Archive for the ‘Hunting’ Category

Consider the Poacher?

» October 17th, 2013

You’ve got to love blogging. I slip into thoughtless language and call an elephant lazy. A reader gently mock-chides me for my verbal slippage. I respond with a brief commentary on a proposed Tanzanian policy to shoot elephant poachers on the spot, as a sort of humorous self-warning to watch my language. Then excitement erupts.

In regards to the shoot-to-kill policy, I suggest due process, or a version of it, rather than firing away. For this opinion I’m mistakenly characterized as a simplistic minded pacifist while readers—every single one of whom I adore—ponder the joys of killing the poachers themselves (rather than, you know, fantasizing about it in a blog comment box).

Yeah, I know I’m exaggerating a bit here, and maybe even being snide (grant me a little room for that), but the following question is serious: has anyone considered the poacher? As far as I can tell, we’ve dismissed him as a thug doing a terrible thing. Yes, in shooting an elephant for the tusk trade, he is a thug doing a terrible thing. But could he be more? Could he be a victim and a thug? And might the two be connected?

Say he’s a confused teenager damaged by a childhood of dire poverty, physical abuse, and impressment into a gang of child soldiers. Say he’s a grown man whose crops were torched and whose children are starving and whose wife is ill. Say he’s a person for whom one tusk will bring unimaginable wealth.  Such scenarios are hardly unlikely. Do we take the poacher’s past and present circumstances into consideration before we shoot to kill? Do we consider the possibility that—as often as we discuss “interlocking oppressions”—the poacher is both oppressor and oppressed?

Hence my reason for declaring that we hold our fire, at least for the moment. Yes, murdering an elephant is murdering an elephant. There is no relativism there. It’s wrong on every level. But when the man pulling the trigger could be the victim of distant or immediate circumstances that put him in that position, I think we need, at the least, to see what’s happening behind the scenes, in places we didn’t look.

Jungle Justice

» October 15th, 2013

In my last post I deployed the trite metaphor regarding an elephant in the room. I even had the gall to suggest that elephants are lazy creatures!

Given that governmental ministers in Tanzania are now considering a “shoot-to-kill” policy against elephant poachers, thus backing a kind of jungle-based ad hoc capital punishment approach to the illicit ivory trade, I’m reconsidering the wisdom of using anti-elephant language. The word choice authorities hover over The Pitchfork with the eyes of an eagle (I think I’m okay on that one) and I’m feeling the wither of their gaze.

In all seriousness, tens of thousands of elephants are killed by poachers every year in Africa and many advocates indeed believe that the threat of death may be the only effective deterrent. Good idea?

Said one advocate (a natural resources minister): ”Poachers must be harshly punished because they are merciless people who wantonly kill our wildlife and sometimes wardens” said  .. . . . . The only way to solve this problem is to execute the killers on the spot.” He added: ”I am very aware that some alleged human rights activists will make an uproar, claiming that poachers have as much rights to be tried in courts as the next person, but let’s face it, poachers not only kill wildlife but also usually never hesitate to shoot dead any innocent person standing in their way.”

Poaching is a murderous act that warrants the full weight of punitive justice. But death—especially when delivered under duress in the thick murk of the jungle—shouldn’t be a viable legal option. Authorizing open season on poachers would only antagonize an already enflamed situation, engendering more violence and habitat destruction. What’s instead needed is better funding of game wardens, better enforcement of existing laws, and programs that support a level of non-animal based economic development that makes poaching less of an alluring option for poachers caught in their own web of interlocking oppressions.

Plus, advocates of animal rights, human rights, elephant rights, gay rights, civil rights, whatever rights, are almost always better off choosing ameliorative methods that do not implicitly condone what we’re trying to eliminate in the name of decency, compassion, justice, and peace.

 

 

The Land Ethic

» September 20th, 2013

J. Baird Callicott (whom we just read in my “Eating Meat in America class”) is widely considered the “father of environmental philosophy.” Inspired by the pioneering ecological thought of figures such as Edward Abbey and Aldo Leopold, he’s rooted his environmental thought—a wealth if ideas captured in books such as In Defense of the Land Ethic and Earth’s Insights—in an ideology known as “the land ethic.” The gist of the land ethic is roughly this: what adds to the integrity, beauty, and stability of the environment is good while what detracts from the integrity, beauty, and stability of the environment is bad. Valuing these attributes is the signature task of the beholder.

