Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Rhubarb Patch: Do only sadists kill for fun? A debate about the ethics and aesthetics of hunting

Is hunting a sadistic pastime?

When a lengthy feature in the Tribune sports section in late 2001  portrayed big-game safari hunting in a favorable light, I took a rhetorical shot at the participants in my Tribune column: “Only sadists kill for fun, boys,” I wrote. “Just take cameras next time.”

Angry hunters fired back–also rhetorically, thank goodness. They said that my revulsion at the idea of sport hunting is based on a misunderstanding of the sport and a squishy sentimentality about animals.

So I invited the most articulate such respondent, lifelong hunter Scott Brasier, then 43, of suburban Cary, into the Rhubarb Patch to hash over the question. Brasier is a defender of hunting from both practical and ethical standpoints, I asked him to start by taking on my central charge head on: “My dictionary says a sadist is one who gains `pleasure from causing physical or mental pain to people or animals.’” I wrote him. “So tell me, is the fear, pain and death of animals part of the fun for hunters, or simply a distasteful, regrettable yet unavoidable element of your avocation–the equivalent of numb toes to the skier?

To Eric Zorn:

Like millions of other sportsmen, I hunt for enjoyment. And yes, the entire experience climaxes with the successful acquisition of game. Your implication that the enjoyment and pleasure of hunting is in causing physical and mental pain to animals is belied by how the vast majority of hunters strive to be as skilled and accurate as possible.

The able, well-equipped hunter aims to take his prey as cleanly and quickly as possible and avoid undue suffering. Contrast this to deaths of the countless animals that are killed each year on our roads or that succumb to disease and starvation, all the result of overpopulation and an ever-diminishing natural habitat.

Although hunting is by far the most effective and proven means available to control the problems associated with overpopulation, it is still fiercely opposed by imprudent anti-hunters. Do they justify this suffering, pain and death of animals as a “distasteful, regrettable yet unavoidable” aspect of their opposition, or just collateral damage?

It’s puzzling that the vast majority of those who demean and criticize hunting have no experience or exposure to hunting themselves.

Can you substantiate your claim that those who hunt are otherwise sociopathic, as your “sadists” label implies. Or is this conclusion based upon your own prejudice toward the sport?

To Scott Brasier:

I make no claim that those who take delight in stalking and killing animals are “otherwise” anything. It’s the act itself and, particularly, the mindset behind it, that I have a hard time understanding.

Hunters are always quick to justify themselves: We provide financial support to wildlife conservation efforts! We perform necessary herd-thinning functions! We eat what we kill!

Even if those answers are true, they sidestep the essential question: How can you take pleasure in being the instrument of the death of one of nature’s creatures? I mean, say you met a man at a party who told you that his job was to euthanize the unwanted dogs and cats at the local animal shelter. And what if this man were to carry on enthusiastically about this grim task–declare that pushing the plunger or flipping the switch on the death chamber is the highlight of his day? Wouldn’t you edge away nervously and wonder about his sensibilities?

Yes, hunting is a challenge. Yes, it’s social. Yes, it brings one closer to the land. But so do a lot of activities that don’t involve killing animals. The killing is the point, come on, isn’t it? Everything else is just an excuse, a rationalization to allow the hunter to feed his appetite for it.

Even if an animal were inedible and its herd already thin and healthy, you’d rather shoot it with a gun than with a camera; rather blast a live bird out of the sky than a clay pigeon.

I’m not saying society should outlaw hunting, the destruction of pests or the slaughter of domesticated farm animals. But one doesn’t have to be an animal-rights activist or vegetarian to recoil at the uncivilized idea of killing as sport, diversion, entertainment.

As we move this conversation to the Internet, I’d like you to tell me more about the kill as “climax.”

To Eric Zorn:

Not to digress from the topic at hand, but I must comment on your admission that you judge hunters to be “sadists” solely for engaging in the legal, and necessary act of hunting. This judgment (as well as your description of hunters as “decadent, sissified cowards” in your previous column) strikes an ironic contrast with columns you’ve written touting the virtues of tolerance, acceptance and understanding in dealing with our differences. Your selective application of these values to situations and/or demographics that you deem worthy strikes me as hypocritical.

Your request that I elaborate on the “kill as climax” is a loaded question as it implies that the hunter’s gratification is derived from killing and that he takes delight in death and suffering. You imply that the act of killing is at the forefront of our enjoyment and motivations when you ask “the killing is the point, isn’t it?”

Nevertheless, I’ll try to give you another perspective:

Hunters are certainly not in denial. We are keenly aware that our activity, when successful, will result in the death of our quarry. But whereas your argument begins and ends at the moment of death, hunters see it as a small part of a bigger picture. Yes we provide a necessary environmental function, yes we fund management and education programs for wildlife and habitat preservation, yes hunting bonds us closer with our environment, and yes it is social.

It is also traditional and deeply rooted in our heritage. As Aldo Leopold, the “father of conservation,” described in A Sand Country Almanac, “The instinct that finds delight in the sight and pursuit of game is bred into the very fiber of the race.”

The anti hunting position aims to dismiss or distort all these points and to exploit the sentiments and emotions of those farthest removed from hunting by concentrating solely on the “death of one of natures creatures.” But this sidesteps a key question: Given the necessary function hunting provides, how can you condemn the practice without suggesting any alternatives? You castigate those who hunt as “instruments of death”, but fail to explain or rationalize the death and suffering that would result from your position.

It is interesting and relevant to consider the roots of the anti hunting position. You claim to not understand the mindset of the hunter. Well no kidding. You have no experience or exposure to hunting, so how on earth could you?

Your arguments are not based upon involvement, education or knowledge of hunting, but rather on opinion and “squishy sentimentality” – as you put it. This is quite characteristic of those who share your position. According to three independent studies by two major universities, the typical animal rights activist is overwhelmingly more likely to come from an urban background.

Consequently, the core of anti hunting and animal rights strength is in the cities, where people are most removed from nature.

In 1880, half of all Americans lived on farms and had a close association with animals and hunting. Today, less than one in fifty lives on a farm.

As a result, most Americans learn about nature and hunting from such image makers as films and television. Without experience or exposure to hunting, the anti hunting platform takes advantage of the unfamiliarity that the majority of Americans have with life in the wild.

