeless) harm my existence inflicts. Is voluntary intention the crux of the problem, in your view?
In the past, in comment exchanges here and email correspondence, I have had the sense that there was some room in your moral imagination for the existence of genuinely ethical, respectful hunting. Maybe I’m misreading you here, but it sounds like you’re drawing a stark line in the sand — not just at compassion, but at justice and civil society as well — with hunting firmly, completely, and cross-culturally on the dark side.
Tovar, my relocation changed me a bit, owing to the personal trauma of witnessing so much harm to wildlife in such close proximity, in a legal wildlife environment that is often less progressive than California’s. We all have our personal filters. I have tried with all of my being to hold on to equanimity where it concerns the very gray areas you discuss. Because, yes, you’re right — I acknowledge and fully understand how those hard lines in the sand can be not only unproductive, but also unrealistic.
But, in the past few years, as I’ve approached my field endeavors with a hopeful mind if not an open one — each time, I leave heartsick over what I see in hunting and trapping. I’m beyond exasperated with the disparity between what I see and what I’m expected to believe. I think the dead silence on the part of many if not most hunters when it comes to abominations like coyote killing contests or the rampant wolf slaughter is telling. In the case of California where the game commission is a considering a ban on killing contests I’m seeing outright antipathy by hunters who fear the loss of their hunting privileges and seem to put this fear above taking a strong ethical stand.
We environmentalists and hunters supposedly share common purpose in protecting wildlife and habitat, something I wish truly did manifest in a sane and sound way. But more often than not, we’re operating without question within a framework that uses a 19th-century ethic toward wild animals, instead of one that takes into consideration new information, new science and progressive ideas about wild animals and their inherent worth. Conciliation biology is one example of the direction I’d like to see in conservation and “management.”
Is there room for genuinely ethical hunting? I think at this point, I’d have to ask the hunters here — what is “ethical” exactly in your eyes, in the context of an environment where there is precious little ethical mandate or even training in ethics? Is “ethical” really what’s happening when it comes to taking lives, often many lives (ducks, doves, etc) for personal or gustatory satisfaction? And is “ethical” the majority of hunters? I can’t say, but I really doubt it, even though my experience is admittedly anecdotal.
It seems when you introduce free will into a near free for all, the only way to delineate is to make those lines more stark. Human nature doesn’t seem to allow for fluid ethical boundaries when it comes to activities done in private, without oversight, and toward species who are viewed as utilitarian objects for our use. And I’m finding it difficult to wrap my head around this rampant violence as an ethical endeavor.
Understood, Ingrid. Sometime when I’m out on the west coast, I would be more than willing to spend some time with you in the field — or at a wildlife rehab center — seeing some of what you see, hearing your perspective and seeing through your eyes as much as I possibly can. (And no, this is not quid pro quo. You need not accompany me in the deer woods.)
Does “ethical” describe the majority of hunters? I don’t know. Even if we could all agree on what we mean by “ethical,” numbers and behaviors would be hard to quantify. I know that plenty of careless, callous acts are committed. I know that some other suffering is caused by well-intentioned people who make mistakes or misjudge a situation.
Personally, I am most familiar with my own experiences, almost exclusively in deer hunting, where my freezer has been filled half a dozen times in a way that results in very little suffering to the individual animal, virtually no ecological impact, and zero threat to the deer population. I can’t say as much for all the unintentional impacts I have as a driver, occasional air passenger, and consumer of all manner of agricultural and industrial products.
Like you, I would like to see the bar raised considerably in terms of ethics training for hunters. Last summer I had the chance to do an ethics seminar for Colorado hunter-education instructors. As a relatively inexperienced hunter, I felt a bit outside my comfort zone making such a presentation to lifelong hunters. But it went really well. The discussion that followed was amazingly heartfelt.
To whatever degree my voice and perspective can help raise questions and move the hunting-ethics conversation along, I’ll continue to lend my energies to that effort. I realize it’s not a comfortable conversation, for hunters or for those who challenge us. But I like the alternative (no conversation) even less.
