Archive for the ‘Hunting’ Category

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.



“Ethical Standards in Hunting”

» January 2nd, 2013

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?

» June 1st, 2012


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.

The Downside of Animal Liberation

» May 28th, 2012

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.



Hunting for Reflection: Another Talk in Texas

» April 11th, 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.

Hunting for Identity and Inflicting Suffering: The Stress of Being Stalked

» March 27th, 2012

One justification for hunting animals as a way to supply meat is that it’s more humane because the animals are able to avoid confinement and, as a result, suffering. A recent piece by one of my favorite writers, Marc Bekoff, explains why this is a false assumption. He explains:

Stalking animals causes immense suffering for those who are stalked . . . .Even if people stalk animals but don’t try to kill them, the animals suffer greatly. Just seeing a potential predator, and hunters are viewed as predators, is stressful. Patrick Bateson, at the University of Cambridge in England, found red deer stalked by dogs showed stress responses similar to those experienced when animals were anxious and scared. Deer showed high levels of cortisol and the breakdown of red blood cells, indicating extreme physiological and psychological stress. Stalked deer also displayed excessive fatigue and damaged muscles. Non-stalked deer and those shot without prolonged stalking didn’t show similar stress responses. There’s no reason to thinik that birds would respond any differently. Clearly, animals don’t like the emotional distress, anxiety, and fear of being stalked and neither do humans. Stalked animals may also spend less time feeding, resting, and protecting young. The stalker’s intentions, malevolent or not, are unimportant to the animal and there often is much collateral damage to family and friends of the targeted individual.”

Hunting is becoming stylish among people who somehow think that it’s a virtuous way to reconnect with nature, our primitive forebears, and some inner sense of what it means to be part of the food chain. Kudos to Bekoff for drawing on science to provide a much needed, and hopefully heeded, reality check.

Here’s the whole piece:

(thank you to Mariann Sullivan)

What’s So Natural about Butchery?: The Artifice of Eating Animals

» March 4th, 2012

One of the most common justifications for eating animals is that it’s “natural.” It’s considered natural, in part, because animals eat animals in the wild. Why should humans, as confirmed omnivores, be exempt from this struggle for survival? If it’s natural for a lion to hunt down and kill a gazelle, why is not equally natural for a human being to hunt down and kill a gazelle?

Standard objections to this argument stress the fact that humans are the only species with a moral compass. We are the only species that can design and promote plans explicitly intended to make the world a more peaceful place. We should therefore not eat animals. Such a response seems perfectly reasonable.

The practical problem with it, though, is that defenders of the “red in tooth and claw” viewpoint use the moral distinction to make the wrong case. Instead of  interpreting our moral capacity as a reason to avoid unnecessary animal suffering, they argue that it makes humans so superior to other species that we can justifiably transform them into sausage and cook them on a grill. I don’t in any way agree with this claim, but I hear it so often that I’m wondering if it might make more sense to confront the “animals do it too” argument from another perspective.

Of course, animals do a lot of things in the wild that humans have, thankfully, chosen to avoid. But what strikes me as potentially important is the way animals eat other animals in nature. Essentially, they kill them with their own claws or fangs and devour them raw. As far as I can tell, no non-human animals in any way significantly prepares the meat he kills (although I would not be surprised if insects did something insanely sophisticated). The blood and flesh are unprocessed. That’s generally how it works in nature.

For humans, however, eating animals is mediated by layer upon layer of artifice–and, I would argue, all of these layers require human inventions designed to protect us from the hard reality that we’re eating products from sentient animals. We butcher, process, and cook; sterilize, package, and ship. An array of synthetic devices never found in the nature–guns, arrows, traps, knives, ovens, stoves, etc.–make the experience of comfortable alienation possible. None of this is natural in the way that animals eating animals is natural. Not at all. If we had to obtain our animal products through the same natural mechanisms as animals in the wild do it, we’d likely end up a) eaten, b) so disgusted we could not swallow our catch, or c) sickened by zoonotic disease.  It is here, I think, where the “animals do it” argument is seriously weakened.

Indeed, maybe it’s through this angle that vegans might make the case that eating for humans–and humans alone– is a choice. It’s moral choice that–no matter how assiduously we compare our experience to those of non-human animals–reflects well on humanity when we choose to leave animals out of our diet. Compassion, I would venture, is natural, too.

Can Violence Against Animals Lead to Violence Against People?

» March 2nd, 2012

I’ve been reading lately about that horrific school shooting in Ohio. I follow these all too common reports with some obsession not only because I’m the father of two children in grade school, but because I’m curious about what leads any individual, especially such a young individual, to declare war on his classmates.

Many reports noted that the shooter, T. J. Lane, was a hunter. I realize that the connection between violence committed against animals and violence committed against humans is tenuous. I also know that it’s a matter of sustained debate in the psychological and sociological literature. That said, the concept of one form of violence systematically fostering another hardly seems far-fetched.

Throughout much of modern history observers—most of them women–have unabashedly made the connection. Writing in 1943, Agnes Martin, author of “For the Church Door,” opined that “wars will never cease while men still kill other animals for food, since to turn any living creature into a roast, a steak, a chop, or any other form of ‘meat’ takes the same kind of violence, the same kind of bloodshed and the same kind of mental processes required to change a living man into a dead soldier.” Twenty years later Grace Knole, author of The James Joyce Murders, wrote, “I expect after you have many times seen a deer or woodchuck blown to bits, the thought of a human blown to bits is that much less impossible to conceive.” These assessments strike me as sensible as they are disturbing.

