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"Opinionatedly Yours"
#20: December 13, 1999
Some Popular Hunting Myths
By Barry Kent MacKay

I do not "like" sport hunting, but usually I tend not to put it quite that way. Indeed I have sometimes surprised friend and foe alike by saying that I don't oppose hunting.

What -- an animal protectionist who does not oppose hunting?

Hunting is the means by which a wolf can survive. Hunting is the act that places a wriggling earthworm into the gaping mouth of a baby robin. Hunting is a garter snake swallowing a frog; a phoebe catching a gnat in mid-air; a northern pike grabbing a duckling from the pond's surface; or a spider wrapping webbing around a struggling fly. It is not that I'm indifferent to the fate of the fawn that the wolf kills, or the earthworm, frog, gnat, duckling, or fly. It's all part of an endless cycle of life and death. There are no "rights" where hunters and hunted are concerned, and there is no life without death.

Sport hunters know all that, and like to think of themselves as part of the cycle. Of course the hunter only wants to be the hunting part of the cycle; even when stalking those relatively few species of animal capable of utilizing a human as prey, the sportsman is careful to overwhelmingly stack the deck in his favor through access to various forms of trickery augmented by heavy firepower.

But no less important to the sportsman than his high-tech killing toys is his (or her, but more often it's men who are sport hunters) unquestioned faith in a complex, shimmering, and fragile fabrication of myth, half-truths, self-delusion, and denials. In this essay we'll explore a few (not all) of those myths.

A Dying Pastime

Most folks are not sport hunters, but do not particularly oppose the practice, although those who do seem to be a growing majority in the U.S. Within their ranks are those who actively oppose sport hunting, characterized by the hook-and-bullet fraternity as the dreaded "antis." They are called "antis" because they are "anti-hunting." The phrase is favored by sport hunters because it is negative. The ranks of sport hunters, themselves, are in decline.

The antis have a few of their own myths, to be sure. In the end whether one is "pro" or "con" or simply indifferent to sport hunting will depend upon a suite of factors and influences. I think it is largely fruitless to argue whether hunting is inherently "right" or "wrong" - it simply is. However, when we compare sport hunting to societal values, it is, in balance, wrong, hence its dependence on myths. Hunters use those myths to justify what would otherwise be intolerable to society as a whole.

Man the Mighty Hunter

Was "man" born to hunt?

There have been animal rights activists who have created their own rosy version of our distant ancestors. Enjoying vegan lifestyles made possible by levels of technological infrastructure that are, themselves, damaging to animals (although no more so, and probably less so, than most other means by which urban people feed themselves), such folks choose to believe that vegetarianism was the normal lifestyle of our most distant ancestors. Implicit in this myth is that meat eating, only made possible by the advent of fire -- hence cooking -- became the serpent in the Garden of Eden, leading us down a blood-soaked path of mass destruction of the world's life-support systems.

Fire is certainly an apt metaphor for control over nature, as well as for technology and destruction. The mastering of fire production and use can well be the line we stepped over to graduate from beastkind to humankind. In his movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke proposed use of weapons as the catalyst that ultimately turned our ancestors from animals controlled by nature into animals seeking control of nature. With bone in hand and a merciless intent to dominate, protohumans could slay both beast and fellow humans on the first step of a journey that will lead them to the stars.

And so now, with the year 2001 nearly upon us, the modern sport hunter is merely paying homage to what we once were, or so the argument goes. Sport hunters believe they are playing out a role that precedes humanity, its origins lost in the distance past long before Tyrannosaurus stalked swamp-edged meadows, seeking prey in titanic contests tens of millions of years ago.

As such things go the term "hunter-gatherer," used to describe early humans, was short-lived. "Gatherer-hunter" is now the preferred term. However even short traditions die slowly. When the frozen remains of a true stone-age man were found in Europe a few years ago, he was instantly and unthinkingly dubbed a hunter. Sophisticated analysis of frozen tissue proved that he had, in fact, been a vegetarian.

One extraordinarily well-preserved individual from prehistoric times does not constitute a statistically useful sample size. It does not allow any conclusions about primitive diets, beyond establishing that vegetarianism was possible, and was practiced -- at least once!

