As recent controversies consume our society today – whether it is the tragedy of Cecil the Lion, the highly controversial subject of trophy hunting, government corruption, or a school cheating scandal, I read these stories with amusement. And with amusement, I don’t suggest with enjoyment or humor. Rather, amusement in the fact that there is a common thread in each. There always seems to be a justification or defensible reason as to why a particular action is taken, although the defense almost never includes an ethical or moral justification.
For example, few would argue that those that hunt lions, leopards and other wildlife on the African plains do so for the love of the hunt, the thrill of the kill and the opportunity to bring back a trophy. And that “trophy” obviously can serve no other purpose than as a boast of superiority – whether that superiority is representative of our supposed dominion over the earth; or of that one hunter’s perceived superiority over another human. And they do so because it is “legal” to do so.
“An incredible day hunting in South Africa! Stalked inside 60-yards on this beautiful male lion … What a hunt!” – Melissa Bachman. (November 2013).
This statement confirms that I will never understand trophy hunting. How do you describe an animal as “beautiful”, yet at the same time desire to kill him? When I flip on the television to watch the Barrett-Jackson Auto Auction, I’m not thinking to myself: “That is a beautiful car. I would love to take that out for a spin and smash it into the wall and see how much damage I can do?” I don’t go out and buy a beautiful tie to so I can take it home and throw it in the trash. So, why does attitude seem to exist within trophy hunters?
I have searched for an adequate understanding of the justification, but even the scientific journals struggle to truly pinpoint this ritualistic behavior. However, I ran across a fascinating, albeit disturbing 2003 study performed by Amy Fitzgerald and Linda Kalof of Michelin State University. In their study, they analyzed 792 “hero shots” (i.e. the post-kill photos of hunter and prey we are all familiar seeing). The majority of the photographs as Fitzgerald noted, “seemed to be arranged to show the hunter’s dominance over the animal. The hunter tended to be pictured above standing or sitting above the animal, demonstrating the power dynamic.”
In the majority of the photos, “the animal had been cleaned up, blood scrubbed away and wounds carefully hidden from view, making the animal look almost alive – as if the hunter had somehow tamed the giant, wild animal into submission.”
In their study, they went further to discuss what is clearly some type of show of power via dominance over the animal kingdom, which is certainly not a new tradition. It was not usual for a King to hold his version of a canned hunt, where a lion or other majestic animal was released in front of a chariot of the king, for the purpose of being shot. And these “hunts” were held in front of an audience to validate the king’s power.
The curator of a bow-hunting club Pope and Young attempted to explain trophy hunting as “a way of honoring that animal for all time.” Again, this is bizarre and disturbing.
In October 2013, an article entitled “The Dark Triad and Animal Cruelty: Dark Personalities, Dark Attitudes and Dark Behaviors” was published, and linked the personality traits of some hunters to a triad of behaviors, known as the Dark Triad. That triad includes:
(1) Narcissism, or the egotistical admiration of one’s own attributes and a lack of compassion;
(2) Machiavellianism, or being deceitful, cunning and manipulative; and
(3) Psychopathy, or lacking remorse or empathy, and prone to impulsive behavior.
All this said, the amusement I referenced earlier is in the fact that the hunter almost never touts the love for trophy hunting as some type of personal self-interest, and will never admit it is a selfish hobby designed for ego and self-worth.
Rather, the attempt is to present this as some type of altruistic and charitable effort of conservation in the greater interest of the animal. Or, they suggest that by killing a weak or older animal, it is some form of compassionate euthanasia so that the animal doesn’t have to suffer a lengthy and cruel death through starvation or attack by another animal. Or, they argue that trophy hunting is okay because the local community can share in the meat.
This is bizarre rationalization and aside from the fact that any truth hidden in these arguments is minimal at best, these are coincidental by-products. This would be like me shooting a homeless person and claiming that I was saving him from the anxieties of worrying where he would get his next meal or where he would sleep at night. Or me abusing a child and rationalizing I was doing so to make the child a stronger adult. The defense simply does not justify the act.
It is clear that trophy hunting as an activity has existed for hundreds of years, so perhaps this is not just a reflection of today’s society. However, in addressing today’s moral compass, or lack of moral compass – particularly today, one wonders how many of us have seemingly become void of compassion, empathy, or sympathy? Has the corruption, and the greed and the evil always existed but is now magnified today through the prolific growth of social media, 24-hour news stations, and cable television stations than outnumber the days in the year? I would say it is both; but also theorize that the proliferation of these events has manifested into an even greater problem because there are many that see the scandal, they see the corruption and conclude that if everyone else is doing this, I might as well do it too. And there seems to be a lot of “what’s in it for me?” attitude.
Unfortunately, much of the wrong today is based upon a very black or white interpretation as to whether the act in question is legal or illegal; and the ethical component never receives any true consideration. “Could I – Should I” is the correct and logical analysis that we as the earth’s stewards should consider in our daily decision making. The simple fact is that we cannot possibly legislate every act or action to be legal or illegal.
For example if I am sleeping in on a Sunday morning, and the neighbor cranks the lawnmower up at 8:00 a.m., is he breaking the law? It would be a stretch to argue this as disturbing the peace, and even if I called the police to complain, would they really waste their time driving over to investigate?
If I were patiently waiting for a parking place, and suddenly another car came wheeling around the corner and pulled into the space before I could react, have they broken the law?
Rude? Inconsiderate? Disrespectful? Yes to all three. But not illegal, no.
But at some point, morality and ethics must become part of the equation. There are too many smart people that are paid to create loopholes in our legal system. There will always be a lobbyist or campaign contribution that will incentivize a legislator to tweak a bill or a law just enough to work in the loophole. When will we ask the question “But Should I? Yes, it is legal to do this, but is it really right to do this?” And I hypothesize that this is not a difficult question to ask or answer. Unfortunately, it is the fear of the answer that prevents us from asking the question, and for that reason, we avoid the question.
Thankfully, the majority of us do ask that question, and we do consider how our actions will impact other people or the environment. Most respect their neighbors and therefore, will not cut their grass at 8:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning. And for those of us that have this level of respect, compassion and consideration for others, we probably have this same level of respect and compassion for wildlife and for the environment.
I do believe that most of these trophy hunters know down deep that they are failing ethically and they are failing morally. Thus, there is the attempted justification that killing somehow meets a misguided definition of conservation, that it is a humane act or that it benefits the local communities. We tend to justify any wrong action that we may take. And for those people, they may never change. And if the scientific journals have diagnosed traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, or psychopathy in these trophy hunters, chances are they are not going to change their behaviors either.
The reality is that there are certain people that will simply do what they want to do and will always have the attitude of “the hell with everyone else and everything else”. We will not change these people. But for the rest of us, we can lead by example, and include ethics and morality into our everyday decision. And perhaps, just perhaps, make this world a more compassionate place to live.