Hunters, Environmentalists, and Vegans Have More in Common Than We Think

My last post suggested that we can, and indeed should, be conscientious to the perspectives of our audiences when framing our messaging about hunting. This is a position that is perhaps a stark contrast to the paradigm of the “unapologetic hunter”, an approach that I quickly found to be tiresome and increasingly unproductive. Rather, I’ve tried to make the case that creating new allies is valuable for hunters and that we need to cultivate allies in many different social communities; however, I think we already have far more allies than we may at times recognize.

One of the more common pieces of rhetoric we hear in the hunting community is how the “tree huggers,” “liberals,” “environmentalists,” or “vegans” are trying to put an end to hunting. As the drama plays out in much of the media, these other groups will never understand why we hunt and want only to take our guns and our hunting opportunities. I think that much of the reaction from the hunting community is due to the perception that these other communities see hunters as nothing more than bloodthirsty murderers acting without regard for animal welfare. For our part, I think too many hunters pigeonhole non-hunters as people who will never truly understand what it means to have a relationship with wildlife and can never measure up to hunters in our contributions and commitment to conservation. This kind of in-group situation can quickly lead to increasingly reactionary responses, cutting off more poignant opportunities for communication and understanding.

So bear with me for a moment when I suggest that the proposition that hunters and environmentalists (as a proxy for these various “others”) are necessarily opposed is, at the very least, exaggerated and misguided, and at most, harmful in the long-term to conservation. I believe that at the very foundation of our ethics, there is actually far more in common between of many hunters and non-hunters than we often recognize. I think that from the ideologies, motivations, and political priorities of these groups are many opportunities for alliances.

I’ve said before that my choice to hunt is rooted in an intense affection for nature and fascination with wildlife, and it’s a way of being an active participant in conservation. Tracing this sentiment back to its origins, one finds, in me and I suspect in many other hunters, a concern for preserving healthy habitats, protecting animal welfare, eating nutritious and ethically gathered food, promoting progressive environmental policy, and enacting a personal relationship with the natural world. I’m fortunate to have had opportunities throughout my life that have exposed me to a wide variety of experiences and perspectives related to coming to understand the natural world. These experiences have variously led me down paths to identifying as an environmentalist, a one-time vegetarian, a self-proclaimed tree hugger, and a hunter-conservationist. Each of these paths, these identities, began from different experiences, and they each played their own part in constructing a set of ethics that I hold today and choose to put into practice through hunting.

As hunters, we often use our commitment and contributions to conservation to justify hunting. Indeed, the “fathers of the conservation movement” were hunters; the history of the North American model of wildlife management, one of the most successful conservation models in the world, is the result of numerous organizations, policies, and achievements that are largely bound up with hunting. For example, the Migratory Bird Treaty was signed between Canada and the United States back in 1916. We wouldn’t have the successful conservation measures we do today without managed hunting.

Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, 1903.

However, we also need to remember that without the powerful figures and campaigns of the environmental movement, we would be without much of the scientific knowledge and popular affection related to protecting wildlife and natural habitats. Indeed, without the indispensable overlap in the priorities of various hunting and non-hunting communities that has generated such a powerful political voice, we would be without many critical achievements and conservation initiatives.

Temagami blockade

The Temagami Blockades that opposed logging in old growth pine forests in Temagami, Ontario, 1989.

But this should not become some kind of exercise in conservation score-keeping between hunters and environmentalists. I find it ridiculous and short-sighted to hear hunters use environmentalists as the scapegoats for everything that threatens hunting, and environmentalists use hunters as scapegoats for everything that threatens the ideal of the pristine, untouched nature. Environmentalists are not our enemies. Certainly there are some environmental NGOs that have proclaimed a staunch anti-hunting position, but there are others that take a much more nuanced approach. Sweeping generalizations about groups of people are rarely accurate or productive. The writer David Petersen suggests that there is an important distinction to be made between “animal rightists” and “animal welfarists”. Animal rights advocates, he explains, are against the use of animals by humans in any way, while animal welfare advocates are concerned with the “humane treatment and responsible care” of animals that ensures they have “freedom from unnecessary pain and suffering”. In some instances, Petersen notes that “in a philosophical confluence of odd bedfellows, both nature hunters and anti-hunters ‘appeared to perceive an equality and kinship, rather than a hierarchical-dominant relationship, existing between humans and animals'”. I have found similar philosophical confluences in my own life.

