The Tyranny of Emotion

[Note: The following was first published in the April 2015 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2015 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

As a writer concerned about the image of hunting in the modern world, I recoiled when I heard the news-media report about an organized coyote-killing contest at Alberta Beach west of Edmonton, held January 10. It wasn’t the hunting of coyotes that concerned me. Coyotes are the most prolific predator in the province despite being persecuted for well over 100 years. They thrive as a species regardless of what we do to them. Indeed there is evidence the more we hunt/trap them the more prolific they become. So, if you want to hunt them legally, you won’t get an argument from me.


Do hunting contests show respect for the resource?

My problem with the Alberta Beach kill was how its promotion was playing into the stereotypical image many people have of hunters generally. You know the one: hunters as slobs who love to murder living things just because they can. It’s an image the anti-hunters (antis) love to trot out at every opportunity. Of course it’s not true. But the problem is too few hunters will challenge that image in public. The result is many people believe the image is true, and we find we often have to defend ourselves when we reveal to someone we hunt. Or worse, we avoid the subject all together.

As it turns out, hunters have good reason to avoid the subject, at least on social media. As soon as the news item about the Alberta Beach contest was published, the subject went viral on Facebook and Twitter with the vast majority of the reaction being negative. Indeed, the few who tried to defend the contest were “shouted down” by the majority who didn’t care about the facts. What they cared about was how they felt about people killing an animal for fun and profit. It was an emotional reaction and it’s always difficult to argue with emotion.

The latter was illustrated by the reaction to an opinion piece written by University of Alberta Conservation Biologist Lee Foote in the January 27 Edmonton Journal, “Keep emotion out of coyote-hunt debate” (link no longer available). In the piece, Foote made reasoned arguments as to why people killing coyotes is no worse than the fate mother nature has in store for coyotes when their numbers become too dense (e.g., strife, disease, starvation). He also discussed the problem of glorifying mass killings through contests. These were things needed to be said. However, that didn’t stop Geoffrey Pounder from responding to Foote in the February 14 Edmonton Journal, “Tyranny over nature has disastrous results” (link no longer available). Pounder took the all too common view that people must leave nature alone, “With their boots upon the necks of wildlife, hunters and trappers only make things worse.” He attempted to respond to a few of the points Foote raised but most of his arguments were based on emotion, proving Foote’s point that emotion drives much of the discussion. Both agreed it was human activity that has brought coyotes to the numbers they are today, but disagreed on the solutions.

Which brings me back to the coyote hunt promotion. As it turned out, the hunt was not some mass slaughter as implied in the early news reports. Teams of up to two contestants each went to Alberta Beach to pay fees and register for the contest. Most were avid coyote hunters who then went to their favorite haunts, near and far, to do the hunt. They returned by the end of the day to register their kills and collect their cash prizes if they won. According to news reports, 39 teams killed 34 coyotes. That’s not a lot of coyotes over a broad area, and the organizer admitted the contest was not designed to control coyote numbers. “It’s about getting out in the fresh air and doing what you’re going to do anyway, with a bit of competition between teams,” Paul told CBC news.

So, why have the contest in the first place? Was any real benefit gained other than the prizes won? Were they worth the black eye hunting’s image took? Now I can hear the arguments that those who oppose hunting are never going to be converted anyway, so what difference does it make if they get angry? As I have pointed out in this column and elsewhere, it’s not the opinion of antis I’m concerned about. Like people who hunt, people who actively oppose hunting make up a small portion of the voting public. What concerns me is the vast majority of people who don’t hunt but don’t necessarily oppose hunting. A good proportion of those people might be susceptible to the propaganda generated by the antis, especially when we hunters provide such a great issue for the antis to attack.

And who can blame the antis for using what hunters give them? We continue to be our own worst enemies, promoting practices that seemingly confirm the image the antis have painted for us. In the coyote-hunt case, few hunters—other than Dr. Foote and Paul the hunt organizer (the latter receiving death threats, hence not giving his full name)—stood up to counter the criticism. Is that because most of us don’t support such a hunt? Or are we just intimidated?

