When Hunting Debates Pit Morals against Biology

When Hunting Debates Pit Morals against Biology

Last week a hunter asked me why anyone would hunt and kill a large predator such as a bear or lion if they didn’t want to eat it. He hunted only what he eats.

His is a question of morals, not biology, and that’s why it’s so hard to answer. The question conveniently carries an inherent, implied condemnation of anyone daring to “defend” the utter waste of a beast sitting atop the nobility pyramid. The nobility pyramid (bacteria on the bottom, elephants, blue whales and polar bears on top,) alas, is merely an ideological construct.

Biologically there are plenty of reasons to hunt creatures we don’t eat (and many do eat them), not the least of which is to defend ourselves, our loved ones, homes, livestock and crops. Every day humans kill everything from marauding lions and grizzlies to mice and mosquitos.

Mice and mosquitos. Sounds rather flippant, but it really isn’t. A celebrated anti-hunter/animal rights activist once said “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” meaning all animals, or at least mammals, are equal. Ergo it is just as immoral to kill a rat as a boy. Ergo shooting a bear is murder. Ergo bear shooters should be sent to prison. But that would mean bears should also be sent to prison because boars routinely kill cubs of their own species.

You see the slippery slope? Surprisingly, however, Nature confirms that all creatures are equal. She proves it every day by her indiscriminate cruelty and mass killings. Lightning strikes flatten herds of elk. Floods drown tens of thousands of rodents, rabbits and deer. Wildfires incinerate everything from baby bunnies in the nest to bison calves at their mother’s side. Diseases wipe out entire flocks of geese and herds of buffalo.

One might consider such tragedies inevitable accidents in the gross functioning of the planet but then there is Nature’s rogues’ gallery of predators, species Nature/God created: Sharks tear seals into pieces. Herons swallow fish alive. Snakes slowly squeeze the life out of deer. Wild dogs eat zebras alive. Ah, but this is necessary for survival. They kill only because they have to. And they eat what they kill.

Except male bears do not eat the bear cubs they regularly kill to nudge the female into estrus. Lions do not eat the young cubs they kill when they take over a pride. Wolves do not eat the Arctic foxes they kill and play tag with. Chimpanzee troops do not eat the bordering chimpanzees they kill in internecine warfare. House cats play with mice until they expire, then abandon them at the front door.

So are these animals wrong? Is God/Nature wrong? Should compassionate people intervene and set things right? 

Probably not. Despite Her apparent flaws, Her unconscionable, bitter cruelty and wanton destruction, Nature/God has a pretty good track record of maintaining life on Earth. Well, it is true that paleontologists have uncovered more extinct species than currently living species, but that happened before we came along. So perhaps instead of second guessing Nature, predation and meat eating on moral grounds, we might peer through the more pragmatic lens of biology for assessing the hunting of large predators.

Assuming that my questioner’s intent is to retain adequate populations of large predators, let’s consider what might happen if a few humans were permitted to hunt them. Biologists could determine sustainable harvest numbers. Wildlife management agencies could sell limited permits. Monies from those sales could be used to prevent poaching, restore habitats, increase prey species numbers, which would in turn feed more large predators. Outfitting services could provide jobs for local trackers, skinners, cooks and game scouts. Local villagers could receive monetary compensation for livestock killed by large predators, reducing their incentive to poison them en mass. With enough license sales, perhaps land and habitat could be purchased and protected from development, assuring a perpetual wealth of not only predators, but all the other native plants and animals that are part of that valuable ecosystem now protected from commercial development.

Not surprisingly, this is already occurring on hundreds of conservancies, concessions and private ranches across southern Africa where lions, leopards and the entire panoply of African wildlife is enabled, encouraged and supported.

The beauty of this system is that biomes can remain intact or be restored, large predator numbers can stabilize or increase, rural people can survive without having to poach or poison the predators that threaten them, hunters can enjoy whatever it is they enjoy, and morally outraged anti-hunters can continue to be morally outraged.

Well, that last line might appear a bit flippant, too. But it’s true. If our objective is to maintain wild things in wild places, including adequate, sustainable populations of large, expensive, dangerous predators, managing the hunting of a small number of them can do this. It doesn’t solve the moral question, but certainly does the biological.

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About the Author: Well-known in the hunting industry, Ron Spomer has decades of hunting experience and writes regularly for multiple outdoor publications, including NRA Publications, sharing his vast knowledge on guns, ammo, optics and gear. Visit his website at ronspomeroutdoors.