Sunday, October 3, 2010

Worth reading: Hunting - Philosophy for Everyone: In Search of the Wild Life

OK, I know hunters are all about sharpening their hunting skills this time of year, but if you're interested in sharpening your thinking skills on the subject of hunting, I've got a great new book for you: Hunting - Philosophy for Everyone: In Search of the Wild Life.

The book, which is part of a "Philosophy for Everyone" series, features thoughtful essays from professional (read "academic") and lay philosophers, both for hunting and against it. It even includes an essay by our own hunting blog-friend Tovar Cerulli from a Mindful Carnivore.

In terms of reading material, it has a lot to offer in bedtime-reading-sized bites (which is why I've had it for weeks and haven't blogged about it until now - been taking my time).

Because it's a collection of essays by different authors, there are definitely high points and low points, though none of the lows should dissuade you from buying this book. Here is a sampling of my reactions:

The foreword: Oh good Lord, I love David Petersen when I'm not busy hating him. He wrote a three-page foreword which went great for about the first half until his sanctimonious side came out, condemning pretty much everyone who doesn't hunt like he does from his little wilderness cabin base.

I mean, I'm not a fan of some of the things he indicts, which include "such ethically bankrupt shortcuts as motorized decoys, electronic game calls, map-friendly GPS units, cell and satellite telephones, night-vision optics, space-age compound arrow-launching devices and cross-guns posing as 'archery equipment,' automatic game 'feeders' (bait stations) that spray out showers of corn at preset times each day so that our 'trophies' are conditioned to appear promptly, say at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., thus relieving Bubba from the exhausting inconvenience of actually having to hunt."

Wow, glad you stopped to take a breath, there, Petersen. But wait, you left something out: RIFLES. You'd think rifles would be even worse than "space-age compound arrow-launching devices." But for some reason they're OK? Aside from this flaw, I love Petersen's thinking, but good Lord, he is locked into the early 20th Century model of what he calls the "true hunter." Personally, I think the "true hunter" is the hunter who will do whatever he can to put food on the table - I kinda dig the Paleolithic model of hunting myself. But to each his own.

The introduction: I liked this piece by book editor Nathan Kowalsky, because I really related to a choice he faced on a big game hunt. "We were laying in a prone position, and had all the time in the world to get a bead on that buck. It was my shot. I sat there with him in my sights, but I couldn't pull the trigger! Nope, couldn't do it. Not because I didn't want to kill him, but because I wasn't confident I'd kill him well."

Personally, I'll listen to anyone who shares the feeling that it's better not to shoot than to shoot poorly. You don't ever have to take any shot, unless of course it's an angry animal charging you, hungry for your blood.

Chapter 1, Taking a Shot: Hunting in the Crosshairs: This essay might be good, but I honestly can't remember a thing author Jesus Ilundain-Agurruza wrote because he was so in love with seeing how much he could infuse his philosophical examination with gun-and-ammo metaphors. In the end, the essay was like a beautiful woman (maybe) drenched in cheap teen-age cologne: cloying and irritating.

If you teach writing, as I do, or just love good writing, spare yourself the pain of reading this essay. Sorry, Jesus. I know you're not the enemy here, but I have to be honest.

Chapter 3, A Shot in the Dark: The Dubious Prospects of Environmental Hunting: This is an anti-hunting essay that did not challenge me one iota. Nothing new here. Read it if you haven't spent much time considering anti-hunters' viewpoints, but if you have, this will be disappointingly familiar.

Chapter 4, Hunting Like a Vegetarian: Same Ethic, Different Flavors: If you aren't already a regular reader of Tovar Cerulli's blog (and the comment threads, which tend to be, oh, about 20 times longer than his posts), this chapter will make you a fan. This essay takes you through Tovar's transformation from vegan to hunter.

I'm afraid I give it short shrift here because I'm already so familiar with his work, but it's a good read, especially vital to hunters who haven't spent much time thinking about where anti-hunting vegetarians and vegans come from. If the only voices we listen to are those whose opinions mirror our own 100 percent, we are condemned to a future of idiocy.

Chapter 5, What You Can't Learn from Cartoons: Or, How to Go Hunting After Watching Bambi: This is a fascinating piece by Gregory A. Clark that explores the production of what became perhaps the most monumentally anti-hunting movie ever, Bambi. I'd read a little about how the movie came about, but this was the first detailed account I'd seen, and it will show you why a book that all hunters would relate to became a movie that plunged so much of our nation into anti-hunting sentiment.

