Concrete skills exist that can change hearts and minds of non-hunters and even some anti-hunters toward an acceptance of hunting. As with using any skill, practice, preparation and prudence are required for success. The following examples illustrate three situations where this transformation occurred and, by inference, led to a more reasoned analysis of hunting in general.
Black Rhinos in Namibia My spine tingled when I saw them: two massive, mature black rhinos at 150 yards. I was a guest of Aru Safaris, staying at the Veronica Game Farm (VGF) owned by Danene and Gysbert van der Westhuysen in Namibia. I had been writing and lecturing about these elegant animals and the ethics, economic benefits and conservation aspects of black rhino hunts following the black rhino hunt that was auctioned by the Dallas Safari Club (DSC) in 2014. Hunter Corey Knowlton was receiving ongoing death threats after paying $350,000 for that hunt—money that Namibia was set to pour directly into the conservation of remaining herd members—as the DSC faced ongoing venomous attacks.
Two days later I would be traveling with Danene to the annual meeting of the Namibia Professional Hunters Association in Windhoek to lecture on how to refute attacks on the rhino hunt. The evening before we departed, a fellow guest and surgeon and glider pilot from Poland asked me what I’d address there. I pondered my response. Coincidentally, I had been reading the book “Pre-Suasion” by Robert Cialdini, outlining the skills for making convincing arguments and becoming a more effective salesperson in sharing hunting’s many benefits.
I decided to test the effectiveness of Cialdini’s methods by arguing persuasively in support of the upcoming DSC-sponsored hunt of one of the rhinos I’d seen. I did not know the doctor’s predisposition toward hunting, but playing percentage baseball, I figured he was not sympathetic. I am sharing some of Cialdini’s strategies for effective “pre-suasion.”
Skill One: Understand that the questions you ask in the beginning of the conversation will influence the answers you receive after you make your argument.
Skill Two: Do not emphasize the uniqueness of your position but rather the commonalities between you and your audience.
Skill Three: Recognize that the most effective persuaders spend the most time crafting their arguments before asking if the person had been persuaded or was in agreement.
First, I shared facts. I explained where the hundreds of thousands of dollars raised by the hunt would go: to anti-poaching forces, cleaner water, habitat reclamation, payment to local communities and, the most powerful fact: The rhino to be auctioned for hunting already had killed five younger rhinos. This was the mother lode. In crafting my “pre-suasion” questions, my goal was to get moral and factual clarity regarding this doctor’s beliefs: What did he value? What outcomes were important to him? Which facts were secondary? Then, matter-of-factly, I asked these pre-suasion questions, among others:
Do you want to reduce animal suffering?
Are more animals preferable to fewer animals?
Are healthier animals preferable to unhealthy animals?
Do you believe indigenous populations should benefit from hunting?
Have you ever seen an animal die from disease or starvation or be killed by another animal?
Do you believe poaching and illegal hunting should be reduced?
Do you accept that anti-poaching officers cost money?
Do you believe that an aged, non-reproducing rhino that kills younger rhinos is a detriment to the population?
As we engaged in this gentlemanly discussion, I asked him to commit to a position. I asked him to make a binary choice—yes or no—regarding the pre-suasion questions. Do you prefer healthier animals to unhealthy animals? Do you favor efforts that will reduce poaching? Yes or no? Of course, it is not likely that anyone would admit to preferring more dead animals and more poaching. Seems obvious, but that’s part of the skill: Get the person to commit to the position you are asserting. Then I illustrated how hunting the rhino advanced every position he said he valued. Hunting was harmonious with his values. He admitted as much by his pre-suasion answers.
He listened, sipped his drink and then spoke in a measured tone. I quote his words exactly. “I am against hunting. I am not a hunter. But one must have an open mind. I would favor that hunt.” Wow! I put that scenario in the “win” column.
Darla and the Fire Ants I met Darla Barr, a Texas Parks and Wildlife game warden, when I spoke at the 2017 Texas Hunter Education Annual Conference in Abilene. She shared an anecdote that contained a jewel of persuasion. Two female anti-hunters aggressively had challenged her, saying hunters were essentially murderers. With poise, Darla, without intending to do so, asked Cialdini’s pre-suasion questions, requiring the women to acknowledge what they stand for and to clarify their values.
Darla asked if the ladies prefer enhancing the health of animal populations. Did they value conservation? Did they know animals die from many causes other than hunting? Had they seen animals dying from disease or injury? Then Darla narrated, in exquisite detail, how fire ants attack dying animals, crawling into their wounds, their nostrils, their eyes. She explained that in most cases, a hunter dispatches the animal quickly. Then she asked them the binary question. Which is better: a quick death by a hunter or a death lasting an excruciating week or more, where often predators rip apart and devour the animal while still alive?
Which is it—A or B? There is no third choice. Commit to an answer. As I did with the Polish pilot, Darla skillfully showed that hunting was consistent with the dominant values of these anti-hunters. The ladies told Darla she had changed their minds—that hunting can be acceptable.
An NRA Focus Group Mark Duda, executive director of Responsive Management, and Don Chilcote, director of the NRA Hunters' Leadership Forum, invited me to sit in on a focus group meeting in Denver guided by Steve Bissell. Coincidentally, I had returned from Namibia the previous week. After the session ended, I received permission from Chilcote to talk to the group of eight people alone. Using general terms, I assessed that the group was comprised of one pro-hunter, five non-hunters and two hunting opponents. I wanted to see if I could persuade them all to accept the black rhino hunt in Namibia and, if not, to determine why.
I explained I had observed and had admired their serious and courteous interactions. Then I spoke about the black rhino hunt, informing them about the details of the rhinos and the consequences of a hunt. One woman asked if the aggressive rhinos could be spared by darting and moving them to another location. I acknowledged her question was reasonable then explained the impracticality and futility of that action. Then I posed the binary question: Given the facts I shared, do you support this hunt or not? Every person supported the hunt. Why? Because I showed that it was not only consistent with their values but also—and this is the key—that the hunt was consistent with their self-image as supporters of wildlife.
Lessons Learned These examples offer lessons to help hunters engage with non- and anti-hunters productively. To begin, I believe their suffering. They will advocate for policies and practices to achieve those ends—including hunting—when persuaded that hunting advances their values.
Note that neither Darla nor I tried to convert these people into hunters. Our goals were singular: to dismantle their negative preconceptions of hunting and to get them to accept hunting in at least one situation. We got the anti-hunters to acknowledge that hunting has value at least sometimes. We didn’t push it.
However, pre-suasion and gaining clarity about a person’s values are hard work, requiring preparation and thought. I concede, of course, we will not be able to persuade everyone. But our target is that alleged vast middle ground—those who have no strong opinion about hunting or who are indifferent to it. Here we can succeed if we approach persuasion methodically and strategically.
The final lesson is that we hunters must demonstrate confidence in making our arguments. This should be easy. We deserve to be confident. Any good trial lawyer will tell you that the messenger’s confidence can be as influential as the facts—sometimes more influential.
Each of us is the “grassiest” of the grassroots. We must act and be effective at the granular level. The big hunting and Second Amendment organizations such as the NRA can only do so much. Ideas, facts, values and the truth do not advance themselves. They advance by persuasion that establishes the validity and moral worth of our ideas and arguments.
Enhancing our persuasion skills creates power, and power creates confidence and competence. And that’s how we can best defend and enhance hunting. The examples above persuasively prove my point.