As Richard Conniff observed in Audubon Magazine, “The [anti-hunting] movement has elevated ignorance about the natural world almost to the level of a philosophical principle.”

Humans have, as you know, hunted from time immemorial. Every civilization, culture and continent shows evidence of hunting. Evolution has designed and programmed man to be an efficient hunter. Yet you claim that we have become too civilized to engage in is such a primitive, barbaric practice. But what “civilized” society would allow destruction of its natural resources by failure to manage them? Is it “civilized” to deny a natural and instinctive impulse?

Obviously hunters do not see themselves as you would portray them: sadists, decadent, instruments of death. Interestingly, neither do the majority of those on the periphery – such as family members, other outdoorsman and those who live in areas where hunting is common, such as rural areas. Thus a compelling question is why the most virulent criticism, such as yours, comes from an element farthest removed from the actual practice of hunting?

I would challenge you to validate your assessment that we have evolved to a point where hunting is uncivilized. As I have established, this position is not based on facts, evidence or knowledge but rather opinion and unawareness.

Considering the prevalent demographic of the anti hunting platform, along with such common stereotypes as bubbas, rednecks, beer-swilling Neanderthals, etc., one might surmise that this is an urban prejudice. Does your position assume that civilized and sophisticated are urban attributes, and that which is non-urban is therefore the opposite?

In regard to your humorous tale of the animal shelter worker, I have but one question for you. When did you meet my cousin Eldin? (1-26-02)

To Scott Brasier:

I don’t want to get too far off the subject either, but there is a world of difference between tolerating the existence of a phenomenon of some sort and approving of it. This difference gets people all in a lather when considering, say, the issue of homosexuality. To tolerate gay people—to allow them to live and to love among us unmolested and undiscriminated against—is not the same as approving of their behavior or finding it tasteful to consider or believing it to be morally and biologically on par with heterosexual behavior. Toleration is, fundamentally, the most basic act of civil and social politeness; a mature recognition of where the line is between your business and none of your business.

It’s tolerance that allows people of vastly differing faiths to live side by side in peace in this country. Just because you and another person have a different outlook on a certain subject—political, religious, social, moral, aesthetic—and you both voice your opinions doesn’t mean that you are intolerant of one another or that you don’t accept the other person’s right to disagree with you.

My definition of intolerance is any act that either suppresses or attempts legally to suppress that which is arguably none of one’s business. And, of course, where we draw the line between your business, my business and everybody’s business is a major part of most of the debates we have in society.

Animal rights is certainly one of those areas where the lines are not particularly clear to most of us. I almost hate to use the term “animal rights” as it has become too identified with the zealots who would find it immoral to, say, kill a pig to get a heart valve to save a human being, or to use animals humanely in medical experiments. But I will use that term because it’s my guess that you and I can identify some points of agreement.

Dog fighting, for instance.

Are we in agreement that it’s objectively wrong for people to raise and train dogs for the sole purpose of having them fight to the death for the entertainment of onlookers? Are we in agreement that there should be basic standards of humane treatment at shelters, on farms and so on, standards that exceed the minimum needed to preserve public health in general? Are we in agreement that it should be against the law for people to torture and mutilate their own pets?

I would guess yes based on your insistence/assurance that hunters aim to “avoid undue suffering” when they take their prey. That aim, I assume, is both literal and figurative.

And I infer from that that you believe animal do have some rights—to wit, they are not as morally neutral as a stick or a rock or a plant or other insensate thing. And that one of those rights is not to suffer unduly.

The question then becomes what is “undue” suffering? And I don’t want to be facile in answering that question. Anyone who eats meat or eggs or consumes dairy products, as I do, countenances and even sponsors a certain amount of animal suffering—extreme confinement in many cases—as, I suppose, does anyone who avails himself of the benefits from animal testing of consumer products and medicines and medical techniques.

And I would think, I would hope, that most people would do at least a rudimentary suffering-benefit analysis: Is that which is gained here worth the distress that it causes to beings that feel pain and that know fear?

I was wiling for the sake of argument at first to concede the point that hunting is environmentally necessary and aids the cause of wildlife preservation to try to get you to the very nub of my qualms about hunting Is the environment and wildlife talk the reason you hunt, or is it simply a justification for it?

I suspect that the vast majority of sport hunters are not motivated by a desire to control wildlife populations that are out of control; to prevent the death by starvation of deer or to fund the maintenance of natural preserves. I think these are excuses—like the person who says he goes to the gambling boats to aid the economy of struggling Illinois river towns—and the more you change the subject on me the more convinced I become of this.

Hunters get a special thrill out of killing animals. They would hunt or figure out a reason to hunt even if there were no external justification/reason for it. They are not wildlife management specialists and, as we will get into, the fact is that wildlife is often managed for their benefit—to give them more animals to kill. And I’m asking you to explain that mindset to me and others who share my view (letters to the editor of the Tribune ran 30-1 against the safari hunters).

Is hunting really, objectively the best way to manage wildlife populations? Does it cull herds efficiently? What are the alternative? Do the fees that hunters pay cover a significant portion of the costs of their hobby? Even as I anticipate your answers to these questions you will forgive me for not necessarily accepting them at face value.

Since we are quoting others, here is a passage from HUNTING BY HUMANS PERVERSE, TOO EFFICIENT NATURE HAS SOLUTIONS By Peter Muller, the chairman of the Committee to Abolish Sport Hunting– and a board member of Wildlife Watch, Inc:

“Hunters go after healthy big animals for trophies and meat. This leaves the diseased and congenitally weak animals to breed –thereby degrading the gene pool and spreading disease. The hunted species becomes a degenerate and runty imitation of the real species that evolved in the habitat before human hunting. …Hunting is not the cure but the cause of overpopulation and starvation. Luke Dommer, the founder of the Committee to Abolish Sport Hunting, has proposed to several times to various state wildlife agencies that if they are serious about using hunting as a population control tool in areas where the sex ratio is already badly distorted, they should institute a doe-only season. (Taking no bucks but only does until the ratio is again stabilized at 50:50). All agencies have rejected that proposal – thereby giving up any pretense of ecologically motivated sound wildlife management. They quite consciously and openly state that they are in business to provide the maximum number of live targets to hunters each year.

