Sunday, October 17, 2010

A hunting competition without flaw?

Hunting competitions can be fraught with risk: If you reward those who kill the biggest animals, you risk making it appear that the hunting is all about racks. If you reward those who kill the most animals, you risk making it appear that we'll kill way more than we can eat just to rack up numbers.

But I read a story in yesterday's New York Times about a hunting competition that seems to be absolutely perfect.

From the headline, "A Kind of Hunt That Even Deer Can Get Behind," I thought it might be a video game competition, or one that traded guns for cameras, both of which make me groan. (Nothing against wildlife photography; it's just not a meaningful substitute for hunting for me.)

But this competition - the Whitetail Pro Series, which will air on the Outdoor Channel in 2011 - focuses primarily on what I think is the most important aspect of hunting: making a clean kill. Read more...
In this contest, hunters head out each day with bolt-action 20 gauge shotguns, five blank shells and $1,200 digital scopes mounted on their guns. When they spot their deer, they hit a button to start recording and have 10 seconds to make the shot.

The judging for this contest involves taking the memory card out of the scope and reviewing all the shots frame-by-frame to see who made the cleanest shots. Hunters also earn points based on the age of deer they "shoot" - shooting a wary mature doe is worth more than shooting a goofy young buck.

Says the story:

The main goal of the series, according to Greg Koch, the founder of the group, is to reward hunters who consistently take clean shots on mature deer.

“In most states, you can kill one deer per season, and that hampers your ability to prove your skills,” Koch, 53, said.

So, what's not to love about this? It rewards all the right behaviors and skills without even remotely cheapening the lives of the animals we hunt by turning them into mere points on a scoreboard.

The Times story compares it with Bassmaster catch-and-release fishing competitions, but I'd say the Whitetail Pro Series sounds superior because the animal is subjected to less trauma for the sake of competition. The sound of gunfire can't possibly be worse than being reeled in with a hook through your lip.

What I really love about it is the emphasis on values that I think most hunters hold (at least the ones I know), but that aren't always emphasized on hunting TV.

One of the competitors - Todd Hamilton of Oswego, Illinois - really hit the nail on the head with this quote in the Times story: “That’s been my big pet peeve lately: people are almost accepting wounding. ... I was raised that when we butchered or slaughtered something, it goes fast and it’s quick, and that should be our goal, not to wound anything."

I'd love to see a lot more of this mentality rewarded and highlighted in hunting television shows. Our kids need to know that our entire community believes ethical and clean shots are more important than getting the biggest rack at any cost.

And so do the non-hunters, because they'll judge us by our TV shows, whether they accurately reflect our values or not.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010


David Demola said...

Oh how cool! I can learn how to hunt properly without actually hunting! I've never seen a hunting show that actually puts you at the scope's view...I might actually routinely watch this :)

hodgeman said...

I can't say how I feel about this... I guess I'll have to catch an episode to find out.

Do agree that the current crop of horn porn producers leave a lot to be desired when it comes to representing hunting to the masses.

Unfortunately good fieldcraft and properly executed hunting would make for boring TV. As a spectator sport, hunting is pretty hard to watch.

Holly Heyser said...

LOL, you have a point, Hodgeman. I suppose it wouldn't hurt for me to hold off on declaring perfection until I see it.

But at least it doesn't sound like it's going to have, say, an arrogant moron host who literally straddles his prey for closing remarks of the show. Nope, not a big fan of that.

And David, you make an interesting point, too.

The NYT story goes on about the value of these scopes, and their use during the off-season. But it occurs to me that someone who wants to know how s/he'll perform under that incredible pressure would get a chance to see, vividly, before trying with a live round.

I don't know how many people would invest that effort only to fire a test shot. But if my first shot at a big game animal had been taken with something like this, I would'd've discovered two key flaws in my shooting without wounding an animal in the process.

And in case no one feels like following that link and reading the whole sordid story: I gutshot a pig that was quartering forward, and ended up shattering his left femur. With my guide's help, I had him down within five or ten minutes, so it wasn't as bad as it could've been. But wow, a practice shot would've been nice.

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

I liked that story, too. Though I'm not into competitions myself, the emphasis here couldn't be better: training to make a clean kill, without harming animals in the process.

For that matter, you could even argue that these hunters are training the deer, too, making them better at avoiding hunters.

Holly Heyser said...