The much-favored myth has the muscular man, with his greater body strength and need for adventure, straying forth in parties or groups to overwhelm the great herbivores of ancient times while the women tended home duties and looked after the kids. Man the hunter faced sabertooth cats and giant bears to bring home meat. Thus the weak but appealing women and children, encamped by the relative security of the all-important fire, survived. Man provides so that women may bear children, and to this day that simplistic scenario dominates what passes for thought in too much of the development of government and social policy and religious doctrine. While women may have babies it is men and the characteristics of masculinity that are essential to humanity's survival and development, or so many men seem to need to believe. In a world of ever greater diversity, complexity, and blurring of the roles and responsibilities of the sexes, sport hunting remains an overwhelmingly male-dominated activity. Across the country women and girls are encouraged to hunt -- and some do -- but the majority seem not to feel the need.

All indications are that we humans are neither inherently hunters nor inherently vegetarians, but that we are inherently opportunistic and successful omnivores and scavengers. Both non-technical contemporary societies and the fossil and subfossil records suggest that food gathering was as much the purview of women and children as men, that food gathering, and later farming, provided the bulk of the food consumed, and that food was often expansive in its variety. We can survive without meat but not without plant food.

Even early humans were too diverse in their habits and cuisine to be described simply, but in all likelihood our distant ancestors ate red meat relatively rarely, compared to a diet replete in fruits, vegetables, legumes, eggs, fish, nuts, and other fruits of labor by all.

But the myth's appeal, with at least a few root tendrils existing close to something near to fact, gives comfort to what is, for the most part, a cruel and needless pastime. It is not that hunting is atavistic that bothers me, but that it is cruel.

The Instant Kill

A wonderful advantage to this myth is that it thrives in ignorance of contemporary American sport hunting -- ignorance that owes all to the relatively small and declining number of contemporary American sport hunters. The majority of Americans are not sport hunters, and so have no personal experience with which to counter the myth. Among that not-so-small minority -- the true "antis" who are actively opposed to sport hunting -- few have much (or any) personal experience with hunting. However, in their desire to rescue animals from the suffering and death needlessly imposed by sport hunters, the antis have a powerful weapon: Fact.

Regardless of the cruelty or lack thereof of commercial meat production; regardless of the benefits or lack thereof of vegetarian or vegan diets, the simple fact is that sport hunting is cruel -- bloody cruel! It can't be otherwise.

There are, to be sure, studies on wounding rates that clearly show the suffering imposed by bow hunters; black-powder hunters; varmint hunters; waterfowl hunters; big game trophy hunters and so on. Virtually anyone who has had experience with hunters and hunting can refer to compelling personal anecdotes relating to the brutality of sport hunting. The cruelty of hunting is exposed in any wildlife rehabilitation center within reach of a hunting area.

The problem is that each hunter you meet will deny responsibility for being the source of such horrible suffering. I have, more than once, sat with hunters in a blind, heard them as they said things like "Got a piece of him " or "Stung that one " or "Bet he felt that " as ducks wavered, but did not fall, when struck by shotgun pellets -- each bird wounded. And I have had those same hunters, later in the day, claim with apparent sincerity that hunting was not cruel and that they, themselves, were "good" hunters who took care not to wound birds.

Can Hunting Be Anything but Cruel?

A shotgun shell is a short tube (a bit longer than your thumb) filled with round pellets of lead (which is toxic) or, more often in recent years, a non-toxic substitute if mandated by law (more about that in a moment). The tube is lightly sealed at the top, or front end, with a "crimp" -- the paper or plastic material of the tube folded in upon itself. At the base of the tube are pieces of material -- plastic, felt, paper or similar materials, called wads -- that separate the pellets from the gunpowder packed into the base of the shell. There is also a small amount of highly explosive material, called the primer. When the shell is in the chamber and the trigger is pulled, the primer instantaneously ignites the gun powder to create the explosion of hot gases that propels the wadding up the barrel, pushing the round pellets at high velocity.

