"Shooting in a private game preserve is but a dismal parody; the manliest and healthiest features of the sport are lost with the change of conditions."The Indianapolis Star put together a long feature on deer farms that breed trophy bucks for "guaranteed hunts".
. . . .— Theodore Roosevelt, 1893
The ethics of "guaranteed hunts" has sparked considerable debate in the hunting community. I have my own opinion on the matter (surprise!), but let's see if we can fence this debate in a bit. Sometimes when we define terms and try to put a fine point on things, we can find common ground.
First, let us dispense with the notion that there is an absolute right and wrong. The issues here are too big and complex for such neat box-fitting, even if we think otherwise initially.
As with so many things, there are degrees of good and bad, and there is also the matter of perspective, which is so often shaped by economics, class, social convention, and geography, to say nothing of human population densities, biology and history.
One man's sacred cow is another man's hamburger.
Hunting is a red-hot topic so let me start by talking about something different -- fishing.
To the best of my knowledge and memory, the first fish I ever caught was a trout pulled from a large blue plastic kiddy pool set up at the Washington Boat show.
The fish were hatchery-fed trout, plainly seen against the bright blue bottom through crystal clear water. The fish had been brought in by truck from a hatchery, and the fish and cane poles were designed to attract people to a nearby boat display.
It worked. For a couple of dollars, kids could toss in a hook with a small bit of canned corn on the end, and pull out a wet and wriggling trout while their parents perused the boats.
Even at age four I knew this was not fishing. I remember feeling a little embarrassed at the artifice of the situation.
And yet, looking back on it now, what harm did it do? Trout are raised to be eaten, and we do not belabor the point when Trout Almandine is served at a restaurant.
This was not "real" fishing, of course, but at age 4 or 5 could I be expected to have memorized "Fishing With Ray Bergman"? It was fun.
And yet I no longer think kiddy pool trout fishing is a good thing.
It is not that I am against fun (I'm always for that!). I am simply against blurring the line between true fishing and slaughterhouse taking.
Yes, we want activities for children to be fast and easy. Perhaps, however, fishing is the wrong activity to satisfy this niche.
Fishing may have other lessons to teach young people – lessons about food and habitat, skill and delayed gratification, for example.
No self-respecting adult would stand in line to yank a trout from a plastic pool at an indoor boat show. Yet (and much to my amazement) adults DO show up for "pay lake" trout and catfish. What are we to make of adults that fish in such a childish manner?
Only one step up from pay-pond fishing are the folks who follow hatchery trucks to the stream in order to "get a jump" on their fellow anglers at the start of trout season. Is this "real" fishing? Not in my book.
But what I think hardly matters. Within 72-hours of opening day, half the trout placed in East Coast streams are gone - stripped from the water by "put and pull" anglers.
I will not belabor the point, nor will I venture further through the cosmology of fishing in America (catfish bait-ballers, top water bass-pluggers, crappie jiggers, surf casters, fly fishermen, tuna trollers). Suffice it to say that there are many fish, many tribes of fishermen, and many methods of fishing. Each to his own.
Let's move up the evolutionary ladder to birds.
Here too we have hunting in a variety of manifestations from "tower shoots," where captive pen-raised birds are tossed into the air from a tower while gunners blast away, to "plant and shoot" releases of birds into a field the night before, to stocked and "naturalized" birds released at the start of a shooting season.
The parallels to "kiddy pool" fishing, over-stocked pay-lakes, and "wild stocked" streams and ponds is obvious.
Again, where do we draw the line?
In my opinion, tower shoots are pathetic, and so too is any form of stocked shooting where a man or woman can plink more birds in a day than he can put in his freezer at night.
At some point, you are not "hunting," you are just killing chickens.
The issue here is not "animal rights." The issue is fakery and debasement of a true set of skills. Shooting brain-addled pen-raised birds under the umbrella of "hunting" debases the art of true hunting. When we snap-trap a few mice in the garage, we do not talk about a "holocaust of mice" -- to do so would be to cheapen the horror of the Holocaust while dramatically inflating the status of rodents and denigrating the lives of millions of once-vital human being.
And so it is with guaranteed bird shoots and pay-pond fishing. Angling is an art, and hunting assumes an element of field craft not evident when birds are purchased as units like Chicken McNuggets.
Hunting is about the experience over the day, not the number of fish boated or birds bagged.
But, as noted earlier, not everything is quite so simple, is it?
What are we to make of the 3,000-acre scrub farm were 1,000 pheasants and quail at a time are released into the wild three times a year?
At this population density, and at this bird-release interval, there is a fair chance that more than a few birds will die of natural causes, and some birds may even die of old age.
On a “natural" farm that is “wild-stocked,” the land may be kept not only free of development, but also free of pesticides and herbicides. Brush rows and mottes may be planted and maintained, enhancing the survivability not only of planted game birds, but also of rabbits, deer, and native songbirds.
Surely, such a bird shoot farm is morally and environmentally superior to a "Roundup Ready" corn field or cow pasture?