That thought had occurred to me as well, though it could go both ways - such an encounter could also teach a deer that having a hunter fire a gun at you doesn't hurt you. But if deer are anything like ducks, being shot at will make them more wary, not less.

Matt Mullenix said...

>>"So, what's not to love about this?"

I'm concerned (bear with me) that nothing dies. It's a dangerous conceit, always, for hunting to deny itself, avoid or explain away, the necessary killing.

But this is not hunting; it's marksmanship, right? A vital ancillary skill--absolutely--but one that already has excellent competitive formats available, with no need to harm animals (or in this case to harass them, however harmlessly, with a shotgun blast).

Competition in hunting is simply odious, no matter how you slice it. It's an intrusion of self-centered hubris into a relationship that is absolutely not 1-sided. The relationship between predator and prey is too serious for that, the stakes are too high.

There is only one reason this concept has appeal as television entertainment (a considerable indictment all by itself) is that it promises slow motion footage of a man staking or waiting in ambush of a large animal that will soon be startled by gunshot and shown in full flight. Those are exciting images, wholly acceptable and enjoyable in the context of an actual hunt, and as appreciated individually or in shared direct experience. They are in large part what draw millions to hunting.

But these images and sensations are exploited here for a sedentary mass audience. The same (and worse) of course can be said of existing hunting shows.

Holly, this is just more of the same. Far better to hunt for real (flawed tho it often is), and to share real hunting with others, than to try to make it into something it isn't.

Holly Heyser said...

All points well taken, but I'm not prepared write off competition in its entirety - it's way too much a part of what we are as humans.

It's also, for practical purposes, utterly inescapable in reality television. Need drama? Make it a contest.

So given that hunting TV is not going away, and competitive reality shows are the predominant genre of TV, I have to salute competitions that emphasize good values.

Huntress Livy said...

As long as it celebrates the 'hunt' and the quick clean kill on an old animal as well as the hunter utilizing and appreciating everything that animal provides(especially the meat), I think a hunting competition is okay. Additionally, if the hunter is working hard to hunt a free-range area using the tools God made (brush/dead tree branches to build a blind) and the stealth the hunter has aquired over time, then that'll only exhibit what a hunter will do to put meat on his table.

Phillip said...

Philosophically, I tend to lean in Matt's direction. Selling the idea of bloodless hunting seems to be a dangerous road of deception (or denial).

On the other hand, it's a heck of a lot better than some of the other yo-yo ideas I've seen out there... from LiveHunt shooting via Internet to the World Hunting Association's hunting with dart guns or paintballs.

I suppose there are some redeemable ideas behind the program, though, so I'll hold final judgement until I've seen what I'm talking about. It could, possibly, not suck.

Holly Heyser said...

Livy, the article didn't mention anything about meat - particularly since they aren't killing - but it did mention that no baiting is allowed.

Phillip, such a ringing pre-endorsement! ;-) This may be just semantics, but I didn't read this as bloodless hunting; I read it as a skills competition that doesn't use live animals as footballs. I'm pretty sure there's nothing here to suggest this as an alternative to hunting. In fact, the founder sees the use of these scopes in particular as a pre-season prelude to actual hunting.

The "bloodless hunt" image is actually one of the things that made me groan when I first saw the headline.

hodgeman said...

I'm mulling this over a little more in the ole noggin'.

Got to say the idea of this as a competition is a bit distasteful even though hunters have competed for millenia. The reward has generally been a well fed clan and reknown as an outdoorsman amongst the tribe at large.

I think the ideal of hunting as a "sport" wholly unrelated to human survival is kinda turning me off with this (in the same vein as other hunting shows).

The best portrayal I've seen of televised hunting has been "Out of Alaska" or some such where the participants hiked out of the wilderness- killing and eating critters along the way. No prize or million dollar reward- making it out was the reward.

Holly Heyser said...

That Alaska show sounds fantastic! I'll have to look out for it.

Hank and I are big fans of On Your Own Adventures, because it shows ordinary guys hunting the way most of us do - public lands (or CRP), no guides. It's pretty hard to find that kind of reality on TV.

Galen Geer said...