If fired at a piece of paper, the pellets create a series of punctures. The arrangement of these holes is called a "pattern." Larger pellets are, of course, heavier, and travel a bit farther with more penetrating energy than smaller pellets, although at the cost of their being fewer of them. The amount of gunpowder also dictates how much energy drives the pellets (called "shot") and how many pellets are in the shell. The length of the gun barrel and the amount of constriction (called "choke") at its end also contribute to the nature of the pattern.

Sport hunters often become utterly absorbed by such details and will endlessly debate the merits of this or that combination of powder, shot size, barrel length, and choke. However, in the end the shotgun's nickname, "scattergun," holds true. A stream of pellets is blown out of a barrel at high speed, spreads and loses velocity (energy) as it travels down range, and hits the target. If there are large gaps in the pattern, there is an increased likelihood of wounding.

Shot sizes are numbered, with the smaller number designating the larger pellet. Number two shot might be used for geese or hares, number four or six for ducks, number seven and a half or nine for doves, snipe, cottontails, or quail. The diameter of the barrel, called the gauge, dictates how much shot and powder can be used, as does chamber length. When a target is moving the spread of pellets should be wide enough to include the target (thus the aim need not be deadly accurate) but dense enough to produce a kill. Shotgun shell manufacturers recommend six pellets of sufficient size and velocity as the number that, upon hitting a moving duck, should bring it down. However, the amount of damage done obviously depends on where those pellets hit. A single pellet penetrating the brain may bring instant death. On the other hand, I was once brought a merganser who had escaped hunters, only to eventually tire and come to earth with no more obvious an injury that a shattered leg (which prevented her from again becoming airborne -- mergansers must run along the surface of the water to take flight.) However, when the duck was X-rayed she had, in fact, six pellets in her body. She was still alive, still suffering. Whoever shot her presumably did not know or care what happened to her, but presumably would vigorously defend the "sport" of waterfowl shooting. (And, incidentally, mergansers, being fish-eaters, are often not eaten. It may be illegal to waste game, but the law is unenforceable.)

I mention all this because it's important to realize the nature of shotguns to appreciate their inescapable cruelty. If the target is too close, the pattern has not spread out enough to make it easy to hit. It hit by most of the shot, a bird or other animal will die quickly, full of lead. A bird that is too close may be blown into pieces. If too far away from the gun the spread of the shot pattern may be wide enough to make hitting the bird an easy matter, but too few pellets may hit to bring the bird down, or with too little velocity to penetrate to a vital organ. The bird is wounded, but may yet get away, to die or to recover. The angle at which pellets strike the bird will also be a factor in how deep they penetrate.

Shotguns are meant for moving targets. You don't "aim" a shotgun so much as point it. The fact that the "target" (usually waterfowl, upland game birds, or hares and rabbits) is moving contributes to the "sport." The expression "a sitting duck," meaning a person who is extremely vulnerable, derives from the "unsporting" act of shooting a duck sitting on the water. No skill is required to hit a sitting duck. (No hunter would admit to shooting a sitting duck, of course, but you have to wonder why so many decoys have pellet holes in them.)

But precisely because the target is moving and because of the numerous variables contributing to the shot pattern, wounding is inevitable. Rates of wounding have been estimated in different ways. Spend any time watching waterfowl hunters at their sport and you will hear many shots for every duck or goose that is dropped to the water and retrieved. The nature of shotgun patterns dictates that between a kill and a clean miss there are variants were a few pellets strike the target and wounding occurs. Some hunters are "sky busters" who fire at birds out of range, hoping that a stray pellet will do enough damage to drop a bird.

The proof of high wounding rates exists, in part, in the percentage of wild-caught waterfowl who, when X-rayed, are found to be carrying shotgun pellets in their bodies. These are the "lucky" ones who survived the wounding. Many have the pellets encapsulated just beneath the skin, where tissue has grown around them. We can hope that such birds suffered little. Those who were somewhat more severely wounded tend to die in the marsh or woods, unseen.

Years ago I used to search marshes and shorelines on Sundays, when hunting was suspended for a day, to pick up the dead and dying birds. I can't translate their numbers into an exact statistic, but I do know from such personal experience that many birds are wounded by the practice of waterfowl hunting. And I know from many conversations with hunters that each one generally prefers to think that he, at least, is not responsible for such suffering. (And although I emphasize suffering, it does not mean that I'm indifferent to the act of killing even when death is instantaneous.)

