An Open Letter to the Hunting Community

After weeks of media focus, the international outrage at the killing of the African lion known as Cecil has just barely begun to die down. All the usual suspects have had their day, from the outraged to the outrageous. My problem with how this all played out lies with the fact that the hunting community’s response so far has been either meek disapproval of the alleged illegalities, or obnoxious. Is the braying of a washed-up rock star really the best we can do? The animal (Cecil) wasn’t “just a lion,” (as tweeted by said rock star). It was a living, breathing creature created for a purpose, whether or not the international community knew of its existence. The manner in which it died was repulsive, in or out of the limelight.

Phew. I guess you can color me outraged.

If that were the only hunting-related scandal of recent months, I’d do what I normally do, which is take a deep breath, try to ignore the media circus, and chalk it up as a flash-in-the-pan issue, quickly forgotten. Except…the situation culminating with Cecil has been part of a long build-up of stories about questionable hunting practices in Africa over the last few months.

The first that came to my attention was about a picture; an attractive, smiling young lady, lying on the ground next to a giraffe she had killed. After the social media world exploded, Ms. Rebecca Francis attempted to defend herself by stating that she was out with a hunting party, and came across an older bull who had been “kicked out of the herd” and “was near death” anyway. She claimed that there were people waiting for the meat and that she “honored” its life by giving it a merciful death. I’m sure I don’t understand fully, not having been there, but…What did she get out of it? If you came to my home and I offered to let you kill an animal from my herd, even an exotic one, for whatever reason, would you do it? Why? Would killing it be such a privilege? A pleasure? And why the gruesome selfie? Her explanation did nothing to restore her tarnished image as someone glorifying in what was ultimately a sad death.

The second story I read was about Corey Knowlton, who was awarded a permit to shoot a critically endangered black rhino, for which he paid $350,000. The money reportedly went to support conservation efforts for the species. He was instructed (and apparently complied, on CNN video no less) to take only an older, non-breeding male, so as to have minimal negative impact on the herd and remove competition that would allow younger breeding males to introduce their genetics. While some insane people were making death threats, the more reasonable among us were asking why he didn’t just give the money to support preservation efforts, or why he didn’t find some other way to bring attention to the rhino’s plight with his apparently large supply of disposable assets. In an interview that I discovered on-line he complained about being criticized “because I like to hunt.” Why not hunt something else? Why an endangered animal that he personally does not need for his own survival? Why do it in the face of massive protest by people who had legitimate concerns about whether it was even necessary? What was all the grandstanding about? In a story about the hunt on Radio Lab, Mr. Knowlton made a strong impression on me with his perspective that without trophy hunting, and hunting in general, the huge “bio-mass of humanity” would inevitably lead to the extinction of the species he admires. That without “creating value” through putting a price on the animal’s death, the rhinos are doomed. He claimed that he lived in “the real world” and that others were simply dreamers. I liked the guy, and admired his passion and courage. He was emotional, intelligent, and thoughtful, even if I didn’t agree with the premise behind his logic. His logic implies that humanity is hopelessly soulless, self-centered and narrow, incapable of making way for other living things in the world. The problem is that to every soulful, generous and hopeful individual observing, he himself ended up resembling his own cynical view of humanity. I’m sorry, Mr. Knowlton. You’re a good man. I wish there were a gentler way to disagree with you.

Cap this media blitz with the story of Cecil and Dr. Palmer, and those who dislike hunting in general are having the kind of year in the spotlight that they could have only dreamed about. Handed to them by the hunters themselves.

Hunting has an image problem. Especially Big Game Trophy hunting. Not every hunter tends to confuse their most primitive impulses with an entitlement to pursue any behavior they choose. (Just add money!). Not every hunter believes that when we participate in the scientific management of a herd of animals it justifies indulging our basest instincts for no other reason than we can, or that it’s legal. Not every hunter believes that “reality” requires we commercialize wilderness areas and the lives of the animals that inhabit them, in order to save them from ourselves. Many hunters, in fact, realize that such commercialization actually cheapens what would more appropriately be considered priceless. Yet we allow this attitude in our midst. All of the stories previously mentioned were about well-known and sometimes celebrated hunters, albeit mostly within the confines of a rather insular hunting community. In fairness, big game trophy hunting generates financial support for wildlife agencies and conservation groups, and fuels a massive hunting industry worth billions of dollars and employing hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of people.

But is it moral? This question needs to be answered by the hunters, as well as everyone else. Morality-driven decisions help us to transition from childish self-indulgence to the consideration of how our choices impact others. They are the foundation of family, society, and sanity.

Would a brain surgeon sell tickets to the morbidly fascinated who want to witness a gory spectacle? Moreover, would they allow a member of the audience to come down and make the incision themselves? Of course not. It wouldn’t matter how much money was generated to support the hospital. It would be beneath the dignity of the profession to allow such behavior, and it would rob the dignity of the poor person on the table. Yet this type of logic is routinely used to justify the hunting behaviors described above. It is not enough, but for some reason it is tolerated. Whether considered excess or a hazard, the animals in question didn’t suddenly give up their right to be treated with dignity, just because someone in search of entertainment gave up theirs. At least, this is how it appears to the non-hunter, and appearances matter.

As usual, we hunters are our own worst enemy.

When I read the hunting magazines I get the sense that we believe ourselves to be besieged on all sides. The “liberal” politicians are trying to take our guns away. The “tree huggers” are attempting to “lock up” the best hunting grounds. The “anti’s” would eliminate hunting entirely. There is some element of truth in all this, though exaggerated for emotional effect. So far our response has been to band together in a “united we stand, divided we fall” posture, and focus our attention toward a perceived enemy. It’s a natural, human and instinctive reaction, and like most of our primitive instincts, it’s wildly ineffective in a civilized society. We miss the opportunity to look at ourselves and examine how we might be contributing to the problem. There is tremendous pressure to maintain this shield wall within the hunting community.