I cannot agree and stand opposed to this on the basis of the slippery slope argument.
It has long been an argument of those who oppose hunting that if it is the "hunt" and "kill" that is the purpose of the hunt then there is no reason to kill the animal and substitutes can be provided. In Africa I watched hunts with paint guns be developed and actually attract "hunters" but the numbers quickly fell off creating new problems.
I know that some people want to stand on Ortega's argument of the "kill" and are want to believe that the kill can be represented by the action of the "data/digital kill" eliminating the need to have the actual kill. Can you see yourself taking that shotgun into the marsh and killing your ducks with a digital gun?
Even as I type this NPR just broadcast a story about efforts to eliminate hunting in North Dakota, prompting locals form an organization to preserve ND hunting.
No, we are much better off maintaining hunting as the individual "blood sport" as it is, even with its flaws. I don't believe we can actually open the door to competitive hunting other than the scoring system of P&Y, B&CC, SCI and the European models. These recognize the animal and while the hunter is recognized he plays a secondary role. Therefore the digital hunt is the first step on a dangerous slippery slope. It is motivated by greed alone and not for the welfare of the wildlife or hunting.
PS, I wrote this on the fly, without actually editing my thoughts. I hope it is readable. :) glg

SimplyOutdoors said...


I might have to watch for curiosity's sake, but I'm not a big fan of the whole idea.

I realize that many shows, especially the "horn porn" variety, are not very appealing, and not very close to what real hunting is all about, but I just do not like the direction this is going.

It's digital hunting, and it tends to take away from a real, true part of hunting - the kill.

I will have to check it out, though. Once I watch an episode, I might change my mind, and decide that it's better than watching an average "horn porn" episode.

We'll see.

Holly Heyser said...

Galen, I don't know that I can argue with you properly without bourbon in hand and Rosie in my lap, ready to bite your toes if you get too feisty, but I'll give it a try:

I don't think the point of this show is bloodless "kill" - I think the point is to test actual hunters on a couple key hunting skills without turning animals into gamepieces. I also don't think the point of the show is to encourage people to stop hunting with live rounds and start hunting with digital scopes and blanks. To suggest that "we are much better off maintaining hunting as the individual 'blood sport'" is to present a false choice, because this show doesn't seek to end the "blood" portion of the (HATE this word) "sport."

And you know the answer to your question: No way in hell would I replace hunting ducks with this game, because duck hunting is not a game to me. None of my hunting is a game, despite my ultra-Dutch-Virgo obsession with keeping track of my efficacy in the field. Hunting is a connection to my roots as a human and a means of putting food on my table.

And good lord, I think the scoring systems you reference are the sources of as much damage to hunting as they are benefit. Hunting for a trophy ranks the lowest among all hunting motivations in public opinion polls, and HSUS cleverly uses that against us at every turn.

But other than that, I really liked your comment. ;-) (Now you're definitely going to have to come out here to dish this back at me in person.)

Simply, like you, I really do need to reserve some judgment until I actually see the show. But I'm pretty sure that I will always appreciate any hunting competition that emphasizes values that are important to us.

And I would be remiss if I didn't mention here that I just wrote a story for the Sacramento Bee about a local woman who's hosting a outdoor competition show on Versus that also tries to get at these good values. Though my story focused more on the woman than the show, the producer told me how important it was to him that the contest was based on conservation knowledge and outdoor skills, not just tallying up the biggest numbers or most rack-inches.

And of course I'll keep waiting for some non-competition hunting shows that really capture the essence of what we do, and don't turn hunting into a grotesque circus. But that's another blog post.

gary said...

My first thoughts would put me in the Matt and Phillip camp.

There may be some educational value here, but entertainment value would be really lacking. I think I'd rather watch a spider crawl across the ceiling of my tent. The only competition in hunting I'm concerned about is between myself and my prey.

Alan said...

I think this format will be very cool. It is difficult to master the skills of hunting. It takes lots of time in the field and tons of patience.

This approach could open the door to new hunters not yet interested in the harvesting aspect. It could expand interest in the outdoors and teach the tools of pursuit, both which could lead up to harvesting. Allowing hunters to improve both their shooting and hunting skills in a real environment is fantastic. There is no substitute for practice at a range with your weapon, but giving hunters a live fire practice opportunity in the field is huge. You must deal with all the adrenaline and tension that comes with preparing to actually kill an animal. That experience goes a long way when it comes time to make the clean kill. I can't wait to see it.

I live in a house with both hunters and non-hunters. They (non-hunters) complain about the killing on TV and I always tell them it is best to have a one shot one kill mentality. I will be interested to see the response to this format from them as well as other non-hunters. Great stuff!!

Holly Heyser said...

