Far too often, popular representations of hunting tend to both polarize and homogenize it, leading to misrepresentations and simplifications. In the last few days following the Cecil story, a number of media outlets have discussed and represented hunting through broad assumptions, generalizations, and stereotypes. In response, we’ve seen hunters come forward with proclamations about the enduring honour of hunting as a tradition that is defined and given meaning by its most respectable proponents. To those on both sides, you’re doing a disservice to your cause through these simplifications. There are a host of social, cultural, and political reasons for this tendency to generalize hunting, but for many of us who hunt, there’s an important question surrounding how we handle it when we find ourselves faced with the need to protect a tradition that we believe in, while at the same time considering how our own personal ethics position us in relation to a particular set of events that directly involve hunting.
It is a common debate among the hunting community, and a question many of us face on an individual level: do we need to stand together as a community regardless of our individual approaches and beliefs, or do we stand by our personal ethics, risking internal divisions and potential political consequences to hunting?
When Cecil the lion (Panthera leo) was killed in Zimbabwe last month, hunters found themselves in this predicament once again. Lions are killed all the time, and many hunters out there probably felt like there was no need for intense discussion about this. I think this story highlights an ongoing important discussion to be had. The details of this particular case created strong reactions in the media and among various social groups, and hunters found themselves in positions where they needed to respond. Canadian hunters The Beasley Brothers, hosts of the show Canada in the Rough, commented that “there is turmoil in the hunting world!” Other well-known hunting personalities, such as Donnie Vincent and Cameron Hanes released responses to the story, indicating that among hunters, there is a perception that when an individual hunter does something legally or ethically questionable, hunting in general is at risk of attack – we talk about the world of hunting being in turmoil, rather than strictly the world of one individual. My own anecdotal experience tells me this too: hunters I know became immediately concerned about how anti-hunters would use the example of Cecil to further their cases, and how this story would reflect on all hunters and on the inherent morality of hunting.
I was expressing this concern to a non-hunting friend of mine, and he was surprised to hear that hunters feel this way, that there was a perception among us that we would all be painted with the same brush. His perspective was that as someone who is not anti-hunting, but who does have certain ethical positions on hunting, he has no problem separating the actions of one from the actions of the many. Further, he saw this as a positive opportunity for other hunters to strengthen their social image through self-reflection and a thoughtful critical analysis of the story. This surprised me and left me questioning whether the world really is applying the actions of individual hunters to all of us or whether we are unnecessarily on the defensive.
On the other hand, anti-hunting advocacy and media is strong, and there are ongoing efforts to limit hunting opportunities and propagate a negative image of hunting. Politically, this takes the form of tightened firearms legislation and efforts to change land policies to prevent hunting. Socially, we see hunters presented on an ideological binary with environmentalists, animal rights activists, and other identity politics groups, and the reinforcement of broad stereotypes and assumptions about hunters.
This situation makes it difficult to predict whether we will strengthen our social and political position by presenting a united front against these forces, or whether we are better off claiming particular ethical niches and taking the risk that we will end up engaged in debates amongst ourselves, taking energy away from advocating for the activity in principle and protecting our legal ability to pursue it. In the first option, there is political strength in numbers, without a doubt. On the other hand, I think it`s important that we all develop our own hunting ethics, and stand firm on these – difficult at times as it may be – because it gives us a sense of certainty that no matter what else happens, we have been honourable, responsible, and respectful hunters.
Some people talk about “ethical hunting” as though it is a universally agreed upon set of prescriptive actions, and people are divided along a clearly identifiable line, defined as either an ethical hunter or an unethical hunter. In reality, your hunting ethics are determined by a combination of considerations that eventually lead to a set of principles guiding how you think about hunting and the strategies and actions you are willing and unwilling to do while in the field. For some, the law is their ethical yardstick, meaning that if something is legal, is it ethical. Others focus more on individually developed standards of what they think is acceptable. As such, we need to remember that hunting ethics change, however slightly, from person to person and are influenced by various criteria and experiences.
Having said this, there is no shortage of the promotion of this thing called ethical hunting. There are a number of organizations dedicated to promoting ethical hunting, and they have developed some general definitions and guidelines. The Boone and Crockett Club’s Fair Chase Statement outlines six principles for ethical hunting that highlight the importance of a personal code of conduct and behaviour that upholds the honour of the animal being hunted, the environment in which it lives, and maintains the relationship between the hunter and the animal. Orion, The Hunter’s Institute points to the need for hunters to “recognize that education, debate, and thoughtful examination are critical components of developing one’s understanding of his or her hunting ethic”. So hunters are having these deeper discussions on emotional and intellectual levels, and it’s nothing new. The Ontario Hunter Education Program, the official course that all new hunters are required to attend in Ontario, which entails a 70 question test, includes a whole unit on ethical hunting. The Boone and Crockett Club has been having these conversations since it was founded in 1887.