Chapter 8: Tracking in Pursuit of Knowledge: Teachings of an Algonquin Anishinable Bush Hunter: I really enjoyed this piece by Jacob Wawatie and Stephanie Pyne because it delved deeply into a hunter-gatherer ethic about hunting and the planet. This is, of course, my schtick these days, exploring how hunting connects me to a pre-agricultural lifestyle that was actually sustainable. This essay made me feel like I was sitting around a campfire learning from elders. It left me grateful.

Chapter 9: Living with Dead Animals? Trophies as Souvenirs of the Hunt: This is a really, really academic look at why we keep trophies, and I loved it.

One of the hardest things to explain to non-hunters is why we keep pieces of the hunt: heads, feathers, spurs, "hero shot" photos. This piece by Garry Marvin was a pretty serious look at the reasons for keeping such souvenirs, and I think it was written in a way that non-hunters could possibly relate to it. If you find yourself struggling to explain your wall o' heads (or in our house, our Mantel of Death), you've got to check out this essay.

Chapter 10: The Carnivorous Herbivore: Hunting and Culture in Human Evolution: This essay by Valerius Geist won't necessarily settle any arguments about whether we were meant to be herbivores or carnivores, but it is nonetheless fascinating (as my blog-friend Chas Clifton told me it would be when he saw that Geist was one of the authors in this book).

Geist looks at both our carnivorous and herbivorous roots, and where he really blew my mind was with his exploration of how we developed empathy, which prevented us from using our weapons to the detriment of our own species, and - my read on it - planted the seeds for the very empathy that has some among our species challenging whether we should eat meat at all.

Love, love, love writing that really challenges my established notions, and this one did. Awesome.

Chapter 11: The Fear of the Lord: Hunting as if the Boss is Watching: This essay by Janina Duerr looks at the universality of a spiritual/mythical "boss" that requires us to follow respectful and sound hunting practices. If you don't study hunter-gatherers much, this will give you a window into how most hunter-gatherers manage to exist in their ecosystems without wiping out game species.

Chapter 13: The Camera or the Gun: Hunting through Different Lenses: While this essay by Jonathan Parker is not ultimately hostile to hunting, it committed the egregious sin of falling for HSUS hype by writing about "Internet hunting" as if it actually exists. It does NOT. It happened once and was brought to a quick halt by the Texas game agency, with the help of a huge outcry from the hunting community.

HSUS sponsors bills to ban a form of hunting - "Internet hunting" - which does not exist. Why does it do that? To plant this image in the minds of non-hunters: Hunters are such horrible people that they'll even kill in robe and slippers, without even leaving their house. Parker fell for it and perpetuated the myth. FAIL.

Chapter 14: Flesh, Death, and Tofu: Hunters, Vegetarians, and Carnal Knowledge: I scribbled a lot of notes in the margins of this essay by T.R. Kover, most of which are esoteric, in retrospect. But one line really stands out: "(I)f hunting were simply about the need to dominate and kill something, then employment in a slaughterhouse would offer a far better outlet for this."


I don't do justice to this essay, though. It's way better than my brief description suggests.

Chapter 18: The New Artemis? Women Who Hunt: The title got me going, but the question mark should've been a tipoff.

Author Debra Merskin is a fellow journalism professor, but the "fellow" ends there. Her essay began in such a way that I didn't know where she stood, but that feeling dissolved quickly. When she got to the part where she got totally obsessed with alleged connections between hunting and sexual domination, I felt compelled to write my least erudite - but possibly most accurate - criticism ever in the margin of a book: "You are stupid."

Oh, I know the Academy would be appalled, but dear God, her essay was irritating! What else was I supposed to think?

Here's an excerpt: "Whether it is the kind of weapons used (bows, arrows, i.e., penetration), sexual names for weapons, or the language of conquest, hunting is a dramatic expression for the performance of stereotypical male roles, defined by violence, aggression, and power. The paraphernalia of hunting is coded with sexual innuendo coupled with violence: bullets are called balls, a weapon is discharged, when the weapon accidentally fires it is called 'premature discharge,' and when a bullet hits the target it is said to have penetrated it."

But wait, Debra, the salad bits you make with a kitchen tool are called melon balls, and the things cats vomit in spring are called hairballs and almost every sport in America involves a ball of some sort. Dear God help us, we are surrounded by testicular metaphors!!! I feel so oppressed.

Seriously: Honey, if you want to explore whether there are overtones of sexual domination in hunting, why don't you try it - hunting, I mean - before opening your mouth? I'm sure anti-hunting feminists will eat up your rhetoric, but to those of us who actually understand that of which we write, your ignorance is devastatingly obvious.