As I see it, hard lines — whether drawn by hunters or those who challenge hunting — polarize our debates and minimize the chances of any really insights or changes. Such polarization also undermines collaboration between hunter and non-hunter conservationists and environmentalists.
Years ago, for instance, there was a clash over “coyote tournaments” here in vermont. Some hunters took the hard line of defending such events as if the future of all hunting depended on it. Some non-hunters condemned the events and all other hunting as well, lumping everything together. In between those poles, some hunters and non-hunters spoke out against the “tournaments” and pointed out the ways in which those events violated various hunting ethics.
Unfortunately, the loudest, most extreme voices tend to get the most attention in such debates. Among other reasons, a polarized, binary battle makes for better sound bites and more sensational media coverage.
My response when wildlife advocates are labeled “extremist” for showing antipathy for violence — taken from Paul Watson: “When did opposition to killing, to the taking of life, to the extinguishment of a living creature, to the wasting of a sentient being become a radical idea? Sometimes I think we live in such a bizarre world where advocates for life are considered radical and proponents of death are considered normal, where violence is considered acceptable and non-violence is dismissed as unpatriotic or cowardly.”
Ingrid: In writing about how “the loudest, most extreme voices tend to get the most attention in such debates,” I intended to express agreement with — and make a tangential observation related to — your statement about how “those hard lines in the sand can be not only unproductive, but also unrealistic.”
It sounds like you took it very differently. If you really think I believe that discomfort with or antipathy toward violence is extreme, then you have misunderstood me (as well as my book and all my blog posts and comments over the years). I would not want to spend time around any human being who is entirely at ease with killing. I certainly wouldn’t want to hunt with him or her.
It sounds as if you, via Watson, are characterizing all hunters as “proponents of death” and all hunting as “the wasting of a sentient being.” There has, however, already been enough misinterpretation in this exchange. So I will hold open the possibility that this isn’t quite what you meant.
Tovar, you wrote, “I would not want to spend time around any human being who is entirely at ease with killing. I certainly wouldn’t want to hunt with him or her.” I didn’t meant it as a critique of your personal ethics but rather, as a statement overall on the idea of extremism when it comes to wildlife advocacy. I’ve grown weary of people being labeled extremist in a negative sense when they come out against violence, whether it’s a killing contest or other legalized but morally-questionable slaughter. It’s a common and tired tactic used to discredit those of us who speak out against entrenched practices toward wildlife. “You don’t like hunting? You’re extreme, not worthy of consideration. The sane conservationists all embrace hunting.”
It would never be considered extreme to oppose killing of human beings in any situation. But with other animals, we who care deeply are expected to exercise nuance depending on the situation. As in, it’s okay to inflict prolonged pain on a deer, as is common archery for example, but not on our dog or cat. I think there’s much more consistency in the so-called extreme of anti-violence than there is among people who kill some but reserve love and respect for others, such as their dogs. If all of us were forced to consider other species with the same degree of sensitivity we give to ourselves and our companion animals, many practices we condone toward wild animals would instantly be deemed barbaric and unacceptable.
I agree, Ingrid, that it is unreasonable, unjust, and unproductive for hunters to dismiss non-hunters’ concerns and objections as “extreme.”
In a general sense, I also agree that there is greater moral consistency in opposing violence toward all animals than in opposing violence toward some while condoning violence toward others. In my experience, however, there is quite a lot of moral ambiguity (and paradox) inherent simply in existing as a human being in the modern world, in relation to other humans, animals, ecosystems, etc. For me, that doesn’t discount the importance of moral questions, but it does suggest that moral consistency can be considered and defined in multiple ways.
The topic of arms-race against nature have been discused at large in Farley Mowat’s “Sea of Slaughter”.
Even a pro-hunter blogger from West Virginia, Scottie Westfall III, acknowledged the industrialization of slaughter:
(Wouldn’t advise mentioning your anti-hunting or vegan lifestyle in the comments, since he had bad feuds with people from UK.)