I have a good friend who is vegan, and she and I have had many productive conversations about the ideas that led us to both embrace a partially overlapping set of ethics around human-animal relationships. While at first glance appearing to be completely opposed to one other, it occurred to us that we both took the paths we did as a way to enact similar ethical principles. We realized that at the root of things, we are both motivated by a desire to think deeply about the origin and ethics of our food sources and the relationship we have with animals through our food choices. We both value a human-animal relationship that excludes suffering. In this case, she chose to avoid eating animals, while I chose to pursue a way of gathering my own meat that gives me greater control over ensuring that the animals I eat are killed ethically. So while sharing similar philosophical foundations, it’s true, our paths eventually diverged, and this leads me to my next point.

Wildlife conservation is an ongoing effort. If we learn from history, healthy wildlife populations and natural habitats are not something we achieve overnight. Conservation is a shifting terrain that needs to continuously respond to pressures on wildlife and habitats as they arise. Our actions need to be multifaceted and take place in a variety of social, political, cultural, and intellectual arenas. There’s no such thing as too many conservationists. By the same token, it means that no one group will be able to take on every struggle and campaign; we need diversity in the conservation community and in our strategies. Does this mean that our viewpoints and goals need to align perfectly with every other group 100% of the time? No, but it does mean that we need to seek out those moments where our goals do align with those of other groups. There will be points in time when hunters and animal welfare activists can work together. Of course, it may also mean that we need to separate when our agendas do not fully align. But what might perhaps be an inevitable divergence in priorities should not prevent us from working together when possible. At the very least, when we do have to go in separate directions, we can do so with a deeper understanding of one another’s perspective.

Of course, this challenge goes both ways. To those non-hunters reading this who take a different approach to conservation activism: I also encourage you to seek out and capitalize on those opportunities for ideological and strategic overlap between your priorities and those of the hunting community. The challenge is to actively foster understanding, and to highlight points of shared priorities rather than division.

Let’s both – hunters and non-hunters – think about our long-term goals and determine the points of agreement that can lead to immediate actions. I would bet that in more cases than not, we will find that even when we disagree on the particulars of our personal beliefs about human-wildlife relationships or intermediate-term priorities, we can at least agree on some shared ethical principles, at least one action we can take, and ways we can engage with one another positively towards achieving our long-term conservation goals. Let’s remember that this endeavour is much larger than our own individual desires, and we owe much more to wildlife on this continent than we do to our personal priorities. To adapt David Petersen’s quote of Field & Stream columnist George Reiger, if humans fail in our efforts at conservation, it will be because we have been “too demanding of rights and too indifferent of responsibilities”. Let’s all remember our responsibilities.

Framing Hunting Messaging: Not Pandering, Being a Good Ambassador

I suppose like many people, when I encounter a new idea, I often come to a better understanding of the information by referencing it to things that are familiar to my own life. Sometimes this happens more unconsciously as simply a way to make sense of what I’m taking in; other times, I come across something that clearly has direct applications to my own priorities and interests. I recently came across a study that has the potential to help us more meaningfully engage with the public and change the way people respond to hunting.

As a preface to this post, I should comment on two things. First, I believe that language is a powerful tool that can be used to either productively advance our priorities or completely squander opportunities to create understanding. The development of language in the history of human evolution was quite the turning point for our species. Our languages embody and express our worldviews – our understandings of the world that give meaning to our experiences and the phenomena we encounter. Language is not just an objective and technical representation of the world; rather, different cultures understand the world differently, and language is inextricably bound with this understanding. The role of language in framing our ideas and therefore its importance in genuine communication cannot be understated.

