Hounding out blue-collar hunters
A proposal in California to ban hunting with dogs has turned into a celeb-led bashing of the type of people who hunt.
Hunting has a long and noble tradition in the United States. Unlike Europe, where hunting has been the preserve of wealthy landowners, hunters in the United States are more likely to work in factories or behind shop tills than occupy executive suites. Recently, however, hunting has become a battleground in the culture wars besetting America.
The sides lined up recently in a controversy in California over the hunting of bears and bobcats with dogs. A ban on using dogs to hunt these two animals, spearheaded by Democratic state senator Ted Lieu and a coalition of animal-rights activists, Democrats and Hollywood celebrities, has been signed by California governor Jerry Brown and will come into effect next month.
The ban affects few hunters; less than half of the 1,700 bears legally taken each year in California are hunted with hounds. This Californian legislation is significant, however, for its symbolism. It is the latest attack by an urban elite upon the lifestyles of predominantly rural, working-class hunters. It has nothing to do with animals and is all about increasing intolerance towards those who live lives the elite neither understands nor wants to understand.
It is also about an emotive response to photographs and YouTube videos. Support for the bill followed uproar caused by a photo released of Dan Richards, then-president of the California Fish and Game Commission, posing with a dead cougar. Richards legally used dogs to hunt the mountain lion in Idaho; California bans all hunting of cougars.
The picture signalled open season on hunters and it became a shrill partisan issue with Democrats on one side and Republicans, every one of whom voted to defeat the bill, defending hunters on the other side. ‘Allowing packs of dogs to chase bears and bobcats for miles until, exhausted, the animals climb trees to flee the canines and end up trapped, essentially waiting to be shot by a hunter below… is an animal version of The Hunger Games‘, a Los Angeles Times editorial sanctimoniously claimed. Celebrities such as Ellen De Generes, Doris Day, Bill Maher and Hilary Duff backed the ban. Uggie, the dog from the film The Artist, rather cutely ‘wrote’ to the governor’s dog urging support for the bill: ‘I’ve chased a squirrel or two in my day but my people are always nearby keeping an eye on me and making sure I don’t get lost or injured in a fight with other animals.’
Of course, there is obfuscation on both sides. The pro-hunting talk of animal welfare, for example, does contain a grain of truth given that revenue raised by selling licenses is used to manage wildlife. But that is not why hunters hunt. And the argument that hunters hunt bears in order to provide food (it is a legal requirement in California that all bears killed by hunters must be eaten but in my experience eating bear is like chewing an old boot) is also avoiding the argument. So why do hunters hunt? Let’s be honest, it’s for the thrill of the chase.
But, as one can almost guess when pretend dogs write in support of the bill, the arguments in favour of legislation are emotive, hypocritical nonsense. Bear numbers are high in California and, should there be significant contact with humans, they will have to be culled. Guess how they will be culled? That’s right – with hounds. Moreover, the research that those like Jennifer Fearing, senior state director of the Humane Society of the United States, rely upon is conducted by watching YouTube videos, as she admitted – although she was still keen to lecture hunters about the lack of ‘fairness’ of this style of hunting. The fact that bears are accorded protection denied to rats or, for that matter, cattle pigs or sheep, owes more to anthropomorphic images of Yogi, Boo-Boo and Winnie the Pooh than to the reality of 400 pounds of garbage-fed, bone-crushing power that can sprint at 30 miles an hour.
Behind this facile discussion lies two things. First, there is a vitriolic hatred of hunters, as if they are a race apart, incapable of reasoned discussion – hence, the characterisation of hunters in the blogosphere as beer-drinking slobs who let the dogs do all the work. This image came courtesy of Democratic representative Bob Blumenfield, who echoed the disdain President Obama expressed in 2008 for the ‘bitter’ people who ‘cling to guns or religion’. As one blogger remarked, ‘these people [hunters] should only be allowed to hunt for contraceptives’. The dehumanising of those with different lifestyles – commented upon elsewhere in spiked – is expressed par excellence in the discussion on hunting.
Second, the attack on hunting reflects a downward trend in the numbers of Americans who hunt or have some interaction with wild animals. It is this type of experience that allows people to put the objections of the animal advocates into perspective. Few Californians hunted last year (less than one per cent), whereas in rural states like Montana and North Dakota, nearly a fifth of all residents hunted last year. Hunting as a pastime has slowly declined in the United States over the past 30 years from around 16million participants to about 12.5million. Hunters are getting older and fewer throughout the United States – the average age of hunters in the north-eastern states is around 47 years old.
Such figures are important because interaction with animals allows hunters – even if they cannot articulate it – judgement on issues related to animals. Urban dwellers can develop an exclusively voyeuristic attitude towards animals they might feel is superior to the ‘barbaric’ attitude of hunters, but they have no real understanding of what animals are or why they are different to humans. Without understanding animals, we ascribe individual, human qualities on to beings that are not individual or human, but whose significance is only as members of a species.
I learned that animals do not think or feel as we do at an early age, thanks to my father who was a professional hunting guide. On my first moose-hunting trip, I asked my father whether moose felt terror when they were shot. He looked at me curiously and said: ‘Moose have two expressions – alive and dead.’ Sure enough, the first kill I saw was of an animal calmly grazing on water plants (moose spend quite a lot of time doing this). The customer shot the moose perfectly through the lungs. Upon being shot, it looked around for a second and went back to munching vegetation for about 30 seconds before it dropped, stone dead. The reality of the hunt displaced my projected anxieties about animal suffering.
Hunters, rather than being beer-swilling philistines oblivious to animal suffering, tend to be responsible and caring. One of the reasons that hunting with dogs is a good idea is that it allows hunters to determine the sex of the bear before deciding to shoot it or not. (Few hunters will shoot a sow with cubs.) It also allows hunters to get a clean shot and kill the animal immediately rather than – every hunter’s nightmare – wounding the animal and tracking it, sometimes over miles. The immediate and mawkish emotional responses of celebs does not allow for these considerations. If animal suffering was really the prime motivation here, hunting with dogs makes sense.
Had the two sides had a dialogue and not been so bitterly intolerant of those who think differently, such facts might have suggested the folly of a ban on using dogs to hunt. Instead, embattled and angry hunters face the prospect of increased attacks on their sport. As the California legislation shows, hunting has become part of the culture wars, a way of demonstrating the alleged inhumanity of the other side.
Kevin Yuill is author of Assisted Suicide: the Liberal, Humanist Case against Legalisation, which will be published by Palgrave MacMillan early in 2013.