Media Misrepresentations of the Hunter, the Hunted, and Hunting

Keeping on top of the ways hunting is represented in the media is an ongoing effort. The immediacy with which information, and misinformation, spreads through social media can make it difficult to be aware of and respond to every conversation about hunting. On top of that, with attention spans becoming increasingly short, there is the danger that perceptions about facts will become a part of the public’s collective memory before inaccuracies can be addressed.

On Friday, February 10th, CBC’s episode of the fifth estate, “The Hunter and the Hunted”, examined the complex, sometimes contrasting, ways that humans interact with wildlife. The first of four profiles focused on Jacine Jadresko, a Canadian hunter. In the 15 minute segment, host Bob McKeown apparently expected to typify the vastly diverse identities of hunters through the experiences of one individual. For me, the segment was characterized by misrepresentations, oversimplifications, and missed opportunities to examine the nuances that define hunting.

Here are seven areas I’ve identified where the episode could have more meaningfully engaged in the conversation. To make something else clear from the outset, I think Jacine was a poor representative of hunting, and while she and I would undoubtedly share some ideas, I disagreed with many of the things she said and much of the underlying sentiment in her representations of hunting.

Even for those who might dislike hunting altogether, the fact that I easily identified seven problem areas with the segment should make it clear that the fifth estate bit off too large a chunk of this complex issue to hope to cover in 15 minutes.

Here’s the segment on Jacine. The rest of this post will make more sense after watching:

  1. An extreme case chosen to represent hunters and hunting

Hunting has been more than a significant factor in the history of human evolution and civilization. This is not to say that historical continuity justifies an activity, merely to point out that it is impossible to expect that a single person can encapsulate and represent such an historically and culturally diverse part of human culture.

I have to believe that in choosing Jacine to profile, CBC must have known that she is a minority among the hunting community in terms of the kind of hunting she does. The majority of us do not have thousands of dollars to spend on big game hunts around the world; social media followers numbering in the thousands (Jacine’s Instagram, inkedhuntress, currently has 9,031 followers); endorsements and sponsorships; professionally filmed hunts. So there’s just no way that CBC should have even implicitly suggested that Jacine’s experiences represent the broader hunting community.

I’ll also point out that Jacine’s views and representations of hunting do not reflect my own and I would not choose Jacine as my ambassador. I’ve heard people say that hunters need to stand together, but I don’t believe that’s true. The social media/celebrity hunters sometimes do more harm than good, with their “Unapologetic Hunter” attitudes and inflammatory phrases (e.g. Jacine’s “the more you hate the more I kill”) that do not reflect the attitudes that define the broader hunting community. The way we frame our messaging is important, and while I look to Jacine to rethink her approach, CBC could have chosen not to highlight things like this to their audience.

  1. Limited discussion of hunting as conservation and management

Regulated hunting has played a critical role in the history of wildlife management and conservation throughout the world. It’s a topic I have addressed in other posts and there are plenty of poignant and informative resources out there detailing this topic. Bob gave a passing remark about Jacine identifying as a conservationist, as if the mutual self-identification as both hunter and conservationist is questionable, but neglected to talk about the important role hunters have played throughout the history of the conservation movement on this continent.

From the creation of the first national parks, to species recovery movements, to providing funding for scientific research, monitoring, and enforcement, the profound financial and physical labour contributions of hunters is unequivocal. In North America, fish and wildlife management agencies generate around 80% of their operating budget from hunting related fees. Even if we isolate the more controversial aspect of Jacine’s hunting activities and focus on her big game hunting in Africa, the legal and economic picture is complex. Like it or not, the economic reality is that species conservation in many countries relies on the fees generated by hunting.

It’s also important to note that hunting is carefully and tightly regulated. Each year, jurisdictions release hunting regulations that stipulate precisely what hunters are allowed to kill, often specifying requirements for gender and physical traits intended to select for individuals of specific age classes. Highly trained individuals spend their entire careers refining the methods for studying population demographics so that wildlife can be managed effectively. For an example, the Ontario Hunting Regulations and Ontario’s Cervid Ecological Framework specify management objectives for all four deer species in the province.

  1. Simplification of the concept of “trophy hunting”

When the topic of “trophy hunting” flares up in the media every so often, I see two issues repeatedly emerge. First, the definitions of the term differ widely, so it becomes impossible to really engage in a discussion about this thing called trophy hunting. What one person sees as deplorable and wasteful, someone else sees as legal and conservation-minded. Second, there is a tendency to position “trophy hunting” and all other forms of hunting as mutually exclusive, as though someone is either a food hunter or a trophy hunter, and never both.