Besides, Spanish has a better and more visually accurate slang term for testicles: huevos, or eggs. Quick, let's explore the violent and domineering nature of Mexican cuisine - you'll never eat huevos rancheros again!!!

Upshot: Buy this book, folks! It's a great, diverse look at hunting, and the intriguing portions far outweigh the irritating ones.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010


Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

Thanks for the generous mention, Holly, and for detailed, chapter-by-chapter review!

Richard Mellott said...

Another early bird, here. Oh, he's on the East Coast! Anyway, great review, and looks like a "mixed bag" book. I think, for the beginning hunter, this might be a good book to explore both sides of the current controversies surrounding hunting. For those of us who are older, the Bambi story sounds like something I could relate to, having watched it when I was a kid.
From what you were discussing in one part of your review, sounds like you are going "Paleo" on us, so I'm wondering if you have been reading up on the Paleo Diet, and other such fare from the cross-fitness folks?
I'm in the beginning of reading "The Vegetarian Myth," so I got curious, and started looking at the Paleo Diet, as I continue to shed pounds this year. Down about 14 pounds since June, with about 20 to go. What with "The Omnivore's Dilemma," I am decidedly picking up a philosophical bent, with authors and bloggers such as yourself forming a "core belief system." My God, Holly, you might become a guru! In any case, it is great to see happening on the ground floor, as it is beginning (well, I may be a couple of years late to the party). The philosophical tones that I have responded to are likely to continue helping to rebuild the relationship to the Earth and its fauna, and that's a good thing, right?

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks, Tovar. I left out a few chapters and just wrote about the one that caused strong feelings - which should explain why I liked the book. I love reading that provokes strong feelings! (So I should be grateful to Merskin, right?)

Richard, I wouldn't say I'm going Paleo yet, and I'm not sure I ever will, because I'm not convinced the diet's no-grain stance is actually reasonable. But I am trying to reduce refined sugars when I can (dang, we're out of honey at the moment), and I'm really limiting wheat, which I've found makes my stomach feel MUCH better. And I'm making up with the calories missed there with meat, meat, meat, and no apologies for eating fat. Haven't lost a pound, but a lot of that has to do with how school utterly wrecks my workout routine.

If you're seriously into Paleo, you should check out Melissa McEwen's Hunt. Gather. Love. blog.

Nathan said...

Hi Holly, thanks for the review! I love your style, it was a blast reading your take on various chapters. I'm glad that you found the book stimulating and worth critical engagement, which is all an editor can really ask for. All the best, Nathan K.

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks, Nathan, and congrats for pulling together such a wonderful book!

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Thanks for the review, Holly. On the one hand, I want to read it for Tovar and the Bambi piece, on the other hand, the one about women hunters would make me apoplectic.

I'm curious about your comments about Petersen's objections to high-tech gizmos and your take on Internet hunting. If the purpose is to put food on the table, the only objection I can see to Internet hunting is that the gun may not be able to be aimed accurately enough for a clean kill, and so may cause more suffering. But if you take that out of the equation, why is Internet hunting unethical when other kinds of hunting aren't? (I don't see the appeal, but finding it unappealing is different from finding it unethical.)

I'm never quite gotten behind the concept of fair chase. I'm there to put meat on the table, and while I may enjoy the chase, I don't think I'm required to give the animal a sporting chance.

The argument about which technological advances can be used and which can't always strikes me as a little silly. If people who actually had to subsist on what they caught had been given the option of doing it over the Internet while watching Survivor reruns, you can bet thay would have.

Holly Heyser said...

Tamar, there are many objections to Internet hunting, but the one that comes to mind immediately is the potential for a bad shot and what happens afterward. If you make a bad shot in a field or forest, you have a moral responsibility to track the animal as best you can and either finish the job or determine that it will likely live. You can't do that over the Internet. Theoretically there's a staff person behind the now-fictitious Internet hunting company, but you have no assurances that person will lift a finger for you. (On a side note, last year the governor of Minnesota went out on the deer opener, shot a deer badly and left his staff to track it, and even though the animal was tracked, people were outraged that he didn't take personal responsibility for doing the job. Click here for the story.)

Another objection is that we use all our senses when we hunt, and with Internet hunting, you're limited to a constrained two-dimensional image which may or may not lead to a poor choice. You can't assess wind direction, for example, which can affect a shot (though, I'm guessing, probably not at the distances set up for a remote hunt).

