Everyone I know—hunter or non-hunter—detests slob-hunting: Animals wounded carelessly or maliciously. Bodies and body parts dumped along roadsides. Shots fired at unidentified flashes of movement. And so on. We agree that such behavior is callous and wasteful, disrespectful and dangerous.
But why should it surprise us?
Recently, while revising a chapter for my book, I found myself reflecting on a couple of points made by writer and hunter Ted Kerasote in his essay “Restoring the Older Knowledge,” which I first came across in A Hunter’s Heart.
Kerasote notes that disrespect for nature and animals is not unique to thoughtless hunters. As a whole, he argues, our society operates with little regard for its impacts. From rapacious development, logging, and strip-mining to ecologically devastating agricultural practices and the application of toxic herbicides to suburban lawns, we inflict enormous damage. We do all kinds of things that are callous and wasteful, disrespectful and dangerous.
Kerasote argues, in short, that bad behavior among hunters is merely one facet of larger cultural patterns. It may be particularly visible and disturbing—for it is willful and impacts animals in an obvious, direct way—and it may therefore serve as a kind of lightning rod for disapproval, but it is not particularly unusual.
This doesn’t excuse such behavior. But it gives us a wider lens through which to see.
It helps me understand, for instance, why the question “Are you pro-hunting?” makes no sense to me.
One parallel: I have worked as a logger. If someone asks me whether I am “pro-logging,” I would say it depends. Do I approve of harvesting trees in a thoughtful, sustainable manner? Sure. Do I approve of laying waste to vast tracts of forest habitat? No.
Another parallel: I have also worked as a builder. If someone asks me whether I am “pro-construction,” I would say it depends. Do I approve of the modest timber-frame home my neighbor built for his family? Sure. Do I approve of starter castles, condominiums, and strip malls gobbling up high-quality farmland? No.
Now I hunt. Do I approve of killing a deer with as clean a shot as possible and eating the venison? Sure. Do I approve of shooting a couple hares for nothing more than amusement and leaving their bodies in the woods? Hell, no. (For lack of a wanton-waste law, I believe this remains legal in Vermont. And, yes, some people do it.)
Logging, construction, agriculture, hunting, you name it: Any activity can perpetuate the worst of who we are—humans at their greediest and most devastating. Or it can encourage the best of who we are—humans at their wisest and most respectful.
© 2011 Tovar Cerulli
Good and thoughtful points, Tovar.
I think you’ve hit on exactly what it is that gets me during the anti vs pro hunting discussions. It’s almost invariably the negative examples of hunting behavior that are the first arguments on the table. Apparently wanton wounding, apparent lack of concern about the well-being of the animals we hunt, disregard for the law or for safety…
Of course all of those can be easily countered with the point that few hunters regularly behave that way, but there’s no doubt that some do.
But a lacksadaisical attitude toward environmental abuse is hardly the sole domain of the hunter… it’s more a common factor to our population in general. It’s the healthy individual who jumps in the car to drive two blocks to buy a loaf of bread. It’s the crowds of people who walk uncaring past a piece of litter on the ground, just a few feet from a trash can. It’s roadsides littered with cans, bottles, cigarette butts, and lord knows what else because out of sight, to some people, certainly means out of mind.
And of course it’s the criminal… the robber, rapist, and murderer.
Why, exactly, would anyone expect hunters not to demonstrate the same variety of attitudes and behaviors as any other segment of the population?
As you say, it doesn’t excuse the behavior, but it does (or should) illustrate the point that slobbish irresponsibility, apathetic negligience, and criminal activity is hardly the sole domain of hunters.
Thanks, Phillip. True, those negative examples can, as you say, be “easily countered with the point that few hunters regularly behave that way.” The trouble with that counterpoint, of course, is that it’s impossible to quantify. There’s no way to know how many hunters do what, or how often.
But the broader points that you and I are both making remain. Hunters — like hikers, drivers, etc, etc — are members of cultures where disrespect for animals and nature are commonplace. Given that context, it would be weird (though wonderful) if all hunters were deeply respectful. In part, I think hunters face a “minority problem” — many non-hunters perceive us collectively, not recognizing the diversity among us. It’s not at all the way hikers, drivers, etc are perceived — within those groups, a lot of diversity is recognized.