The CBC episode unfortunately fell into both of these traps. Bob provided a cursory and somewhat arbitrary definition of trophy hunting as “hunting for recreation, not food”. Bob stated at one point that “a Canadian family hunting deer may not be cause for controversy, but Jacine’s big game trophy hunts around the world certainly are”, positioning different forms of hunting as mutually exclusive, binary, and in necessary contradiction.

Motivations to hunt are not mutually exclusive. I understand that when most people talk about trophy hunting, they’re talking about people who travel to Africa to hunt for wall decorations. However, all of the hunters I know hunt for food and many of them also retain some part of the animal as a “trophy”. So the concept is not so easily reduced to a binary classification. Furthermore, regardless of individual motivations to hunt, the laws are the same. So “trophy hunters” still operate within the tightly regulated system of hunting. This perceived dichotomy becomes almost completely unproductive in a conversation around hunting.

Where it is useful to attempt to distinguish “trophy hunting” from some other kind of hunting is in a discussion purely about personal ethics. Based on my own highly specific personal ethics, I really have no interest in hunting purely for the pursuit of a skull or hide. However, my more complex understanding of the reality of wildlife conservation in many countries means that I understand it has a role in global nature conservation.

In striving for an easily digestible definition of a complicated issue, we often risk simplifying it so much that we end up judging and appraising an incomplete picture of the issue, and this does nothing for moving our collective understanding forward. I feel no internal intellectual conflict saying that I disagree with both Jacine’s and Bob’s analyses of trophy hunting.

  1. Reducing the complexity of hunting to being “definitively about” killing

Hunting is about many things and these things are about as varied as the places and species people hunt. What hunting is “about” can not be neatly packaged into a straight forward definition.

At one point during the segment, Jacine says that hunting, to her, is not about killing. Though Bob had just acknowledged that he has no personal experience hunting and stated clearly that he would not hunt, his reply is simply to argue that hunting is “definitively about killing”. Without any personal experience, one is quite simply not qualified to state what hunting is “definitively about”.

I understand what Bob thought he meant with this statement. Unfortunately, in his effort to be provocative, he missed an important opportunity to try to understand how hunters understand the activity on a more emotional level. As a hunter, I can understand what Jacine meant when she said hunting is not about killing, and on multiple levels, Bob was wrong.

If hunting is definitively about killing, then a hunt without a kill is by definition a failed or unsuccessful hunt. Plenty of hunts go by without a kill and are by many criteria successful – they involve learning, time with friends and family, and so on. So while hunting involves killing, and even by definition involves the pursuit of killing, presenting hunting as some simplistic hierarchy of goals, with killing as the penultimate factor of success upon which all other components of a hunt depend is a disservice to the deep cultural and widely varied motivations to hunt.

  1. Misguided fixation on the words “harvest” and “kill”

The discussion around terminology is one I’ve been interested in for quite some time, and a topic I’ve covered more thoroughly in another post. Unfortunately, the discussion was missed because Bob appeared more interested in making statements disguised as questions than meaningfully engaging in the topic.

Differences over the use of the words “harvest” and “kill” are interesting and in some cases can reflect culturally-specific worldviews related to wildlife. Bob (and most of the online comments on the episode) apparently only saw the use of the word harvest as somehow trying to water down the act of killing. The suggestion that the use of the word harvest is a way to hide the killing that is involved in hunting presupposes a moral framing on hunters’ understanding of the act that is inaccurate. On the contrary, I would hazard to say that most thoughtful hunters have devoted some time to reflecting on their role as a hunter and the moral weight involved in killing. There are a great deal of complex considerations that determine how hunters understand the morality in killing, and this conversation is far more interesting than the foregone conclusion that hunters are simply searching for euphemisms.

I’ll also point out that the use of the word harvest has a much deeper history in North American wildlife management than the idea that hunters are simply trying to hide what they do. When Aldo Leopold wrote Game Management in 1933, widely regarded as the first codification of the system of scientific wildlife management in North America, he used the word harvest as part of a wider conceptualization of the act of managing wildlife.

  1. Real gender issues in hunting trivialized

Though this is changing, there’s no question that there are still gender inequities in the hunting world. Product development, marketing, and ingrained attitudes and vernacular continue to reinforce the male-dominated nature of hunting. I’ve declined the opportunity to hunt with hunt camps who have told me that they do not allow women to join. On the other hand, I’ve chosen to be part of hunt camps that denounce this kind of exclusion and make efforts to include women. The hunting partner I work with better than anyone and enjoying hunting with more than anyone else is a woman. I’ve watched her work hard to negotiate the line between advocating for herself as both a “woman hunter” and simply a hunter, whose identify as a hunter does not have to be defined by her gender.