More birds are shot on such a farm than are being naturally replaced, of course, but if the bags are low and a "successful" hunt still requires both a skilled dog and a skilled shot, is it really so bad a thing?
Low-stock shoots of field-acclimated birds is a bit different from a driven bird shoot where 400 to 1,000 pheasants are being stocked per acre-year. It's not entirely natural, no, but it's not entirely awful either.
Of course, some may disagree.
Let us leave bird hunting, for a moment, and now think about "big game".
On one extreme we have lions and tigers and other large and rare exotic animals that are released into 10-acre enclosures to be shot by "sportsmen."
It's easy to be outraged by this kind of activity, and no one I know thinks this is actually hunting.
That said, it's worth noting that canned big game shoots of exotic animals are a natural outgrowth of the public's fascination with "zoo babies".
Zoos routinely over-breed animals because tiger cubs and baby zebras boost attendance and generate profits. Cute baby animals quickly grow up, however, and that's a problem. It turns out that the world has more caged lions, tigers and zebras than it knows what to do with.
What to do? Answer: canned shooting preserves in Texas. It's not an accident that at one point nine board members of the San Antonio Zoo owned hunt preserves.
Not all exotic animals used in canned hunts come from large zoos. Many come from small zoos and private breeders of large exotic animals. If you have a checkbook in this country, you can buy anything from a lion to a bear, and from a bobcat to a gemsbok.
And if you have ever bought a wildlife magazine with amazing shots of baby cougars, lynx, red fox, black bear, and wolf, you are a small part of the problem. Most of those pictures were taken in private "photography zoos," and at least some of those baby animals were later sold, as adults, to canned hunts.
An example is the tame bear shot dead by Troy Gentry:
Country music star Troy Lee Gentry (one half of popular duo Montgomery Gentry) is facing charges for shooting a tame, captive bear and then trying to mask the killing as a proper hunt.... Indictment documents made public this week showed that Gentry paid $4,650 U.S. to kill a 'trophy-caliber' bear named Cubby. The incident took place two years ago at the Minnesota Wildlife Connection, a company that claims to offer photographers a chance to capture wild animals on film. ... Gentry killed the bear using a bow and arrow while the animal was in its pen.
I think most people would agree that shooting a large, rare, exotic or tame animal in a small enclosure is several time zones removed from true hunting.
But what if the animal is less rare -- such as a Russian Boar -- and the enclosure is quite a bit bigger -- a few hundred acres?
Where do we draw the line?
Is it OK to shoot an exotic animal, such as a Fallow or Axis deer, in a very large fenced parcel of ground provided the countryside is more-or-less natural, and the animal actually runs when stalked? Is it OK to shoot it when it is pressed against the fence?
Does it matter if the animals are not exotics, but are native elk, moose, whitetail or mule deer? Is that better or worse?
What if the person has selected his deer out of a catalogue and paid $13,000 to shoot it?
What if the animals are not fenced in, but are fed every day from an automatic corn-dispensing bait station set on a timer?
Does it matter if the person shooting the animal over such a feeder is hunting for meat or hunting for trophy or sport?
If you decide it's OK to shoot wild whitetail deer on an open farm over a broadcast corn feeder, why is it not OK (as a matter of law) to do the same thing with birds?
If a mechanical caller is OK for fox and coyote, why is it illegal to use it on ducks and elk?
A lot of people will find some of these questions easy to answer, but will pause at others.
The brain dead Vegan and the knuckle-dragging slob-hunter will find all of these questions easy to answer.
So too will the older, thoughtful, skilled hunter who hunts only wild lands and who only fishes wild waters. He knows what he chooses and why.
This last point needs to be stressed.
The types of questions and dilemmas I have posed here are relatively new. Our grandfathers did not have canned hunts and potted bird shoots. This is not part of the American hunting tradition most of us grew up with.
So what has changed?
To some extent, population growth is part of the problem. Though the percentage of hunters may be less than it was in years past, the absolute number is higher than it was 50 years ago due to rapid U.S. population growth. With increasing population density and suburban sprawl has come greater distance to suitably large farms, forests and fields.
More important than suburban sprawl and hunter density, however, is the fact that America has become a land of rapidly rising expectations and a rapidly declining ability to delay gratification.
The American public wants everything it can imagine, and it wants it NOW, and it wants it “super-sized.” We want fast food, fast cars, and instant communication. We want bigger houses, more money, and early retirement.
In short, we have become a nation of spoiled, rich and demanding children. The rise of commercial shooting preserves is simply an outgrowth of that phenomenon. Canned hunt operators are, in effect, telling their client base:
"We know you have zero knowledge of field craft or wildlife and that everything has to be easy for you or you will pout. So, just like your Daddy did when you were 6 years old, we are going to rig every game you play so you will always win. And when you do manage to kill some brain-addled, food dependent, hand-tamed creature, we will slap you on the back and say, 'Look what a BIG boy you are!'"
This type of canned shoot is to real hunting what peroxide-blond hookers are to marriage: a sad charade that debases the individual and jeopardizes the institution.
