A cruel leisure activity for the wealthy—or not so different from eating meat? Our contributors battle it outby Michael Petrou, Alice Crary / January 24, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Yes, says Michael Petrou
It’s the naked hypocrisy of it all that is the most tiresome. Anti-hunting activists—a great many of them, anyway—don’t truly care about animal welfare. They have little to say, for example, about the intensive farming of pigs—far smarter than the dogs we pamper like children—which are raised in cruel and overcrowded conditions, dying in fear and, too often, pain. Activists’ concern and moral outrage is reserved for animals with arbitrary physical characteristics that humans find pleasing—white fur, immense size, shaggy manes, big eyes—or those that are targeted for sport by rich American dentists.
It can’t really be animal welfare that motivates them, because hunted wild animals typically have better lives and deaths than animals bred and slaughtered for food. They live free, and with luck and skill on the hunter’s part, don’t realise that death is imminent until it is seconds away.
Those opposed to trophy hunting also claim to be motivated by the welfare of entire species and that their anti-hunting position is a stand in favour of conservation. I have sympathy for this argument. Hunting snow leopards is not a pastime that I would ever endorse.
But well-regulated hunting, even trophy-hunting, can be a force for good in conservation. In Canada, where I usually live, thousands of deer and moose are harvested every autumn, but populations remain healthy, and fluctuate naturally depending on factors that include the severity of winter weather and wolf predation. In addition to filling freezers with meat and maybe reducing slightly the number of livestock in factory farms, this practice gives people a stake in environmental protection. Hunters are natural conservationists because the health of wild habitats impacts on them more than it does those of us who rarely leave towns and cities. And if a hunter who shoots a moose to feed his or her family also makes a trophy of that animal by sticking its antlers above her fireplace, where’s the added harm?
No, says Alice Crary
Trophy hunting is a distinct and deeply troubling kind of hunting. It is a pastime generally reserved for elites who have enough money to hunt animals who are expensive to kill because they are rare (not for the most part deer or moose), where their scarcity is typically down to prior human threats to their survival. The “trophy”—the head or some other part of the dead animal that may be hung on the wall—is a sign of the hunter’s social position. There should be no pretence that this type of hunting is a means of survival: trophy hunting is a means of dominance.
Even if some trophy hunters consider the snow leopard off limits due to shrinking population size, the hunting of snow leopards is flourishing in Kyrgyzstan. Here, as elsewhere, the hope or myth is that hunting concessions will fund wildlife reserves. This is the essence of the argument for trophy hunting—that killing some animals is an acceptable way of maintaining areas large enough to support a population. Such an ends-justifies-the-means logic is common to arguments about economic efficiency. Not only is it empirically flawed—a lot of trophy hunting money is lost to corruption—it is morally problematic. There are ways to protect rare animals that do not involve killing them.
It is irrelevant that many hunted animals enjoy greater well-being than animals in the industrial food system. The horror of what is done annually to billions of sentient creatures in factory farms is so great that it is difficult to fathom. But that is no argument for killing wild animals by a less terrible and still morally objectionable method—and reducing them to decorations above the fireplace.
Some opposition to hunting in Britain is driven by class resentment, where hunting, for trophy deer at least, is seen as a pastime reserved for elites. That’s not the case everywhere. There is Crown land throughout Canada where anyone with a firearms and hunting licence can harvest a deer for the cost of a bullet and a £25 tag. For another £60 a butcher will cut it into steaks for you, though many people do that themselves. It’s a similar situation in many states of America, where you live.
I don’t see the clear line between this kind of hunting for meat and hunting for a trophy that you do. I think you can hunt an animal for food, and for whatever satisfaction you get from also mounting its head or horns on a wall. But it seems you are most bothered by hunting more exotic animals, such as lions and bears, exclusively for trophies, as opposed to for meat as well.
Here, I should say that I personally hunt only for meat (though I do wear coyote fur, from a non-edible animal that was shot or trapped). But just because I find something distasteful doesn’t mean I think it’s always wrong, and trophy hunting, for example in parts of Africa, does result in the preservation of wild spaces. Trophy hunting excursions also provide income for people who might otherwise resort to poaching or fall into poverty—their welfare matters. And if money is lost to corruption, tackle the corruption. Don’t condemn the whole enterprise.
We must live in the real world, with all the political and economic complexities that entails. People won’t pay as much to photograph a lion as they will to shoot one, and that means there is a greater incentive to preserve land for hunting than for safaris. And in Africa, a lot of trophy hunting takes place on private game farms that only hold wildlife because animals were bred there to be shot. We may both dislike the practice, but let’s at least acknowledge that it reduces hunting pressure on animals in the wild.