On the face of it, this sounds like a lovely little creed. In its formulation, the global biota—the earth’s dynamic and interlocking floral and faunal systems—is granted moral standing on its own terms, as its own biodiverse entity, irrespective of individual human interest.  Such a stance would seem to offer the modern environmentalist everything she could ask for and more, or at least an ethic that places humans in a moral category that’s on par with—or even subservient to—the ecological systems we seem to excel at destroying.

It must be noted that any philosophical approach that encourages attention to managing natural resources in a more responsible manner is, by virtue of that emphasis alone, a welcome addition in a world of ceaseless ecological exploitation. For this I admire the land ethic as an approach to living a meaningful and responsible life, and I look forward to seeing how it evolves in the twenty-first century.

That said, there’s an aspect to this philosophy that I fail to understand. A land ethic philosophy requires that we seek stability when we perceive the ecosystem to be out of alignment. If an animal invades a habitat, reproduces to the point of dominance, and undermines biodiversity, then that animal is, literally, fair game. Fire away.  The philosophical justification for hunting in this case is the fact the rights of the biota exceed the rights of the individual animal being killed.

I get that point (although I naturally have problems with it). But where I understandably get nervous is when we take the next step and evaluate exactly who causes the most ecological instability on the planet. Of course, the answer is you, me, and every human we know. Callicott knows this as well as anybody. The logical conclusion would, therefore, to eliminate ourselves from the ecosystem, or at least enough of us to radically reduce our impact on the global biota.

Needless to say, I have a problem with species extermination in the name of achieving ecological stability. Am I missing something here?  Does the land ethic as a philosophical system have a brake that prevents us from sliding into absurdity?

 

 

 

A Killing Machine?

» June 15th, 2013

 

It’s not a particularly fun exercise to get inside the mindset of a “big game” hunter, but every now and then some news item or other sends me there. This creature, usually a white and balding and middle-aged male, has reached a juncture in life where bagging a large animal in the wild has come to bear on nothing less than personal identity politics. The act of killing—killing, not photographing or in any other way innocuously witnessing—is central to some seemingly necessary narrative of toughness, self-sufficiency, adventure, and the loony idea than real men keep doing, moving, acting, winning, conquering. The aqueous victim of this contorted sense of the meaningful life is entirely innocent of the hunter’s psychological carnival but ends up, nonetheless, on the news, dangling from a hook, as a prized manifestation of the hunter’s needly little id explosion.

It happened the other day, this time with a mako shark and a human being named Jason Johnson. Johnson, from Mesquite, Texas, caught a female mako off the coast of Huntington Beach, California. The shark weighted 1,323 pounds and was 11-feet long, measurements that exceed the existing record—a 1,221 pounder caught in Massachusetts in 2001—by a healthy margin, and thus dimensions that turned Johnson into a rockin’ media star basking in his 15 minutes. Reports highlighted Johnson’s heroism, noting how the shark fought for her life for over two hours and pulled a quarter of a mile of line out of his rod’s reel. Johnson, by contrast, touted his own above-board bravado: “Any wrong step and I could have went out of the boat and to the bottom of the ocean.”  What a man.

According to 2013 statistics, roughly 100 million sharks are killed every year by the Jason Johnsons of the world. Most sharks are killed for their fins, others to compensate for their hunters’ flagging manhood, but either way : the large-scale decline in sharks is causing environmental havoc, upsetting infinite ecological balances of power we cannot and do not want to see. David McGuire, director of California-based protection advocacy group Shark Stewards, reminded readers of this inconvenient point at the very end of an obscure news report, saying, “People should be viewing these sharks as wonderful animals that are important to the ocean and admiring how beautiful they are” rather than “spilling their blood and guts.”

Johnson’s assessment was a bit different. It drives home not only the greatest irony ever uttered about a man who killed a shark, but it provides evidence of how, for so many killers, there is only one balance of power that matters: humans over non-humans. Johnson, proving intelligence is not one of the hunter’s strongest suits, explained of the beautiful creature he tortured for two hours, killed, and lorded over: “This is definitely a killing machine.”

 

 

Making Hunting More (Wheelchair) Accessible

» May 9th, 2013

Perhaps it’s too simple to be true, and I’m sure my failure to adhere to proper norms of language-correctness will be on sad display here, but I’ve generally thought that humans who are in some way burdened with a physical handicap are more prone to empathize with the most vulnerable among us. It kind of stands to reason that those who must deal daily with the challenge of a physical setback would be especially likely to empathize with suffering in general and, as a result, be inclined to help reduce that suffering. This is not to say that having a handicap is required for such empathy.  Only that it would predispose one in that direction.

