A Complicated Relationship: In Search of Trophies

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In a sense, each and every one of us is a trophy hunter. In two ways, actually.

I have somewhat deliberately avoided this topic. For one, I didn’t want to belabour the debate about trophy hunting. For another, while often presented as straight-forward and simple, the nuances of trophy hunting become quite complex, so it takes a deliberate open-mindedness to discuss it. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen that openness in much of the trophy hunting conversations. The concept and practices of trophy hunting are troublesome, murky, and highly emotive, and this is exactly why it is worth discussing.

This is not a manifesto in defence of trophy hunting. I don’t consider myself a trophy hunter and I doubt I ever will. I may never fully lose my own knee-jerk reaction to the mental images associated with the term, such is the nature of our own embeddedness in culture. I rarely use the term “trophy hunting” except in direct reference to public debates in which it is already the centrepiece (and even then I find it difficult to hide my disdain for it). However, from “Cecil” the lion to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to allow African trophies to be imported to the U.S. to British Columbia’s recent decision to end the grizzly bear hunt, the relevance of the trophy hunting debate in wildlife management and conservation is difficult to ignore. So while this is not a statement in support of trophy hunting, it is a statement in support of engaging with the full complexity of the term, the concept, and its role in conservation.

There are a number of recurring problems in the public debates around trophy hunting that need to be addressed. Generally, these problems are a result of drastic oversimplifications, complete misconceptions, or are consciously and deliberately perpetuated in the interest of some political agenda. I find the latter and the people who do it so insidious and despicable that I won’t even really address it here. Having said that, the enduring simplifications and misconceptions related to public understandings of hunting and trophy hunting are not solely the fault of anti-hunters, but dealing with them is the shared responsibility of hunters, non-hunters, and everyone else with a sincere passion for wildlife conservation.

Terms of Engagement

One of the most persistent thorns in the side of the trophy hunting conversation is an underlying issue that paralyzes many social debates, which is that those engaged in the conversation seldom stop to define the actual terms and ideas they are discussing. Do we all mean the same thing when we talk about “trophy hunting”? Are we all judging the moral defensibility of trophy hunting by the same criteria? These questions are foundational to our ability to have productive conversations about trophy hunting and without consciously stopping to define the terms, the answer to these questions is almost invariably, no.

Words and terminology matter and they can change the nature and direction of our conversations. “Trophy” has become somewhat of a four-letter word in hunting, but willfully accepting that it is a simple matter is to embrace a simple-mindedness that would make even our knuckle-dragging ancestors roll over in their graves. (Even the f-word has a linguistically and conceptually rich history, believed to date back in some of its beautifully versatile uses to the late 16th century.) Clearly defining the terms of a conversation is important. In attempting to define his threshold for what constitutes obscene material such as pornography in a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case, Justice Potter Stewart stated that he would not attempt to define what exactly is included in that particular category of entertainment, but said, “I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that”.

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I understand what most people think they mean when they talk about trophy hunting; however, we often swirl around some largely unspoken definition of the concept, a definition that is characterized less by a clear articulation of concrete terms than by a common feeling, a sense of “I know it when I see it”. The problem is that while we may think we know it when we see it, this is not enough; we need to know it in order to talk about it and develop effective policy. If, on the other hand, it cannot be easily defined, then perhaps we should stop pretending that it can be and rethink the nature of the conversation we should be having.

We do ourselves no favours by presenting the idea of a “trophy” or the management of this thing called “trophy hunting” as easy. More importantly, we do the conservation of wildlife a disservice by assuming we have an easy grasp on trophy hunting.

False Distinctions

There are two dangers in relying on the “I know it when I see it” approach to trophy hunting. Both dangers are related to what the conservationist Shane Mahoney has referred to as false distinctions in trophy hunting. The first false distinction is in our representation and understanding of hunters themselves and the mistaken idea that hunters are easily classified into mutually exclusive categories along a “trophy hunter” and “non-trophy hunter” divide. The second is a false distinction between trophy hunting and, by extension, “non-trophy hunting” which, in North America at least, doesn’t exist along such a sharply divided line and more broadly decontextualizes hunting from its place as a conservation tool.