Thanks for that link, Dave. I won’t engage the discussion myself but I appreciated reading that perspective.
I think No. 2 below is the definition both Tovar and I were using here. Death IS very intimate and personal, which is why we had that uproar a couple years back when a newspaper published a photo of a man a microsecond before he was struck and killed by a train.
I don’t think any hunter who has the presence of mind to use that term is ever trying to imply that killing is a consenting and beautiful experience for all involved.
1. closely acquainted; familiar, close. “intimate friends”
synonyms: close, bosom, dear, cherished, faithful, devoted, fast, firm, familiar;
2. private and personal. “going into intimate details of his sexual encounters”
synonyms: personal, private, confidential, secret;
3. (of knowledge) detailed; thorough. “an intimate knowledge of the software”
synonyms: detailed, thorough, exhaustive, deep, in-depth, profound;
Tovar, as ever you have a hotline to my inner world.
Here’s a strange thing, I quite like watching you tube video’s of guys (yes its usually guys) shooting things at stupid long distances. i never watch hunting videos. Once you’ve seen one group of 30-40 something men with goatee beards and ball caps whoop over a dead animal while cod-rock plays, you’ve seen them all. Not my thing at all.
In answer Holly’s question about what kind of hunting video i would like to see, Matthew Huston’s amazing film ‘Look up and wave your glove’ is the ONLy example I can think of.
Glad to hear it, SBW.
When you say you like watching videos of “guys shooting things at stupid long distances,” do you mean shooting animals or inanimate targets? If animals, where does that happen except in hunting videos?
I had never heard of LOOK UP AND WAVE YOUR GLOVE. Looks like it’s on Youtube, so I’ll have to watch it when I get a chance. Though I don’t know much about falconry, raptors have always fascinated me.
Tovar I tried to respond to one of your comments to a comment but couldn’t seem to get my response to go to the correct place.
You were commenting to Al on long “unethical” shots.
First I should say ethics are sometimes codified in laws, often regional, and sometimes just a matter of personal opinion. I don’t think it’s possible in many instances to point to a thing and say that it is universally unethical.
The idea of what is an ethical shot varies not only with the person but with the prey. When hunting for control or eradication purposes what is unethical to a big game hunter is common for the paid professional hunter. I’m thinking of hog eradication here. I’d bet that people shooting full auto rifles from helicopters aren’t always assured of an immediately lethal shot. I’d assume they often make what are lethal, but not immediately lethal, shots.
Long before wolf reintroduction in the US a freind of mine flew a helicopter contracted for wolf control in Canada. From his description I’d think many of their shots were much different than what we’d consider ethical for big game.
I don’t know which video Al was referring to, I’m sure I haven’t seen it, but what he describes is not uncommon in coyote hunting, and many western hunters who commonly hunt coyotes simply apply the same techniques and ethics to wolves. We are in the midst of what is traditionally coyote season here right now.
I’d hope that in your research on wolf hunting that you talk to a few hunters who are primarily big game hunters but hunt wolves in the off season. There are many people who are that type of hunter in Montana and Idaho. Holler if you need a way to contact them.
Somsai — I think you’re right. Our ethical standards aren’t universal, and they vary among cultures and even individuals. And some hunters’ standards are contingent on the prey–they’re much lower for what the hunter considers undesirable “varmint” species. Since I personally don’t think that way, the scene bothered me. And come to think of it, usually hunters’ ethical standards are especially high for larger animals. I guess that wolf was an exception, mainly because of how the hunter viewed it.
Thanks for the reply Al, I was just trying to figure out how to email on your web site. The vid wasn’t from Randy Newberg’s show was it? I haven’t seen many segments and not the wolf one. Wether it was or not, Randy is a pretty good example of geographically variable ethics. Mr. Newberg sat on the board of Orion, the institute focused on ethical and moral hunting, for years. He hunts, traps, hunts all of the predators, (including grizzly and wolf) and is probably one of the more ethically respected hunters in the west.