Having said that, it’s not terribly difficult for commercial culture to reduce our benevolent tendencies to hash. And when you meld commerce, animal killing, and charity, forget about it. You would think that, say, a wheelchair bound military vet might have lost the urge to harm others–maybe even innocent deer. Well, come to Texas for a sobering reminder that some of us won’t let the passion to kill animals go gently. Not only can the wheelchair bound continue to hunt and kill, but, in Beaumont, they can do so through the generous acts of charity from 100 students at Kountze High School. As part of a trade class, they recently constructed nine deer stands for the Texas Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America. Read more here.

Having been alerted to this story, I hunted around for other examples of wheelchair accessible hunting stands. Turns out there’s a whole line of gear called “adaptive wear” that’s designed in part to allow “adaptive hunting, fishing, and camping items for those that have a loss of limb function and/or mobility but who still want to enjoy outdoor pursuits.” One such item is “the Beanstalker Hunting Stand (pictured above). Another is the “E-Z Pull Trigger Assist.”

Amazing how the quest for commercial innovation and the benevolence of charity excuses and obscures human brutality.

 

 

Man, Hunt

» April 29th, 2013

Hunting in America has long been a way to achieve a kind of instant manhood. Throw on some boots, grab your piece, pick up a case of beer, hop in the truck, and head into the wilderness. Just add water. Stir. It’s an accessible solution, and one much needed given the ruthless assault on masculinity these days. Not only do men no longer bring home the bacon, but even taking out the trash has been outsourced to a gender neutral global underclass (in my case, my kids). We need a key to manhood fantasy land and we need that key to be cheap and well greased and unregulated. Too bad the manhood fantasy so many of us have chosen to pursue requires birds to be plucked from the sky and other innocent creatures erased from the landscape as if they were moving targets in a video game.  But how do you think the West was won, compadre?  By singing kumbaya and making love? Dream on.

It wasn’t always this way. In the colonial era (of British America), manhood was in fact diminished by hunting. It was diminished because hunting was a sure sign of failure—failure to plan ahead, failure to have enough food in store, failure to domesticate. More to the point, such failure made you look like a savage, and everyone knew what a savage was because they’d seen those daubed up Redmen humping all they owned through the wilderness, arrows and houses and babies on their backs, no better than the beasts they chased with such shameful vulgarity. To hunt was an admission of failure. Colonial Americans were notably poor shots. Indians laughed at their marksmanship. This is true.

The transition from desperation-hunting to manhood-rescusciation hunting is a topic that awaits its historian.  But what I’m especially eager to know right now is why women have gotten swept into this historical cascade of testosterone-driven brutality. Spend a little time on this website and you’ll find so many logical and cultural looped-de-doops that you’ll need an airline sickness bag. In any case, let it be declared: women now hunt. A lot. Their powder’s as dry as it has ever been.

Forgive my crass generalization here, because it is indeed very crass and I should definitely know better but I can’t help it.  I’ve always sort of valued woman for being closer to their inner sense of empathy, or at least better trained by civilization to express that empathy with, you know, feelings. So when I see even the accoutrements of hunting—the trucks and the cammo and the jumpseats from which they shoot—create barriers between explosive female empathy and our desperate need to live more emotionally-atuned lives, I no longer know whose shoulder to cry upon.

Photo cred: Owen McWilliams (taken at the LA County Museum of Art, March 2013)

The Hidden Violence Behind a Farm Fresh Egg

» April 17th, 2013

When you deem yourself in charge of an animal for the primary purpose of consuming some part of that animal you are automatically establishing the preconditions for some level of abuse. I can already see some of you squirming, sighing, sputtering, thinking, “yeah, McWilliams, but I do it right.” No you don’t. My axiom still applies because what might appear to be innocuous or even beneficial arrangements—such as keeping hens for their eggs—are in fact quietly exploitative in ways most of us never see. Forget for now that no contractual arrangement could ever makes those eggs your eggs, and forget that humans can never know what’s “right” for chickens. The deal is this: when you want the eggs you will play chess with “nature” to maintain access to those eggs. And when you do that, animals become a pawn to your palate.

