by Randall L. Eaton, Ph.D., Advisor to Conservation Force
The November 2007 National Geographic article, “Hunters: For Love of the Land,” is important for the future of hunting. No doubt it will plant seeds in the minds of many people in the middle ground who care about nature and wildlife but who do not hunt. So it is a major success compared to what has been for the most part “a failure to communicate” by the hunting community.
If Dr. Wade Davis, the anthropologist interviewed, had compared the way subsistence hunters feel about animals they hunt to how recreational hunters feel the article would have been better yet. While we have a hunting tradition in North America, we lack a hunting culture. Let me explain. If you talk to people on the street who have no direct experiential or familial link to hunting about how Native Americans feel about animals they hunt, nearly all will offer responses such as, “They respect animals,” or “They have reverence for nature,” or “They feel spiritually connected to wildlife.”
But if you were to ask these same folks about how recreational hunters feel you would get blank faces, i.e., no response. Dr. Bob Norton, retired professor of psycholgy at University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse actually did this (see his new book, The Hunter, published by Riverbend).
The combined effect of decades of TV programs and movies along with articles and books is that the basic relationship of red people to wild animals and the earth is well established in North American cultural life. When I made “The Sacred Hunt,” I deliberately interviewed members of eight native tribes so that the viewer would discover that recreational hunters and native subsistence hunters use exactly the same words to describe how they feel about animals they hunt. For anti-hunters this had a powerful influence, even converting some.
In a questionnaire survey I conducted of 2,500 recreational white hunters, average age over 50, men and women both, I asked them to describe how they feel about animals they hunt; the three most commonly selected words were, “respect,” “admiration,” and “reverence.” And in response to the question about what they did when they killed an animal, 82% responded that they either thanked the animal or the Creator! Sounds a lot like native hunters. So why is our non-hunting community not aware of how we feel?
Because we don’t communicate about it among ourselves.
We talk about the details and events of the hunt, where we went and our success or failure, the game we saw and what Ted Nugent said to Geraldo on TV. We talk about hunting as a “management tool” or about controlling game populations, but we don’t talk about how we feel about the animals we hunt or why we actually hunt.
My survey is the first ever that has asked truly fundamental questions, the responses to which reveal how spiritually empowering is the hunt experience and why it is genuine education for us and good for our young people. The word “education” means to “draw out of,” not put into. The hunt brings to the surface of our being critically important dimensions of what it means to be human, which is to say that this experience makes us better people. It connects us deeply to the creatures and the earth and motivates us to take care of them. The survey also reveals that hunting teaches us universal virtues ranging from patience and inner peace to humility and compassion. And that is the image we need to create if we are to perpetuate hunting and culturally establish its value and importance. That also is what will get parents to send their kids our way.
There is much we need to do, and I think it has to begin with educating our own ranks. Most wildlife biologists, wildlife professors, hunter ed coordinators, outdoor writers and heads of hunter organizations cannot supply an accurate definition of hunting or explain why we do it. All hunters know that hunting engenders respect for life and responsibility as in handling firearms, self-restraint, honoring property rights and so on. But how many of us really grasp that hunting is NOT sport but instinct? Basketball is a sport we learn, but hunting shows up as an instinct in boys (not girls) age 4-5 around the world with the use of weapons, namely rock-throwing. My questionnaire survey shows that nearly all boys, usually from 6-9 years of age, actually kill a small animal, and most of it occurs spontaneously, i.e., without any introduction to hunting even as an observer.
Knowing that hunting is instinctive (for males anyway) has serious consequences. If it is merely sport then boys might just as well take up a different sport. On the other hand what if there is no adequate substitute for the hunting experience? Just as the sexual instinct leads to falling in love, marriage and parenting, the hunting instinct leads young men to fall in love with nature and fiercely protect it. Shooting a deer is not at all the same as shooting a basket. A kill shot on the court is not like a kill shot in the field. We do not respect or revere tennis balls, and nearly all hunters report that they feel sad about the death of the animal. The use of the word “sport” has brought untold harm to hunting.
According to my survey results about half the hunters who have hunted for 20+ years report that they have let suitable specimens go. Everything was right, it was the animal they were seeking, but even though they had a clear shot, they
let the animal pass. Why? Because it did not FEEL right to take it. On the court you take the open shot when you have it. When you’re in the field it’s a different ball game altogether, meaning that you listen to a different master than your ego. We call it the heart. If there is anything that can change this world it is experiences that teaches us to listen to the heart. There is nothing that invites males down that road like hunting. And that is why it is so very important to the future of human life and the environment. Once we hunters raise to full awareness the true educational benefits that hunting has
given us and better articulate “the heart of the hunter” we have a chance of becoming effective evangelists for hunting and all it means.
It’s not sport. It is instinct that has the potential of connecting with the heart and transforming us into better people. That’s the bottom line. Hunting is a great “product,” but it is not selling. We have to recall and repackage it in terms that communicate why we do it and what it does for us and the world. We do not hunt to control game herds or conserve wildlife. These are significant byproducts. We hunt to connect with the original human in us all and to profoundly connect with nature and the blessed animal. We hunt to experience and celebrate the beauty, intelligence and power of nature and to learn about God. We hunt to transcend the ego and become one with the environment, and in so doing we come to know at a deep level that we are as responsible for the world as we are for our self. From this profound lesson the conservation ethic is born.
I once asked a Western Shoshone elder, Felix Ike, “What kind of country would this be if the majority of men in it had been properly initiated to hunt?” He replied, “It would be a totally different world.” For those who participate directly in it the food chain becomes a love chain. The hunter puts his money where his heart is.