Another potential issue is licensing. How can anyone verify that the shooter has the proper papers? Of course, there theoretically could be a technological fix for that.

I think many people's reactions to it, though, are more visceral: Hunters are often wrongly portrayed as regarding game animals as objects of violence for which we have no concern. Turning hunting into a video game not only gives people more reason to believe that, but I'd imagine it gives the hunter more of a reason to feel that. This, however, is a public relations issue, more than an ethical issue.

That's a start. Others may want to chime in.

As to how all of this relates to my opinion on Petersen: He sets out to define the "true hunter," which my friend Phillip will point out is a perilous path. I'm not saying that you're not a true hunter if you hunt over the Internet; I'm saying there are a lot of legitimate and non-emotional reasons that Internet hunting is problematic.

Does any of this make sense? I really appreciate you pushing on this issue!

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

I think it's true that a lot of the objection is visceral -- and I have the same visceral reaction.

I'm not going to tackle what is or isn't a 'true hunter.' The only thing that matters to me is whether a particular practice is or isn't ethical. All the other issues are just matters of custom (and, sometimes, prejudice).

The crux of the question is that, if you account for the things you mentioned, is there something inherently unethical about what is essentially remote shooting. Let's suppose that there IS a person there to track a wounded animal, and let's suppose the automated system DOES take into account wind (and other factors).
Under those circumstances, is remote discharge of a gun unethical? I don't think so. I can't think of a rationale for objecting.

The problem, as you emphasize, is that it's hard to make sure those other issues are covered. (Although I bet the best remote shot is better than the worst in-person shot.)

Thanks for being willing to engage on these issues. It's great to know I can raise questions here and get thoughtful, well-informed responses.

Holly Heyser said...

You're still making me think here...

My personal ethic is that part of hunting is working for what you get, because the work is a huge part of the reason we do it. The work is the hunt, and as I've written before, I believe one of the reasons humans love hunting is that we are genetically programmed to want to work for our food.

The fact that the work/hunt is integral to hunting seems so obvious to me that I haven't really stated it before - my core ethical drivers are following laws (and a subset of that, which is conserving the species we hunt) and striving for shots that minimize the suffering of the animals. But I have to assume many hunters share this feeling about the work, because many hunters have a visceral reaction to any hunter who has the means to minimize the effort s/he puts into hunting - we despise the lazy.

Another issue: In my debates with people who disparage hunting, I say over and over and over that we don't get off on killing - it's the whole experience. When you hunt remotely, though, you have just shed 98 percent of the experience, which kinda means you do just get off on killing, which, honestly, is sickening. And I have no problem ostracizing hunters who just love killing.

Phillip said...

Interesting and coherent review, Holly. You saved me the trouble of reading the book. ;-)

OK, seriously, I might add something like that to my library. I've read so many of these things that they really start to sound the same... but there's always some new kernel to dig out.

For what it's worth, Tamar, here's my take on the Internet Hunting thing.

I don't know if you've read much of my opinion, or seen where I stand on the whole "ethics and Fair Chase debate", but to summarize, I'm of the opinion that ethics is and should be, largely, an individual decision. And there is no such thing as Fair Chase when it comes to predation...for sport or survival.

At the same time, I do agree that there are generally agreed upon lines that shouldn't be crossed... a shared or common ethic. From this shared ethic we get things like hunting club rules, local traditions, and even hunting laws and regulations. We have bag limits on quail, not because we'd starve if we killed all the birds, but because we recognize that it's "wrong" to wipe them out for our personal gain. We have deer seasons, even in overpopulated areas, because we see it as "wrong" to risk killing a nursing doe and orphaning her young during the springtime. Sure, wildlife management and science play a part in regulation as well, but at the heart of it, the very concept of law and order is essentially an emotional construct.

When Mr. Lockwood first publicized his Live-Shot, Internet Hunting program, the hunting community rose up with a loud and unusually unanimous voice to decry the concept. The thought of killing animals remotely, via Internet, totally crossed that line of the common ethic. Yes, the opposition was totally based on emotional grounds, but it was an emotion shared by a vast majority of the community.

Why is it wrong? Because enough people agreed that it was wrong. Their reason and rationale may have varied, but in the end, that common voice carried the day. That's what it means to live and function within a community.

By the way... Lockwood could have run his program, legally, for at least a couple of years. Texas Parks and Wildlife had no authority over the operation since he was offering hunts for exotic species. States did not move to ban it for over a year, and several states still have no law against it. The law did not shut him down. The outpouring of sentiment from the hunting community convinced him that he probably shouldn't go forward, so he revamped the program to a target shooting game and dropped the hunting idea.

