Saturday, January 17, 2009

Hunting, perception, and semantics

I've been thinking about some of the terms used with respect to hunting and the connotation of those terms depending upon the audience. Specifically, "sport hunting", "meat hunting", and "trophy hunting". A recent post on Querencia linked to a not very good article and a discussion of the impact of hunting on animal populations, specifically the predation of the largest animals by human hunters, as opposed to the oldest, weakest animals which other predators key on. That sort of discussion once again brings into play the terminology applied to hunting, particularly big game hunting. I'll offer some definitions as to how I consider the terms and as to how they seem to be understood by some others.

"Sport hunting"- to a hunter, hunting for any reason other than the necessity of survival. No implication as to whether or not you consume the meat. Probably 99% of the hunting undertaken in this country today, even if the meat is pretty welcome to many or most of the hunters. To a non-hunter, this phrase seems to imply hunting solely for amusement and leaving the animal lying.

"Meat hunting"- growing up, that meant just trying to fill your tag or your limit, taking the first (legal) animal found and perhaps treading on the bounds of ethics. It was not a particularly positive term, as I recall it. An example would be shooting a covey of quail on the ground as they ran down a bar ditch, as opposed to flushing the birds and shooting one or two on the wing. Efficient, but not sporting. It now seems to mostly suggests hunting for the meat rather than for antlers, perhaps putting in for cow or doe tags, and it seems more acceptable to non-hunters, who'll typically respond along the lines of "at least you're eating the meat". I never thought I'd describe myself as a meat hunter as often as I do nowadays.

"Trophy hunting"- that term really draws some ire or disdain. Non-hunters (and some hunters) seem to mostly connote this term with hunting only for antlers or a mount and generally act as though it excludes using the meat. In "Hunting Trophy Deer", John Wooters describes it thus:
"Trophy hunters can actually be extremely ethical, raising their personal level of challenge by seeking and taking only the largest and most wary of animals, imposing upon themselves an ethical limitation similar to that brought about by using a primitive weapon."

Wooters goes on to describe the practice as refraining from killing any animal that does not meet a personal definition of trophy, whether that be a certain measurement, or number of points, or characteristics that demonstrate that the animal is mature or even aged. Necessarily, such a limitation reduces take and, if followed, requires more effort and less trigger pulling on the part of the hunter. That's also how I generally think of the term. I'll note that most animals that qualify as a "trophy" have spent at least a couple of years breeding and, contra the Newsweek article discussed at Querencia (but as mentioned in comments there) have already made the biggest part of their contribution to the gene pool. Wooters made this point back in 1977.

Regardless, the term "trophy hunting" is likely permanently debased by shortcuts, canned hunts, limited access private hunts (that substitute landowners' very careful management and very limited take resulting in very large racks on deer and elk and big whopping fees for hunters' skill) and a certain subset of hunters for which the rack is the thing, rather than the method used to take it.

Personally, I do a bit of trophy hunting. I'd really like to get a big mule deer, and, in hunting for such I've made up my mind to limit myself to a big buck, tall antlers well outside his ears. That would probably mean a 28" spread or better and such a buck would perhaps be the last big mule deer I'd take unless I came across an obviously old buck on the decline. I have yet to even see such a buck on public land (outside of parks). As a reflection for my desire for such a deer, I put in for tags in a unit that is not that easy to draw for but that has some really big bucks, if not too many deer. At the same time I try to draw cow elk tags for meat, lessening the impact of lowering my chances for deer meat.

If anyone wonders at why a person would seek a big set of horns, I highly recommend reading David Petersen's "Racks", apparently available only used, but very cheaply. He does a good job of explaining mankind's fascination with cervids' head gear down through history, as well as explaining just how remarkable antlers are, biologically speaking.

UPDATE- in case anyone might miss it in the comments, Matt Mullenix provides a link to a post on his excellent Waypoints where he takes issue with the term "sport hunting" and articulately describes the problems with it.


Live to Hunt.... said...

This was a really geat, informative post. Thank you! I think there is a little bit of each of these in all of us.

mdmnm said...

Live to Hunt,

Thanks! Yeah, depending upon mood and circumstance I think a lot of hunters might fall into different categories at different times. The perception of the terms by non-hunters is really interesting, though.

Matt Mullenix said...

Mike I wrote a post with this theme on my blog a while back, in the context of the USFWS rule changes to the "sport hunting" of migratory birds. I believe I've sent you the link before during our crane discussion... anyway:

I took exception to their term, noting that it is (a) inaccurate in the sense that most bird hunters eat birds (therefore it is arguably subsitence hunting), and it (b) plays perfectly into the hands of those who (perhaps like Mr. Sunstein) see no point in hunting "for sport."

My own hunting is certainly "for sport," in part, owning to the fact that most of what my hawks catch, they eat. I am a happy participant and spectator, but not a direct beneficiary of the rats and sparrows we normally catch.

But then again, we hunt rabbits and other edibles also, all of which I keep and eat. My perspective is that what the hawk eats most days sustains him and makes him in shape, keeping my "weapon" in good working order for when I need him to catch something for the pot.

As I wrote in the above blog post, I don't feel that enjoyment of my hunting is something I need feel ashamed of. Enjoyment is a good and necessary part of many worthwhile activities, even when it is not "the point" of them. The notion that I should not enjoy hunting reveals both the Puritanical impulses of antis, and their basic misunderstanding of predatory behavior.

Enjoyment is essential! Have they never seen a hunting dog at work?

No, I suppose not. :-)

mdmnm said...


Really fantastic comment, thanks! I had read your letter to the FWS but didn't think to link it. I'm glad you included a line and I'm going to update the post with that link, as it emphasizes the point about the mis-perception of "sport hunting" quite nicely.

Also, your observation that "The notion that I should not enjoy hunting reveals both the Puritanical impulses of antis, and their basic misunderstanding of predatory behavior." is particularly apt. A lot of folks are uncomfortable with the idea that hunting is fun, equating it with the idea that killing is fun, thereby rendering all hunters potential (or depending upon who you talk to, actual) psychopaths.