A 2006 poll conducted by Responsive Management found that 78 percent of Americans approved of hunting and only 16 percent did not approve. However, since Cecil the Lion was killed in Zimbabwe on July 1, 2015, anti-hunting news stories on the internet have been released in 125 different languages, aiding the antis’ quest to convince non-hunters that public support for hunting does not exist. According to a Marist College poll in November 2015, 56 percent of Americans opposed hunting animals for sport, 86 percent of Americans disliked big game hunting (62 percent said it should be banned, 34 percent of those who felt this way were hunters) and only 11 percent of adults said they had no problem with big game hunting.
Ironically, as noted on this website, a month after Cecil’s death, a 40 year-old guide named Quinn Swales was killed by a lion while leading a group of tourists on a walking safari in the same Zimbabwe Park. Chances are you heard nothing about this. To deal with anti-hunting efforts, it’s important for hunters to understand a bit more about anti-hunters. As the 6th century B.C. Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, “One who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be hindered in a hundred engagements.”
In an earlier NRAHLF.org article, “The Psychology of Hunting,” I described how many psychologists conclude that hunting is good for the soul and that there doesn’t appear to be any psychological research that finds that hunters in general are mentally ill. Nonetheless, anti-hunters frequently claim that hunters are sadistic, sociopathic and/or psychopathic and ultimately murderers. For example, one anti-hunter claimed that all trophy hunters “are simply mentally ill and derive pleasure from behaviors that hurt other living things, and are even willing to expend extra effort to make another living being suffer.”
Understanding the meaning of the terms that anti-hunters frequently use will help if you encounter people making such claims. A sadist likes to infect pain and suffering on others, and if a victim dies, the sadist loses his or her source of enjoyment. Ethical hunters, by contrast, seek a quick, clean, ethical kill. A typical sociopath is an outgoing individual who likes to influence others so they can be exploited. This person has a weak conscience, while a true psychopath doesn’t have any conscience and feels no guilt. To sum things up, there is no solid evidence that ethical hunters are mentally disturbed. This conclusion is supported by the extensive research of psychiatrist Melvin Konner.
Who Are The Anti-Hunters? At least 10 million people belong to the animal rights movement. While animal rights activists are not all the same, the majority live in an urban area on either coast. Many follow a vegetarian diet, although at least one-third eat some meat.
While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, it’s what they do with that opinion that counts. Following Sun Tzu’s advice, let’s consider some of the research about what moves animal rights advocates. One of the leading psychologists to study animal rights activists is Dr. Hal Herzog, professor of psychology at Western Carolina University. Herzog’s primary focus has been on opposition to the use of animals in research, but some of his work definitely relates to hunting.
Many animal rights activists are vegetarians. While they get a lot of press, only about 3 percent of Americans are vegetarians. One area of Herzog’s research is the relationship between vegetarianism and mental health. Herzog reports that vegetarians and semi-vegetarians are more likely than non-vegetarians to suffer from mental illnesses. For example, vegetarians were twice as likely as non-vegetarians to have had an anxiety disorder and five times more likely to have suffered from an eating disorder. Herzog notes, however, that this does not prove causality, as their psychological problems generally preceded changes in their diet. He also reports that 86 percent of vegetarians and 70 percent of vegans return to eating some meat—primarily for their health.
What Moves Anti-Hunters? Anti-hunters can be vocal. What motivates them is important. Herzog says typically at least part of their motivation is moral outrage.
Just what causes a person to ignore science and behave based on moral outrage? According to Bowdoin psychology professor Zachary Rothschild and University of Southern Mississippi psychology professor Lucas A. Keefer, people who show anger over moral issues not directly affecting them may actually be emoting in an effort to quell their own guilt about something completely unrelated, as feelings of guilt are a direct threat to one's self-image that they are a moral person. They found that increased guilt "predicted increased punitiveness toward a third-party harm-doer,” who becomes a target. And, another study found that women today are more likely to feel guilt than men. Rothchild and Keefer conclude that moral outrage is self-serving as much or more than helping a third party—in this case, animals. This is an example of what University of Kansas social psychologist C. Daniel Bateson calls “moral hypocrisy.”
Another researcher, Manhattan College Prof. of Sociology and Anthropology Elizabeth Cherry, reports that animal “activists used two main strategies to shift symbolic boundaries between humans and animals, as well as between companion and farm animals—(1) they blur boundaries through focusing and universalizing strategies and (2) they cross boundaries physically, discursively and iconographically.” In other words, they seek issues and people to attack who symbolize some of their inner emotional conflict. For example, hunters killing animals may be symbolic of mistreatment of a person, especially a child, regardless of the fact that hunters care about wildlife, seek to hunt ethically and support conservation.
This research is congruent with attorney Michael Sabbeth’s recent NRAHLF.org article, which observes that “hunters have more compassion for animals than anti-hunters, who display feelings of moral superiority that are unsupported by the evidence.”
In the future, if faced with a conversation with anti-hunters and reciting the facts doesn’t seem to get through, it also might help to remind them that all religions but Jainism support ethical hunting. Add that people who they might respect, such as mythologist Joseph Campbell, have said, “The trouble with society today is that people have forgotten a basic law of life that flesh eats flesh.”
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About the Author: James A. Swan, Ph.D. is a former professor of psychology and environmental studies and one of the founders of the division of environment, population and conservation psychology in the American Psychological Association. He has taught psychology at four universities and three psychology graduate schools, and has served as a consultant to a number of state and federal law enforcement agencies.