I don’t remember for sure, but that name sounds familiar.
Sorry about the technical difficulties, somsai. One of this template’s failings is that the reply box is at the bottom of the page, regardless of which comment you are replying to. (When I’m replying from the blog page, I open a separate text/notepad window so I can read the previous comment while typing. Then I click the reply link below the comment and paste my text into the comment box that appears. It will go to the right place.)
In some cases, I agree: People sometimes use the term “ethics” to refer to things that are mainly matters of preference and opinion. But I don’t see what is ethical about the kind of shooting Al described.
I came to hunting with a genuine concern about animal welfare. That concern was affirmed by hunter-education instructors, who agreed that taking life is a serious responsibility and that every effort must be made to make a “clean kill,” minimizing suffering. If I can’t keep all shots within a several-inch circle at a given range, I have no business taking a shot at an animal at that range. If, given the conditions and circumstances, I can’t be virtually certain of a quick kill, I have no business taking the shot. (On this topic, I particularly appreciate Ted Kerasote’s essay “Three Long Seconds”: http://fwp.mt.gov/mtoutdoors/HTML/articles/2006/3LongSeconds.htm.)
The shooting Al described included misses and wounding shots and no guarantee of a lethal shot, certainly not immediately. The only analogy I can think of for that kind of shooting is war. In war, people shoot and bomb each other with little concern for the suffering involved, with the aim of inflicting maximum damage on the enemy. Maybe people engaged in “hog eradication” and “wolf control” are essentially engaged in war.
When I hunt, I am not at war with animals. Nor, I think, is any non-human predator at war with his or her prey.
When hunting is conducted (or represented) as “war against wildlife,” it seems to me that outright opposition makes perfect moral sense. As I recall, hunter David Petersen discusses this at some length in his book HEARTSBLOOD.
I don’t know whether the footage Al mentioned was Newberg’s. In any case, I am an Orion member and I know a number of people who have been closely involved with the organization for years. I can’t imagine them approving of that kind of shooting. If Orion starts condoning anything that looks like (or actually amounts to) hunting-as-war-against-animals, then I think hunting in North America is in deep and dangerous water.
In my research, I am definitely talking with hunters. My focus is on the Great Lakes region, but thanks for offering to put me in touch with folks farther west.
Tovar in re reading Al’s description of the show I’d doubt it was Randy’s. On Your Own is realistic in that they show any missed shots as well as the good, and they do have the ethic that once you have shot an animal you continue shooting, even bad shots, until you put the animal out of it’s misery, but they wouldn’t show poor shots and let it go unremarked upon.
A war on wildlife is a value judgement made by the one calling it that, usually antis.
More recently I’m amused to read the references here and links via your facebook page to primitive animist hunters. I’ve certainly spent some time watching just those sorts of people hunt. Animists, using home made muskets they load with home made black powder and shot hunting in groups of four with maybe eight dogs. It takes multiple shots from the underpowered firearms to even slow a large hog down. The woods are full of smoke, the pig screaming, dogs barking, one dog so badly torn it might not make it, and still the pig lives to be hunted down the next day after the hunters go to borrow a centerfire rifle. At no time did I see a pause for praying or blowing of smoke in the four directions. And this from some of the few people who still obtain most of their meat from the forest, a people with a long and unbroken set of rules governing all aspects of their lives including all creatures plants and non living things in their world.
The longer I hunt the more reserved I am about how others hunt. I strive to not make value judgements about others or the way they do things. I don’t call one way evil or seek to attach names to it denoting morality. I ask the same in return.
somsai: When I link to an essay (such as Petersen’s, which touches on animism), it’s because I think it raises valuable questions or makes valuable points. Links don’t mean I agree with every idea or behavior described at the other end of the link.
As far as I’m concerned, animism (or any other viewpoint) is a philosophical and spiritual orientation. It does not have to be attached to any particular (anti-)technological commitments.