A second prefacing point has to do with something that, while perhaps an understandable symptom of highly emotional issues like hunting, is becoming increasingly frustrating to me. It’s a defensive sentiment that produces one outcome: it stalls conversations and prevents mutual understanding. Too often, the conscientious among us who suggest we should carefully frame our discussions with non-hunters are accused of “pandering” or being “politically correct”. These narrow-minded accusations seem to imply that wanting to represent hunting in a way that reflects the respect we have for it somehow makes us weak, sensitive, or overly “liberal”. This is ridiculous. I challenge anyone to find me a time when any interest group (hunters, anti-hunters, etc.) has taken an uncompromising stance in a conversation and come out of that encounter having advanced their interests in any way. This response teems with arrogance and ignorance, and it’s not helpful.

I recently had the opportunity to have one of my pieces about our choice of language published as part of an essay series on the Meat Eater website. I had some very positive responses from people about that piece, and I also heard some of the responses I just mentioned above. In any case, it got me thinking more about this idea, and I came across a paper that I think compliments this broader discussion.

In a recent paper titled “Red, white, and blue enough to be green: Effects of moral framing on climate change attitudes and conservation behaviors” published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers from Oregon State University examined the way different audiences respond to information about climate change. The study found that the “moral framing” of climate change information changed how people of different political ideologies responded to the messaging. In particular, conservatives (typically a group resistant to climate change messaging) responded more favourably when the messages were bound in moral frames and suggested that protecting the environment “was a matter of obeying authority, defending nature and demonstrating patriotism” rather than it being about environmental justice or equality.

In addition, both conservatives and liberals were more likely to respond favourably when they perceived that the messages had come from people with similar political ideologies to themselves – they were more likely to believe people when they already had something in common with them. The study also found that it isn’t only attitudes that change depending on the framing of the messaging. Individuals were more likely to change their behaviour when they perceived that the messages both reflected their values and came from people who shared those values.

So our ideologies play an important role in influencing our acceptance or rejection of information, including matters that are largely seen as scientific fact (and yes, 99% of the scientific community agrees that climate change is real and is happening, so let’s get that out of the way). This suggests that it is not simply a battery of hard facts that will convince others of our viewpoints or opinions. We need to take a much more carefully constructed and strategic approach in our interactions.

My immediate thought was that this study has fascination implications for how we approach hunting advocacy, whether it be in one-on-one conversations or at larger political levels. The study’s findings tell me that it does matter how we frame our arguments and opinions. The findings also tell me that shifting our approach to match our audience is not pandering, it’s making a choice to be positive and effective ambassadors of hunting.

For us as hunters, this means that we can’t only preach to the choir. We need to be speaking with non-hunters too. The non-hunting voting majority has the ability to influence laws that affect hunting and conservation, and it is non-hunters who are going to be best situated to influence other non-hunters. In other words, we need allies to make allies. We need to engage with a variety of perspectives and priorities related to conservation, so that we can actively cultivate hunting supporters. To do this, we should focus on aspects of hunting that are most likely to be well received by our audiences, those aspects that will have a point of reference in their own lives. I think that the moral and ethical foundations of hunting, and the successful history of harvest-based conservation policies in North America, provide us with a wide enough variety of strong points for these discussions that it should be easy enough for us to shift our approach as appropriate.

One way to start putting these ideas into action is to be attentive to the motivations of our audiences. If someone expresses that they are motivated by the desire to maintain healthy wildlife populations, we can explain how hunting does this through effective population management. If someone tells you that they are motivated by concerns for animal welfare, we have an opportunity to explain that hunting organizations have been critical in habitat protection and that hunting can help reduce human-wildlife conflicts. If someone else is motivated by personal nutrition, we can cite the multitudes of nutritional benefits in eating wild game. There are many ways that we can appropriately respond to a wide range of audiences and we owe it to ourselves to think through all of these aspects of the discussion and be constructive in our approach.

The research and understanding is there folks, it’s now up to us to choose to use our knowledge to capitalize on opportunities to be good ambassadors of hunting. Let’s remember how positive hunting is in our own lives and how pivotal it has been in the history of conservation, and ensure that we are representing ourselves in equally positive ways.