Gary, if they treat it like most hunting shows, 95 percent of the footage will be just as entertaining as other hunting shows, because the guys have to get a deer in their sights. (I hope that's what they're doing - it would be really boring just to watch judges review 10-second clips.) Now, whether you find that entertaining is a separate question.

Alan, you are my new BFF! LOL. Seriously, I do agree that these scopes provide an opportunity for a test "kill" that I would've taken advantage of, had it been available before my first big game hunt. I had great trepidation, and this test-drive would've given me a little more confidence (or sent me back to the range).

I don't know that this show will placate anyone who's uneasy with hunting. But I do think people who dislike competition killing may find this more acceptable.

I would never want to see this replace killing on TV hunting shows - I do believe that authenticity matters (and quite honestly, I want America to see where meat comes from - the more honestly we portray it, the better). But for a hunting competition show, I like it.

Galen Geer said...

I finished the review just in time to have the computer start barfing every few minutes. I'll counter later.
Buster cut himself on his neck so I'm dealing with that, too.

Matt Mullenix said...

"I would never want to see this replace killing on TV hunting shows - I do believe that authenticity matters"

For authenticity it is awfully hard to beat the thing itself. I know you agree with that.

I think we might disagree about the value of TV hunting shows---particularly at the nexus of killshot/product-placement, which seems to me a variation of the "sex sells" formula. (Not that there's anything wrong with sex, or selling, or killshots, in my opinion. It's just such an expedient formula; and expedience in hunting is absolutely unauthentic, and maybe unwise.)

And yet I have a bunch of hawking videos on my bookshelf. These are pretty high in production value now, and they can be very entertaining. All the chases and catches you can squeeze into 60 minutes, and usually with a good soundtrack.

I wonder if there could possibly be a flawless formula for a hunting show, one that combines not just the expedient pleasures of hunting but the entire gestalt of family time, hunting prep, outdoor appreciation, cooking, eating, thinking, reading, missing home from hunting camp (and missing hunt camp at home)?

We should build this show right here, Holly! What do you say?

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

It's hard for me to see anything wrong here. The arguments against seem to be about the kind of attitude this will engender, and what will ensue from that attitude -- the slippery slope. But I think an emphasis on clean kills will -- and maybe I'm too literal -- promote an emphasis on clean kills. Besides, I think I could learn a lot from watching.

Holly Heyser said...

Tamar, yay, we agree! It's been a while! ;-)

Matt, I think a lot of hunting TV totally sucks, and the product placement is irritating as hell. And duck hunting TV tends to irk me the most because of the incessant kill shots - it's just unseemly, if that makes any sense. (Which is why I like Duck Commander - they space out the kill shots with other non-hunting "reality" segments.)

But yes, we watch hunting TV, and we hope to learn, and sometimes we just enjoy watching someone doing what we enjoy, or making a great shot, or - more rarely - suffering a mistake we've also made.

I doubt that any of us has the ability to remake all of hunting TV in the way we'd like it to be. I chime in with blog posts like these because I really do like to show the TV world that there's a appreciative market for shows that don't automatically take the most tawdry route. I think praising progress is important.

Matt Mullenix said...

I guess I never saw a dead horse I didn't want to beat. I'll get off your case now, Holly. :-) Praising progress is important, I agree!

Holly Heyser said...

Matt, I really think you need to talk to someone about your equine hostility problem. Help is available!

That or go to France and start eating them. Better eaten than beaten.

Matt Mullenix said...

Is it cruel to beat a dead horse? A question for your readers!

They may need those horses in France when the public transport system totally implodes.

Holly Heyser said...

Oh, do they still work in France? I thought they were down to a one-day work week, thereby limiting their public transportation needs.

Galen Geer said...