The danger with these false distinctions is that they support one another: we really only need be concerned with distinguishing between trophy hunters and other hunters if we take it for granted that trophy hunting is some ethically abhorrent form of hunting and undermines conservation. Conversely, we only need to convince the world that trophy hunting undermines conservation if we assume that it would be a simple matter to do away with trophy hunters and retain some other group of hunters defined by an alternative and more acceptable set of motivations. But if we address both false distinctions, we can more meaningfully engage with hunters as people and develop effective conservation strategies. I discuss the first false distinction here and focus on the second in a follow up post, Trophy Hunting and Conservation.

Trophy Hunters vs. Other Hunters

With issues as emotionally charged as trophy hunting, we are sometimes vulnerable to relying on assumptions and stereotypes as foundations to our arguments. Perhaps there is comfort in stereotypes; they allow us to depersonalize issues and avoid having to question and critically engage with our own assumptions: if we are certain we already know, we don’t have to rethink. If we’re going to honestly try to get to a place of understanding (and maintain our priority on effective wildlife conservation), we need to do away with the misconception that there are two mutually exclusive categories of hunters: trophy hunters and those hunters motivated by something other than a trophy.  The idea that hunters’ motivations are easily compartmentalized and sharply distinguished is simply inaccurate.

One of North America’s most well-known conservationists was what many people might call a trophy hunter. Theodore Roosevelt spent much of his hunting career shooting great numbers of large animals, sometimes in ways that today would seem to have a tense relationship with conservation. Many of Roosevelt’s hunts were intended to collect museum specimens – to shoot representative individuals of species before there were none left to collect. On one hunting trip in the American West, Roosevelt and his party shot “six elk, three grizzly bears, seven deer, and 109 small-game animals, always making a special effort to get the most impressive animals”, and he later travelled to Africa to hunt elephants, hippos, lions, buffalo, and other large and dangerous game. Nevertheless, we still recognize Roosevelt’s influential role in the creation of what we now call North American conservation. Complex identities abound.

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Version 2

The notion that a trophy is limited to the head, antlers, tusks, horns, or cape/hide is an overly constrictive view of the many celebrated aspects of a hunt that travel home with a hunter. The heaviest bodied, largest antlered deer I have ever shot is also the only one I have had mounted and the one I would consider my most valuable hunting “trophy”. That status as a trophy, however, has little to do with the size or weight class of the deer or any potential score of its antlers. That particular deer stands out as the epitome of a trophy to me because of the entire set of circumstances that define that hunt in my memory. The full context of the hunt – the collection of the landscape, people, approach and mindset, conversations, the meals that came from it, and the individual deer – is what that mounted skull and antlers symbolize to me.

“For the hunter, these mementos are a reminder of a memorable outdoor experience, and a lasting tribute to a wild animal of special significance to them.”
Shane Mahoney

Any suggestion that the part of that deer that now adorns my wall is simply a symbol of bragging rights, anthropocentrism, or some manifestation of my own male aggression is an insult: to the individual deer; the population of which he was a part; the four does I watched him chase in a failed effort to pass on his genes and the little bit of comaraderie I felt with him through our shared experiences of romantic rejection; the two incredible people with whom I shared the hunt that morning; and the particular landscape that has now come to mean so much to me. That deer’s skull is a representation of a wonderful collection of trophy memories, captured through the photos and stories that we continue to share. That day, it would not have mattered what gender the deer was or what it looked like; that hunt was guaranteed to be ingrained as one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. Am I a trophy hunter now?

At the same time, let’s not pretend that every mounted skull is a deeply emotional symbol of some grand idea because that’s bullshit. There are certainly hunters out there who share no sense of personal connection with a piece of taxidermied wildlife and with whom I share very little intellectual or emotional ground. But acknowledging that one group exists necessitates an acknowledgement of diversity because we would be hard-pressed to find any human culture that is homogenous and without variation in motivation and identity. Suggesting anything to the contrary is an historically narrow-minded and uninteresting perspective of our species.