Often, any effort at introspection is viciously suppressed by our peers. I have no illusions about the reception that this critique will receive from the major hunting organizations. I fully expect that some will label me a traitor if it sees the light of day. I guess I’m willing to pay that price. I intend to misbehave.

Hunters, by percentage, are a shrinking minority in the U.S. Most citizens don’t partake in the activity, or they don’t understand. Whether they are “tree huggers,” “anti’s,” or simply neutral, they are part of the same democracy as hunters. They outnumber us, and they vote. We need them. We don’t need them to agree, or even to approve, but…We need them to not see us as self-indulgent children. I know that this is a tall order. The extremists on both sides would like nothing more than to maintain our currently polarized situation. It’s like watching two belligerent drunks having an argument. The topic becomes less important than the conflict, until it escalates out of control. All the sober people back out of the room, hoping the fracas will end soon, so that sanity can return if anyone is still interested in the discussion. Since we can’t (and shouldn’t) fight our opposition as one would a true enemy, and since we can’t disparage or shame them into leaving us alone, the best we can do is to be reasonable and keep our own house clean. To me this means making sure that what we do is supported by very clear moral consideration. It means making it obvious to everyone that we are not solely motivated by selfish gratification. Occasionally, it means listening to them, instead of calling them names and doubling down on our behavior. To the degree that we fail to do this, we are adding to the tensions between ourselves and our detractors and everyone loses. In other words, we need to stop being afraid to take a strong stand for ethical and moral behavior within our own community. If you’ll forgive the double-negative, we can’t afford not to.

When learning the art of hunting, several principles were taught to me as canon by those who gently (and sometimes not so gently) guided me into the activity. It was made clear to me that by observing these ethics I would avoid the sins that the young and excitable tend to commit. Armed with the following I can look anyone in the eye and make my argument for what I do, without shame or second-guessing myself.

Number one among them was “Eat what you kill.” I remember well the horror I felt at the prospect of consuming the mangy little squirrel that was the first victim of my hunting efforts, but that lesson quickly taught me to be more selective, and careful. I enjoy a squirrel gumbo nowadays, but I have to admit, it is an acquired taste. Through this ethic I was taught to respect the fact that another living creature died, and I better be willing to accept the full consequences of my participation in that death.

Fair chase” is a hotly debated concept within the hunting community, and while ostensibly valued by hunters everywhere, it remains somewhat ambiguous. My definition eliminates most high-tech gadgets, forbids the hunting of animals over bait, and limits my pursuit to stable populations in their natural environment. No “tame” deer walking through my back yard. No garbage-feeding bears. No exotic, imported animals behind high fences. This ethic combines respect for the animal with an awareness that technologically, humanity has reached the point that we are quite capable of simply wiping out entire species (including ourselves!) It has become too easy to kill. Voluntary self-restraint is appropriate.

Waste nothing” is a value that I still aspire to. I’m getting pretty close. At its most basic level it means that anything edible, (at least by first world standards), should be carried home and not left to rot. The purists among us would say any usable item, including guts, bones, and sinew. I have yet to make a water bag out of a stomach, or summon the courage to eat brains. One of these days… Last I checked, most fish and game departments consider wasting an animal, or large parts of it, to be a crime. Following this ethic, even when my stomach roils, keeps me humble.

Take only what you need.” Within legal limits, this ethic applies regardless of what is allowed under the law. Often it means being content to stop hunting when the law would allow you to continue. Following this ethic keeps me safe from the sins of greed and gluttony.

Give back” — We are stewards. In combination with taking only what is needed, following this ethic helps to prevent the excesses of the past that led to the extinction of the passenger pigeon, and the near extinction of the bison. It ensures that animal populations remain healthy, and implies that when they are not, we have an obligation to take action. This could be laboring to clean up habitat, contributing financially to a conservation group, or speaking out in defense of the wildlife. All wildlife, whether “game” animals or not. Certainly it means not hunting a pressured species until populations return to a sustainable level. True generosity of spirit is best demonstrated when we give without getting anything in return. The rest of the world knows this, which is why killing in the name of conservation is ultimately perceived as disingenuous.

Obviously, when it comes to hunting in general, I tend to be sympathetic. I don’t see a problem with keeping a memorable set of antlers, whether to display on the wall, to inspire conversation around the fireplace, or to use in creating tools, furniture, jewelry, etc. As long as the death of the animal served a higher purpose. (Like feeding a family). Yes, there is personal satisfaction, ego-gratification, even “fun,” achieved along the way. For myself, participating in the cycle of life and death in Nature is a spiritually rejuvenating act that connects me to God’s original Creation in ways that even church cannot. But without the universally understandable final objective of feeding family and friends, justification for killing one of God’s creatures begins to crumble.

I have to admit, considering recent media coverage, even from the perspective of another hunter it is not clear that the typical African Big Game Trophy Hunter is anything other than what the “anti’s” paint them out to be: wasteful, entitled, ego-driven status-seekers who treat the animals they hunt as collectible toys for their personal amusement. Like most stereotypes, it is unfair to many who don’t fit the more negative connotations (Mr. Knowlton is an example). Currently though, no one appears to be making much of an effort to improve on that image. Unless that changes, it makes the rest of the hunting community look bad, and harms our cause. Please speak out if you are the exception. That is a dialogue we need to have.

Dr. Palmer’s execution of Cecil was a huge black eye on the face of hunting in general, but the practice of African trophy and safari hunting wasn’t all that pretty to begin with. We must accept responsibility for our part in this. Maybe this is an opportunity to clean house.