Just as we have the Playboy channel and Hustler magazine selling the fantasy that every woman is a lesbian-curious nymphomaniac waiting to be unbound, so we have TV hunting shows and magazines selling the idea that every foray into the field should result in a trophy buck, a monster bear, and a bucket-mouth bass. In this sense, "Rack "Em Up" and "Antler King" feed supplements are to the game farm industry what silicone implants are to porn producers.
Just as "sexual service" ads can be found at the back of girly magazines, so too can ads for canned hunts be found at the back of hunting magazines.
It's not an accident that every episode of ESPN's "Hunting the Country" closes with a nod to the outfitter on whose land the “monster buck” was shot.
An “outfitter? What the hell is an an "outfitter"? And how can these people hunt bull elk while trailing a camera crew and talking?
The answer is that you are watching a canned hunt. In the context of television hunting shows, an "outfitter" is a fellow who trains ranch-raised elk to come to a corn-spewing time-released bait station.
"Start feeding them in the spring, and shoot 'em dead in the fall." That’s the business plan, and it’s one that hunting show producers, who need to film a new trophy kill every week, are loathe to criticize.
There are about 1,000 "canned" or potted hunts in the U.S. catering to about 500,000 hunters a year.
That may sound like a lot to folks at the Humane Society, but in fact this represents less than three percent of the 20,000,000 Americans that hunt in this country every year.
For better or worse, you can find an "idiot three percent" in almost every endeavor.
Of course, hunting is not just any sport.
Unlike skate boarding, mountain biking, or motor boating, hunting is under attack from groups like the Humane Society and PETA.
Ironically, the folks at PETA and the Humane Society are just as childish as the slob hunters.
Raised on Bambi cartoons and "Wind in the Willows" stories, the typical Animal Rights lunatic has not spent a single second considering the fact that everything that lives will also die, and that death in the wild is generally slow, painful, violent and miserable.
When a deer dies in the woods, it does not expire with a morphine drip and a Mozart concerto in the tape deck.
The alternative to hunting is not perpetual life - it is vehicle impact, wasting disease, starvation or predation.
Hunting your meat is certainly more ethical than buying it in a store. Childish Americans seem to think cows are raised pre-sectioned, wrapped in plastic, and frozen.
In fact, most feedlot cows never know one tenth the freedom of a deer. For a steer, the last hour or two of its life is typically spent in a crowded and lurching truck on the interstate. The last minute of its life is spent slipping on a blood-wet floor in an alien metal-clanging slaughterhouse.
A mature adult does not shrink from death -- he recognizes that life is short and red in tooth and claw.
This is the way it has always been. God did not make a mistake when He created the cycle of life and gave humans canine teeth and molars.
If you spend enough time in the woods, you will eventually see a predator kill something. A hawk or fox does not always kill quickly. In fact, it may play with its food and then eat it alive and screaming. Compared to that, a cow dies with some grace.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the infantalized slob hunter and the anthropomorphic PETA member are serious adult hunters and anglers.
These folks know where meat comes from, and they respect both the life lived and the life taken.
While the slob hunter and the cringing Animal Rights reactionary are obsessed with the kill, the hunter is focused on the experience of hunting.
It’s almost a universal truth that if you do something for very long, you get good at it, and if you get real good at it, you begin to handicap yourself in order to prolong the experience and keep it interesting.
This not only occurs in golf and chess, it also occurs in hunting and fishing.
If you start fishing at age 5, as I did, you stop using bait by age 12. By age 15, your hooks no longer have barbs, and you are snapping the trebles off the back of your plugs. Your leader line gets thinner, and more and more fish are returned to the water.
There is nothing wrong with killing a few fish, but if you have ever caught so many you had to bury some in the backyard to get rid of them, you try to stay clear of embarrassing abundance. A great deal of dignity can be found in simple moderation.
It is perhaps a little too easy to focus on the idiocies of slob hunters. In truth, they represent a small minority, and their numbers may be in decline, rather than in ascendancy. There are some small signs that America may be maturing.
Let me give you one example. When the state of Colorado banned shooting bears over bait a few years back, the number of bear hunters in the state did not decrease, it increased.
It turned out that more people were willing to hunt bear provided that the onerous stain of hunting over bait was lifted.
The trend can be seen outside of Colorado, too. The fastest growth area in hunting today is the rise of bow hunting and the increasing use of black powder. Granted many bow and black powder hunters are also going forth in shotgun and rifle season as well. But not all are.
In a day and age when whitetail deer populations are at record levels, and elk populations are holding steady or increasing over much of their range, more and more hunters are embracing the challenge of bow and black powder in order to keep in contact with the elements of skill and chance that are at the core of the true hunting experience.
That's a good thing. That's American hunting.
The rise of high-fence and game farm hunting? It's an evil that cannot be banned and outlawed quick enough if you ask me.
Please do not tell me that as hunters "we all have to hang together." If you are going to some place where the hunt is guaranteed, the animals are fed like cattle, and you select your trophies out of a catalogue, then you are not hunting, you are just killing. And if you do not know the difference between hunting and killing, then we really have nothing to talk about.
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