There is No Difference Between 'Trophy Hunting' and Hunting

There is No Difference Between 'Trophy Hunting' and Hunting

Photo credit: Erin C. Healy, NRA Hunters' Leadership Forum

An opinion piece at The Federalist—yes, a conservative publication whose editors should know enough about hunting and conservation to at least run a counterpoint op-ed—titled “We Need to Talk about Why Trophy Hunting Is Wrong” got a lot wrong.

This article went along with what has become a mainstream media divide-and-conquer attack on hunters. This tactic began decades ago as anti-hunting extremist groups tried to split apart the hunting community. Over the decades this approach filtered into the mainstream media outlets that don’t question the opinions of groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

When the Cecil the lion controversy exploded in 2015, the mainstream media followed this anti-hunting-group template to the letter. They attacked so-called “trophy hunting” but said that hunting for meat might be okay. In the process they made President Donald J. Trump’s oldest sons, Don Jr. and Eric, into poster boys for what they think is politically incorrect behavior. They characterized them as spoiled, rich kids who went on safari to slay every “trophy” they could without a care in their silver-spoon hearts for the beautiful wildlife they slaughtered. (By the way, I’ve interviewed them and found they care deeply about what they hunt and about wildlife conservation.) The media even erroneously accused the Trumps of breaking game laws in Zimbabwe.

All of that worked within the media’s virtue-signaling narrative that “trophy hunting” is immoral. As this is an orthodoxy to the anti-hunting groups and to mainstream-media outlets—not a news story to be investigated—the facts weren’t questioned. They simply ran with emotion and didn’t seem to care if their attacks on hunters who dare to travel to hunt had real dollar impacts on wildlife conservation efforts in rural Africa.

The condemnation was so complete and one-sided it fooled a lot of urban conservatives. Perhaps one such fool is John Daniel Davidson, a senior correspondent at The Federalist.

“There’s a big difference between trophy hunting and hunting for sport or subsistence. The latter is salutary and noble, the former is a disgrace,” says Davidson.

Actually, a “trophy” is whatever is meaningful to the person who legally killed it. (If it was killed illegally, then it was poached, and poaching is not “trophy hunting.”

Like many hunters, I thought of the first deer I killed with a bow (a doe) when I was 14 years old as a trophy. I still have that doe’s’skin today—a trophy. I remember butchering the deer. I remember proudly eating and enjoying every ounce of meat I got off that deer.

I also remember how happy I was, a few years later, when I killed an eight-point buck. I wasn’t any prouder of the buck than I was of that doe. I also still have that buck’s antlers today. That was a trophy. It took years of hard work, scouting, building stands and hours spent waiting to accomplish that feat. It took mastering myself when I was a boy. It meant pushing aside “buck fever” so I could cleanly kill that deer. I also ate every ounce of meat I could get off that deer.

Which parts of those experiences are “salutary and noble” and which part are a “disgrace?” All of it still feels pretty good to me.

“Vegans and environmentalists will decry all hunting as barbaric and inhumane, but some recent stories illustrate why trophy hunting is fundamentally different from, and inferior to, hunting for almost any other reason—and why it should be beneath us as human beings,” says Davidson.

Davidson then sites examples of people who broke laws or who did politically incorrect things he doesn’t approve of as examples. In the process Davidson makes it clear he wants to ban supposed motivations.

How is he possibly going to do that? How do you know what’s in a hunter’s heart? I still kill and eat deer and other game I hunt near my home. I also travel to far-off places to hunt. Does that mean I am good when I am hunting for meat near home, but evil when I hunt out of state or out of country? I eat or donate all the meat from the game I kill. Sometimes donating meat to local food banks is the way to go, as it is too expensive to bring all the meat home from say an elk or moose. It is impossible to bring meat back from Africa, for example, so the meat is eaten locally.

After killing a “trophy” gemsbok, I traveled to a small and very poor village in Namibia to donate its meat. I stood there and watched people cook it in a big metal pot (a pot literally donated to them by the Dallas Safari Club) and then watched them ladle it out to hundreds of hungry children. Was that a disgrace?

Perhaps Davidson is solely focused on the taxidermy. Does a desire to have a bear rug make me evil? Am I still evil if I eat the bear, as I have done? Does the fact that I cherish bears and have written a lot about bear conservation give me a pass?

Davidson writes: “Then there was the judge in Missouri who earlier this month [in January] sentenced a man to a year in jail for poaching hundreds of deer, mostly trophy bucks taken at night for their heads, leaving the bodies to rot. The judge added an unusual twist to the man’s sentence: He is required to watch ‘Bambi’ once a month while behind bars.”

Sorry Davidson, that is not an example of “trophy hunting.” That is an example of poaching, an illegal act. That person is a game thief, a criminal. Hunters hate poachers. The chief people who call poaching hotlines to turn in poachers are hunters. This is partly because they are out there, but it is also because hunters follow the rules and have a real connection to the game they hunt. That connection fosters a deep appreciation for wildlife. Hunters don’t hate the game they hunt. Hunters love the game they hunt.

“So what’s the distinction between trophy hunting and hunting for sport? Obviously, the entire point of trophy hunting is sport (and to bag a trophy to hang on the wall). But not all sport hunting is trophy hunting,” writes Anderson.

No, not obviously. Even when a hunter kills a large buck, he or she eats the meat. If they don’t, then they are breaking game laws. I don’t know a single hunter who wouldn’t shun and rebuke anyone who would leave game meat in the field.

“Killing a wild animal for fun is no less ignoble than killing a pigeon or a feral cat for fun,” says Davidson. “It belies an imbalanced view of the world, and one’s self, and indulges a lust for violence that’s unhealthy.”

Hunting is fun. It’s exciting. Does this make it evil? I don’t think so. Is a wolf evil if it enjoys its kill? I’ve seen wolves on kills in the Yukon. They looked like happy dogs with fresh blood on their faces. It’s normal to feel joy with success. Joy isn’t hate. A hunter smiling in a photo with a deer isn’t expressing a desire for deer to be annihilated. Hunters are celebrating the deer and the hunt and their real connection to their sustenance. The taxidermy they put on their walls is done with the same complex emotions. That’s at least been my experience.

Davidson, who notes he is from Alaska and has hunted, does make some coherent observations, such as, “a decent respect for nature, including man’s place as steward of it, obliges us to think carefully about conservation and hunting, and to make distinctions between wanton killing and legitimate sport and subsistence.”

He fails, though, to understand that legal hunting for a doe or a 10-point buck isn’t “wanton killing” just because someone takes a piece of his or her kill to a taxidermist.

Davidson, in the end, never gives us a clear differentiation between “trophy hunting” and “hunting.” He can’t because there is none. What constitutes a trophy is dependent on each individual’s private feelings and views—opinions they are not likely to share casually.

Davidson seems to think he can gaze into the complex emotions and intentions of anyone who has the gumption to hunt down their own meat and to call some immoral according to a subjective standard he can’t even articulate. Maybe some hunters smile too broadly for his taste. Maybe some travel more than he would like. Maybe some have accumulated more taxidermy than he thinks proper (as he gives the impression that taxidermists should all be driven out of business).

Whatever the case, he thinks he should be able to tell them all how to live.