The state agencies encourage the destruction of the naturally evolved ecosystem by encouraging human hunting that balloons the population of the game species at the expense of the non-game species. “

I don’t necessarily take him at face value either given the goal stated in the name of his organization, but it gives us a few starting points to chew on.

Now, to some of your points.

Is it part of our animal instinct to hunt? No doubt. It is also “bred into the fiber” of men to mate with all the fertile young women they come across and generally to take or to consume that which they desire no matter whom it belongs to. Is it “civilized” to deny these natural and instinctive impulses? I ask, quoting you back to yourself. You bet it is. We don’t do it, most of us. It’s virtually the definition of civilization that it entails overcoming one’s animal instincts.

Do most of those who are squeamish about hunting come from urban backgrounds? Sure, just as most Bears fans come from Chicago Tastes, predilections, interests and so on are created by the environments in which we live and are reared. If your point is that one has to have shot and killed animals to have an opinion about whether this is a salubrious and ethical and high-minded thing to do, then I reject that as I would a claim that one has no right to any of a variety of political and social matters without hands-on experience. You, for example, would probably be opposed to legislation allowing a house of prostitution opening in your town and it would be a lame argument against you indeed that you have little standing to object without first hand knowledge of the inside of a bordello.

Perhaps this is just a matter of taste. After all, the ethic of tolerance that I do embrace tells me to live and let live (you’ll pardon the pun) when that’s appropriate. I don’t care for hockey or car racing or hip-hop music either, and perhaps that aversion is roughly equivalent to my aversion to hunting. It takes all kinds to fill the freeways and I should be glad that everyone doesn’t share my hobbies and interestes.

Or perhaps there are larger issues of conservation, of culture and of government and social policy that hunting raises. I’m looking forward to getting into those with you as this rhubarb continues.

To Eric Zorn:

To pursue our sidebar topic briefly, yes there is certainly a difference between tolerating an activity and approving of it, just as there is in tolerating and condemning it! To use your example, say the topic was homosexuality and one were to use the same type of language in describing their attitude toward homosexuals as you use toward hunters?

Although different terminology would probably be used (decadent, sadists would most likely be replaced by common slurs directed at homosexuals), conceptually I see no difference. Would you not justifiably accuse this individual of intolerance and of using “the language of oppression?” Again, it is the selective application, and interpretation, of these values that I find perplexing.

Certainly I am not implying that one needs to have hunted to have an opinion on hunting. Indeed we all have a right to our opinion and disagreement, and admittedly yours has been respectful and “civilized.” However, as one who deals with current and controversial topics as a profession, surely you can appreciate the convictions of an educated, informed observation as opposed to that of an emotional, knee jerk reaction. Again, the interesting and perhaps unique dynamic of this topic is that the more disassociation one has with hunting, the more inclined one is to criticize.

Thus it is not surprising that the majority of your readers share your view. Most I assume are from a similar demographic background as yourself. Also, your safari opinion did run in the Chicago Tribune did it not? Do you think it would have resulted in the same response had it run in Outdoor Life, or the Helena, Montana Daily Record for that matter?

Admittedly, we do share a common belief that animals deserve to be treated humanely and responsibly, the point I believe you were trying to make by “you believe animas do have some rights.” However, I find no ambiguity whatsoever in the “lines” as you put it of the animal rights movement. The animal rights position attempts to exploit the emotional response most people will have to issues such as hunting by evoking the image of “cute” species. Typical of this is a fund raising letter from your own source, the “Committee to Abolish Sport Hunting” which states “Bambi and Yogi the Bear are counting on you.” This is a classic, and prevalent illustration of animal rights strategy – skillfully worded propaganda designed to use one’s emotions to access their wallet!

Whereas the tenets of other ideologies which are based on a sound, rational premise have become somewhat diminished or diluted by extremist elements (feminism comes to mind), there is no mistaking the radical foundation of the animal rights platform. True, their philosophy opposes hunting, as you do. But they do so under the doctrine that any and all killing of animals is morally and ethically wrong. Be it for food, science, clothing, whatever, they make no differentiation. Their position is rooted in the principle that the value of human life is equivalent with that of animal life. As Ingrid Newkirk, cofounder and national director of PETA, is famous for saying, “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”

Also at issue is the interpretation of “rights”. Yes, we have laws intended to protect the treatment of animals. It is also unlawful to say, burn books, deface a masterpiece or desecrate a church. Do these things have “rights”, or are such laws established to ensure that people act responsibly? I would argue that “rights” is a concept, and man is the only species on earth with the intellect to grasp concepts. Yes, I am an advocate of animal welfare, which I consider to be the complete antithesis of animal rights.

It is not surprising that, considering the source you reference, you were provided with such distorted misinformation. Many states, including Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have implemented an anterless only deer program to ensure a proportionate number of does are taken along with bucks. In fact, I am confident that the majority of states with abundant deer populations have indeed utilized such programs as a method to ensure a healthy, balanced herd. I encourage you check the game regulations in any state for confirmation.

Furthermore, the assertion that by harvesting trophy animals only the diseased, weak animals are left to breed thus degrading the gene pool is simply illogical. The existence of trophy animals indicates that the dietary and environmental factors for a strong, healthy population are present. A mature buck with impressive headgear has had many seasons to mate with many does (as a dominant buck will), thus his genealogy is already well established in the population. In fact, by targeting such mature animals, it allows them more seasons to mate and distribute their pedigree among the population.

Organizations such as the Boone & Crocket club, founded by Teddy Roosevelt and the Pope & Young club maintain the universally accepted scoring system and sets the standards for measuring and scoring big game. One need only examine their archives to provide a testimonial to wildlife management, and the importance of hunting as a management tool.

You acknowledge the natural instinct for man to hunt as well as to “mate with all the fertile young women they come across and generally take or consume that which they desire regardless of ownership.” Am I to assume that you regard rape and thievery as natural impulses, not unlike the instinct to hunt to put food on the table? Although I disagree with this association, one critical element in your argument is missing. We have laws that allow for safe, legal hunting. Laws regarding rape and theft are absolute, designed to discourage these acts by severe punishment.

