Reflections on Hunting — Black Rhinos and Other Animals

When I was around 12 years old, my friends and I would take a BB-gun up into the hills by my house and shoot at aluminum soda cans and other inert objects. From time to time we would shoot at birds in the trees, but the pump BB-gun was so inaccurate that no one ever hit anything. One day I saw a bird sitting on a branch across a small pond – in my memory it was 50 yards away, but in reality it was probably 25. I took aim with the BB-gun, pulled the trigger, and saw the bird fall lifeless to the ground. I felt sick to my stomach. And from that day forward I never shot at another living creature – not a BB, an arrow, a bullet, a rock from a slingshot, nothing.

Photograph by Steve Raymer/National Geographic
Photograph by Steve Raymer/National Geographic

Clearly, I am not a hunter. Of all the shows I watch on the Outdoor Channel involving guns, none are hunting shows. I do not read Field and Stream. I am not interested in animal “trophies.” But I respect the right of others to do so – possibly even to trophy hunt a black rhino – even if I would never do so myself (though, perhaps, never say never?).

As noted on this web site, my approach to Gun Culture 2.0 is inspired by philosopher Baruch Spinoza: “I have sedulously endeavored not to laugh at human actions, nor to lament them, nor to detest them, but to understand them.” So when I first heard that a permit to hunt an endangered black rhino was being auctioned off and that it could sell for $1,000,000, I was taken aback. But rather than rush to judgment – lamenting or detesting – I sought first to understand.

And what I found was that there are two sides to the story. I do not profess to know what the state of the science on animal conservation is, but it seems to be contested, and a legitimate argument can be made for identifying old, non-breeding animals and culling them from the heard. As a story on National Geographic’s website notes, “Some conservation groups, such as the WWF and Save the Rhino, have expressed support for such limited, controlled hunts if they raise money for conservation. But animal advocates like the Humane Society of the United States and the International Fund for Animal Welfare have loudly condemned the practice.”

In terms of the hunter himself, I am not in a strong position to judge him either way. I am especially not interested in big game hunting, but my hands are in no way clean in terms of my relationship to the animal kingdom. I totally subscribe to the saying, “Everything goes better with bacon.” I order pork belly or buffalo duck wings off of a restaurant menu any time I see them. Chicken, goat, and cow meat are not safe around me. I love sushi. Shrimp, crawfish, crab. This is not to say that all animals are equivalent – and certainly special consideration should be given to endangered species, species bred as companions like cats and dogs, and higher order mammals like whales and dolphins. But I am in no position to judge someone because they enjoy hunting big game so long as they do it responsibly.

Slanted Door SF Nov 2011 (6)And as far as I can tell, at least some legitimate regulatory agencies give their stamp of approval in this case. An earlier story in National Geographic notes:

“Scientists estimate that there are about 5,055 black rhinoceroses left in the world, a decline of about 96 percent over the past century or so. They were listed in Appendix I of CITES in 1977 and on the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1980; they are currently listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Even so, all three of those bodies — CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature] — are on record as allowing limited, targeted hunting.”

I cannot yet fully understand big game or trophy hunting. Then again, I have never done it or even seen it done. I have no idea what the attraction is, in the same way I had no idea what the attraction of shooting a gun at a target was before I did it. At some point, I am going to have to try so I can really understand what hunting is all about. I need to get past being a 12 year old kid who accidentally shot a bird. Perhaps I should try hunting feral hogs, which are literally running amok in parts of the United States. As much as I like eating pork, it would only be appropriate.

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