I think the episode could have made an important statement by selecting a woman to profile in their segment on hunting. Both Jacine and Bob chose to highlight aspects of this story that were bound to elicit emotional responses from the both the hunting and non-hunting public. Perhaps it was never the intention, but if Jacine or Bob had truly wanted to present this story as an example of a strong woman hunter and role model, they both could have taken a better approach. Jacine suggested that she experiences more shock and opposition to her photos because she is a woman, but I think this minimizes the impacts of the other ways she chooses to market herself – the nature of the photos she posts, the hashtags she uses, and her shock-based slogans on social media.

Bob stated at one point that “marketers are anxious to prove that even blood sport could use a little glamour”. These kind of statements perpetuate the sexualization of women hunters and simplify women’s involvement in hunting to simply new marketing opportunities. This kind of discussion also diminishes appreciation for the dedication anyone must show to become a skilled hunter. I don’t doubt that sexism affects how people react to Jacine, but I think there were better ways to examine and challenge those attitudes that did not leave the conversation open to such quick dismissal.

In giving a superficial nod to issues around gender and wrapping these up in other emotionally charged issues, Jacine and Bob trivialized the real gendered power dynamics in hunting. The effect was to provide people with the opportunity to dismiss not only Jacine’s suggestion that her gender plays a part in people’s attitudes towards her, but also the existence of gender issues in hunting altogether.

Here’s the kind of discussion I think is productive and powerful with regards to women and hunting (as a side note, this post was published on March 8, 2017, International Women’s Day):

  1. Little discussion of hunting as gathering

The focus on Jacine’s trophy hunting left very little time or space to discuss the role of hunting as a means of gathering food. Toward the end of the segment, the conversation shifted to Jacine hunting in Canada for food. If the intention of the episode had been to focus on trophy hunting as Bob conceives of it, that might be understandable. However, the episode was purportedly about people’s varied relationships with wildlife, with hunting representing one of those relationships. For many hunters, hunting is about gathering food and filling freezers (in fact, it is illegal to waste meat from a hunted animal). The focus on Jacine’s trophy hunting trips and her social media activities obscured this prominent motivation for hunting.

Conclusion

I was disappointed at the missed opportunities in this episode. I think it could have been a valuable window into the unique relationship hunters form with wildlife. The problems I discussed here are of course not limited to this particular episode of the fifth estate. They are part of a broader issue with discussions of hunting in the media. I can only encourage both hunters and non-hunters alike – don’t take the bait. Avoid the temptation to allow discussions like the one presented by the fifth estate to perpetuate stereotypes and divisions. Ask more questions and find common ground.

I’d be real interested to hear other people’s thoughts on the episode and my take on it.

 

MeatEater Podcast: Changing Identities of Hunters Throughout History

I’m a huge fan of the MeatEater show and podcast. The guests and topics discussed on the podcast are varied, intelligent, thought-provoking, and exciting. I thought I’d post one of my favourite episodes. If you have a good drive to make this week or an hour to sit and relax, do yourself a favour and listen to this.

On this episode, Randall Williams discusses his PhD dissertation, Green Voters, Gun Voters: Hunting and Politics in the Twentieth-Century United States, which “explores the changing ways in which American sportsmen imagined, articulated, debated, and pursued their policy interests from the end of World War II up until the mid-1990s”.

Here’s a link to the MeatEater website with the podcast available for download:
http://themeateater.com/2015/podcastepisode012/

A Short Introduction to Hunting and Outdoors Writers

I probably derive about as much inspiration for the outdoors from engaging with thought-provoking writers as I do from planning my next trip. I sometimes bring a book to the treestand or blind with me, and it is always in some way themed around the outdoors and conservation. These books are out there, but sometimes they’re harder to find.

There are many writers whose passion for hunting, fishing, and the outdoors finds its way into their texts. Some write more philosophically about conservation ethics, some interweave strong wilderness motifs throughout their stories, and others approach the subjects more directly. I thought I would share a few of my favourites and post Outdoor Life’s list of “The Top 20 Books for Hunters and Anglers“, a great list for anyone wanting to explore aspects of the outdoors through the words of some wonderful writers.

Ernest Hemingway wrote perhaps one of the most recognizable fishing stories, "The Old Man and the Sea".