In the prairies one study determined a wounding rate of waterfowl of over 30%, but I defy you to find a single waterfowl hunter who will admit that three out of ten birds he shoots are wounded. Someone is responsible for all those wounded birds -- millions each year -- but it's a responsibility the myth-believing hunter will rarely acknowledge.

Get the Lead Out

Lead is one of the most toxic substances there is -- ideal for shotgun pellets, but dangerous to the environment. By far the vast majority of pellets fired from shotguns aimed at waterfowl miss any target and fall into the water, to sink, of course, to the bottom. Waterfowl and many other species of marsh birds intentionally swallow gravel, or "grit," to lodge temporarily in the gizzard. The gizzard is a muscular organ between the stomach and the intestine. Birds lack teeth so the grit helps to wear down the tough surfaces of grains and seeds to better allow nutriments to be absorbed through the gut.

There is no way the birds can distinguish between harmless bits of stone and gravel, and the toxic lead pellets that are a direct result of sport hunting. Studies with birds in laboratories show that some birds can ingest the lead and never suffer as a consequence. But others suffer from lead poisoning caused by as little as a single pellet and undergo a prolonged, painful death. Each year millions of birds would suffer and die, mostly unseen, so that waterfowl hunters could enjoy their "sport."

It's still happening in many parts of the world, although fortunately use of lead shot in waterfowl hunting has virtually been banned in the U.S. In Canada it's banned in a few places, but not all, and throughout it has been the many (not all) members of the hunting fraternity who objected to other sources of shot.

Ironically (or at least, it's ironic to me) one of the main objections to the switch to non-lead alternatives is that there would be an increase in wounding. (I'm quite unqualified to judge the merit of the claim, however I am assured by experts that it is false.) If sport hunters are, as they claim, not sadistic or indifferent to animal abuse, then why on earth would they choose to either use lead (thus contributing to lead poisoning) or use non-lead alternatives (thus contribute, as they believe, to more wounding?).

No hunter who was being honest could claim that using lead did not put a toxic substance into wetlands. Hunters like to call themselves environmentalists but I'd suggest that a true environmentalist does not poison wetlands. And if non-lead shot is sincerely believed to increase wounding rates, then how could one use it while claiming to be anything other than indifferent to animal abuse? Put another way, the sport hunter puts his sport ahead of his proclaimed concerns about animal abuse. Most people would not do that.

Assuming my expert consultants are correct, and the non-lead shot alternatives do not increase wounding rates, there is still the problem that birds are wounded. Using non-lead is "better" than using lead, yes, but an even better way to avoid abusing animals is to not shoot them in the first place!

Crack Shots

A while ago a hunting-columnist told me an interesting story. A government wildlife biologist decided to conduct an experiment. He set up a cutout of a deer and then invited members of a hunt club to come and shoot at it. He did not pick hunters randomly; he picked those who were the most experienced and who claimed to be the best shots.

He noted that the vast majority, about 80%, of the shots missed hitting a vital part of the target. The study had been conceived in assist management decisions. It is a basic tenet of wildlife management that in order to "harvest" a wildlife population sustainably, it must be known how many animals there are, how many they produce (recruitment), what their mortality is, and how many are "harvested" by hunters. Obviously mortality, whatever the cause, cannot continually be greater than recruitment. The biologist knew that it was fairly easy to figure out both recruitment and rates and natural mortality by measuring the age of deer, and fairly easy to figure out how many hunters accounted for by simply checking hunters' "bags." The unknown factor was how many animals were lost to wounding.

The results of the experiment were shocking. Even with experienced hunters aiming at a stationary target, something close to 80% of the shots were not "kill" shots.

A rifle bullet is a single chunk of material, usually mostly or entirely made up of lead. Obviously it must be fired with far greater precision than a shotgun. The myth beloved of hunters is that they are good marksmen. The study was indicating otherwise. That was probably too contrary to the myth, and so the government, who employed the biologist, never published the results of his experiments.

Not that it would make much difference. The myth virtually all hunters cherish is that they are crack shots who invariably make clean kills. Someone else is responsible for all the wounding.