True, regardless of the legality, a civilized individual will not engage in such decadent behavior. But again, the only rationale provided that hunting is somehow unsavory is the opinion of individuals such as yourself. I would also question your claim that a “civilized” individual is one who overcomes his natural and instinctive impulses. If scientists make test-tube babies readily available tomorrow, will there be no more sex the day after?

Your suspicion that most hunters are not motivated by the benefits they provide to conservation is indeed accurate. We hunt because we enjoy it. However, those who do ponder the ethics of hunting are simply not dissuaded by arguments such as yours. We are convinced, taking all data into account that we are not engaging in any decadent, immoral or sadistic activity. Yes, in the course of this activity a healthy animal will die, but so did the one that used to be your steak. Your insistence that hunters “get a special thrill out of killing,” implying that killing is our primary motivation is not supported outside of your own perception.

Most, if not all, recreational hunters will cite some special association with the outdoors and nature that hunting provides. Some have referred to the tradition, both in family and mankind that separates hunting from other outdoor activities. Many skilled and seasoned writers have written eloquently on the essence of hunting. Randall L. Eaton, Ph.D., wrote one particularly moving illustration in which he describes the “spirituality” of hunting:

In anticipation of your subsequent argument “Can’t you achieve all these satisfactions without killing animals?”, let me say this. To focus exclusively on one component of an activity as diverse as hunting is unreasonable. Do you run marathons simply to cross the finish line, or is this but one aspect of a larger essence? In fact, why run in races at all when you can achieve basically the same by running around the block? Is there not a special thrill, and respect for, the competition that running in a race provides?

Furthermore, can you, or anyone for that matter, clearly articulate and convince any and all who are uninitiated as to why you enjoy any activity? Perhaps this is why this argument can’t be won or proven.

For an interesting and pointed perspective on our original subject-matter, that hunters are sadists and motivated by killing, please see this article by author Erich Fromm (2-1-2002)

To Scott Brasier:

The “tolerance” question raises an interesting issue and one that I do think is central to this discussion. Where is the line between my business and everybody’s business? At what point does criticism cross the line into “intolerance.” And when is “intolerance” justified?

My overall position is the threshold should be high before a matter of taste, opinion or personal morality moves into the realm of public policy. You bring up homosexuality, and I feel that sort of personal behavior should be judged irrelevant in matters of law (assuming consenting adults are involved) because no matter how gross or even immoral you or I or someone else may think homosexual acts are, I don’t think they rise to the level of anyone else’s business. Intolerance, to me, however, is the act of expressing views with an aim toward curbing or restricting modes of thought or behavior that are not properly any of one’s concern.

So, to cut to the chase, is it tolerant or intolerant when someone supports laws banning dog fighting? After all, the people who go to and operate the dog fights do so willingly, so what’s the problem? Or cock-fights? Is it right that our laws attempt to force people to treat animals humanely? If your neighbor is starving his dog to death in the cold, is it any of your concern whatsoever? And what about these canned hunts—you know, the ones where you pay a fee and you go into what amounts to a large pen and you blast away until you kill something you can mount on the wall? Is that right or wrong? Many states have outlawed them—not Illinois, last I checked. Did those states go too far?

In your last argument you equated animals with books, artwork and buildings—inanimate objects, possessions, things with absolutely no independent moral worth outside of that assigned to them by their owners. It is not, in fact,, unlawful to burn books, deface masterpieces or desecrate churches, as you said. It is perfectly lawful if you own them. If I owned a Van Gogh and decided to go at it with a knife until it was so much Enron confetti, I could do so in front of a police station at noon. Do you or don’t you think that you ought to be able to do the same to a dog or cat? That the creature has absolutely no moral standing or weight outside of that which the individual at his whim assigns?

Curiously, to me, you don’t seem to. You write , “We do share a common belief that animals deserve to be treated humanely and responsibly.” But, please, engage the issue instead of leaping off into an attack on PETA and those who see no difference between a pig a dog and boy. Those people do not represent my arguments. You say what animals deserve, but you shy from getting into why they deserve it , because the answer requires you to assign them at least slightly more moral weight than, say, a target on a marksmanship range.

It’s not my contention, by the way, that animals have rights equal to human rights or equal moral weight. It’s that when we kill them, cause them pain and exploit them, it ought to be done only in ways that attempt to minimize their suffering and only to benefit humans in a ways that exceed the mere entertainment value (such as it is) of killing them and watching them die. It ought not be gratuitous, in other words.

(As I have been getting hostile e-mail from hunters on one side, I have also been getting outraged letters from vegetarians and strict animal rights advocates who demand that I justify eating meat and wearing leather. All I can say is that I think those who rage against factory farming methods make a good case, but this here rhubarb ain’t about those broader issues and will get bogged down if we start haggling over how big a hen’s cage should be.)

I am glad you admitted, or very nearly did, that hunters are not, in fact, motivated by the desire to enhance conservation efforts, preserve natural habitats (beyond that which is necessary for them to satisfy their thirst for blood) or keep species in their proper balance. Those are the fig leaves of your “sport.” In fact, though, nearly all of the animals that you and your brethren merrily ventilate every year—squirrels, pheasants, rabbits, ducks, elks, foxes, quail, doves –have a perfectly fine natural balance without you.

Isn’t it a fact, Scott, that many pheasants, for instance, are raised exclusively to be released into hunting habitats?

And when it comes to deer, I don’t think there is much disagreement that state wildlife commissions and others that oversee the meta-management of herds do so not with an eye toward keeping their numbers low and gender-ratios balanced, but with an eye toward maximizing game animals.

“Over the past 70 years, hunters (in Pennsylvania) have over-harvested bucks and under-harvested does, which has caused an imbalance in the ratio of bucks in prime breeding age (between 4 and 8 years of age) to does. In fact, in some areas, the ratio between bucks age 3.5 years or older to does age 1.5 years or older is 1-to-22.” Where’d I find that? On this Pennsylvania Game Commission news release last month (thanks to a reader).

