Monday, August 03, 2015

A Hunter's Perspective on Cecil

Hunting is in the fabric of my being. Some of the earliest and fondest childhood memories I have were made afield, and it is my hope that my kids Alex and Emily will get the same chance, to head outdoors on frosty mornings and enjoy the immense range of experiences that Mother Nature offers. The shifting public perception of hunters compels me to tell you that there is not a single piece of taxidermy in our house. No guns over the fireplace, no deer shoulder mounts look down upon us, no ducks fly in dusty permanence on the living room walls. I eat what I kill, and kill only what I know I can eat.

I have believed for a long time, and have stated it publicly, that the biggest threat to the future of hunting comes not from anti-hunting animal rights groups, but from hunters ourselves. In a time and place when every photograph or video can quickly become a viral phenomenon that loses all context, bad actors can come to define a whole segment of the population in the eyes of the public, who then make sweeping judgements that have real impact. 

And hunting, like all human pursuits, has its share of bad actors. We call them poachers or outlaws, and as any law-abiding hunter can confirm, lawbreakers are frustrating. They run the gamut from the less serious infractions: maybe they don't have a plug in their shotgun, to the more serious, and serial, offender, that regularly baits a duck hole, consistently kills over the limit, or hunts in places where no permission has been granted.

Poaching tips the field in the hunter's favor in a way that belies what we consider the 'ethic of fair chase,' which explained simply is the notion that the result of the hunt is unknown, that the animal has at least a 50/50 (but usually much higher) chance of escape. The end result of fair chase hunting more often than not means that the hunt has not been 'successful' in the most utilitarian meaning of that word; the hunter has come back to the truck empty-handed. Not so the poacher, who has bent the odds in his or her favor by using unlawful means to ensure a certain outcome, whether that means the quantity or the quality of the quarry.

It is imperative, for the very future of our passion, that ethical and law-abiding hunters do a better job of self-policing our community. We should be reporting incidents of poaching, refusing to hunt with those who won't follow the rules, and teaching new and young hunters that the point of a hunting trip is more, and more important, than simply filling a tag.

Cecil the African lion is proof that the eyes of the world are watching, and they are making searing judgements about what it means to be a hunter, and not always with all the facts close at hand. This is a public that anthropomorphizes wild animals (not only does Cecil have a human name, but I have heard him referred to as 'personable' and 'charismatic'), that has a tenuous understanding of the impacts of hunting on wildlife populations and little knowledge of the fact that hunting and hunters are responsible for some of the greatest conservation victories in history. 

As the population of this country and the world grows, the population of hunters is getting smaller, and the connection of non-hunters to wildlife is ever-more distant. This is the reality we face, and as much as we may not want to admit it, the future of hunting is in the hands of an ever-increasingly non-hunting public who react to the actions of a single poacher by vilifying all hunters. Decision makers listen to that kind of outcry. By accepting the excuses of poachers, by tolerating the actions of a few and by not calling them out more forcefully, we risk being smeared with the same brush.