Each fall rural folks phone me or write to me with complaints about wounded deer (smaller animals, if wounded, tend to die unnoticed). Anyone who lives in or near areas where there is hunting, and who is not a believer in myths, has seen the maimed and the crippled animals with their own eyes. Wildlife rehabilitators are familiar with all the "exceptions" to the myth that hunting delivers a humane death. No, it does not. Animals suffer in the name of sport. They suffer to entertain hunters.

The Meat of the Matter

At the outset I pointed out (lest anyone thinks I'm wrapped up in my own Disneyesque myth that all wild animals not bothered by hunters live long, happy, and carefree lives of joyful freedom) death is essential to life. Surely, then, suffering is part of natural processes that lead to death?

Why single out sport hunters for condemnation? Is not the salesman, lawyer, or garage mechanic who earns money at his or her trade and spends part of it on steak, chops or chicken contributing to animal abuse? At least the sportsman's prey had a chance to survive. At least the hunter's prey lived a life of freedom from the tiny cages, shipping crates, and other cruelties behind the production of so much meat before it is neatly wrapped in cellophane and placed in the neighborhood supermarket's freezer.

All quite true and all brings us back, however, to the motive behind the hunt. Most folks who eat meat have no desire to kill the animal they eat; indeed, many are upset by the concept and create their own myths in justification of meat eating. They are scavengers who cook their carrion before consuming it, all the while studiously avoiding such terms as "scavenger" or "carrion."

However, what about the sport hunters who condemn such hypocrisy? If they know how much domestic animals suffer, why do they contribute to such suffering by eating any meat at all? I'm not about to proselytize on behalf of vegetarianism, except to make the point that in most of urban America is it now possible to live a very healthy life without consuming meat. Those who choose vegetarianism are often motivated by humanitarian concerns. I have to suspect the sincerity of the sport hunter who claims to share such concerns. Yes, I wish more people stopped eating animals, but at least they do not contribute to the suffering of animals in the name of sport, while claiming to be humane.

The Love of Death

The American sport hunter claims to have contributed to the conservation of wildlife when no one else would. While the contention is simplistic, it is also essentially true. I am inclined to think that possibly an even more significant contribution to the conservation movement was the role played by sports hunters in combating the destructive force of the market hunters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Antis who deny the importance of sport hunters to the development of wildlife sanctuaries and wildlife protection legislation are indulging in their own myths.

But none of that has much bearing on the situation in America at the end of the twentieth century. Poll after survey shows enormous public support for conservation. Most Americans do not require the blood of animals in return to their contribution to conservation.

I think sport hunters realize all that. Everything that a hunter enjoys while hunting can be enjoyed in the absence of a gun or bow or other such weapon -- everything but the actual killing.

So why kill?

Sport hunters frequently argue that they hunt for the pleasure of being out of doors. It is the hunt, not the killing, they cherish. But far more skill is required to obtain a quality photograph of an animal than to kill it. Such simple acts as jogging, birding, camping or hiking can take one into the wild places.

That at least some hunters like killing animals must surely be proved by the existence of those ghastly game farms and hunting compounds. For a fee hunters can enter an enclosure and shoot an animal who not only cannot escape, but quite often does not even make the effort. Stocked with geriatric former zoo and circus animals, such places never lack for clients. The guarantee of a kill in the absence of wilderness values sport hunters claim to cherish makes the killing, itself, the attraction.

The majority of sport hunters would never frequent such places. They recognize that their "success" as hunters at game farms is purely a function of their ability to pay the fee. And yet a great many do show up for the kill, get themselves photographed with the pathetic remains of their helpless victims and, it would appear, feel no shame. There is no "hunt" involved, no skillful tracking, no wilderness experience -- little, in fact, except the kill, and the "trophy" by which it may be remembered.

Let us assume that most people are really not that fond of killing. Let us assume that most folks are basically kind and prefer not to be the cause of another's suffering or death. Where does that place the sport hunter? He may argue that he's upholding a tradition, but logically tradition has never justified cruelty. Commercial hunting, child labor, and slavery were all once American traditions.

No, there has to be more to justify hunting.

And if there isn't, then something has to be made up. In this essay we've very briefly touched on one of those specious justifications -- that hunting provides a humane death.

