B.C. Premier Christy Clark, take note: misreading the public’s antipathy for trophy hunting could position you for a major and unexpected political hit.
It’s on issues like these that politicians and conservation organizations can inherit a stigma that never truly dissipates, marking them as out of synch with popular sentiment, and even morally reprehensible.
Although trophy hunters receive severe public reprobation, including the Texan who paid $350,000 to kill an endangered black rhino in May, important players stand idly by or actively enable such hunts. Christy Clark continues to defend the trophy hunt for B.C.’s grizzly bears, despite an Insights West poll suggesting that 91% of British Columbians are against that hunt (84% of Albertans disapprove of the hunt, which was suspended in Alberta in 2006).
Many conservation organizations, meanwhile, have remained conspicuously silent while international wildlife hunts yield considerable funding for conservation. Too many politicians and conservationists dismiss the critics as irrational because the concern doesn’t make sense to them.
Often, proponents attempt to justify the hunt on economic grounds, citing the millions of dollars made from such hunts, without realizing that such arguments can only deepen the moral quagmire in which they are immersed. Their fundamental misunderstanding is the simple and popular assumption that moral reasons can be categorized as either instrumental (costs and benefits) or intrinsic (for the animals themselves).
Because neither of these categories can fully explain the moral outrage about the trophy hunt, those who are outraged are easily dismissed. On purely instrumental grounds, the trophy hunt is similar to hunting for meat, which is defended vehemently and supported by strong majorities in North America.
In both cases, an animal dies and people benefit.
Intrinsic values also offer no clear distinction between subsistence and trophy hunting, for similar reasons. But morality is not so simple.
Right and wrong are determined not only by costs, benefits, and intrinsic values. Often the issue is the judgment of an inappropriate or deeply distasteful relationship, in this case with wildlife.
Times have changed, and so have values: whereas it was once thought normal to torture or kill animals for sport (think bull-fights, cock-fights, and fox hunting), in many North Americans’ minds, it isn’t.
Not because of costs and benefits, but because deriving pleasure from painfully dominating another sentient being reflects a relationship with animals and nature that feels wrong or abhorrent. Thus many people can decide swiftly, without mental calculus of net benefits, that they are against the hunt.
This notion that ethics are often about relationships unlocks many mysteries. Killing an animal can also reflect a respectful relationship, depending on the context and attitude. In my (perhaps cheesy) efforts to learn from the many First Nations peoples who have entrenched traditions of thanking an animal for giving its life, my daughters and I adopted a similar tradition at the dinner table.
Such traditions pose a stark contrast to the whooping and hollering of the two men in the graphic video of a B.C. grizzly bear being peppered with bullets and tumbling end over end down a snowy slope.
And if an act is abhorrent in this way, making money off it is no justification for enabling it, but rather a dark stain of moral corruption.
Personally, I’m torn, because some trophy hunters are respectful, and the hunt is not only about money. Trophy hunting in Africa is integral to the funding and local institutions that protect wildlife that would otherwise face imminent extinction.
If ‘society’ deems that trophy hunting is unacceptable everywhere, I hope it will find other ways to enable wildlife conservation at or beyond its current level. But strong leaders do not impede moral progress, they leverage it to accomplish great things.
If British Columbians and North Americans generally are expressing a deep-seated concern for nature through the widespread scorn of the trophy hunt, perhaps this presents an opportunity for innovative policies to enable people experiencing nature more deeply (countering the side-effects of the digital revolution).
Hundreds of studies show that nature-based activities benefit people in innumerable ways, including physical health, mental well-being, and improved productivity at work.
If Clark is so concerned about the fiscal bottom line, she could boost it by fostering British Columbians’ connection to nature, not flying in the face of it.
- Kai Chan is an associate professor and Canada Research Chair at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability in the University of British Columbia. Kai does research on human interactions with nature, and associated values.