In the bigger picture, of course, it wouldn't matter. Remote hunting is, inherently, no worse than having some stranger in an abbatoir fire a captive bolt into the brain pan of a terrified cow. The end result is the same... dead animal.

Holly Heyser said...

Nicely said, Phillip!

Tamar@Starvingofftheland said...

Very interesting discussion.

On working for food -- I think there's tremendous satisfaction in the accomplishment of growing, fishing, hunting, or finding food to feed yourself and your family. I think, though, that if I were required to feed myself and my family solely by those methods, I would value expediency. I think it's only tangential to the ethical question. Although despising the lazy is, as you point out, almost universal in the hunting world, it's hard to argue that that it makes any difference to the essential question of whether it's ethical to kill an animal. And, again, if you're doing it for food, minimal effort is a plus, not a minus.

I entirely agree with you about attitudes about killing, but it's the attitude, and not the killing, that we object to. People do perfectly ethical things for repellent reasons all the time. You may buy from the bakery rather than the convenience store because you think the bread is better, and that's fine. But if I buy from the bakery because the convenience store is run by an Arab and I won't patronize him, I'm a vile bigot. But that doesn't mean that it's bad to buy from the bakery.

Phillip, thanks for weighing in on this. I'm new to hunting, and I want very much to hear voices from more experienced hunters.

I think I'd divide some of the issues you mention into different categories, some ethical and some not. (Sorry about the relentless focus on the ethical, but I think those are the hardest questions.) Certainly, minimizing the suffering of animals is an ethical issue (I just wrote a post about the ethics of catch-and-release fishing, which you can read, if you're so inclined, at Maintaining populations with bag limits is both practical and ethical, I think. If we wipe out entire species, there won't be anything left to hunt (practical), and it may have some nasty consequences for us and for other species (ethical).

Where I can't agree with you is in the idea that something is wrong because the majority believe it to be so. I think that, if we FEEL something is wrong, we owe it to ourselves to investigate that feeling and decide whether it can be rationally justified. That's what moral reasoning is. There were times when the vast majority of people believed homosexuality is wrong (many people still do), and there are countless examples like that.

I value community, and agree that the hunting ethos is part of what binds hunters together (in my limited experience, at any rate). But I think we have to be careful before we brand something "wrong."

Holly, I hope I'm not overstaying my welcome in your comments. I think it's a very engaging topic, and I'm glad you raised it.

Phillip said...

Tamar, I think you're on exactly the right track with your thinking.

The issue of ethics, which is a tough one to discuss, really does come down to a close examination of the rationale behind it. Why do we think one thing is "wrong" and the other is "right"? To what extent do we let the majority rule?

In the case of Internet Hunting, the objection was practically universal... or at least it seemed that way. But if Mr. Lockwood thought it was a good idea, you can believe some other folks liked the idea as well. There were people out there who would have paid to "hunt" his animals. Obviously, the objection wasn't universal at all.

And honestly, as I pointed out before, nothing much would have been harmed by allowing the practice. The "hunted" species were all non-native... basically livestock... so wildlife management issues would not have applied. The technology, theoretically, would enable much better, cleaner kills because there was an override on the gun which would have (theoretically) been monitored by the "guide".

Nevertheless, there was something about it that absolutely upset the majority of hunters. It also upset non-hunters and anti-hunters, and the resultant groundswell ended in prohibitions from at least 40 states.
I wonder though... if Internet or remote hunting had been going on for years before the antis got wind of it, would the uproar have been the same? It was an easy target because it was a brand new idea, but what if there were an existing cadre of dedicated Internet hunters?

Another good example might be the ill-fated "World Hunting Association." These guys took the concept of a hunting tournament to a whole new level. Professional hunters would be televised during "hunts" in a 1000 acre fenced range. During the hunt they would be scored on various criteria. They would "play" for cash prizes.

Again, the hunting community cried "foul", and the organizers abandoned the idea. But was it any different than fishing tournaments which rake in millions of viewers around the world? Why was it so "wrong"?

I don't have the answers, in case that's what you were hoping. Not sure anyone does. But I do think you're asking the right questions.

Thomas Venney said...

The popularity of coyote hunting started out in the in the wide open spaces of the western United States and along with the coyotes has quickly moved eastward. Often times an eastern coyote hunter will find themselves calling in the thick woods or heavy brush. Visit to know more