Archive for the ‘Hunting’ Category
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.
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)
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.
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”?
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.
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
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.
As I’ve written before, and am probably the last to observe, hunting is religion in Texas, where I live. On the occasions when I find myself in East or South Texas—places where the hunting habit becomes evangelical—I find it best for my own mental health to don my anthropology cap rather than my ethical one. To wear the ethical one in these places is to find yourself suffering turmoil in the midst of an armageddon of gunfire. So I just back up a bit and remember the words of my anthropologist friend: “Culture is everything.” Boom.
This observational distance from the violence and deeper reality of killing animals in the name of sport was, however, recently challenged by my realization that citizen tax dollars are being used to support not just hunting, but the teaching of hunting to children. Turns out Texas Parks and Wildlife sponsors the Texas Youth Hunting Program, whose mission is to :
increase the number of youths participating in wildlife and hunting activities and to promote the hunting heritage in Texas. The Texas Wildlife Association (TWA) and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) have joined forces to offer youth hunts that are safe, educational and very affordable. We sponsor introductory, instructive youth hunts for deer, turkey, hogs, javelina, exotics, dove, small game, waterfowl, varmints and other species. Normally, we provide mentors, lodging and meals.
Its list of intended goals is to “promote the highest ethical standards in hunting.” This phrase, much like the program that spawned it, reminds me how desperate humans are to hide the reality of what we do in the garb of euphemism and illogic. What can possibly be “educational” about killing animals with high powered weaponry and, really, by what twisted sense of reality does such an act of terror possibly come with “ethical standards’?
In the state of Texas they are closing schools, letting parks fall into disrepair, and failing to maintain state run nursing homes for the elderly and infirm. But, boy-oh-boy, you wanna grab your rifle and kill an animal, the state is here to make sure it remains both “ethical” and “very affordable.” Hunting might be sacred in the conservative state Texas, but so is the effort to cut government spending. Programs like this one are, in this sense, ripe targets for vegans to protest. With calls for “cutting spending” at high pitch, now may be the time to fire away in the name of animal rights.
Did animals make us human? The question has long occupied the field of paleoanthropology. A recent study published in the journal Science, described by the American Scientist as “stunning,” strongly suggests that modern humans indeed dramatically outpaced Neanderthals about 40,000 years ago as a result of domesticating dogs. Exploiting these animals to assist in hunting and hauling food, newly emerged “modern” humans evidently gained an edge over their Neanderthal cohorts. “If Neanderthals did not have domestic dogs and anatomically modern humans did,” writes the American Scientist, these hunting companions would have made all the difference in the modern human-Neanderthal competition.” (See “Of Interest” to find the story.)
I’ve mentioned the topic of early animal domestication in recent posts to stress my belief that dominance and hierarchy are, for better or worse, necessary aspects of the human-animal relationship. This isn’t to endorse dominance and hierarchy per se; it’s simply to acknowledge a biological reality. The key for us, as I see it, is to make these relationships as fair and non-exploitative as possible. While I have complete respect for animal advocates who aim to eliminate all vestiges of animal domination (a prospect that’s theoretically compelling), I think any idea of an egalitarian and isolated relationship between humans and animals violates the most basic principles underscoring biological life on earth. We can change culture, and we will. But I’m not so sure we can alter the fundamental rudiments of biological interaction–of which mutualism is inherent–without moving to another planet and starting the game of life from scratch.
But I don’t want to get hung up on this argument (“the narcissism of small differences . . .”) Instead, I want to draw upon early animal domestication to highlight a different point, one that I’ve been exploring a bit for my book, The Modern Savage. It’s an interpretation of domestication, moreover, that stresses a positive outcome while debunking a common argument made by behavioral omnivores. It is, in essence, pragmatic.
What did it require for humans to domesticate animals? For one, humans had to work to understand animal behavior. Studying animal behavior, in turn, required the assumption that animals had recognizable emotions. You’d have to be braindead not to see, as you worked with animals, that they had recognizable feelings. This 40,000 year history of humans working to comprehend animal thought, feeling, and behavior was endemic to the experience of domestication. It created a bond. And that bond– whether we acknowledge it or not– bears directly on a self-serving claim made by omnivores today.
Here’s how. It’s common to hear advocates of eating animals insist that their choice is justifiable because humans have always done it. Well, la-dee-da, that’s true–humans have always eaten animals! What this justification fails to note, however, is that the humans have “always done it” argument has a critical context, one spawned only by domestication: while humans were always eating animals, we were also working hard to understand them. Hence the hidden benefit of domestication. Had we never domesticated animals, we might very well have gone about murdering them in the dark woods without any sense that these creatures had meaningful inner lives. They would, from the human perspective, have remained alien objects–soulless, incapable of suffering, and as mechanistic as plant life. You have to live with a being to know what she’s really like. You have to bring her under your roof.
I’m well aware that, throughout this long history, we were trying to discern animal emotions to serve human needs. But this was done at a time when animal exploitation was arguably required for human survival. Nonetheless, the critical quest to grasp the animal mind never went away: as the earliest modern humans exploited animals, they worked to know them by seeking to understand their emotional lives. This was something they simply assumed they could do. And did. And it worked. What thus emerged was a fundamental belief that, despite Descartes’ effort to philosophize it out of existence, defined the human-animal relationship: animal feelings were not fundamentally distinct from our own. As Darwin put it, the difference between animal and human emotion is one of degree, not kind.
