Monday, September 06, 2010

Trophy-Hunting vs. Food-Hunting

The proposal of a “right to hunt, fish, and harvest non-threatened species using traditional methods” in Kentucky—and in several other states—is aimed primarily at ensuring that hunting and fishing can never be completely outlawed (e.g. by incremental steps). To declare that hunting and fishing are rights seems to imply that these activities constitute basic goods which, for that reason, should not be deprived from those who wish to partake in the activities. (Thus, this seems to be a negative right, a right not to be impinged upon, rather than a positive right, such that everyone should be provided with proper gear and licenses.)

A right to hunt, fish, and harvest non-threatened species using traditional methods would—depending upon the meaning and scope of “traditional methods”—provide a blanket protection for all current forms of legal hunting. At any rate, that seems to be the aim: not to make more hunting and fishing legal, but to protect the forms that are currently legal from future prohibition. As I understand it, that means that pure sport hunting, i.e. trophy hunting, would be fully protected as long as the species is non-threatened.

There’s a big issue here. Even many hunters oppose trophy-hunting, and will only hunt animals they intend to eat and use in other ways. If there is any kind of hunting that can be legitimately and fairly characterized as “killing for fun,” trophy-hunting is the best candidate. (Enjoying the hunt is not sufficient to make the whole business a matter of killing for fun, in my view, and contra the naïve sort of stuff you might see elsewhere on animal rights websites. Jean Kazez has recently discussed this.)

Practical defenses of trophy-hunting take (at least) two forms: ecological and economic. Taking the latter first: hunting and fishing are big money (I’ll let you hunt down the numbers, [Addition: though try here for a hunting-sympathetic overview]). Indeed, I have it on a hunter friend’s testimony that the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife receives exactly zero government dollars: all of its operating revenue is generated from hunting and fishing licenses, etc. This is important since it’s these departments which are out there in the wild monitoring wildlife populations, assisting in their study, providing public education, and so on. And this isn’t to mention the money generated in the private sector.

The ecological argument is that hunting and fishing are obvious ways of managing wildlife populations and (pardon the expression) killing two birds with one stone: animal populations are controlled, and hunters get their sport. Thus, even trophy-hunters can offer some justification for what they do. Many, however, question whether this or the economic argument can be a justification rather than merely an excuse for trophy-hunting. For many sport hunters (I’m guessing), it’s just fun.

Now, there’s another possible justification here, which is that hunters, to be good hunters, generally have to learn a lot about nature and animals in order to hunt well, so there’s a sense in which hunting can foster greater understanding and appreciation of nature. Of course, an obvious objection is that this is a red herring: you can become an educated naturalist without needing to hunt. One might suggest that there is a certain set of skills cultivated, and perhaps even a primal instinct satisfied, by hunting, even just for sport. But should all instincts be satisfied? Does the value of a skillset justify any means of cultivating it? (One could shoot skeet, targets, etc.) Does trophy-hunting (and fishing) deserve the legal protection these general rights to hunt and fish would seem to afford it?

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