Any good debate between hunters and anti-hunters, where one side actually listens and responds to the arguments presented by the other, eventually boils down to the question, “Is hunting a morally acceptable activity?” The antis have a ready answer: “No”, complete with examples to backup that answer.

We hunters and those who manage hunting usually don’t have such a ready answer. We might want to say yes but we seemingly are not sure we can back that answer up. Instead, we answer by mentioning the vast habitat protected by funds generated from hunting, the game species that have increased their numbers as a result of hunting management, and of course, the economic benefits of hunting-related activities—all in aid of showing how hunters are deeply concerned about conservation and environmental issues.

However, the antis don’t care if hunting is an effective management tool or if it is economically viable, or even if hunters appreciate nature. They want to know if hunters truly believe it is moral to kill for recreation.

The hard lesson for hunters and wildlife managers to learn is that moral debates are not about facts but are about values. That is the fundamental difference between Lee Foote’s arguments and Geoffrey Pounder’s response. Foote argued logically about the state of the coyote in the province and how the coyote hunt would have little to no effect. Pounder didn’t care; he wanted to know why hunters and trappers don’t share his value for the sanctity of life. Yes, he expressed it emotionally but in the public arena that’s often enough to win the argument.

Many jurisdictions in North America ban competitions involving the killing of wildlife, such as a coyote hunt or a bounty for cash. The people in those areas determined that those activities were not part of their values and enshrined those values in their laws. As our population becomes more and more aware of our decreasing fish and wildlife resources, antis are going to find more traction with their arguments against hunting. Is it time to abandon the practices we cannot defend, or step up and defend them?

Comments are always welcome (below).

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out  The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.


About Don Meredith

I am a writer and biologist living in Alberta, Canada. I wrote a monthly column for the Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine, and have published articles for several other magazines.
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5 Responses to The Tyranny of Emotion

  1. Geoffrey Pounder says:

    Don Meredith dismissed my Edmonton Journal column (“Tyranny over nature has disastrous results”, Feb 14, 2015) as being “based on emotion”. Ironically, my piece began by poking fun at that cliché: “[Biologist Lee Foote] insinuates that opponents of “competitive” coyote hunts are sentimentalists driven by emotion. Let me guess. Hunters are ruled only by ironclad logic and reason.”
    That line is getting so old. It’s a cop-out. It is like a child sticking his fingers in his ears, and saying, “I can’t hear you.” If the hunting lobby wants to move beyond preaching to the choir, it needs to raise its game. Dismissing all criticism as emotional is just an evasion.
    In fact, my column contained many assertions of fact. Statements that Meredith chose to ignore. My claims may or may not be true, but they cannot be dismissed as mere appeals to emotion:
    -Nature takes the sick, the old, and the weak. Trappers kill indiscriminately, taking the strong and the weak in equal measure. Hunters usually target the biggest and strongest. The so-called “conservationists” weaken the gene pool.
    -When hunters and trappers remove predators from the landscape, the populations they prey upon explode. Hunters and trappers contribute to the problem they purport to solve. Farmers complain about “pests”, and hunters get out their guns again. An endless killing spree.
    -There will be as many coyotes on the landscape as the ecosystem can support. Coyotes just up their reproductive rates, so a sports hunt solves nothing.
    -Foote is not proposing that hunters put down coyotes with mange; he is advocating that hunters put down coyotes BEFORE they get mange. My neighbour’s dog might get mange, too. Should I put him down to prevent that possibility?
    -Pitching a coyote hunt as mercy killing is laughable. Pain and death are facts of life. Every living thing will die. That is not an argument to bump off wildlife prematurely. Natural hardships don’t justify needless persecution.
    -Foote’s arguments were disingenuous. The last thing on the coyote hunters’ minds was the welfare of the target—or the health of species and ecosystems.
    -Our model of dominance, control, and exploitation has contributed to the sixth mass extinction.
    -Humankind has an excessive footprint. With their boots upon the necks of wildlife, hunters and trappers only make things worse.
    -Farmers should not be surprised when they put out cattle and sheep to graze—and wildlife takes the bait.
    -What is Foote’s solution to man’s conflict with wildlife? Endless war.
    I invite Meredith to consider these statements of fact and respond.
    Finally, let me suggest that the self-serving notion that wildlife is merely a “resource” put here for our “wise use” is just as dogmatic and irrational as anything the sentimentalists can dream up. The human species is a relative newcomer on Earth. The Biblical doctrine of dominion is ludicrous. Lording it over other species does no favor to them—for us it is a moral disaster.
    Nature got along just fine without us for hundreds of millions of years. We are presiding over the sixth mass extinction. The human population explosion, habitat loss, pollution, human predation (overhunting and -fishing), and invasive species all play a part.
    I suspect that many hunters have a huge ecological/carbon footprint. A little less sanctimony on both sides would be refreshing.
    Time for a long, hard look in the mirror. That goes for all of us.

