By Wallace Kaufman
How much hunters cherish killing is demonstrated by their own boasts of how much they spend on the pleasure. Pleasure is the operative word since I’ve heard no claims of charitable expenses in the pursuit of duty. The fact that trophy hunters and many others can’t convincingly explain why they spend so much and take so much pleasure in killing innocent animals does not suggest that they are bad or cruel or inhumane, only that the behavior has roots in the evolution of predators and humans in particular. Those who rationalize killing wildlife as an economic and humane means of preservation have begun to hide that deeper truth of human nature in socially acceptable language.
Peter Flack, a South African hunter and well-reasoned defender of trophy and sport hunting, nevertheless feels obliged to cover up. “The fastest growing segment of hunters in North America, which has some 13.4 million hunters growing at 3.4 percent per annum, are young women and urban men in their late twenties and early thirties like Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook CEO, who want to take responsibility for the protein their families eat.” It’s not the protein they are after but a fictional avatar.
Zuckerberg, to his credit, believes he should eat more meat and that he should kill it himself, but feeding himself would not require shooting a bison, and hunting wild boar with a bow is about more than meat.
The word killing and the means of killing—archery or bullets usually—are now called “harvesting.” The hunting web site “Wide Open Spaces” illustrates the euphemism while also revealing the underlying psychology: “Deer Taxidermy Options: 6 Different Ways to Memorialize Your Harvest.”
What is this memorialized “harvest”? It’s the prowess, the bragging rights of the hunter. It’s about the hunter, not about the animal or participation in a harvest necessary to feed the world or a family. Putting the head of a buffalo on a Facebook office wall or a lion or giraffe on the den wall shares in the triumphalism of putting the heads of one’s human enemies on posts at the city gates or in the tribal trophy room.
Evolutionary psychologists have been engaged in interesting work on hunting. This literature, even at this early state, is already far too large to summarize. Psychologists and anthropologists note that hunter-gatherers, especially men, did and do usually hunt the larger animals. Zuckerberg is not hunting rabbits or even deer as far as the record shows. Very likely this preference for large animals caused the extinction of the megafauna on all continents or, as environmentalists like to say, it was a tipping point.
Trophy hunting found its place in early civilizations as a symbol of ancient virile virtues that served hunting success. In the Assyrian empire of the Middle East some 3,000 years ago we have kings boasting of killing wild bulls, lions, elephants, and other large animals. Assyrian texts also reveal that royalty kept captive animals for sport killing.
Think about the phrase “game hunting” or “game animal.” The word game originates in Old English and Germanic, meaning amusement, joy, and merry making.
Suffice to say that none of the research on motivation detects helping the local poor or improving the stock of wild animals. Those results may provide some validation for hunting, but in light of alternatives and the fact that most humans are no longer hunters of any kind, these reasons are rationalizations for a more primitive behavior, not the cause of the behavior.
We are all descended from hunter-gatherers, but civilization has distinguished our hunting from the hunting of other predators. Plenty of species hunt for play, sport, or at least practice. Few animals eat all of a big kill. Humans may be the gentlest of hunters—the most efficient, their ideal being a “clean kill.” Nevertheless, a primeval need is left in humans who want to test the power to dominate, to hunt, and to be the arbiters of life and death. For many hunters, the bigger the animal, the more power it suggests. Many small animals are far more difficult to stalk and kill than big mammals, but how many rabbit and weasel heads do we see on a wall or even stuffed whole? And how often do we see a large predator head not in its usual peaceful expression, but mouth open, lips drawn back in a snarl that reveals its teeth? And at Facebook the bison head is reported to wear a cap and other ornaments.
Killing a large and awesome animal, dangerous animal, a trophy animal, has always satisfied a human need for status. Hunting foxes with horses and racoons, bears, and cougars with dogs (now banned in many places) unites humans and domesticated horses and wolves to terrorize the wild into submission. Bow hunting is certainly not about efficiently and humanely supplying protein or population control. Indigenous and pre-literate legend and myth around the world are full of pride in the conquests of hunters. Even non-hunters who abhor such conquest idealize indigenous hunter-gatherers and their bravery.
As our knowledge of animal psychology advances, opinion against hunting spreads rapidly. Social media are full of trophy hunt shaming. Smiling and triumphant hunter Tess Talley, posing with her huge and dead giraffe seems almost Old Testament in her justification: “They are put here for us.” [To be continued.]
Photo credit: Wallace Kaufman.
 Travis Smola, “Deer Taxidermy Optinos: 6 Different ways to Memorialize Your Harvest.” Wide Open Spaces.