Times do change. Today we live in a world–industrialized, agriculturally advanced, hyper-connected–that has the ability to grow and feed billions of humans an exclusively plant-based diet. Why would we ever want to do that? Because animals deserve moral consideration. Why do they deserve our moral consideration? Because they have emotional lives. How do we know they have emotional lives? We domesticated them. This is one reason why I do not reject domestication (at least as it played out 40,000 years ago) as inherently wrong. Domestication is ultimately how enlightened humans–when the opportunity was made available to them–came to the conclusion that we should liberate animals from the shackles in which we have long constrained them.
So here’s how I envision the earliest animal domestication by pre-humans. Cave-dwelling hominins noticed that when wolves were nearby larger and more dangerous predators stayed away. To encourage the presence of wolves, hominins left scraps of food lying outside the cave. Wolves lingered longer. Dangerous animals kept their distance.
This win-win situation, through a seemingly infinite progression of small steps, eventually culminated in the domestication of dogs. Throughout the process, both hominins (and eventually humans) and animals improved their chances for survival and, if the research on oxytocin release is accurate, improved their levels of happiness and sense of well being. Of course, one can only imagine how this influenced the saber toothed felines who wanted to eat those boney hominins, but for the wolves and hominins, the relationship worked.
The above scenario could, of course, be entirely wrong. But let’s assume for now that there’s some truth to it. What does this plausible case of evolutionary mutualism say about our contemporary quest for animal liberation? How does it impact the call to eliminate hierarchical relationships with animals?
As my readers know, I’m no advocate of using past events to evaluate the moral legitimacy of present behavior. Nonetheless, the aforementioned example of mutualism suggests that there are perfectly logical and justifiable scenarios for forming relationships with animals that clearly compromise their complete liberation. There are times when the benefits of dependency seem to outweigh the benefits of total freedom.
Last week I posted a story that highlighted love for companion animals. Anyone who lives with an animal knows the power and purity of such love. But that love, at least to some extent, necessarily derives from systematic domestication, a considerable denial of freedom, and a relationship in which only the human can make the ultimate (if excusable) call of when it’s an appropriate time for a companion to die (if an animal becomes very ill). We love our companion animals, and our companion animals love us. But nobody can really call the relationship equal. Liberation isn’t possible in this scenario.
So I wonder: Is this a contradiction that advocates of animal rights have to accept as an inescapable reality of sharing the planet with non-human animals? Are we willing to accept partial liberation and partial dependency? And if so, where do we draw that line? What’s partial?
The human relationship with animals is, I imagine, far more complex that we’ll ever know. The same could be said with the human relationship with humans. But the point that I’ve been fixating on lately is that the call for perfect liberation may rely an on imperfect–or at least unrealistic or poorly defined– understanding of liberation. (Or, of course, I could just be creating a straw man here in order to justify this post!).
But here’s what I mean: Humans and humans, as well as humans and non-humans, experience life through an interlocking series of emotional, physical, and economic dependencies. Theoretically speaking, every dependency lessens our individual freedom, our quest for perfect liberation, our desire for autonomy. At the same time, though, these relationships can also be the source of inexplicable happiness. Liberation in and of itself–for humans and animals–could be, I would think, a miserable way to live life.
We must make distinctions. Certain relationships are obviously abusive and cannot be tolerated. We should never intentionally exploit an animal to make money or fulfill a desire for luxuries. But are other relationships–ones that might very well compromise the animal’s freedom more than the human’s–allowed? Or do we aim to rule out all conventional and customary human-animal relationships because, more often than not, humans are the ones who play a larger rule in defining the terms of that otherwise mutually beneficial relationship?
Do we seek isolation and autonomy and perfect liberation or do we seek integration and sensible mutualism and relatively fair dependencies? In any case, these are my questions on Memorial Day 2012.
Culture is everything. I gave a talk today at the University of Texas. Students at UT-Austin are as smart as students anywhere. After I presented my ideas about the myriad problems with animal agriculture, venturing into the issue of animal rights, students seemed to be generally receptive to my message. Then came the inevitable question: what about hunting?
Ah, hunting. Texans don’t just hunt, they hunt. It’s life not only for middle class insurance agents in Huntsville, but for high SAT scoring college students in Austin. One student appealed to the Bible’s insistence that humans have “dominion” over animals and thus could shoot them at will. Another made a case for conservation and deer control. Yet another argued that hunting starving animals wracked by drought put them out of misery. When I responded that humans have a duty to minimize the purposeful infliction of harm, one young man rolled his eyes.
I say these students are intelligent, and they are. But intelligence does not mean reflective. One student, whom I know, stated that he ate animals because, well, they were animals and he was human. Really? He ate them because it made him happy. I asked him if he’d eat his dog and he looked horrified and said, “no.”
When I left UT I hopped on my bike and rode to Casa de Luz, Austin’s vegan haven, and had a wonderful lunch of lentils, sweet potatoes, kale, and brown rice. On my way down to Casa I rode along Lake Lady Bird (pictured above), where I watched dozens of people, young and old, many of them probably hunters,play with their dogs. All the while I was thinking how, for so many of us, the dots are in place.
Culture, though, makes it very hard to connect them.