Let's think about that just a bit more. I once met with a senior government wildlife biologist to discuss some issue not related to hunting. But it was clear that he had something on his mind. We had not previously met, but he knew who I was and obviously considered me to be an "anti." I am not sure, but I think I failed to meet his expectation of what an "anti" should be like. Whatever his reason, with no prompting from me he abruptly launched a defense of sport hunting. "I think that if I were a grouse," he said, "I'd rather be killed by a load of shot than eaten alive by a goshawk."

That took me aback. Goshawks do eat grouse, of course, but being eaten alive is not the inevitable fate of every grouse not shot by hunters. I was sitting across the desk from this gentleman, wondering how to respond to what I considered to be an idiotic argument. I put my right hand into the inside pocket of my sports jacket, leaned forward in my chair, put the meanest expression I could on my face and said, "If I pull this gun out and shoot you, I'll be saving you the suffering of cancer or heart attack or other disease."

The guy's face went white. Remember that he did not really know me and had probably fallen into the trap of believing another myth -- that if you are an anti you are probably unstable.

Of course I had no gun, but I do believe that for a brief moment he understood the foolishness of his myth -- that you are doing animals a favor by killing them. I call this concept preemptive euthanasia -- kill it quickly today because otherwise it might suffer sometime in the future.

In Place of the Predator

The argument is often made that without hunters, animals would overpopulate their habitats. But that begs the obvious question of what all these animals did before there were sport hunters keeping them in check? The argument is that we've killed off the major predators and so the human hunters must take their place. However, while that may seem a sensible argument, field biologists now realize that predators tend not to be the "limiting factor" in the population size of their prey.

Moreover, while it is a myth to claim (as some antis do) that predators almost always take only the weak and aged animals, predators do tend to select such animals on balance. Predators are one of the selective forces by which species evolve.

Wildlife does not need humans to survive. That is patently obvious. Therefore the myth has been invented to justify the argument that now humans are required to maintain "control" over nature. It is an elaborate myth, far too extensive to be fairly dealt with in this space. But if we try to break it down a little, we see that with little effort the myth fails badly when applied to most game species. Yes, all wildlife requires habitat and yes, hunters may pay to protect habitat (but so do non-hunters, and without much of the cost associated with game management).

Would there be fewer black bears, bobcats, lynx, fishers, martens, cougars, wolves, coyotes, caribou, cottontails, gray squirrels, jack rabbits, grizzly bears, muskoxen, raccoons, badgers, prairie dogs, or opossums if humans didn't hunt them?

No. As long as there was habitat there would be as many or more such animals in the absence of sport hunting. Hunting does not, itself, increase the numbers of such animals.

Hunting, particularly but not exclusively market hunting, nearly wiped out the wood duck and the canvasback. By both controlling the kill of such birds and by protecting habitat (including the placement of wood duck nest boxes -- a project much favored by sport hunters) the numbers have come back. But neither wood ducks nor canvasbacks "need" to be hunted in order to thrive. Provided habitat is protected there is no "need" to kill woodcock or snipe or rails. There is no "need" to kill blue-winged teal or mourning doves or California quail or white-fronted geese or northern pintails or ruffed grouse.

In a future essay we will explore the role of wildlife management in perpetuating the very problems hunting supposedly resolves, and we will look at other kinds of sport hunting.

Why Bother?

A few weeks ago I received a letter from a hunter who said he respected many of my opinions, but not my views on hunting. He named many of the myths used to justify the "sport" of hunting. I answered each of his concerns, pointing out the errors in his logic, as I saw them. He never responded.

This is not an isolated incident; it's happened to me before. Hunters believe that which suits their needs. Some eventually tire of it and own up to the hypocrisy of many of their arguments.

I oppose animal abuse and sport hunting is animal abuse. The things done to animals in the name of sport would be illegal under other circumstances. Numbers of hunters are decreasing and the hunters know it. We can continue to reduce those numbers, reduce the abuse, but to do so we must continue to challenge the myths. To do that we must understand hunting, hunters, and animals. Few things on earth are all good or all bad, all right or all wrong, but seeking entertainment by hurting animals is, in my book, simply wrong.