“Hunting,” the Old Man said, “is the noblest sport yet devised by the hand of man. There were mighty hunters in the Bible, and all the caves where the cave men lived are full of carvings of assorted game the head of the house dragged home. If you hunt to eat, or hunt for sport for something fine, something that will make you proud, and make you remember every single detail of the day you found him and shot him, that is good too.” Robert Ruark, The Old Man and the Boy, 1957
We as hunters will never forget the mixed feelings of wonder, sadness and pride that accompanied the taking of our first animal. It would not be unusual if there were tears because, after all, we had just taken life from a beautiful creature. Those mixed feelings accompany us throughout our hunting lives though, over time, tempered by greater understanding of our role as hunters. In the realities of the modern world, this is not simply the harvesting of food. That remains important, but management takes on greater significance…as does supporting that management and, in so many situations throughout the world, placing value on wildlife.
We as hunters must recognize that our world has changed. The internet, and most especially those strange animals we refer to as “social media” allow almost instantaneous access to a wide audience. Although they are stubborn, outspoken and totally resistant to both reason and common sense, I believe the committed and serious anti-hunters comprise a small minority of society, indeed smaller than we of the hunting community. I also believe they are organized well enough to quickly mount vicious social media campaigns as perceived opportunities arise.
We have seen anecdotal evidence of this organization in attacks on individual hunters. Oddly, I have rarely been targeted; perhaps they view older hunters like me as beyond redemption. Far more frequently, young female hunters are attacked, often while participating in totally lawful hunting activities. A while back daughter Caroline and I were hunting in South Africa and I saw a small bit of empirical evidence of this clandestine organization. She made a Facebook post, nothing different than I might have done except she, as a young lady and thus a ripe target, made it. The negativity started—and was quickly stopped by non-engagement—but one post struck me: “We (emphasis mine) know who you are…”
Well, in this case they weren’t entirely up to speed because they had my younger daughter, still in school, confused with her older sister. But who is “we?” Or, to use proper English, who are “they?” I doubt that we’ll ever know, but we need to be aware that “they” are out there.
I tend to think that folks who make obscene comments to and even death threats against teenagers participating in lawful activities with their parents comprise a very small and extremely sad minority of our society. Most folks would agree and be equally horrified, but social media does offer a relatively new opportunity to influence the much wider majority, the uncommitted non-hunting public.
We need to understand this. We should not fear it. We simply must be careful, always mindful that we as hunters are a minority. Anything we say or allow to be viewed regarding our sport, our passion and our lifestyle (and indeed, to us, hunting is all three) will always be misconstrued by anti-hunters, but is open to interpretation by non-hunters who don’t understand who we are and what we do. We hunters are proud that we are hunters. We should be proud of who we are, what we do and how we not just contribute to but support the conservation and management of wildlife worldwide. This is not the time to hide under a bushel for the sake of political correctness or to avoid the ire of the anti-hunters. But it is a time for us to understand our place in society as a minority faction; to be mindful of the non-hunting majority who ultimately control our destiny—and thus the destiny of the world’s wildlife and, instead of relying on emotion, which is the only tool our sworn enemies possess, to arm ourselves with the cold, hard facts that tell our story.
THE HUNTING MINORITY
It is impossible to say exactly why we are hunters while many of our friends and even close relatives are not. The best quote I know on this subject comes, once again, from Robert Ruark:
“The hunter’s horn sounds early for some. . .later for others. For some unfortunates, prisoned by city sidewalks and sentenced to a cement jungle more horrifying than anything to be found in Tanganyika, the horn of the hunter never winds at all. But deep in the guts of most men, a prickle of the nape hairs, an acceleration of the pulse, an atavistic memory of his fathers, who killed first with stone, and then with club, and then with spear, and then with bow, and then with gun, and finally with formulae. How meek the man is of no importance; somewhere in the pigeon chest of the clerk is still the vestigial remnant of the hunter’s heart; somewhere in his nostrils the half-forgotten smell of blood. . .” Horn of the Hunter, 1953.
In one way, Ruark was absolutely incorrect: He should have consistently added “women” to “men” and he should have added “mothers” to “fathers.” We know today, with the “good old boys” club disbanded and female hunters joining our ranks wholesale, that being a hunter—and being skilled, passionate and outspoken about our sport—has nothing to do with sex. We know, as Ruark wrote, that we humans were able to survive because we evolved as the world’s most successful hunters. We do not know for certain if the “vestigial remnant of the hunter’s heart” still beats within all of us. However, it could be said, in classic displacement behavior, that many people today “hunt” for success, power, fame or money and the most dedicated anti-hunters stalk we hunters as their sport.
In our urbanized society we could theorize that a major reason why many people are not hunters is a matter of access and exposure. Many people who might have been avid hunters are not simply because they never had the chance. My wife, Donna, was certainly among them. She was never exposed to hunting and was ambivalent, but on our first date she revealed that Wild Kingdom was her favorite TV show when she was young. I figured that was a good sign! She never hunted until she was in her 40s, but once started has never looked back.
Most people, like Donna, are brought into hunting by a mentor. Absent that, it isn’t an easy activity to get into. But that doesn’t explain why many of us have children who have no interest or why, at every SCI Convention, I meet adults from non-hunting families who took it up in mid-life all on their own. Reality probably is, in today’s world, that hunting will appeal to some and not to others. And while it’s possible to starve to death in modern society, it isn’t likely to happen because one doesn’t hunt. With the exception of the few aboriginal hunting tribes remaining in the world, it isn’t necessary for everyone to be a hunter and, in fact, the wildlife resources don’t exist for that to be possible.