Those of us who care about nature and animals would, I think, like to see greater respect in all parts of the culture, not just among hunters.
Phillip – “Why, exactly, would anyone expect hunters not to demonstrate the same variety of attitudes and behaviors as any other segment of the population?”
I for one do. I do because a 120 years or so, hunters led the way in conserving wildlife and wild places. Nearly all of the early leaders and groups were made up of hunters. Jim Posewitz’s book, “Rifle in Hand” does a great job in documenting this.
Because of this history and the fact that we are so closely tied to the land and the animals, I think we do have to act more responsibly than the rest of society, and we do have to police our ranks. Some might say that is elitist. If being elite is based on behavior, then that is fine with me.
As a practical matter, when you are a minority such as hunting is and probably has always been (based on the definition that hunters are the ones who kill the game) it is imperative that the majority agree to and tolerate your minority activity. If the majority gets fed up with slob behavior, real or perceived, hunting for most of us could be over very fast.
No Eric. ALL hunters did not lead the conservation movement. Only some did. Let’s not get wrapped up in hyperbole here and miss the point.
Even 120 years go, there were individuals who resisted the conservation movement. It’s not like there was some magical breeze that passed over all hunters and made them instant conservationists. The aberrations existed then just as they exist now… in all factions of life, including hunting.
You can hope, but you can’t possibly expect all hunters to be paragons.
And yes, I understand totally that, as a minority, it’s pretty important that we are going to be perceived largely due to the negatives, moreso than the positives of our actions. A few bad apples… and all that. But recognizing this does not make those bad apples go away. And if eradicating those bad apples is truly the key to the future of our sport, then we are finally doomed.
All we can do is what we’ve been working toward… showing that hunters are not all like those bad apples, and demonstrating that we will not tolerate them in our midst. I think we’ve actually been pretty successful at that… so much so, that the scale has tipped until that “bad apple” brush is being applied a little too liberally, based on personal preferences rather than more universal ethics (crossbow vs vertical bow, baiting, hound hunting, high fence, etc.).
Phillip, I stand corrected on the “all hunters” statement. Nearly all the leaders were hunters, but far from all hunters were conservationists.
Your statement about painting the slob hunter with an overly broad brush also rings true. We have lots of bigger problems than quibbling over hunter preferences and aesthetics.
Phillip and Eric: I’m glad you guys worked that out, but I don’t actually see where Eric claimed that all hunters led the conservation movement. 🙂
The smallest of smallest percentage of hunters led the movement and it’s arguable whether they were hunters or environmentalist and recreationists who hunted. I find things murky in that regard. Certainly hunting doesn’t make you a conservationist or environmentalist. Apparently some 6% of sierra club members hunt. Not sure what to call them: hunters, environmentalists, antis.
I don’t think hunters get held to a higher standard. It’s that the hunter’s unethical and illegal behavior often occurs on one’s private property. The property owner becomes the unwilling participant and host of an unwanted guest. ATV’ers get about just as much wrath. I personally don’t think much of slob hunters. It pains me to see when upstanding hunters take the ethical low road in fear of being labelled an anti and join their slob counterparts. Upstanding hunters recognize the problems hunters face. The “they’re not hunters, they are poachers”, etc response tells me the person isn’t in the same group.
Sam, I think you are too dismissive, but you raise something that really needs to be examined. I am about to read Jim Posewitz’s “Rifle in Hand: How Wild America was Saved”, which argues that hunters played a key role in public land and wilderness protection. It might be interesting what the actual record is in terms of numbers (percentages of hunters that supported the conservation movement vs. those that didn’t). I think one point is true: people already so inclined deepen their commitment to conservation/environmental protection become more so if they are avid hunters. Deep commitment really matters when trying to achieve things in the political/social arena. For example, 80% of people supporting something with little commitment to put time and energy into the cause achieves a lot less than 50% that has significant commitment.
Also, there is a lot of evidence that people involved in hunting are overall more pro-conservation than other members of their same group. For example, some conservative hunters I know are in denial about global warming and overuse of the earth’s resources, but support wilderness and public land, which is at least something. I have also seen this at work in coalition work for wildlife habitat and clean water initiatives – again, people who were pretty conservative supported raising their own taxes, in a referendum, because of their involvement in hunting. Of course, raising any tax is heresy to conservative ideology these days, so it tells you something about hunting’s effect on people’s broader outlook on the environment/conservation, esp the people who get active in advocating for hunting interests.