Despite the existence of borderline cases, it’s important to understand what trophy hunting is and to confront this particularly noxious enterprise. Consider an analogy. There are hard cases in which it is difficult to determine whether kids are bullying each other or just having a rambunctious good time. It doesn’t follow that there is no point in discussing what bullying is, with an eye to prevention.
Even the supposedly most water-tight defences of trophy hunting frequently fail. The case made on grounds of economic efficiency goes awry not only by ignoring corruption, but also by inflating the benefits over the costs with arbitrary and unaccounted-for assessments of the value of the meat extracted.
The view that real-world considerations oblige us to try to get trophy hunting to work—and not to try to protect endangered animals without killing some of them—is an expression of an uncritical conservatism. Fixing trophy hunting only seems to be the pragmatically best option if we adopt the—false—view that human beings’ proclivity to treat animals as commodities is an unchangeable law. At various times and places, people have held and acted on fundamentally different conceptions.
It’s not clear that we can fight the unfolding, human-caused catastrophe that has cut wild animal populations by 50 per cent over the last 40 years without looking at animals, in what for many of us is a new light: as beings who matter in themselves, and who are more than mere objects. It is politically ambitious to transform received images of animals so that our interactions with them no longer follow the logic of neoliberalism. It is a politically demanding position, but one that places animal protectionists in good company—together with activists who, rejecting the status quo, struggle against sexism, racism, classism, ableism, ageism and other forms of bias.
To my mind, this argument boils down to the question of what justifies killing an animal. All of us except for the strictest of vegans—whose stance I find more consistent than most of those who oppose hunting—must implicitly concede that animals should be killed for our pleasure. That could mean our nourishment, our warmth, our fashion, or the thrill some take from acquiring a trophy.
Hunting is more humane than what takes place in industrial slaughterhouses. I also think that, if one is to benefit from the death of an animal, one should confront that death. Supermarkets shield us from the process that puts lamb chops on our table. Hunting strips all that away. Not everyone can hunt, but all of us should think about what’s required for us to enjoy animals that are killed on our behalf.
The specific question, then, is where to draw the line. Many of us accept the killing of animals for food but not for clothing, others killing for clothing but not for home decoration or trophies. For the animal, of course, the distinction doesn’t matter. It ends up dead regardless.
I am personally most comfortable with the killing of animals for food and for fur or skins, rather than for trophies. But I’m willing to make compromises for the greater good of species and wild habitat preservation, and human welfare, and I think trophy hunting can serve that greater good. You can call that uncritical conservatism if you like, but I think a more accurate description would be pragmatism.
I’m not opposed to a transformation in the way we consider animals and our relationships with them. If nothing else, that might result in better livestock husbandry. But I think it’s wrong to think that hunting will be perceived as more morally objectionable as a result. There’s nothing exclusively neoliberal about hunting, even trophy hunting. It’s gone on for millennia, including in societies that venerate animals.
We can and should treat animals better. We should allow them to live comfortable lives in captivity. We should preserve their wild homes and protect wild populations. We should kill them in a way that diminishes their terror and suffering. Hunting, as counterintuitive as it seems, can be part of that.
You are on to one important point, about the importance of putting things in plain view. Our society’s unrelenting violence against animals in agriculture and the food industry is hidden away. This invisibility is legally enforced in the US, where many states have so-called “ag-gag” laws that make it a crime to videotape what goes on in abattoirs. The ways in which meat is packaged in supermarkets further contribute to the keeping of nasty things out of sight.
The plain facts of what happens in factory farms have been described in newspapers, documentaries, books and blogs. But transforming the way we think about animals, so that they come to be regarded as beings who matter, will require more than a listing of facts. Yes, we need fully to expose the awfulness of what goes on in slaughterhouses and labs. We also require the work of imaginative thinkers including writers, filmmakers and anthropologists.
But this won’t by itself solve our problems. Even for the person who comes to see animals as valuable, there are issues of competing values. This does not mean that, as you put it, animals should be used or killed for our pleasure. It is hotly contested whether animal testing is necessary for the progress of medical science, but, for those who believe it is, there appears to be a strong case for the experimental use of animals. A good case can also be made for subsistence hunting—that is, hunting necessary for survival.
But “subsistence trophy hunting” is an oxymoron. Trophy hunting is a leisure activity for the well-off that involves objectifying animals. The trouble with it isn’t merely that, as we saw, the supposedly pragmatic, economic arguments fall flat on their own terms. The more fundamental problem is that accepting these terms means allowing for the very objectification that anyone who hopes to challenge our society’s callousness toward animals urgently needs to contest.