Ernest Hemingway wrote perhaps one of the most recognizable fishing stories, “The Old Man and the Sea”.

In no particular order, here are probably my top three books about the outdoors.

1) The Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner, by Lily Raff McCaulou

Lily
In a thoughtful and honest account of her journey to becoming a hunter, Lily Raff McCaulou engages with a number of important reflections and emotions that arise for hunters. Her story is one many of us can relate to, growing up in a non-hunting household, and then coming to the hunting lifestyle on our own through a careful and honest examination of our own ethics. She manages to explain the sometimes paradoxical feelings around hunting that many of us experience, and puts into words why those feelings just make the lifestyle more meaningful. This is a great read for both hunters and non-hunters.

2) American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon, by Steven Rinella

rinella
It’s not very original for me to post something of Steven Rinella’s anymore, but here it is. What I like about this book is Rinella’s ability to provide both a scientific and affectionate look at one particular species, perhaps as a sort of microcosm of the way we all ought to engage with conservation. He is simultaneously honest about the shameful history of buffalo mismanagement in North America and prideful about people’s efforts to bring back healthy populations of buffalo on this continent. He describes how he became fascinated by buffalo, and weaves a great account of a buffalo hunt he goes on in Alaska throughout the book. The story of the hunt makes this book worth reading on its own.

3) Walden; or, Life in the Woods, by Henry David Thoreau

220px-Walden_Thoreau

This is a classic that many are familiar with, and it was hard to choose between this one and A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold (see what I did there? Snuck in a fourth choice). Thoreau goes on a bit of a personal experiment in this story: he builds a cabin in the woods and spends a couple years living there, contemplating society, human nature and development, and observing the way of life. Written in 1854, Thoreau did this for the philosophical value in it, and he reflects on his experiences without the self-congratulations common in many of these types of stories.

So those are just three of my favourite hunting-related pieces of writing. Each of the examples I’ve given is different in tone and purpose, and they’re all valuable pieces of writing for anyone interested in the outdoors. I also need to give gratitude and pay homage to one of my favourite writers of all time, Farley Mowat, who wrote a great deal about the Canadian North. Farley Mowat died in 2014, and he wrote some of my favourite stories with a sensitivity and passion for the lands he visited, and with an unapologetic honesty about some of the political issues he encountered while there.

Enjoy the rest of the season!

Donnie Vincent on Who We Are

As a follow up to yesterday’s post about the representation of hunters and hunting in media, I thought I’d share this shorter post today.

As hunters we are always trying to find more thoughtful and effective ways to articulate what we do, why we do it, and maybe most importantly, what it means to us. It’s a difficult task – words rarely do it justice, photos are sometimes misconstrued, public images can be manipulated and stereotyped.

I came across Donnie Vincent a number of months ago and have been following his films closely. He’s released two full length films, and I’ve watched them both multiple times. He’s also released a series of short films. This one does a wonderful job of showing the depth with which hunters think about and experience in the natural world and our place in it. Donnie poignantly explains to viewers the simultaneous simplicity and profundity in hunting. I think the mood portrayed through his films is the closest I’ve seen media come to accurately encapsulating how we see things in our own minds when we think about what we do.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words; sometimes that isn’t enough.

One of the things I frequently discuss with other hunters is the importance of public perceptions of hunting. I would imagine that most non-hunters never personally witness or participate in a hunt, meaning that their perception of hunting is developed through their perception of hunters. This means that the way we portray ourselves and represent hunting has impacts on the future of the activity (since hunting is affected by laws that are determined by a largely non-hunting voting public). As hunters, what do we do when one of our primary ways of representing hunting contributes to the very misunderstandings about the intentions and character of hunters that we work so hard to change?

I’ve seen many heated debates and angry comments on social media sites begin around a picture of a hunter and an animal he/she has killed (take a look at any of Cameron Hanes’s pictures for examples). This is one of the most common ways that hunters represent the story of the hunt. I think the use of photos from a hunt can be a great opportunity to engage with non-hunters and express ourselves, but perhaps an opportunity that is sometimes difficult to capture, especially when taking place in the impersonal space of social media.

I have been reluctant to post pictures of myself with animals I’ve killed. I’ve often felt like it’s just a ticking time bomb for misperception. I can even understand the issue that non-hunters (i.e. those who do not hunt and don’t necessarily understand the experiences and emotions involved in hunting, but not necessarily anti-hunters) have with pictures of smiling hunters holding a dead animal. Put yourself in their heads for a moment: the knee-jerk reaction is to see an expression of a bragging right over killing an animal. It’s difficult to convey the preparation, training, practice, time, effort, and emotions spent leading up to that moment. It’s perhaps easy to confuse elated pride with arrogance.