Whatever technology a hunter employs, I think he or she needs to be proficient enough with the weapon and have good enough judgment to make a “clean kill” very consistently. Without such proficiency and judgment, the ethic of the clean kill is practically meaningless.
When I first came to hunting, my views were narrower than they are now. I was quick to judge. Today, I am not so quick to do so. But if I ever get to a point where I am no longer willing to make value judgments about the treatment of animals (especially the infliction of suffering), I hope some part of my conscience will set off all the warning bells.
If we refrain from all value judgments — about the treatment of animals or about anything else — it seems to me that we have essentially giving up having values at all.
In my reading on primitive/traditional cultures, in particular that of Jared Diamond, I have been struck by the apparent sheer randomness across cultures in terms of ethical norms, to the point that there really are no ethical norms discernible. “Culture is as culture does” (as Mrs. Gump would say).
In terms of childcare, which most of us would agree is a good topic for considering ethical standards, Diamond describes cultures that range from near complete doting to “extremely repressive” to one that practiced regular child rape. Some things become understandable in an adaptive sense, such as the explanations behind premeditated infanticide, due to dire circumstances, or, in other cases, to dire cultural pressure. Diamond described the thousands of indigenous cultures as “thousands of natural experiments” in child-rearing practice. The impression I’m left with is that, potentially, anything is possible in cultural development in humans.
Thus, I agree with Tovar’s comment that:
“If we refrain from all value judgments — about the treatment of animals or about anything else — it seems to me that we have essentially given up having values at all.“
To clarify: When I write of the ethic of the “clean kill,” I’m not talking about going on a global crusade across geography and cultures to convince all hunters to abide by that ethic. (If I was hunting for sheer survival, I’m sure I would take marginal shots that I avoid now.)
I’m talking about us, here, now. For the overwhelming majority of hunters in the contiguous 48 states, hunting may be important for a number of reasons but it is not a matter of survival or even true subsistence.
Among the claims frequently made by modern American hunters are these: (1) We respect animals. (2) Our hunting should be guided by a code of ethics that includes a commitment to quick, humane kills. (3) Hunters who do not follow that code deserve censure.
Millions of hunters feel this way, and millions of non-hunters believe our claims. It seems to me that these beliefs and claims are severely undermined — perhaps to the point of being meaningless — if we start saying things like “Well, I don’t want anyone judging the shots I take, so I won’t judge the shots anyone else takes.”
To me it seems critical that more hunters be willing to take an ethical stand and speak their minds. Many have done so in various ways, of course, including Ted Kerasote and Bill Heavey and others who engage in online discussions. More need to.
We’re not all likely to agree on everything, of course. But if we fail to express our values — if, out of fear or discomfort or genuinely not caring or whatever, hunters fail to draw any ethical distinctions about how animals are treated — then we don’t deserve to be respected by anyone, hunters or non-hunters. And we can kiss the entire idea of hunting ethics goodbye.
Agree with your three points; no brainers in our urbanized culture, and becoming more so.
Just want to be sure my post is not misinterpreted. I was making the point that other human culture’s are not necessarily appropriate models.
Nicely said, Tovar.
Speaking of Petersen, this essay just came online: http://www.humansandnature.org/hunting—david-petersen-response-104.php – “Today, rather than hunting shaping humanity, human culture is misshaping hunting into its own image.”
Ah, my love-hate relationship with Petersen continues! Love that he turned me onto that Jared Diamond quote. Love that guy; glad to hear he’s on the same page.
But I do wish he’d stop positing that everyone needs to live and hunt like he does to be valid hunters – as if ALL of us could’ve fled civilization in a VW bus and carved out a homestead in the deep woods. He’s old enough that he should’ve grown out of that myopic perspective a long time ago.
Tovar the Akha don’t depend on hunting for survival, they use it to avoid the malnutrition that stunts the growth of their more agrarian neighbors.
While people living at or below poverty in the US, and let’s be clear, there are a heck of a lot of us, can get food stamps, and no one starves in America, when one individual animal can provide a full year of meat for a family of four, hunting can be an important part of one’s budget.