Other examples are easy to find. Hunting is not a way to manage the deer population. The deer population is managed in a way to benefit hunting. For hunters in cahoots with the state “wildlife” organizations (that are funded largely through hunting) to jack up and distort the deer population and then come around to tell us we ought to endorse hunting as a way to bring the deer population under control is cynical hypocrisy, a mere prelude to the sadism that follows.

You sure must find killing fun to go to such lengths to justify it. Please do elaborate as I have continually pressed you to do about why killing is so integral to your enjoyment of all this. You say “We hunt because we enjoy it.” But you stop there.

I know it’s fun to be outdoors with friends and family members—I’ve backpacked, I’ve camped. I’ve hiked. I know it’s hard to locate certain animals and it takes certain wiles—I’ve been out with birdwatchers and animal watchers. I know its fun and challenging to try to shoot an hit targets, moving and otherwise—I’ve shot skeet, arrows and so on. So why is the integration of these activities so all-fired important to you? Why must you take the life of an animal to make it more fun? You keep falling back on the tired accusation that my focus on the killing element of hunting is a matter of opinion, but you never really offer a persuasive argument to the contrary.

We all enjoy different activities and it would be tedious indeed if we sat around trying to line out why we have different tastes in recreation, music and even people. You could press me for hours about what I enjoy (or enjoyed, I’m retired) about marathon running—why 26.2 miles and not 25? Why in a race? etc. etc.— but the central difference would hold, that in hunting, we agree, I think, that there is a victim; a third party entity that must suffer and perish in order that the activity be accomplished. You assign as close to zero value to that third party as you can in order still to feel good about yourself and your ethical core, but you have hinted repeatedly that you know it exists.

Will you join me in condemning canned hunts at private, fenced in hunting preserves? Or is that activity OK with you?

What about those shooting contests in which live animals are released as targets and “hunters” compete to see who can kill how many? As those ethical?

Got any problem with the sporting sense of those big, brave safari hunters and others who bait an area with a carcass then just simply hang around until feeding animals come for the bait? Or hunters who do the same kind of baiting with garbage? Are you proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with such “sportsmen?”

What about bow-hunting? The Fund for Animals notes here in one of its hunting fact sheets that: “Bowhunting is one of the cruelest forms of hunting because primitive archery equipment wounds more animals than it kills. Dozens of scientific studies indicate that bowhunting yields more than a 50 percent crippling rate For every animal dragged from the woods, at least one animal is left wounded to suffer — either to bleed to death or to become infested with parasites and diseases. ” (The source is Benke, Adrian. The Bowhunting Alternative. San Antonio: B. Todd Press, 1989).

Gee, sounds like torture to me—wanton, heedless, sadistic torture. Will you join me in calling on bow-hunters to cut it out?

What, in short, are your limits, if any, and why?

To Eric Zorn:

I am glad we can agree that the tolerance issue is relevant and worthy of attention to our topic. Based upon your own definition, one can conclude that you do not consider hunting an activity that is worthy of your tolerance. For the sake of argument, let me agree that the application of tolerance, as we refer to it, is certainly not a ubiquitous concept requiring universal application to any and all situations.

To this point, I find your question “Should we tolerate laws banning dog fighting” rather odd. Isn’t that like asking, “Should we tolerate laws which prevent people from stealing your car?”

It is your opinion that hunting is a demented and perverse activity, to which you are entitled. However it is worth noting that you choose to be intolerant of a legal activity participated in by millions. Using your example, there are those who view homosexuality in the same regard. Is that not also their opinion for which they are also entitled? How do you respond to those who use the same vile language in venting their disgust for homosexuality as you do for hunting? Are they intolerant, yet you are justified?

Furthermore, if the concept of tolerance is as subjective as you imply, to be applied only to issues the beholder deems worthy, does this not trivialize the entire notion which you hold in such high esteem?

You appear to be unyielding in regard to your original judgment, that hunters are bloodthirsty sadists motivated by their lust for killing, and close minded to any other suggestion. To that let me say that my arguments are not intended to persuade you of anything. I doubt that I will change your opinion on this topic any more than you will mine. However it is obvious that you are not seeking enlightenment or insight as to what motivates hunters, but rather some sort of confirmation to your preconceived conclusion.

Still, to appease your obsession, let me offer this. You seem to acknowledge the enjoyment to be gained from the tradition, camaraderie, planning, scouting, and time spent in the woods and fields getting to know animals’ habits and behaviors. Furthermore, there are those who really do enjoy eating their quarry.

As to the “killing” aspect, I solicited the opinion of the most experienced and seasoned hunter I know, a renown plastic surgeon who has hunted all over the world. Interestingly, he points out an observation intimated by many respondents. That the actual moment of pulling the trigger when your quarry is felled is, if anything “anticlimactic”.

Your criticism continues to focus on the death of an animal, which you say, “ought not be gratuitous.” Yet you somehow overlook the fact that as a result of the meat in your freezer and the ornaments hanging in your closet, an animal was also killed! Do you deny the pleasure in consuming a juicy steak, or the satisfaction in wearing your stylish duds?

It is apparent where you “draw the line” as you state. The death of an animal for gratification is acceptable, as long as you do not have to participate in it!

At this point we could spar endlessly on the role in conservation that hunting provides. You will continue to endorse the opinions of fringe groups who share your vendetta against hunting, as I will in that of established, educated conservation professionals. But consider:

By the early 1900’s, the U.S. deer population had fallen to between 300,000 to 500,000 animals, primarily due to over harvesting by market hunters. In 1900, the federal Lacey Act in affect eliminated market hunting, and many states established game commissions which restocked deer and prohibited the hunting of does. Today, the deer population in the U.S. is estimated at around 27 million.

By 1937, the wild turkey was virtually eliminated in the state of Illinois due to its propensity for crop destruction. In 1960 they were reintroduced and in 1970 the first turkey hunting season was held in three southern counties. Twenty-five turkeys were taken. Last year, nearly 12,000 turkeys were taken during the spring turkey season alone.

Given the habitat to thrive and without natural predators, deer populations will reproduce and eventually over populate. There are about 1.5 million deer / vehicle collisions annually, resulting in 29,000 human injuries, including 211 human deaths in 1994 alone. Some have suggested a return to some form of market hunting. Most states have implemented an anterless deer program, such as the “Quality Hunting Ecology” program in which hunters must kill two does before they can shoot a buck.

