In the 1930s, in reaction to the seemingly indiscriminate printing and broadcasting of everyone’s innermost thoughts, Robert Benchley observed that society had entered the “great age of blather.” In 2011, Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman referred to our current era as “the age of indignation.” Now, the Internet has managed to bring blather and indignation together in a state of perfect chaotic unity.
A favorite target of the habitually indignant is trophy hunting. It arises periodically when someone makes a misstep and shoots the wrong animal, or is caught on camera at the wrong time. This can spark a level of indignation exceeded only by the level of ignorance.
Safari Club members are virtually all, by definition, trophy hunters. It is a misunderstood term, but trophy hunting is, in some ways, the purest form of sport hunting. It has everything to do with the animals themselves, and nothing whatever in common with grocery shopping.
By coincidence, about the time the current attacks on trophy hunting began, I was re-reading José Ortega’s classic Meditations on Hunting. Ortega, being a mainstream philosopher, was more interested in how hunting relates to the human condition, and began with an exploration of the origins of the word “sport,” not as we use it today (the NFL, major-league baseball, and so on) but as it originally applied to hunting and shooting. Without getting into the etymology of it all, I always assumed it meant recreation, as opposed to occupation – play, not work.
Loosely, that is true. More exactly, Ortega relates it to “diversion.” He questioned why anyone would require a diversion from the state of being alive, and answered his own question when he concluded that hunting is, for man, an escape from the human condition. As we all know, the human condition is not one of unalloyed pleasure.
Having established that, he then went on to discuss the meaning of diversion, and just how important it is to a man, when he dedicates – dedicates – his life to something which is neither profession nor occupation, but a form of escapism. I know many people who are dedicated to hunting; I don’t know anyone dedicated to golf, racquetball or the NFL.
One can argue that the plains Indians, hunting for food, were fully dedicated to hunting, but it was for them an occupation for sustaining life. They may have hunted for sport, too. Probably they did. But they hunted primarily for food. Warding off starvation is a powerful incentive, but it is not dedication in the recreational sense.
Trophy hunters, in their purest form, are dedicated not just to hunting, but to hunting animals of a specific size, age and rarity, eschewing all others.
A decade ago, at one of the hunting conventions, a sheep hunter paid a quarter of a million dollars for an Alberta bighorn sheep tag. This was, for the time, a record amount, and it drew the usual media attention, much of which was ridicule. He was lampooned as having more money than brains.
The man then went to Alberta, hunted sheep for two weeks, never pulled a trigger, and went home. He had not, he explained, seen a sheep that he wanted to shoot. No big deal, he was happy with the hunt, the outfitter, and with having made a serious contribution to conservation funding in Alberta.
Naturally, this, too, got media attention. Again, the dominant theme was ridicule. What a fool! To pay all that money and then not shoot anything! The concept that he was looking for an ancient ram, past breeding, close to death, a true trophy animal, fell on uncomprehending ears.
Ever since, that has, for me, epitomized mainstream media reaction to trophy hunting. It is a complete lack of understanding. There is not even a common denominator of understanding from which to begin to explain trophy hunting. It is, as they say, like explaining baseball to Martians.
One thing is evident. Rational, economics-based justifications for trophy hunting, while they may be perfectly valid, will never compete with Disneyesque, Bambi-syndrome representations of anti-hunters when it comes to appealing to the sentiments of the non-hunting public.
We could ask that they read José Ortega, but I doubt that would get us very far. It seems to me the only real course is to keep doing what we do, keep working for game preservation wherever possible, and hope the storm blows over without any real harm being done.–Terry Wieland