Hi Holly,
Rosie is asleep behind me (which probably exacerbates my back problems).
Did you get the link to the Review? I sent the link out.
Humm. Let me comment. I, too, dislike the word “sport” when describing hunting, however, if we return to the roots of hunting outside of subsistence, from the early Greeks, Persians and Romans, it is referred to as a sport. The interesting thing is (that I see) is that we have lost much of the reverence for the animal’s life that was common BCE. I think this is part of our problem—lost reverence. Recapture the reverence and I do think that “sport” can be returned into the equation.
Pacelle and HSUS does attempt to use the scoring system against hunting and for many, many years I was firmly in your camp and was totally opposed to the scoring systems and it was not until I spent some time in the field, with wildlife biologist (big game specialists who were field biologists when the wimpy bunny-hugger biologists invading state and federal agencies were still drooling over their mother’s, well you get the idea.) anyway, they demonstrated time and time again that in natural selection by the time the big old boys were true trophies their contribution to the gene pool was complete, but they continued to dominate the younger males even though they were often not able to service all the females in the harem. So, removal of the old buy actually improves the gene pool.
HOWEVER! And this is vitally true. None of the above is true when the herd (or herds) is (are) being genetically micro managed for the trophy animals, such as is common on many fenced operations. I steadfastly remain opposed to the entry of any genetically altered (managed) trophy being scored for these books. If these hunters want huge racks for their den, fine, but not with a trophy score. The majority of those deer being hunted on Saturday morning programs are the products of this micro genetics. The organization, Quality Deer Management, is one that I have issues with because of the promotion (as I see it) of the artificial genetic management. When they (QDM) stick to natural management through habitat maintenance and improvement—fine—just don’t try to artificially alter the gene pool.
Now, is there a use for the digital hunts? Yes, as training aid, absolutely. I can see a whole world of uses and places for the game—but I am afraid that if anyone offers it as a substitute for actual hunting then we set foot on that slope. Pacelle is no fool and he wants that foot there because it validates his argument (that I’ve heard more than once) that people could continue to “hunt” and inflict no harm and thus maintain the tradition of the hunt. The first time I heard him offer that argument was in Colorado in the 1980s when he was still the stooge for Cleveland Amory and Fund For Animals, and the next time he offered it was at an OWAA conference when the leadership stupidly thought they could control him and hold a two-sided seminar. He is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met and equally one of the most dangerous.
I will always recoil against any action that is any step on that slope where Pacelle and his minions can take advantage of a misstep. I know that you are thinking trophy hunting is one of those missteps and perhaps it is, although I think, in the long run, that it would be far easier to build an effective explanation and understanding for the value of the “true” trophy hunter than it would be for maintaining the true hunt when the argument is made that if hunting is the thrill of the chase then it should be replaced blah, blah. I refuse to write it and give them something to copy and paste and misrepresent.
Hey, I am taking Cookie out tomorrow. A little colder and no wind! Bluebird skies but there are ducks on the sloughs! Have you dined on sharptail?

Holly Heyser said...

Galen, those are all fine points, and I could agree with you on probably all of them - especially the stuff about real trophies, and keeping engineered/bred trophies out of the books.

Where you and I diverge is our interpretation of this competition and my feelings about it: I don't see this as a replacement for hunting shows, and I don't think it purports to be that.

But if you're going to have a competition, I think this is a competition that's rooted in good values (marksmanship, getting in place for a good shot) and that values animals enough to say, "We won't use you as game pieces." I think that's a vast improvement over and a shining alternative compared with contests that place no value at all on good shooting - hell, you can gut-shoot a glorious buck and all most contests care about is that it's a glorious buck. Who cares if the meat rotted while it festered for two days - you got the rack - yay!

I am definitely NOT OK with bloodless hunting as a replacement for hunting, because hunting is not a game or a sport to me. It is theoretically optional, and I do enjoy it tremendously, but it is fundamentally about feeding myself, which I can't do with blanks or a camera.

Got the link to Pines Review, btw, and have to get through an avalanche of work before I can sit down with it.

Galen Geer said...

You have "sort of" swayed me to your side on the competition theory--but I am not 100% sold that it can be accomplished as presented.
You are correct on your problem with the poorly shot deer that is lost for several days before being recovered. In truth, with the truly dedicated trophy hunter, this rarely happens because that hunter is usually investing a great deal of time and money in the hunt and the wounded animal is counted as "the contracted" animal and even though it might not be recovered the hunter must pay the full trophy price to the guide/outfitter. Often times, because of time, difficulty and other factors they guide/outfitter will rarely take the hunter after a second trophy once one has been wounded and lost. The cases you do hear of can most often be traced back to the sort of operators who "promise" a trophy animal and both the guides and outfitter are oftentimes on the edge of being legal. Not true of all, of course, but many.
One problem that I do have is one that actually shows up in the work of Ray Bonner, "At The Hand of Man." One of the problems Bonner noted was that photographers, trying to get the better photo actually intruded on the natural environment while the hunter became part of it. Is the threat of these "digital" hunters, in their intent on getting the higher score, going to be that they will intrude on nature more so than the "real" hunter? Is there a seperation between the two groups?