I think you’ve hit on the problem with ideology in general. It’s extraordinarily difficult to lay down first principles about any issue that’s at all complex. Is it acceptable to take the life of an animal? That depends, of course.
Unfortunately, “that depends” is an unsatisfying answer for most of us, and it’s very tempting to go with the straighforward answer. In my line of work — food writing — there’s a lot of it. I think the same kind of parsing you’re doing for hunting ethics is useful for things like farming (is conventional farming acceptable? is there a role for GM crops?) and cooking (should we focus on local products? should we avoid processed foods altogether).
And we haven’t even gotten to politics or religion!
True, Tamar. And aren’t all issues complex once you begin to examine them closely? Except in my most militant vegan phase — and diet can approximate religion in its zeal! — I have always made a very poor ideologue.
1) My experience of these debates is that people often rapidly adopt a cultural filter. They deem it a necessary evil, or essential, to fell trees and build a house, use paper and drive a car. We accept the notion that a ‘nicer’ house or car is an acceptable quest in ostentatious symbols of success. Most North Americans, for example, are urbanized and see hunting as fundamentally unnecessary, as you well know. Few people give serious critical currency to our relationship with nature, which amplifies this view of hunting an ‘unnecessary evil’ if you will.
2) If you haven’t already read it I can recommend ‘Going Wild’ by Jan Dizard, it would be good research for your thesis too! Anyway, he also addresses the issue of reduced hunter numbers. He believes that when hunters were more common and hunting a more entrenched institution, communities collectively and informally policed hunter behaviour along with other social norms. With hunters being more scarce and being pushed to the fringes of societal norms he claims that hunters have less inhibition on their less-than-ethical impulses.
Interesting, Brian. Yes, I know Dizard’s work, and the man himself. In fact, I just had dinner with him a few weeks ago. 🙂 Have you read his book Mortal Stakes?
It is an interesting take, but I am in a different mode. I say I’m “pro-hunting”, but I have broader definition of what “pro-hunting” is. We have a number of forces within our own on ranks that are anti-hunting when you look at the causes of the slow but steady decline of hunting.
As far as I’m concerned the NRA and Safari Club International, because of their politics that overall distract us from the real problems facing us, are anti-hunting. Not that I have never worked with their members or agreed with them on some issues, but they mostly take positions that are against what is in our interest or even what most hunting organizations want. For example, amongst its many errors, the NRA is a rabid defender of unfettered ATV access (they stopped an area in Colorado from being declared wilderness due to their pro-ATV stance), and SCI whines about the Endangered Species Act making it harder for them to go on polar bear hunts…both positions are indefensible and isolate us from our natural allies.
My take on Kerasote’s essay is that he directly challenges a stance similar to yours, Erik. One common hunter response to hunter misbehavior is to say, “Those aren’t really hunters.” They’re poachers, or jerks with guns, or whatever, but they’re not hunters. Some are even, as you argue, anti-hunting, because they commit individual actions that harm hunting and habitat, or take organizational positions that are indefensible. As I read it, Kerasote’s response is, “No, these folks are hunters.”
I appreciate your stance and feel very aligned with the spirit of it. But I tend to agree with Kerasote.
When I see the results of a horrendous logging operation, what sense does it make for me to say “those aren’t really loggers, they’re actually anti-logging”? Does it accomplish anything beyond making me feel better about calling myself a logger? They wield similar machinery to what I wield in the woods. They go out and cut trees. They call themselves loggers. Non-loggers call them loggers. They may be harmful to the image of logging and to the land itself, but aren’t they loggers?
This discussion and David Petersen’s book “Hearstblood” are going to make me change my stance somewhat. I’m still “pro-hunting”, but there will be qualifiers now. Petersen is a little hard on Joe hunter, but he at one point argues that we need better hunters, not more. I still think we need more, but his point is very thought-provoking. Your point does dovetail with one of my positions, I own a lot of guns, but I’m not “pro-gun” – I’m “pro-shooting sports”, since a gun is not good or bad, it is an instrument of joy, confidence, nourishment and satisfaction in some situations…and terror and destruction in others.