Your three points already are universal, but does one need to wear one’s respect on one’s sleeve? And #3 leads not to judging the shots one makes, but to being judgemental about the way other’s hunt.
I’ve read Ted Kerasote before, he scores very high on the judgmental meter, telling others what and how to hunt. Some good ideas but I’d be much happier if he just got outside more and talked less. Both he and Heavy seem to run into a ton of lawbreaking hunters. I’ve never known anyone to hunt on their wife’s tag, or hunt before the season opens, or take “sound” shots. Maybe we just hang out with a different kind of people.
Back on topic, there’s a very graphic video in the NYT of a moose being shot by a scientist. Very close up. Not sure how it adds to the story. Just went up on the site last week. You can get there via google. Seeing it I was reminded of how scientists often pose for photos with their darted, drugged, animal.
I agree that hunting can be a valuable part of a US family’s food budget. For the overwhelming majority of US hunters, however, I doubt this is the case.
I would like to believe that my three points are universal. But I’ve run across enough evidence to convince me that they are not.
I don’t think you need to wear your respect on your sleeve. And I’m not in favor of excessively judgmental stances. But I know for a fact that some hunters refrain from critique and commentary in large part because they don’t want to get into conflict or be blackballed. I think that chilling and silencing effect is a problem.
Subsistence-hunting is largely dependent on where the person lives. Many of the socialists and trade-unionists I have the e fortunate of knowing often depended on hunting and trapping in order to make it through the layoffs and long labour-strikes, especially in in turbulent regions such as West Virginia.
Also, I have known many people who come from Newfoundland and New Brunswick who got caught for poaching a moose in Alberta and didn’t expected to be prosecuted because back in their home province, the game-wardens knew those families were impoverished and turned a blind-eye. However, out West, poaching is not an excuse because if one really needed the money, they could always get a ticket to a work-camp up in the muskeg.
I can also say the same for the people I have come to known in the Deep South who depend on gut-shooting boar or feral hog in order to have meat; which is something they cannot afford with food-stamps. Same for the people I have met up North in Alaska, Nunavut and Northwest Territories who takes shots at caribou with a .22LR or .223 which would be considered as unethical by most white-people or sportsmen.
However, I do agree subsidization of soy-beans and corn made food much more accessible at the grocery-store; especially after NAFTA bankrupted the maize-farmers in Mexico and corn-syrup and soy extracts became fillers in our cured meat-products. As such, people have less and less reasons to procure their own meat since going to the grocery is cheaper than going out into the bush.
So, I wouldn’t say most hunters don’t need to depend on bush-meat as part of their budget. It is largely circumstantial. It depends on: how suppressed the wages are; how far away the closest grocery-store is; how expensive it is to transport food to places like Yellowknife or Whitehorse; and whether or not the foodstuffs from the grocery-store has been subsidized by the agribusiness.
I am wiling to bet if people pay the true cost of food, more would take up hunting again as a necessity to survival.
Agreed, Dave. It is largely circumstantial. And some hunters certainly do depend on hunted meat as part of their food budget.
Here in the Lower 48, though, I doubt most do. At least not if you consider whatever they spend on hunting.
The best example of that would be the choice of calibre!
Most of the sustenance hunters I know use .30-30 or .270 for moose. However, most recreational hunters would consider as unethical!
One time when my girlfriend came to Canada from Finland, she talked about how .308 Winchester is the most common moose-calibre. People at the gun-club were horrified. To them, .30-06 is the bare minimum, and the ideal calibre would be 7mm Rem Mag or heavier.
Well, to be honest, some of the hunters remind me of this: http://theoatmeal.com/pl/senior_year/economics
somsai: I appreciate the distinction between hunting for survival and hunting for better nutrition. Both could be lumped under something like “hunting for the physical well-being of myself, my family, and my community.”