    • Don Meredith says:

      Thank you for your comments. I obviously struck a nerve. However, I don’t believe you took the time to completely read and understand what I was trying to say. I was using the piece you wrote in the Edmonton Journal as an example of what Foote was describing as an emotional argument. The rest of my column had to do with the ethics of the coyote hunt itself and how defending such a hunt eventually breaks down into arguments over values. The problem with emotion is that it often blinds us to what the opposition is actually saying and as a result there is no understanding of each other’s position from which meaningful discussion can evolve.

      Your comment illustrates this perfectly. Just as you accuse me of not listening to your specific arguments (which I never intended to address), you failed to respond to mine. To be honest, it is hard to respond to your “statements of fact” or “assertions of fact” or indeed “claims (that) may or may not be true,” as you yourself described them, because most are broad generalizations with no basis in fact, designed to raise emotions, not serious debate. I think you have some points but they are buried in the pretensions. If you want a discussion, bring something that can be discussed.

      For other readers who would like to understand why hunters hunt, I invite you to read the series of articles I wrote on the subject several years ago:

  2. leefoote says:

    Hello Don:

    It is good to see people chew and consider the merits of their positions as well as the perspectives others hold. I am almost ready to lump the questions “Why or why not hunt?” in with the other great existential questions and resign myself to believing that a commonly accepted answer cannot ever be found, rather, the responses seem to be a reflection or conflation of other sentiments, quirks of personal history, the company one keeps, personal guilt, insecurities, or desires to achieve a state not presently held.

    I do support everyone’s right to speak their opinion but when the verbiage is too shrill, when ad hominem attacks and diversionary reframing of topics becomes rampant, I opt not to engage because I believe that excessive emotional investment in the topic distorts perspective and becomes a form of grand standing and propaganda. Don’t get in a stinking match with a skunk. Such distortions are not restricted to either side of the argument either.

    Don, I thought your comments were well reasoned and charitable to me, but more importantly, to the topic. Thanks for the thoughtful and non-doctrinal comments. Off now to check my draw applications . . .

    Best regards,
    Lee Foote

  3. Don Meredith says:

    Thanks, Lee. Kind words are always appreciated.

  4. Geoffrey Pounder says:

    P.S. I just cast my eye over one of your previous columns: “Interesting Times” (April 21).
    I agree 100% with your comments about Alberta as a “petro-state”; the disastrous environmental legacy of 40 years of Conservative (read oil-industry) rule; paying lip service to environmental issues and public concerns; the deliberate destruction of wildlife by the oilsands industry; the rejection, denial, and corruption of science; the criminal culling of wolves; and the implication that Environment Ministers (not just here but everywhere) fail to protect the environment.
    On these issues, we are on the exact same page.

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