Preamble regarding Cecil the lion;

The saddest thing about the whole sordid affair is not a hunter with highly questionable ethics, who reportedly has been on the wrong side of game laws before. It is not an outfitter willing to bend and break the law, nor a method of hunting (baiting) which is in the 21st century of debatable legitimacy. It isn’t the extent to which the conversation has centered on one of the least relevant aspects of a country which has in the last 15 years been a playground for the messiest, nastiest sides of the post-colonial global South.  It isn’t even the ways various businesses and other entities have used the furor to launch publicity campaigns whose contents will make no substantive difference whatsoever.

The saddest thing about Cecil the lion is the way in which it has epitomized the rise of the keyboard vigilante.  People with internet connections and inadequate leisure-time hobbies have taken a sudden and incomplete interest in something, done enough to make a real, negative difference in a few lives, and will shortly disappear without making any lasting or substantive impact.

They should all be ashamed of themselves.

IMG_1326Col Allison as pictured on the back dust jacket of his 1979 “The Trophy Hunters”, an anthology of hunting stories from around the globe.  Blued metal, ebony stock accents, plaid trousers, and porro prisms may have all gone mostly extinct in the 35 years since, but the issues the book (unintentionally) raises are as relevant as ever.

The Cecil incident has been something of a person nuisance in that I was obliged to explain the nuances of trophy hunting to my non-hunting colleagues, who are primarily, and as one would expect at a social services non-profit, liberals in the classical sense (as indeed am I).  Fortunately they are also smart folks and pretty much without exception thoughtful and open to new ideas.  Which is why I was able to explain that while the pure trophy hunter may be a robust stereotype, and one probably founded on a historical example, it would be exceedingly hard to find a living, breathing, perfect example.  Almost every hunter is a trophy hunter, and almost every hunter is a meat hunter.  Insofar as these two amorphous categories can encompass all hunting, every hunt and every particular hunt exists on a continuum between two poles.

IMG_1327The cover of said book, which I fortuitously found at a used book sale for 80 cents.  Interesting that with all the exotics (lion, cape buffalo, tahr, polar bear) discussed within a mule deer made the cover.

To stereotype for the sake of manageabley conversation, a trophy hunter is one who is interested only in a part of the animal killed (typically the head) as a token of the adventure gone past.  A meat hunter is one who wants to fill the freezer with wild game.  Walter Palmer hunting lions is a reasonable facsimile of the former, while the humble midwestern farmer who only hunts her or his own farm and shoots the first legal whitetails who come into range can represent the later.

As with most or all stereotypes, it takes little more than 10 seconds of investigation before the integrity and simplicity of the distinctions begin to break down.  In bowhunting for a lion I assume Mr. Palmer was not only interested in having the lion head, the trophy, itself, but in having the experience of having hunted lions with a bow, which even over bait and at night requires getting close to a large apex predator with a weapon conspicuously lacking in knock down power.  The trophy on the wall would be meaningless without the trophy experience behind it.  In this way a taxidermy-ed head is no different than a summit photo.

The real complicating factor is that I doubt any, any meat hunter is not also a trophy hunter in some way.  Anyone who pursues an activity with passion relishes eventual mastery with no small amount of nostalgia, and wishes to hold on to the hard won intimacy and at the same time bring back the challenge and novelty of the early days by doing the loved pursuit in a new place and in a new way.  So to it is with hunting, and our venison-seeking farmer may begin to pursue rarer (bigger) versions of the same critter, to hunt with a more demanding weapon, and/or pursue new animals in new places.  Even if the animals thus killed are far from the strictly sized-based definition of trophy record books, they are trophies nonetheless because of the central value of the experience and the way it was cultivated.  Again, no different than summit photos (though these photos are in winter, with skis, etc).

IMG_1330My New Zealand trophy wall from this hunt back in January.  Worthy of a central display in our apartment not only because of the dead animals, but because of the way I did the hunt and who was with me.

Allison’s book does provide a good example of the sort of trophy hunting most think of when they condemn the practice, and which might help hunting and hunters use the Cecil affair to make a better future for what Hemingway called one of the only true sports.

Roy Weatherby, famous rifle pioneer, contributed a story of polar bear hunting in Alaska, shortly before the practice was banned in the United States.  Weatherby and his party are guided out ofthe Kotzebue, Alaska area and hunt in late winter out of planes.  They spot bears from the air, land as close as possible, stalk, and shoot.  Weatherby details wounding a bear with a hasty shot, being unable to administer a good followup shot (grease lubricating the power ring on his scope was frozen), and chasing the bear down via multiple plane flights before it is killed.  He intimates, but does not explicitly state, that they left the carcass on the sea ice after taking hide and skull.

IMG_1328A fair, representative passage from Weatherby’s story.

The account is nauseating.  Non-hunters and folks how haven’t gotten too deep into hunting will object to no meat being used, and while there’s still a very good reason for game waste laws and any hunter who doesn’t eat lots of game should be regarded as suspect, I don’t think the “waste” argument holds as much water as it is traditionally given credit for.  To this day Alaska does not require that any meat from either black or Grizzly bears be taken from the field, and I am quite sure that the carcass of Mr. Weatherby’s bear was put to good use by birds, foxes, wolves, and other bears.  Instead, Weatherby was being an unethical hunter because he relied too heavily on technology and did not sufficiently immerse himself in the natural world and thus the hunt itself.

In talking with my non-hunting colleagues at work two curious factors always come up.  First, the moral right to hunt for meat is inviolate and unquestionable.  Second, they do not appreciate the extent to which hunting diverges in fundamental ways from other, “normal” outdoor activities such as hiking and backpacking. The world is shrinking, for a variety of reasons.   I try to say this with as little judgement as possible; hunting has for many people and for a long time not been an immersive pursuit.  And not just because midwestern deer don’t live within five hundred miles of Wilderness; Weatherby had the opportunity to take a trip into one of the deepest wildernesses left on earth to hunt polar bear, but instead choose to hunt in a way which skipped around the edges to the greatest extent possible, only dipping in as much as was absolutely necessary.  I think a lot of the hostility engendered by “trophy hunting” like Palmer’s lion hunt and Weatherby’s bear hunt comes down to the shallow, exploitive approach many people correctly intuit at their core.

If hunters can learn anything from the Cecil affair, it is that they need to hold each other to a higher standard.  Within hunting circles there’s a frequent refrain that criticism against the methods, styles, and choices of other hunters is beyond the pale, that all hunters need to band together due to the extent that hunting as such and the hunting lifestyle is under fire.  I think it would be better to look at the issue exactly backwards.  Hunting and hunters will get stronger and get more respect once house is cleaned.  20 years ago rock climbing did so, and marginalized those who viewed chipping and altering holds on routes as acceptable practice.  Today that debate has long been over, and anyone who is revealed as a chipper is publicly excoriated and marginalized.  A similar process going on today will hopefully result in helicopter accessed backcountry skiing being viewed as not-acceptable in most of the lower 48.  Hunters need to have more overt, explicit discussion of what is acceptable, one which makes only tangential reference to actual game laws and very direct reference to the long term impacts of ethical choices, both to hunters and to non-hunters.

What those conclusions might be is another subject for another time, but the bunker mentality which has grown so quickly in the wake of the Cecil affair is hardly more helpful than the uninformed criticism which led to graffiti on Mr. Palmer’s garage door.