I was reminded of the darker side of this truth while spending time (what seemed an eternity’s worth) at a website called backyardchickens.com. The site is like a ad-hoc hootenanny for small-scale chicken owners who, do not doubt it, love owning chickens. Spend enough time reading about the quotidian tribulations of poultry proprietors and you quickly learn about the centrality of violence in chicken ownership. In point of fact the chickens, so long as they are pumping out eggs with sufficient speed, are typically treated with a measure of decency, but woe to any creature that comes between a chicken owner and her precious eggs.  ”Farm fresh eggs”—I hate that term—is a reality brought to you by the systematic extermination of raccoons, hawks, snakes, and opossum.  Anything that moves too close to the egg source is ultimately bound to be sighted in the crosshair’s of some chicken owning lunatic or other.

Even dogs. Pet dogs. Neighbors’ dogs. Behold:

Has anyone killed a neighbour’s dog who was killing chickens? If so, how did it work out between you? My neighbours 2 roads away had a husky that got free. My husband didn’t recognize the dog as someone’s pet (we had never seen it before). I wasn’t home at the time. Apparently it was just running from chicken to chicken killing it and moving on to the next. My daughter was out there in the melee, the horses were going crazy, and it’s hard to give a dog the benefit of being a pet and not a feral beast or rabid thing when it is killing without pause and not listening to commands to stop. My husband shot it.

And witness:

A bull dog came up in my yard, killed 19 of my chickens and I had to take care of one other one because it’s back was split wide open. I killed the dog. Shot it dead. I was so mad I was shaking and crying at the same time. I called the sheriff’s office and filed a report and animal control came to get the dog. The owners met animal control at the end of my driveway and animal control allowed them to have their dog back so they could take care of the body.?I lost 20 birds and I have one other missing that I can’t find the body or the live bird.??

Such are the dispatches from the world of humane, small-scale, local, and non-industrial chicken farming. Defenders of egg exploitation will assuredly contend that nature is nature and dogs eat chickens and chickens eat insects and this is the way of the world, etc., etc. and so on. Sure. But does that mean we have to both set the parameters within which animals go after each other (which is exactly what “pasture based” farmers do when they turn their birds out to free range) and then celebrate the death that inevitably results (often at our hands) by making an omelet and praising our “self-sufficiency”?

Nature’s Warped Wizardry

» April 2nd, 2013

What gets me most is the arrogance. I’m currently researching a rebuttal to Allan Savory’s now viral TED talk about holistic grazing. Maybe it’s the TED format talking, but even the mere notion that a single human being could, as Savory insists he can, take into account “all of nature’s complexity” in what’s at best a freewheeling agricultural experiment affirms the desperation hiding beneath the almost comically bold proposal to reverse global warming and end starvation in Africa.

The phrase that Savory uses over and over—”mimicking nature”—is, as I read it, little more than a cover for the newest form of destruction and animal exploitation. If this is what it means to be an environmentalist, count me out. This is the tyranny of ecology.

From the macro to the micro: I listened to this story yesterday on NPR and commented that “this must be an April Fool’s joke, nobody would allow sharpshooting in Rock Creek Park.” Way wrong on that. Deer have been deemed by the USDA to be overabundant. This overabundance has, according to the official line, threatened native plant species while favoring invasive ones.

While minimal evidence is provided for this claim, there’s ample evidence of suburbanites sent into high dudgeon by deer nibbling their gaudy shrubbery. “They eat everything,” one botanically besieged neighbor said. “Don’t even think about tulips. They’ve eaten them down to the nub.” This, of course, is the tyranny of stupidity.

 

PS: Thank you so very much to those of who who sent me studies critical of the Savory talk. Very, very helpful.

 

 

Paleofantasies

» February 26th, 2013

The paleo diet—loosely understood as eating how we imagine humans ate before the advent of agriculture—is wildly popular. It has tapped into something, although I’m not sure what.

Whatever it is, however, it involves our creeping discontent with technological modernity, our desire to strip life down to its caveman essence (granted, in some ways but not others), and a vague notion that humans are behaving in unacceptably artificial ways.

We are, in other words, out of touch. We need to be more natural. Somehow or other, though, natural, at least for a bearded and barefoot cohort, has come to mean not only riding bikes with no gears and running without shoes, but also eating what you can forage and/or hunt. It has been on more than one occasion that I’ve seen listed on the menu of high-end restaurants the name of the establishment’s “forager.” Portlandia lives.

