Wednesday, January 13, 2010

An Approach To The Hunter Ethic Problem

This is a truly long post. I think it needs to be.

The principle of hunter’s skill, game’s nature is one that I am going to stand firm with because I do believe that this is the grounding ethic of hunting. At any point where the hunter steps outside of the hunter’s expression then the ethic breaks down and it is also true that if the hunter, or someone other than the hunter, removes the quarry from its ability to employ its nature then the ethic breaks down. But with that said I believe we must consider Holly’s question about the planted birds and whether we can apply this ethic to nearly any human action (I’m inferring here) that involves the killing of animals. She rightly points out that at one time humans would drive whole herds of bison over the cliffs. But, Holly, isn’t that subsistence hunting—from which early civilizations distinguished sport hunting? When the need to hunt for food has been replaced by husbandry does Man need to hunt? Both Dr. Eaton and Cork offer the opinion that Man needs to hunt because through hunting man is maintaining the spiritual connection with nature. Let’s say, as the Greeks noted, that hunting provides people with the opportunity to test their personal selves against nature. We might be tempted to argue that the rules of hunting, the notion of sportsmanship, ethical hunting, etc., were put in place only to level the playing field between the hunter and the hunted. However, Dr. Eaton, James Swan and others have all noted that the cave art, which depicts hunters and their quarry, seems to have religious or spiritual meanings. Dr. Eaton takes it a step farther and points to some cave art being trophy art, meaning that successful hunters of these pre-civilization eras were bragging about their hunting success. What does seem to be certain is that much of this early human art does establish a much stronger connection between the hunter and the quarry than previously thought and that in the genetic chain between contemporary humans and those early humans there is a hunting gene. But, where did we get our ethic? Here’s the problem that I see.

Subsistence hunting – whatever it takes to be successful therefore zero ethics.
Animal husbandry replaces subsistence hunting – The dynamics of relationships change from the successful hunter to the successful farmer/herder.
Hunting becomes a sport – The birth of hunter ethics = “hunter skill, animal nature.” Why?

What was it in that transition that made men stop using whatever would work to kill an animal to employing a set of specific skills to kill it and then, in an equal fashion, giving the animal the opportunity to employ their nature to survive? I believe that if Eaton, Swan and others are correct in their assertions then I will maintain the development of hunter ethics occurred “because” of the transition. Men could certainly have continued to kill the animals in the same way that they had been but they did that out of need, yet even in that need early man recognized that a connection existed between the hunter and the hunted. Perhaps they drank at the same water holes and early gatherers noticed that many of the animals ate from the same fruit trees, berries, nuts or even roots. The animals were not completely unlike Man and because Man did possess that added element of creativity (art) they wanted to maintain the connection—even as they hunted the animals—because there was a connection between them that was within nature.

Jump forward a few tens of thousands of years to the transition to herder societies. The connection between the animals and man was not forgotten. The desire to hunt, the drive to provide food hadn’t disappeared, but in order for the success to have that same meaning it had before husbandry evolved there evolved a self imposed set of rules for the hunt. Hunter ethics did not burst fully developed into the civilized world, it came with the creep of time and has evolved as civilization has evolved. That begs the question of application of hunter ethics—can it be applied equally to each hunting circumstance. Native pointed out that in our own country each region has its own specific conditions for the hunt. I will make the argument that it is not the application of circumstance to the ethic but is, in fact, ethic to the circumstance. The basic hunter ethic equation is:
Skill - Nature
I wonder if we could write it as:
Skill U Nature
That is to say that the ethic is the union of the two. This means that it is ethical to hunt from that enclosed and elevated stand when the conditions warrant it. The same can be said of the planted birds. I’ve hunted planted birds that taxed every bit of both the dog’s skill and my own. In fact, I can’t remember any bird hunt that hasn’t been a true test of both dog and hunter—planted or not. But what about the high fence hunt? My answer returns to the ancient ethic and the application of the ethic to the circumstance. I have hunted high fence enclosures and left without the animal I hunted. I’ve also hunted them hard and been successful. About fifteen years ago I hunted fallow deer in upstate New York and it was one of the most rewarding and difficult hunts of my life. I finally got my deer but not until the morning of the last day and not until I’d low crawled through a foot of snow to get close enough for a shot. The enclosed area was slightly more than two thousand acres but as Native pointed out, the deer were wild and had become wild even though fed by humans.

Anonymous made a very interesting point and that was that if the elimination of high fence hunting “means less people can hunt, that’s a population/demand/habitat/management problem. It’s not a hunting problem.”