The point, then, is to realize that people hunt for a wide variety of reasons, many of them interconnected, contingent, and overlapping. It is therefore exceedingly difficult to categorize one person as only a trophy hunter and another as something that is distinctly not a trophy hunter. When discussing those parts of an animal that come home with a hunter, we need to remember that they are rarely separable from the many other aspects of a hunt. Among the variety of reasons people hunt, research has shown that procuring food, spending time with family and friends (Pat Durkin offers a poignant discussion of time spent with his daughter), enjoying and experiencing nature, and a direct participation in wildlife management constitute both the most prevalent and most publicly accepted. That a physical piece of the hunt is retained to decorate our homes does not eliminate from the equation the meaning of those other motivations. If this is still not acceptable to those opposed to some notion of trophy hunting, I ask: would it be preferable for hunters to leave parts of an animal in the field rather than choosing to make use of as many parts of it as possible? Or, in what more acceptable way would you have us distinguish ourselves from “trophy hunters” that still maintains the sanctity of the hunt?

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Each and Every One of Us

Again, this is not intended to be a celebration of trophy hunting but rather to suggest that the idea is more complicated than is acknowledged by either hunters or anti-hunters. We need to think about, and possibly rethink, our use of the term and what we are actually referring to when we do use it. If we are going to use it, our understanding of a “trophy” needs deeper contextualization and more meaningful articulation to encompass the full range of significance it has for hunters. On the other hand, its common social usage is simply too shallow and unrepresentative of hunting for it to be a useful critical term. Perhaps we need to do away with it altogether. If you are a hunter who deeply reflects on hunting ethics, you probably don’t identify with the term anyway; if you do identify as a trophy hunter, it is quite likely that the common public understanding of the term doesn’t fully represent you; and if you are someone opposed to hunting, trust me that the term is too constrictive to advance your cause and in using it, you open your arguments up for easy dismissal.

I said at the beginning that each and every one of us is a trophy hunter in possibly two ways. For one, we all look for powerful experiences, meaningful moments, and memories shared with important people in our lives doing things we feel passionate about. We all want these memories to stay with us as mementos of our experiences and those moments. So in a sense, we all seek trophies – things that tell us we found something important and perhaps achieved something worthwhile.

Second, as with the complex cultural history embodied by the term trophy hunting, we are all complex individuals defined by a mixture of emotions, contradictions, and passions. As with trophy hunters, none of us is easily defined by one simple purpose or pursuit. The history of the relationship between North Americans and the continent’s wildlife is complicated and multidimensional, and these traits are reflected in the variety of the people engaged in debates and conversations about wildlife conservation. So let’s embrace those complications, learn from them, and try to stay focused.

4 thoughts on “A Complicated Relationship: In Search of Trophies

  1. I have thought about this term ‘trophy hunting’ and why it has such a bad reputation. People think of hunters taking the head and leaving the meat, and most are actually opposed to ‘poaching’, but being uneducated on the rules of hunting, don’t know the difference. I believe humans have been trophy hunters as long as they have hunted. We have a desire to take out the old males because they have had many years to breed, and are on their way down hill. All animals in the wild die, and usually the options are starvation, predation, and in many cases now, being hit by a vehicle. So death by a bullet or arrow is by far THE most humane way any animal dies in the wild. If we were purely meat hunters, we would hunt the babies, which would taste better, but we have an instinct to take out the old males. As for predators, such as bears, cougars, wolves, etc., their usual demise is starvation, which I think most of us would agree is much more painful than a quick bullet.

    1. Excellent points, Amy. I agree that there is probably something in humans that encourages us to pursue the most challenging things – that trophy seeking drive is found in pretty much every activity we do. I’ll also add, however, that if new regulations came down or there was some compelling research to show that hunting smaller (bodied, antlered, etc.) animals was better for wildlife populations and conservation, I would be all over it. I wouldn’t hesitate to switch up my game plan when I hunt. Thanks for the comment!

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