And so does bad science. A critical assumption driving the paleocraze is that humans have, in their everyday activity, exceeded their evolutionary capacity. We are, it is said, acting in ways that we haven’t evolved to accommodate. Our increasing rates of Celiac disease, for example, are supposedly due to the fact that we “weren’t meant” to eat wheat. Same with lactose intolerance and milk. “We weren’t meant,” in fact, is the defining phrase of this weird little fad. (By the way, I recently asked a gastroenterologist why rates of Celiac’s were on the rise and he said, “They’re not. It’s just  a lot easier to test for.”)

This assumption of genetic lag, however, is not borne out by the evidence. Researchers are, as recently summarized by the Chronicle of Higher Education, looking into ancient DNA. In so doing, they are “revolutionizing our ideas about the speed at which our evolution has occurred, and this knowledge, in turn, has made us question the idea that we are stuck with ancient genes, and ancient bodies, in a modern environment. We can use this ancient DNA to show that we are not shackled by it.” Humans, in other words, are “meant” to do what we do. Our genes are right behind our actions. Here’s the article.

Granted, this research is probably not going to stop dingbats writing in Glamour from declaring that “the way so many of us are living now goes against our nature. Biologically, we modern Homo sapiens are a lot like our cave woman ancestors: We’re animals. Primates, in fact. And we have many primal needs that get ignored. That’s why the prescription for good health may be as simple as asking, What would a cave woman do?”

We’re it only so simple. Humans evolve with our environment—that’s what’s natural. Instead of thinking about how we were meant to eat, as if we were frozen in time or detached from the world around us, wouldn’t it make more sense to ask how we want to be? This distinction seems important. It frees us from the anxiety of feeling out of sync with a non-existent golden age of harmonious environmental interaction while challenging us to think how we might use our rapidly evolved frontal lobe to eat in a way that incorporates something the paleofantasy excludes: compassion.

 

Tomorrow: the bloodlust of a chef

Hunting, Land Conservation, and Blood Lust

» February 6th, 2013

Writing in The Gainesville Sun last week, Brian Block, an almost twenty-year vegan, advocated opening land held under the Alachua Conservation Trust to hunting. His argument, as it were, was not an explicit endorsement of hunting so much as a roundabout utilitarian claim that hunting would leverage greater support for conservation efforts. Get enough people who like to blow away animals on board and you can prevent undeveloped land from becoming a Walmart. This land preservation defense of hunting is a common one. It’s so common in here in Texas, in fact, that one can, as I did yesterday, hear a defense of it over breakfast at a vegan macrobiotic restaurant in the center of liberal Austin.

As a general point, I think anyone who knows the first thing about ecology understands that ecosystems are healthiest when left “unmanaged.” If it is the long-term health of ecosystems that we have in mind, our best bet is simply to leave them well enough alone. Of course, humans are short-term thinkers. We’re also environmentally meddlesome to the point of destruction. And arrogant. Thus we have convinced ourselves that we can, by allowing a bunch of men and women with an arsenal of weaponry play Rambo amidst our fields and forests, improve these inherently robust ecosystems through federal and state run programs. We are—again as a long-term prospect—almost always wrong about this. We don’t even fully know how these ecosystems work. What makes us think we can accomplish something as complex as micromanaging their species profile?

Theoretically, I suppose, it’s possible that a team of experienced hunters could cherry pick a minimal population of doe in order to moderate deer numbers, minimize subsequent starvation, and approximate the appearance of effective land management in the short term. But it never works this way. In reality, when bounties are placed on animals in the name of conservation, hordes of weekend warriors trying to compensate for something (perhaps a loss of power in some other area of life) dress up in cammo, buy a case of Bud, and firebomb the weakest members of a species, thereby selecting for the strongest. Advanced riflemen then seek out the biggest buck, reserving their fire for specimen that might serve as an impressive wall trophy. Together, the end result of these approaches is ecologically counterproductive, if not disastrous. Populations that are perceived to be too high are, in their violent reduction, rendered so weak they may never recover, thus creating room for another, perhaps more invasive species to proliferate that could be, alas, hunted.

“Conservation” thus becomes yet another example of a euphemism obscuring our blood lust. The vast majority of conservation-driven hunting policies are designed not to improve the quality of a particular ecosystem but to improve the quality of the hunt. As with so many activities humans pursue, we’d be so much better off letting go of the mythical associations of hunting and reflecting on what it is within us that makes us want to kill.