So, we as hunters are a minority. Licensed hunters in the United States probably number around 15 million. To these must be added people who don’t participate regularly but think of themselves as hunters. Altogether there might be 20 million of us, the largest hunting culture on Earth. However, as our society becomes ever more urbanized and continues to grow, we are a decreasing minority as a percentage of population. This is probably as it must be. The Europeans have dealt with this for many years. In most European countries hunters are a much smaller percentage of the population than here, but they have maintained dedicated hunting cultures and in general hunters are respected because it is understood that they bear the brunt of responsibility—both financial and physical—for wildlife management. They’ve done a good job, too! The last European species to become extinct was the European wild ox, in 1627. Despite succeeding centuries of European conflicts and two devastating world wars, long-settled Europe retains a great deal of wildlife, with sustainable harvest part of the deal.
Make no mistake, our European counterparts have their own troubles with anti-hunters. The greatest impact has been much the same as ours — management of cute and cuddly predators such as bears and wolves and the ability to import certain iconic species legally taken elsewhere. But they have little trouble with the essential harvest of their various horned and antler species, and almost none with the management of their wild boars, as destructive over there as our feral hogs are here. I remember a wonderful bumper sticker I saw in Austria many years ago that read Kein Jagen, Kein Wild: “No Hunting, No Wildlife.” This is an excellent message that seems quietly accepted in European societies. It’s a statement with universal truth.
IF NOT US, THEN WHO?
European wildlife is largely privatized. A much smaller number of hunters are conditioned to pay more dearly for their passion than we in North America. Our forefathers set things up differently. After the excesses of the pioneering era, American wildlife was in tattered remnants. It was a long road back, and we were fortunate to have Theodore Roosevelt leading the charge. Roosevelt believed, and stated, that hunters and anglers should bear the brunt of funding for wildlife management and conservation and this is how our system, the “North American Model” of wildlife conservation and management, was set up and has evolved. We believe that wildlife is a public trust resource, held in stewardship by all. We also believe in democracy of hunting and fishing, that all citizens in good standing, subject to licensing and sensible harvest goals, should have access to the resource. It is these two principles that have created this largest hunting public on Earth, with relatively free access to tens of millions of acres of public land.
In return, as Roosevelt envisioned, we sportsmen and women foot the brunt of the bill for wildlife management. Our hunting and fishing licenses provide the basic funding for state agencies, but it was recognized many years ago that this wasn’t enough. The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, passed into law in 1937, places a hefty 11 percent federal excise tax on firearms and ammunition. It was amended in 1975 to include bows, arrows and archery tackle. In 1950, a similar tax was added to fishing tackle. Passed on to state wildlife and fishery departments by the federal government, these taxes have raised billions of dollars for wildlife management. This, too, has never been enough, but American hunters also donate around a billion dollars annually to private conservation groups. Those groups obviously include our own Safari Club International and Foundation, but the list of pro-hunting conservation groups is long and varied.
On this continent we, the hunting and fishing public, provide the bulk of the funding so that wildlife can be enjoyed by all — hikers, bikers, boaters, photographers, anti-hunters, everyone. If not us, then who? Our system, funded by us, has developed over the past century, and in that time has restored our wildlife from rags to riches: Pronghorns from 5,000 with extinction predicted to more than a million; wild turkeys from 100,000 to seven million; whitetail deer from a half-million to 32 million; elk from 41,000 to more than a million. Our system has worked and is working…and there is no alternative funding.
Elsewhere in the world, especially in the Third World countries of Africa and Asia, there is often no funding from local hunting license sales, and certainly not the boon of our federal excise taxes earmarked for wildlife. It is true that in many countries National Parks are well-supported by ecotourism. These play an important role, but are usually enclaves selected for natural beauty. In the hunting countries of the Third World we are happy to go into marginal lands unlikely to support photo-tourism. We pay license and permit fees, support anti-poaching efforts, provide much-needed employment, distribute meat and in many cases reduce human-animal conflict. Survival economies have little room for altruism. In order to coexist with human interests, wildlife must pay its way and, in wild lands around the world, selective and regulated hunting does exactly that by placing value on wildlife. If not us, then who?
STAND UP TALL
It is almost impossible to fully recapture that sense of wonder and pride, tinged with sadness, that accompanies the taking of one’s first game animal. The closest we can come is to share that moment with a beginning hunter. Take good pictures and study the smile and the gleam in his or her eyes. This is the completion of a ritual as old as time, nothing to be ashamed of. This is the pride we must maintain, without apologies, as we tell our story. It is extremely unlikely that we can sway the opinion of a dedicated anti, but despite their best (and worst) efforts they will not decide our fate, or the future of our wildlife. The uncommitted non-hunters will.
There is good news. According to recent surveys about 80 percent of Americans support hunting for food. It’s mixed with bad: Modify “hunting” with the word “trophy” and support drops like a rock. This is the battle that must be fought. We as hunters pursue our passion for different reasons, but regardless of a modifier, hunting is hunting. Edible wild meat is never wasted, but management and placing value on wildlife are universal and essential concepts.
This is what we do. We have a great story to tell. We need to arm ourselves with facts, not emotions, and we can stand up tall and tell our story with pride and without apology. Most non-hunters I’ve encountered are willing to listen.–Craig Boddington