Since you oppose hunting, what methods would you suggest for “keeping their numbers low and gender-ratios balanced”? Furthermore, if the intent of game management was only to “maximize game animals”, how do you account for the anterless deer programs designed to harvest a proportionate number of does (females, which reproduce you know)!

In fact, in the only credible source you quote the Pennsylvania Game Commission cites the disproportionate number of bucks to does within some areas of the state. You overlook the fact that they do so in a report to promote and encourage their anterless hunt similar to the “Quality Hunting Ecology” program.

Your conspiracy theory is especially intriguing. You claim that state fish & wildlife management institutions are in “cahoots” with hunters, and that populations are managed with the sole purpose to benefit hunting. However, you do not deny or dismiss the success of these programs, and your criticism is confined to their motives.

Again, you appear to be handicapped by questionable sources. Without reservation, I will denounce the data you provide regarding bowhunting as outrageously inaccurate. For a comprehensive and scientific study on bow wounding (one that was accepted as a master’s thesis at the University of West Virginia) please refer to this report. I would challenge you to provide any such data to substantiate your statements on bowhunting.

In fact, bowhunting represents one of the best examples of the true essence of hunting. Few other methods require more practice, preparation and time afield. The fact that bowhunters do so, with a greatly decreased chance of success compared to other methods, provides a compelling argument to your assumption that hunters are motivated primarily by their lust for killing! If we are just in it for the “kill”, why not utilize the most precise and highest percentage means available?

You have also introduced another element into this debate, which was not unexpected. Obviously there are certain forms and techniques of hunting which you find especially distasteful. This would be worthy of engagement if in fact there were instances of hunting which you do find acceptable

I will acknowledge that all hunters do not necessarily endorse all forms of hunting. With hunting, as with any other activity, there is admittedly an unscrupulous element. Not surprisingly, the more money associated with an activity, the more it is prone to unprincipled behavior.

Canned hunts, as they have been labeled by the anti-hunting movement, have developed from the substantial amount of money some are willing to pay to hunt an exotic, non-indigenous species. Although intended to be hunted in their natural habitat, usually requiring days to scout and pursue, some unethical outfitters and hunters have elected to ignore the ethics of fair chase for a quick and profitable acquisition of a trophy. Although this element does not represent the vast majority of those who hunt, they receive the majority of the attention and exploitation by anti-hunting and animal rights groups.

Please explain how you find it curious that as a hunter, I believe animals deserve to be treated with respect and humanity? Does the fact that I will legally hunt a pheasant or a rabbit suggest to you that I will also torture a pet or sanction a dog fight? This association, along with your portrayal of hunters as decadent and immoral is again a testament to the gross prejudice and intolerance of your position.

So again, back to my original question. Why this distorted perception among those with basically no background or experience with hunting and/or wildlife? As I have clarified, those who share your opinion are overwhelmingly more likely to be from an urban background. Again I ask – Why is the element furthest removed from hunting the most likely critics?

Yes, one’s environment will largely determine their tastes and interests, but your environment provides basically no education, insight or exposure to the topic you condemn so fervently. You refuse to engage this issue or offer any explanation other than “people from Chicago are also Bear fans.” Is that really the best you can do?

As I have suggested, perhaps your bias is founded in a cultural prejudice. I’m sure there are those who consider their urban culture to be refined, sophisticated and civilized, and that which is non-urbane (i.e., hunting) to be the opposite?

However before falling prey to stereotypes, consider that there are those on the other side of the argument who would suggest that this sophistication and refinement also implies a softness and a lack of grit, and perhaps those who share your stance are just better equipped for more genteel pursuits! (

To Scott Brasier:

I invite the reader to observe how hard I have tried to get a straight answer out of you about the moral and ethical parameters you place around animal life forms and how persistently you have ducked this question: What are your limits when it comes to hurting and killing animals, and, most importantly, why?

I bring up dog fighting. Your answer is to compare it to car theft. But I’m not asking you what’s legal or not. I’m asking what you say. . I’m not interested in what a world-famous plastic surgeon feels when he kills an animal. I never asserted that hunters think that they are engaged in a sick and morally dubious enterprise. Those who are so engaged are seldom the best gauge of such things.

Hunters love to talk about carnivorous hypocrites, as though there is no difference between eating meat and killing animals for the fun of killing animals. This misses the central point of the gratuity argument: When one participates in or tacitly sanctions the killing of an animal, it must be for a purpose beyond the participation in an event in which the killing of the animal is the central element; when we find it necessary or desirable to kill animals for our purposes we must make every effort to do so in a way that minimizes the fear, the pain and the suffering of the animal.

I don’t object, in other words, to genuine efforts to thin dangerously large herds through hunting as long as the decision to take such steps is made by those who are disinterested in hunting as a revenue source or a recreational thrill and who are genuinely interested in long term population control for the benefit of the animal (and human) populations, in biodiversity and in maximizing public use of public land.

There’s a great deal of evidence that hunting seasons are not efficient ways to manage wildlife populations; that hunters are only “conservationists” in the way that burglars are advocates of new housing development. It’s simply dishonest of you to try to portray hunting as an efficient and sensible means of wildlife control, and the fact that game commissions have had “success” in boosting the population of game animals for hunters to slaughter only proves that they’ve figured out the optimal length for hunting seasons (we need hunting seasons, of course, because left unregulated you wildlife enthusiasts would simply kill all the wildlife; 28 years ago, the Senate Committee on Commerce listed hunting as one of the two greatest causes of species extinction.).

The Fund for Animals quotes New Jersey Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife. An Assessment of Deer Hunting in New Jersey. 1990: “The deer resource has been managed primarily for the purpose of sport hunting .” It quotes the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Strategic Plans for the Management of Arizona’s Game Species, 1992-1996: Their goal is to “increase” pronghorn antelope and bighorn sheep “populations and provide recreational opportunity to as many individuals as possible,” and to “maintain or enhance” cottontail rabbit and quail “hunting opportunity in the state by improving access to existing habitat.”