Humm. I want to disagree but before I do let’s look at two very different scenarios. The first is my hunt for the Fallow deer. The hunt was a high fence hunt that took three full days of intense dawn to dusk hunting. Often times we (the guide and I) would be following a group for the entire day without seeing the deer. Now, here is where ethic is applied to the circumstance. These deer were fed every day from the back of a trailer pulled by a tractor. When the tractor started down a feeding road the deer emerged from the woods to feed. In the application of the ethic to the circumstance the guide and I had agreed that we would not ambush any deer headed for the food nor would we hunt any stretch of road where they were fed. Only after I had killed my deer did the guide inform me that had I suggested hunting the deer on a feeding road the hunt would have ended. On the other hand wild hogs, which raided the deer’s feed, were fair game while raiding the deer food—if you could get close enough for a shot! Ethic applied to circumstance.

The second scenario is in Africa. There is a great deal of debate about the practice of “turning lions out for the hunter.” In these cases ranch owners are raising or capturing lions and when a hunter books a lion hunt they turn the lion out in the fenced area and the hunter goes in after the lion. Some operations turn these lions out in areas covering thousands of acres and weeks or months before the hunter arrives and others have only a few hundred acres and turn out the lion a few days before the hunter arrives. One of the arguments for these operations is that it helps reduce the instances of operators “salting” an area where a hunter has booked a lion hunt. In salting, unscrupulous PHs set out baits to attract the lions and the hunter is “guided” to the salted area where the lion has come to expect a free meal.

Contrast that with my lion hunting experience. I had hunted a particular ranch the year before and was back for another hunt (yes, it is high fence, all 7,000 acres) when I was offered a chance to hunt a lion that crossed onto the ranch, probably from nearby Kruger park. The ranch owner and I began following the spoor with a tracker and for several days we hunted the lion, getting up in the morning and driving around the ranch until we cut fresh spoor then following the spoor on foot. The only condition for shooting the lion was to shoot well because I probably wouldn’t get a second shot—the reason being the shot would be at close range because of the thick thorn bush we were hunting in and the lion would charge before I would get that second shot. Finally the lion left the ranch and life returned to normal. On the same ranch, the year before, a hunter (in our group) and his PH were driving across the ranch when they spotted a young lion stretched out across a pile of dirt. The guide told the hunter to kill the lion but when the hunter declined the guide argued with him and finally convinced his client to shoot the lion, which he did. In both cases the big cats were a threat to the human population on the ranch and painful experience had taught the ranch owner and the PH that if the big cats are allowed to roam free they quickly find the clusters of native rondavels and the livestock kept nearby.

To which case is there an ethic being applied to circumstance? Perhaps the ranch owner and I were trying to apply an ethic to circumstance by hunting on foot and tracking the lion across the ranch. It had all the earmarks of a hell of a hunt because there were times when the cat wasn’t more than a few dozen yards in front of us, but hidden by the thick bush and the cat was aware that we were tracking it, periodically stopping to growl a warning for us to back off. But was there an ethic with the sleeping lion? I’ve never thought so, nor has any hunter to whom I have told the story even though they understood that because of the risks the cat had to be killed. Finally, there is the “turning out” and “salting.” Maybe in turning out, if the lion is given time to establish itself in a large enough enclosure ethic is applied to circumstance providing the lion is free to make its own kills and the enclosure isn’t being salted.

Anynomus feels that if there isn’t enough room to hunt then it is not a hunting problem but a people problem. I still can’t agree although I do understand the statement and its intent. I think we need to look at this from the perspective that if we apply two foundational rules to hunting then we arrive at the principle that hunting can be preserved and made available to both the pay to hunt group on high fence hunts and the public land/open range group. First, there is the ethic, ancient though it is:
Hunting Ethic = Hunter’s Skill U Animal’s Nature.
The second is:
Ethic over Circumstance.
Applied to contemporary hunting we have an ethic and an application. I also remain firm that we need to make every person who hunts understand this one thing, whether hunting high fence or open range, everything ethical about the hunt is nothing more than the tug on the shirt sleeve.


Phillip said...

I'm going to post a reply over on my own blog, and I'm thinking it might be interesting for each of us involved to post replies the same way. It's a worthwhile discussion, and why not give it some space?

Eric C. Nuse said...

I've posted some thoughts on my blog under What is Hunting - a philosophical view
Most relevant is the connection of hunting to the philosophical history of sport and the notion that hunter ethics and fair chase are forms of fair play. Much of this comes from the PhD work of Dr. Jim Tantillo. More detail in my blog.