The November 2007 National Geographic article, “Hunters: For Love of the Land,” (http://magma.national geographic.com/ngm/2007-11/hunters/poole-text.html) is important for the future of hunting. No doubt it will plant seeds in the minds of many people in the middle ground who care about nature and wildlife but who do not hunt. So it is a major success compared to what has been for the most part “a failure to communicate” by the hunting community.
If Dr. Wade Davis, the anthropologist interviewed, had compared the way subsistence hunters feel about animals they hunt to how recreational hunters feel the article would have been better yet. While we have a hunting tradition in North America, we lack a hunting culture. Let me explain. If you talk to people on the street who have no direct experiential or familial link to hunting about how Native American hunters feel about animals they hunt, nearly all will offer responses such as, “They respect animals,” or “They have reverence for nature,” or “They feel spiritually connected to wildlife.” But if you were to ask these same folks about how recreational hunters feel you would get blank faces, i.e., no response. Dr. Bob Norton, retired professor of psycholgy at University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse actually did this.
So the combined effect of TV programs and movies along with articles and books is that the basic relationship of red people to wild animals and the earth is well established in North American cultural life. When I made “The Sacred Hunt,” I deliberately interviewed members of eight native tribes so that the viewer would discover that recreational hunters and native hunters use exactly the same words to describe how they feel about animals they hunt: “respect.” For anti-hunters this had a powerful influence, even converting some.
In a questionnaire survey I conducted of 2,500 recreational white hunters, average age over 50, men and women both, I asked them to describe how they feel about animals they hunt. The three most commonly selected words were, “respect,” “admiration,” and “reverence.” And in response to the question about what they did when they killed an animal, 82 percent responded that they either thanked the animal or the Creator! Sounds a lot like native hunters.
This survey is the first ever that has asked fundamental questions, the responses to which reveal how spiritually empowering is the hunt experience and why it is genuine education for our young people. The word “education” means to “draw out of,” not put into. The hunt brings to the surface of our being critically important dimensions of what it means to be human, which is to say that this experience makes us better people. And that is the image we need to create if we are to perpetuate hunting and culturally establish its value and importance. That is what will get parents to send their kids our way.
There is much we need to do, and I think it has to begin with educating our own ranks. Most wildlife biologists, wildlife professors, hunter education coordinators, outdoor writers and heads of hunter organizations cannot supply an accurate definition of hunting or explain why we do it. All hunters know that hunting engenders respect for life and responsibility as in handling firearms, self-restraint, honoring property rights and so on. But how many of us really grasp that hunting is NOT sport but instinct? Basketball is a sport we learn, but hunting shows up as an instinct in boys (not girls) age 4-5 around the world with the use of weapons.
Knowing that hunting is instinctive (for males anyway) has serious consequences. If it is merely sport, then boys might just as well take up a different sport. On the other hand, what if there is no adequate substitute for the hunting experience? Just as the sexual instinct leads to falling in love, marriage and parenting, the hunting instinct leads young men to fall in love with nature and fiercely protect it. Shooting a deer is not at all the same as shooting a basket. A kill shot on the court is not like a kill shot in the field. We do not respect or revere tennis balls, and nearly all hunters report that they feel sad about the death of the animal. The use of the word “sport” has brought untold harm to hunting.
According to my survey results, about half the hunters who have hunted for 20-plus years report that they have let suitable specimens go. Everything was right, it was the animal they were seeking, but even though they had a clear shot, they let the animal pass. Why? Because it did not FEEL right to take it. On the court you take the open shot when you have it. When you’re in the field, it’s a different ball game altogether, meaning that you listen to a different master than your ego. We call it the heart. If there is anything that can change this world, it is experiences that teach us to listen to the heart. There is nothing that invites us down that road like hunting. And that is why it is so very important to the future of human life and the environment. Once we hunters raise to full awareness the true educational benefits that hunting has given us and better articulate “the heart of the hunter” we have a chance of becoming effective evangelists for hunting and all it means.
It’s not sport. It is instinct that has the potential of connecting with the heart and transforming us into better people. That’s the bottom line. Hunting is a great “product,” but it is not selling. We have to recall and repackage it in terms that communicate why we do it and what it does for us and the world. We do not hunt to control game herds or conserve wildlife. These are significant byproducts. We hunt to connect with the original human in us all and to profoundly connect with nature and the blessed animal. We hunt to experience and celebrate the beauty, intelligence and power of nature and to learn about God. We hunt to transcend the ego and become one with the environment, and in so doing we come to know at a deep level that we are as responsible for the world as we are for our self. From this profound lesson the conservation ethic is born.
(Postscript: Randall Eaton is on Conservation Force’s Board of Advisors and we are funding his efforts.)