In many parts of the United States hunting remains a revered right-of-passage for young boys.  The tradition of killing one’s first deer often comes sheathed in warrior-like, and frequently sexually suggestive, rituals such as a “virgin” hunter covering his face with the blood of “his” first conquest. Troll YouTube and you’ll find a disturbing number of videos of boys as young as eight killing deer.

It’s astounding how many people think this is a wonderful thing. Advocates of this behavior invariably highlight the benefits that come from being in nature, bonding with fathers, and pursuing an ethic of conservation. It’s important to expose the lunacy of this rhetoric. These supposed benefits are, if the above quotes are onto anything, little more than rationalizations for severe violence, violence that could all too easily carry over into the way we view–and perhaps can treat–our fellow humans.

Hunting for Flesh, Hunting for Identity: Why Men Hunt

» February 26th, 2012

A while ago I promised a series of posts on hunting. After putting some thought into the matter, and trying to decide the most productive angle into the topic, I found myself unable to escape the looming specter of testosterone. Sorry if this is painfully obvious but I see no other way to begin: hunting is inseparable from manhood.

Sure, women hunt. But for 99 percent of humanity’s existence it was the necessary job of men to acquire meat. Chances are good that patriarchy as a social arrangement developed directly out of this responsibility. With the onset of animal domestication about 10,000 years ago, the connection between men and meat only intensified. The entire idea of what it meant to be a man, at least in western cultures, came to center not only on the ability to drag flesh to the home fire, but to raise animals at home, to husband them and harvest their flesh. Any man who failed at either of these tasks saw his masculinity seriously imperiled, much as if he were sexually impotent. The experience of running out of meat could be a humiliating experience, a sharp source of ridicule. Men without meat were men who failed to perform.

Occasionally, the relationship between hunting animals and domesticating animals became temporarily complicated. A case in point is early America. On the one hand, hunting briefly fell out of favor, primarily because it was a practice that white settlers didn’t necessarily want to share with Native Americans, whom they deemed utterly savage. On the other hand, there was no way around the fact that, every now and then, even the most responsible husbandman needed to grab his rifle, duck into the woods, and hunt for food. This was a settlement society. Nonetheless, if the association between hunting and manhood temporarily weakened in the eighteenth century (due to the cultural importance of domestication), it roared back with a vengeance in the nineteenth. Western migrants, intoxicated on the spirit of Manifest Destiny, revived and solidified the bond between manhood and hunting, deeming them the combined epitome of not just a mere man, but a frontiersman.

This wasn’t to last. Today there’s no immediate physical need for men to hunt. The frontier is not only the stuff of legend (and myth), but it’s been replaced by strip malls and grocery stores–venues where women do most of the “hunting.” And therein lies the crisis. Men are in a genuine bind, one not to be taken lightly (or mocked).Throughout the history of humanity men have been responsible for venturing outside the home–be it the pasture or the woods (or high seas)–and dragging home the main course. This activity was essential to the masculine identity, so much so that we hinged nothing less than our reputation as real men upon the acquisition of animal flesh. Now consider the situation today. At least in the developed world, there’s currently no need for anyone to hunt. Multinational corporations domesticate our animals for us. Women (or restaurants) dominate the task of bringing food to our table. Men golf.

Men thus hunt not to survive, but to preserve an antiquated sense of what it means to be a man. They hunt because the weight of two-hundred thousand years of tradition is hard to shake. They hunt because our culture–in so many ways so advanced and so enlightened–has yet to promote the idea that it’s extremely attractive for a man to love and nurture animals.




“I hate to Kill”: Thoughts on Hunting

» January 31st, 2012

I hate hunting. I hate the idea of taking pleasure in deaths that humans inflict on animals in the name of “sport,” or “conservation,” or some warped notion of what it means to be “rugged,” or “a survivor,” or “manly.” A real man, as I see it, views animals as having intrinsic value. He sees them on their own terms at best and, at worst, as innocent beings deserving our protection. He sees hunting for what it is: a refuge of the weak, a rigged and twisted game marked by blood and power, a one-time necessary evil that humans have evolved beyond the need to engage. Hunting is especially popular in rural areas where traditional, and often evangelical, Christian values dominate. How disconcerting, then, that “creatures of God” are summarily blown away with weaponry more reflective of the profane than the sacred. How baffling that contemporary hunting violates not just Christian values, but every theory of normative ethics. Ours is not a culture of deep reflection, but one need not kneel on the philosopher’s stone to appreciate the basic point that the recreational killing of a sentient being is, by the dictates of common sense, just plain wrong.

This morning, perhaps in a sadistic mood, I re-read this widely circulated New York Times op-ed by Seamus McGraw: The author, inexplicably, insists that he hates to kill. He makes this claim, however, in the midst of describing his botched flintlock kill of a “beautiful doe.” My initial reaction, again, was anger. “I had to admire her guts,” McGraw thought, before pulling the trigger, leading one to wonder: then why did this gutless man kill her? In any case, rather than get caught in this spiral of anger, I’ve decided to do some reading and reflecting on hunting. There’s a lot going on when a grown man can say he hates to kill and then kill. This post starts a new catagory, one to which I will be adding frequently.

As always, all responses, ideas, suggestions, and insights are warmly welcomes.