[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.
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).