One thing that these types of guidelines perhaps don’t fully account for are the wide-ranging social and economic realities of certain hunting situations (although the Boone and Crockett Club’s statement does reinforce the need to respect local customs). For example, the current circumstances around lion hunting and environmental conservation in a number of African countries have been shaped by global political and economic institutions. It is a complex matter that I discuss more in Part 3 of these discussions on Cecil, but it is important to remember that our personal hunting ethics are (and should be) compounded by complex and changing circumstances that are global in nature.
Again, I think it’s important to be clear about the lens through which I examine the story involving Cecil the lion and the personal biases I bring to the table. For me, this comes back to what I mentioned in my previous post about the need to embrace paradox. Ethical hunting, in my world, means upholding a sense of gratitude and respect in the relationship between the hunter and the animal, and understanding both of their places in the landscape. Vague, yes. Generally speaking, for me, ethical hunting put in practice means eating the animal you’ve killed and conducting your hunt to contribute to conservation. I believe that there are ethical hunts that do not involve eating the animal, because in these cases, there is a distinct ecological role that hunting fulfills. For example, it’s probably very rare that a hunter eats a coyote, but I think the hunt can serve a specific ecological purpose. I also believe that the lion hunt (as an industry) can be ethical practice because it can contribute to conservation. I think the nature of personal ethics is such that an issue can`t always fit neatly into categories of right and wrong, but rather requires constant evaluation and practice.
I like to use examples provided by other people to illustrate my points. It takes some of the onus off me to make sense. In this talk at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Steven Rinella discusses the important relationship between hunting and conservation and touches on the difficulty in categorizing the concept of “trophy hunting” on the spectrum of ethics, but he still takes a clear position on the essence of the issue. Take a look at about the 6:05 mark in this video to hear his thoughts.
The example of lion hunting, and other analogous cases, present complex circumstances and require equally complex consideration and reflection. I think much of the public reaction has been to a set of ideas which are symbolized by “Cecil the lion”, rather than the specific details of the story. Firstly, particular animals have specific meanings in different cultures, and this impacts the nature of our relationships with them. In this case, I think responses have been emotionally charged because it was not just a lion that was killed, but a social and cultural icon; this individual lion was never going to be presented in a strictly biological way. Secondly, I think a lot of the media and public are reacting to the idea of trophy hunting and its connotations, rather than the complex social and political realities of the lion hunting industry. As such, the various ethical responses and condemnations that have emerged are partially a result of the meaning given to this story by cultural norms.
Our responses to these sorts of issues require rigorous and nuanced ethical reflections with careful attention to the specificities of the stories, and we need to engage in these discussions so we can sort out our individual and collective understandings. Some might say that this is too tall of an order for the average person, particularly the average hunter who just wants to hunt, not deconstruct everything about what they do; however, I don’t think this gives hunters due credit. I think there is a large and growing contingent of hunters who want to engage with complex intellectual discussions about what we do, and I take great pride in being part of that community. For a great example of one of these discussions, check out this podcast.
The stereotype of the idiot, bubba hunter is a fading concept. To those hunters out there clinging to an idea of themselves as impervious to the need for critical reflection, it’s time to catch up. But to be honest, I know very few people who I might classify in this group, and I think it’s time we begin to associate hunters with thoughtful intellectuals just as much as we associate them with strong sportsmen and women. Interestingly, I have yet to hear any hunters I know or follow unequivocally defend the actions of Walter Palmer and his hunting guides. I’ve heard both complete dismissal of these three individuals as representatives of hunters at large, and I’ve heard more gentle comments about particular actions they took, but in all cases, hunters are thinking deeply about these issues.
Where does this leave me? My response to where I position myself in relation to the three individuals involved in this case is fairly simple. In the question about whether we are all in it together, I think the answer is no.
While I have not spoken to Walter Palmer or his guides and therefore cannot know with absolute certainty their intentions or what they knew about the circumstances (and no matter what anyone thinks, if you aren’t them, you can’t know), I have an ethical problem with the way that it appears this hunt was conducted. Now, if it had turned out that everything was legal, although my own personal ethics diverge from this type of hunting, I accept it; however, given what we think we know, if even one law was broken here, I cannot accept it as hunting. Hunting is a tradition and a way of life that is defined by honour and respect, and I don’t see those values upheld in this story (as the details have so far been presented). I see wasted meat, dishonesty, and disrespect to the individual animal, the species, and the landscape of which it is a part. So I don’t stand with individuals like that, and I don’t support them.
Instead, I take pride in embracing the opportunity for honest, critical self-reflection about my own ethical code. I’m happy to take the risk of making a statement and taking a stand on an issue, because I believe it will strengthen hunting as a way of life. If I change my mind in the future based on new knowledge and experiences, then I will be open about that and embrace it. I believe we need to act thoughtfully on the knowledge we have and understand how we reconcile it with our own ethics and what we want to build for the future of hunting, and I’m in it with others who want to do this.
I’ll leave off with a note to non-hunters out there who are giving their opinions about hunters and hunting: please take the time to have these conversations with us; don’t jump to conclusions; don’t act on assumptions; be honest in your dialogue with hunters and in your knowledge about hunting; if you don’t know from personal experience, take the time to learn; this is your responsibility too.