To manage an animal population in order to justify killing its members at random in the name of population control takes a special kind of cynicism.

But even if everything you say about deer hunting is true, deer hunting remains a small percentage of the annual hunting kill—four percent or so. Most of the animals hunters kill have no need of your “help” in managing their populations and would be just fine if left to their own devices or aided somewhat in their adaptation to encroaching civilization by those genuinely concerned for their long-term welfare. Killed for food? Studies show it’s not a very cost-effective way of putting meat on the table–$20 a pound when you figure in all the expenses. Once again, another “reason” for killing animals becomes an excuse.

Let’s look at the bow-hunting report you pointed us to: “The study was paid for by the Save our Heritage Committee of Archery Manufacturer’s and Merchants Association, and more than 50 bowhunting and conservation organizations.” The synopsis on the web is not well written but it seems to say that roughly 20 percent of bowhunted deer fall into the category in which “the hunter found direct evidence of a hit, such as blood or hair on the arrow or ground, or saw a wound or arrow in the deer” but the deer struggled off. Close to half of those deer, however, are eventually killed by another hunter.

So let’s give full credence to this study, for the heck of it, and ask if we think it’s humane to have a wounding rate of 10 percent. How does this compare to bullet hunting? The study doesn’t say, though I’m told it takes deer 5 to 10 minutes to die after being hit by a bullet. You may know: How far do they usually run after being shot? What percentage do you think are only wounded? The conclusion is a lame endorsement offered by someone in the Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources: “Bowhunting deserves to maintain its place as a legitimate form of recreation, primarily because it’s a sound tool for controlling deer populations.” A sound tool compared to what?

You don’t like the name “canned hunt,” evidently, so I’ll let you choose the terminology; but you don’t like the activity, either, I gather: You refer to unethical … hunters (who) have elected to ignore the ethics of fair chase.” The only fair-chase hunting I’ve ever heard about was on a radio documentary several years ago when Scott Carrier and a few others attempted to hunt pronghorn antelope by literally chasing them down the way primitive men reportedly did (read about it here or listen to the documentary here ) Using modern guns on animals that mean you no harm is not “fair” and it’s not “sport.”

Demanding that you clarify your position and tell me where you draw your ethical boundaries is not “gross prejudice” on my part, and neither whining about intolerance nor questioning my manhood (“softness and a lack of grit”) constitutes a defense of your interest in killing animals for enjoyment.

Your idea seems to be that people from urban backgrounds can’t possibly be objective about hunting because they don’t engage in and haven’t grown up around it. If that’s true, then those who have grown up around hunting and who engage in it can’t possibly be objective about it either. Why is this so interesting and compelling to you? Yes, of course, in urban and even many suburban environments, we tend to grow up with different attitudes toward animals. This may, in fact, make us more objective about hunting than someone with a social, cultural and recreational investment in it.

Think of something you find repellent—let’s say female genital mutilation as practiced in certain primitive cultures to encourage virginity. Then let’s paraphrase your question to me: “Why is the element furthest removed from female genital mutilation the most likely critics?”

Am I engaging in cultural prejudice? Gee, all this got started when I took a whack at those rich Barrington boys who went on an African safari (speaking of which, check out the proud safari bowhunters here and here and here )

and I think it’s a mistake to judge people for who they are as opposed to what they do. My criticism and my challenge is not to rural Americans or small town people, but to hunters.

My conclusions, in the end, are these:

1. That society should not encourage or sanction the killing of animals for “sport.” That when hunting is permitted it should be with wildlife management goals foremost in mind and only when it is deemed the most efficient means for realizing an end.

2. That hunters should be required to use highly effective means for killing animals when they do hunt; sub-optimal methods that result in needlessly high wounding rates are unethical.

3. That all government “conservation” and “wildlife” and “natural resource” agencies be financially divorced from hobby hunting and prohibited from managing species in ways that maximize game animals.

4. That instead of youth recruitment hunts and other methods of indoctrinating children into hunting we teach children to show kindness along with respect to animals, to appreciate biodiversity in natural habitats and to work to alleviate pain and suffering and fear in the world.

5. That hunters are not sadists. I don’t know if this counts as a concession, but I have come to think that Erich Fromm makes a good point in the essay you cited when he notes that “Hunters as a rule do not enjoy the suffering of the animal,” which would be required for a truly sadistic person or act. A sadist deliberately prolongs the suffering and takes pleasure in the suffering of others, and I was wrong—hurtfully inexact — to use a word that implied such feelings in hunters. My sense now from this e-conversation with you and others is that hunters are more or less indifferent to animal suffering – they don’t go out of their way to prolong it, but they’re not particularly concerned with curtailing it, either—and they enjoy, rather, the death of the animal.

This is not sadistic, it is merely depraved.

On that note, along with my thanks for your pointed and passionate contributions and my best wishes to you in all non-killing endeavors, I turn it back to you for the last word.

To Eric Zorn:

Although it is not my intent to politicize this debate, this topic has provided a classic illustration of the hypocrisy many find with your political alignment. Again, the selective application of your highly touted virtues of tolerance and understanding are quite evident here. Your alliance is quick to condemn those who would even subtly disagree with you or use questionable language in regard to issues and/or demographics you defend. Yet you depict the exact element you castigate so passionately for issues that fall outside of your protective cocoon.

It should be noted that, although you attempt to make an association, we are not discussing an illegal and senseless activity such as dog fighting, or an issue as universally vile as genital mutilation, but a legal activity participated in by over seven million Americans. The relevant issue here is not in legal interpretations, but in providing respect and consideration in dealing with our differences. A right you have acknowledged every decent citizen is entitled.

If we are only tolerant with that which we are familiar or deem worthy by some arbitrary standards, have we not stripped tolerance of its true meaning and exchanged it for a most insipid form of prejudice?

Although I was genuinely seeking some enlightenment, I will graciously accept your concession on this issue.

Your question as to the “limits when it comes to hurting and killing animals” is somewhat puzzling and implies that you must judge hunters to be “otherwise” something (besides legal sport hunters), or else the answer would be obvious. I hunt, and you do not! The rules and regulations of hunting define the “limits” as you refer to them. Also, like most hunters, I will not hunt an animal that is either tamed or confined.