One of the things I’d like to do here is try to offer any non-hunting readers a glimpse into the mindset and intention of hunters when we post these sorts of pictures. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and like any group of people, we’re not all the same. But I can at least speak to my experience of the people I hunt with and most hunters I know. For hunters, I think there are some things we can do to better represent ourselves through these pictures. Most people probably already do these things, but in the interest of a well-rounded discussion, I’ll speak to hunters, too.

First, let’s try to diffuse some preconceptions for non-hunters reading this, which I hope there are (you’ll have to honestly be open to reconsidering some ideas). Here’s how I assume it looks to you: hunting pictures are probably reminiscent of colonizers standing over a conquered land, or images of a defeated army, or iconic representations of a hero having triumphed over a weaker foe. In other words, it probably evokes associations of blood thirst, anger, and superiority. Perhaps something similar to this?

Christopher Columbus, painting by John Vanderlyn

Christopher Columbus, painting by John Vanderlyn.

My experience is that when someone takes a photo with an animal he/she has killed, it is never done with a sense of the triumph of the powerful over the inferior; there’s no celebration of anything conquered. Rather, it’s the expression of a relationship developed through intense preparation and commitment. Here’s how things look for a hunter in the year(s) leading up to a hunt: there is research into the ecology of the animal to learn its patterns and how it changes throughout its life; there is some kind of training, usually a combination of physical preparation and practice with whatever tool is going to be used (gun or bow); there is fairly substantial financial investment into the hunt, which benefits the entire economy and especially the research and habitat management for a range of wildlife species (for example, a typical deer hunting season will cost me $50 for the individual hunting tag, probably about $200 throughout the year in fees to practice with my bow or ammunition costs, at least $75 in memberships to hunting insurance/conservation organizations, incidental costs throughout the season related to general supplies, and then there might be benefits to the tourism industry with costs for food and accommodations); and then hours spent in the actual hunt, probably at least some of this time in physically demanding and uncomfortable situations.

In summary, the moment when the animal walks out and an arrow or bullet is released is only one step in the process. It’s the culmination of immeasurable effort and commitment (and other than my attempt in the previous paragraph, we don’t really try to measure it, because it’s the process that’s important, and the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts). By this time, every hunter I know will have developed a deep affection and fascination with the species, and maybe even individual animal, being hunted.

When a hunter takes a photo with the animal, there’s no feeling of callous detachment from the life of that animal; there’s only admiration for the wildlife, and excitement over the nutritious food that the animal will provide. I can assure you that any photo I’ve taken with any animal I’ve killed has not done justice to the emotions I’m feeling in the moment. I would encourage non-hunters to remember that when you see one of these photos and feel a strong emotional response, know that we do too, whenever we look back on them. Although it can look like arrogance, it’s not. What you’re seeing is probably best summarized by gratitude, humility, and happiness.

It might be better represented by this photo.

Donnie Vincent with caribou

Christopher Columbus, painting by John Vanderlyn.

For other great examples, check out Remi Warren or Donnie Vincent.

Now, to hunters reading this, I offer some ideas for how we can try to address this conundrum. In every hunt, there is a story. Like all good stories, these usually involve struggle, some success, laughs, disappointment, excitement, and a host of minute experiences that you really “had to be there” to understand. Tell of these moments with the pictures. In the captions to the photos, tell the story articulately, sensitively, and in a way that truly represents how you think about the hunt. Be honest about the emotions, even when those are ones of wild happiness. We shouldn’t be afraid to take pride in an accomplishment, but we can do so with modesty. I encourage other hunters not to think of this as pandering to anti-hunters; think of it as an opportunity to be an ambassador of our lifestyle; take pride in the opportunity to show how positive hunting is in your life and for the ecology and conservation of wildlife. As always, show the animal respectfully and think about how you can represent your relationship with that individual animal through the photograph. These pictures can give others the chance to reflect on their own emotional responses to hunting and explore a different form of wildlife photography, and we really want them to come out the other side with a more positive outlook than when they started.

We rarely have the time necessary for long conversations in which we can fully express our opinions and feelings about these topics. Often, it’s the photographs of our hunts that friends and family see and that make their way around social media sites. We might only have that 1 minute someone spends looking at our picture to tell the story and represent the complex relationship hunters have with wildlife and the natural world. We need to use each of these minutes.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Sometimes, even a thousand is not enough; but we can at least start with those thousand words and use them to their fullest potential.