I agree with you about the ‘SCI old boys club’, but I think the Polar Bear issue needs clarification.
My friend has spent a good deal of time doing his thesis research on Inuit Polar bear hunting in NWT. The trophy hunts represent the minority of bears killed, the majority being Aboriginal subsistence hunts. The trophy income helps them maintain dogs sled teams etc and enables them to get out and hunt bears with their families and pass on the traditions. The value of this activity assisting young Inuit to be more intimate with the land, abate teen suicides, be more vigilant of conservation issues etc etc. This loss of income has had a significant effect on some communities (a few bears spin good money). IIRC Foote and Freeman report about 350-500 bears taken a year in Canada, about 100 by foreign hunters. NWT is mainly American clients, Nunavut has more Europeans.
Folks up there who can afford to keep their dog teams will still try and hunt the bears not taken by the now absent clients, and sell the skins. So the bears are still being hunted.
Climate change and the impending arctic oil boom are the threats to bears, not American hunters. The ESA will conceivably not make a lick of difference to the future of Polar Bears in Canada.
Its similar, IMO, with African lions. I wrote about this here http://orionmind.blogspot.com/2011/03/lions-in-news-again.html .Perhaps we aggree/disagree?
(Sorry for the topic hijack Tovar)
I think this is good clarification, but my experience is that SCI members I’ve worked with in very broad hunting/angling/conservation coalitions (defending hunting interests in MN, i.e., public land acquisitions) are people who are “global warming deniers”. I’m not against polar bears being hunted per se, and you point out some particulars that make SCI’s position appear less odious, but…they do have a general approach and overall ideology which to me is ultimately against the hunting community’s interests. I suspect that part of their position on ESA is driven by global warming denial.
I think you hit the nail on the head Erik. In many ways I believe (and I would like to be corrected) that SCI represents the interests of small minority of hunters, not ‘Joe Hunter’. Competative trophy hunting I am sure has existed since we were using Atlatls but my feeling is that SCI really made this an institution (far more so that Roland Ward for example) and most record books ramped up their efforts to to become more competative only after SCI’s inception. I would love to be proven wrong on this. Some of the PH’s I have spoken with have hair-raising stories of the dubious lengths their clients will go to in order to make the book.
No worries about the “hijack,” Brian. As I’ve said here before, I enjoy seeing where these conversations take us. I should probably post a general disclaimer to this effect, though why anyone would object to such exchanges taking a tangential-yet-related direction is beyond me.
That would be like me inviting you over for a meal (venison, naturally) and insisting that the conversation stick to whatever topic I initiate when you walk in the door. Draconian dinner etiquette.
Here’s another comparison between logging and hunting. Some trees just grow out in the woods all by themselves, without much help or nurturing from us. Eventually, some of them will be logged. Other trees are grown in rows like corn; they just take a bit longer to mature. It’s like any other kind of farming, just more of a long-term prospect. We plant pines in rows, trim them carefully, and eventually harvest them.
Similarly, hunting—especially deer hunting—is all too often slipping toward something more like agriculture. Articles and ads in hunting magazine promise that we’ll be able to “grow more deer,” or even “grow more quality bucks on our land.” It’s a slippery slope toward privatizing what’s in theory a public resource, and in some parts of the country we’ve already gone way too far down that road.
Interesting parallel, Al. I guess “tree-farming vs. woods-logging” is an aesthetic difference, and sometimes an ecological difference (mono-cropping, lack of undergrowth, etc). It’s not an ownership difference, as our legal system defines vegetation as being owned by whoever holds title to the land from which it grows. Wildlife, in contrast, is not supposed to be owned by any landowner, at least according to Public Trust Doctrine going back to the 1800s.
The private wildlife reserves in places like South Africa and to a lesser extent Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe (whats sadly left of private land in that fanatastic country) are already well advanced with game farming due to the strong private property rights that exist with wildlife. My concern is that despite the leaching of ‘wildness’ from the wildlife experience in many cases, access to wildlife becomes heavily gentrified. Most SA hunters are middle – upper class professionals, they need to be…
The guy who presents the ‘High Road’ TV show in the US is a great proponent of privatised wildlife. I am not anti high fences per se, but am wary of gentrified wildlife access.
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