I also appreciate the comparison to the photos and videos taken by biologists working with animals. Though their intent is not to kill, I wonder if they have any discomfort with watching videos of themselves or other scientists in such situations.
And I apologize, to you and to others here, for the hard-edged tone of some of my comment responses over the past several days. This has been a stressful week on the home front and I feel a bit like a participant in a sleep-deprivation experiment. The wiser course of action probably would have been to wait to respond until I was feeling less reactive.
The problem with Kerasote is that in many of his writings, he traveled to places where sportsmanship is not a priority or necessarily considered. He never once asked why high standards of sportsmanship is not enforced.
Stephen Bodio is the only outdoor writer I know of which spoke about sportsmanship in the western world, while at the same time being considerate of the economic realities of regions where sportsmanship takes the backseat in ethics.
He did not excuse their actions, but he at least goes into the background of how the culture developed and how rich, westernized safari-hunters exploited them.
The “Sacred Ceremony”
My young son loves to sing. We love to hear him sing. On his 4th birthday he received a tape recorder from a well meaning friend. We didn’t anticipate what happened until moments before it was too late. He sung his little heart out, rewound and pressed Play. He listened to the sounds coming back with a shocked expression, turned the machine off, and didn’t sing again for some time afterwards. (I’m happy to report that he’s now a beautiful, confident and happy singer.)
Our experiences simply aren’t the same as the externalized, decontextualized view provided by video. Contexts are our own; No one else’s. In hunting, as in other manifestations of our “animal” drives, we gloss over the details, cover the messes we make, and protect our dignity in the narratives we weave around them –the “sacred story”.
Tovar’s actions in the woods have been exemplary, but I doubt he’d like to repeatedly see his deer struck by their respective bullets in HD in the comfort of his living room. I know I wouldn’t. Killing is a necessary evil, an artifact of living closer to nature. But it’s not something most of us actually want to get too close to too often. As Michael Pollan put it, “If I’ve learned anything about hunting and eating meat, it’s that it’s even messier than the moralist thinks.”
I wonder if the crux of the dilemma, the internal battle, lies in how our minds work on the world. Doesn’t the call for “mindfulness” ask for a clearer more objective view, one not clouded by our hopes and desires –what the world actually is rather than what we might like it to be? Sometimes we find that it’s something we have to steel ourselves to.
Maybe some of the discomfort we feel lays in the fact that video has the ability to expose the objective amoral reality and failing to balance that with the “sacred ceremony” we weave around our actions. That discomfort, even trepidation, sneaks in under our defenses against that disturbing notion that we are in a lot less control than our ability to weave narratives around our animal lives would have us believe.
I think Tovar was right in saying that lions are amoral killers. But video reveals that we are too. We just have the capability of applying the mental gymnastics to it that lions cannot. Part of this is the reminder that we have been holding out, remaining outside it all (sometimes, uncharitably or not, described as “above it all”). This is not necessarily a condemnation, just a fact, another manifestation of the structure of the human brain and the mind it produces. We are both animal -part of the visceral world- and outside it all, abstracted, and hopeless romantics. Until we press “Play”.
Unsettling? Yes, because seeing the animal in ourselves exposes not only the amorality inherent in living but the mortality inherent in it as well. To an obligately social creature, become even more crushed together in modern times, taking a life is the ultimate wrong. Without our narratives, or stories, our sacred ceremonies, what are we?
Knowing this doesn’t really matter much because, alas, we still have to live with our neighbors.
Thanks very much for this, Paul. Good food for thought.
Tovar rathern than hard edged I always find your writings thought provoking and insightful. You do a great service to the larger hunting community by sharing them with the wider world via the Atlantic, NYT, etc.
Tovar, I have to agree with Somsai. Your responses have been remarkably measured and diplomatic. You’ve posed questions that really challenge people to take a closer look at their deepest beliefs and assumptions, and that always provokes interesting discussions. You’ve kept calm. Hope things are going better today, and I hope you catch up on your sleep. I highly recommend naps.
I agree. We need more independent thinkers in the community from all walks of life.
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