Aside from our differing attitudes toward hunting, I think you will be surprised to learn that, rational, thinking individuals fundamentally share a common opinion of animal treatment and welfare. Those who hunt are simply not persuaded by arguments such as yours that hunting is in any way immoral or “depraved”.

Thus the key question is “why” – specifically why the differing opinions of hunting by otherwise rational individuals? Certainly, environment and upbringing play a large part in determining ones tastes and attitudes. Also, there are many who have an overwhelmingly sentimental, emotional perception of animals and wildlife which in many cases precludes them from using sound, rational judgment in dealing with these issues.

As I have stated, people with no real life exposure to nature or wildlife are predisposed to develop a fairy tale image of animals, largely based on their portrayal in books, movies and television. I reference a column you yourself wrote in 1996 about the gorilla who aided in the rescue of a boy who had fallen into her cage at Brookfield zoo. You describe the gorilla as acting with “genuine sensibilities and sensitivities” and portray her as “the living realization of every animal Mom in the history of fairy tales and cartoons.” Now it was certainly a touching story, and it is not my intent to deprive you of this heartwarming fancy. And although harmless and entertaining in itself, attempting to influence policy from this emotional pretense is not only intellectually irresponsible, but also potentially dangerous.

Also, the realization of the death of an animal can be most disturbing to those with little or no real life exposure. My observation is that hunters have, at some point, learned to overcome and rationalize this element. To claim that we enjoy it is absurd – we simply can deal it in a sensible manner without the emotional queasiness that influences hunting’s opposition. Death is a fact of life, especially in dealing with agriculture and wildlife. In fact, a very strong argument can be made that in terms of overall humaneness, a quick death at the hands of a skilled hunter beats a life of confinement and any death scenes the livestock industry, or Mother Nature can offer

Those who accept hunting basically find arguments such as yours based upon duties supposedly stemming from man’s “civility”, to be biologically naive. We find no reason to assume that man’s unique role as a moral agent should prohibit him from occupying his mostly evolution-determined niche as an omnivore. Perhaps our differences can be attributed to just how far apart we are in dealing with our role in one of the most fundamental processes of life, the food chain!

To this point, I find most interesting your claim that those with no exposure, education or insight are more qualified to offer opinions on this topic since, as you profess, they are more objective. Is it really your contention that those who learn about wildlife from movies, TV and storybooks have a clearer understanding of these issues than those with actual, real life exposure and experience? If so, where then do you draw the line between ignorance and objectivity?

Though you would have the reader believe otherwise, regulated, legal hunting is not a threat to wildlife and conservation efforts. The main problem confronting wildlife today is the encroachment upon and reduction of their natural habitat. This requires conservation and wildlife agencies to manage and maintain these diminishing resources with maximum skill and precision to assure the healthy proliferation of wildlife. Examine the accomplishments and objectives of wildlife agencies such as the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and you will discover their goals in providing for a healthy, natural and diverse ecosystem. This stewardship provides for and benefits not just game animals, but all species of plants and wildlife.

Though you claim the primary objective of wildlife agencies is to “jack up game species” (how you believe they do that I’d like to know), conservation departments as well as organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever spend millions annually on the acquisition and preservation of habitat. Do conservation agencies have a vested interest in hunting? You bet! They are largely funded by sportsmen licenses, permits, stamps, and through the Pittman-Roberson act of 1937 (which allocates a percentage of all firearm and archery related sales to state run conservation programs). Hunting is financially and ecologically vital to wildlife management. Suggesting that wildlife management agencies should be divorced from hunting is simply naive, especially when no practical alternatives are offered. This is the real danger in your position, that you are willing to risk environmental disaster based simply on your distaste for hunting.

Hunting is ecologically sound and contributes greatly to conservation. These are the effects of hunting, but it is not why we hunt. We hunt because we enjoy it, because of the built in, preprogrammed satisfactions and inherited emotional rewards that hunting provides.

Your arguments continue to rely on the animal rights platform, which you claim “does not represent you position.” Yet you constantly reference such sources when their data and/or opinions favor your own. To the point, organizations such as the Fund for Animals (the source of your “great deal of evidence”), are not interested in animal welfare, but in promoting their political agenda and vendetta against hunting. As their mission statement illustrates, their efforts, like the millions they spend each year, are not devoted to aiding wildlife through tangible and pragmatic efforts such as habitat acquisition, carrying capacity or even winter feed but to legislation, litigation and education in forwarding their extremist agenda.

The Fund for Animals has close ties with PETA, and are an equally radical organization who oppose animal research, zoos, rodeos, etc. and encourage a lifestyle which excludes any and all animal products as their Activism Fact Sheet indicates.

As testimony to their fanatical, twisted viewpoint, I challenge the report you referenced which attempts to associate recent societal problems with exposure to hunting. This is not only illogical, but represents an extreme and irresponsible position that I suspect you would reconsider with clear and rational reflection.

As kids have been exposed to hunting for generations, it is absurd to suggest that only recently has this exposure manifested into some demented behavior. Furthermore, no studies have shown that people who engage in sport hunting are more likely to commit violent crimes or display excessive aggression than are nonhunters.

The tradition of orienting our children to hunting is as old as hunting itself. I was fortunate enough to be schooled at the side of my grandfather, whose knowledge of hunting and the outdoors was extraordinary. Through him I was taught not only proper technique, but respect and reverence for our natural resources as well as the safe and proper handling of firearms.

It is probably difficult for the uninitiated to understand, but there is a special intrinsic enrichment that that this passage provides. Perhaps the spirituality many refer to is due to this unique and special association with nature, family and mankind that hunting provides. This fundamental lesson of life provides and excellent foundation for character and responsibility that many, like myself, feel very fortunate to have been afforded.

Although we were not able to address in detail many of the controversial issues that were brought up, I would like to reference this excellent series of articles by freelance writer Don H. Meriedith in which he confronts “Hunting’s Image” by addressing such issues as safari’s, wounding, baiting and canned hunts. I believe his position on these issues represents that of the majority of hunters.

I’d like to thank you for this opportunity and commend you on using your position and exposure in providing a format for an opposing point of view. (April 1, 2002)