Hunting as cruelty? No way!

This is the third in a series of articles in which David Hughes discusses the philosophy of hunting and the views of its detractors

One of the comments often directed at hunting is it’s a cruel sport, critics seeming to think that taking the lives of animals means wilfully causing unnecessary suffering, which betrays a total lack of understanding of the hunting ethics followed by the overwhelming majority of our fraternity. In fact, the notion that hunting involves deliberately inflicting suffering is totally contrary to the intent of hunters. All ethical hunters aim for a one-shot kill, not only to avoid unnecessary suffering but for practical purposes including recovery of tender meat, unaffected by stress hormones. The risk of losing a keenly sought-after trophy is another practical consideration when seeking a quick and efficient harvest.

Now to examine the motivations of animal libbers in more detail. Their core belief is animals are like humans and share the same feelings and awareness and anything which causes suffering to a human is interpreted as causing similar suffering in animals. Yet it’s a scientific fact that animals and humans don’t experience the world in the same way as the structure and capability of our respective brains are fundamentally different.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that deals with judgment, emotion and behaviour control, it’s where our ability to perceive and assess ourselves arises, the ability to evaluate our own thoughts and feelings. The prefrontal cortex is vastly more developed in humans than in animals (although there is a spectrum of capability over the animal kingdom). If ‘human-ness’ arises from the prefrontal cortex, then lack of this structure logically means animals don’t possess the mental attributes of what it is to be human. Only humans and a tiny handful of animals are consciously aware of their own existence.

Yet perversely we all tend to apply our human emotions and experiences to animals – a phenomenon called anthropomorphism – and this tendency increases with the cuteness of the animal in our eyes. The phrase ‘too cute to cull’ is used to describe situations in which pest feral animals or population excess of native animals leads to public resistance to reduction of numbers.

Regardless of the recommendations of research reports by reputable ecologists, political decisions are made pandering to emotively driven anti-culling groups, the problems with culling feral horses in our Alpine regions and over-population of grey kangaroos in urban areas just two examples. Put another way, nice and simply, anyone should be able to tell when their emotions are getting the better of them and use reason to rein-in impulsive actions. Emotional thinking has its place – music, art and literature depend on it – but it’s best kept out of the sphere of practical management of resources.

Animal libbers claim killing or hurting animals is wrong because it’s akin to doing the same to humans. To highlight the parallel, animal rights protesters cover themselves in fake blood, lock themselves in cages or package themselves up to resemble supermarket meat trays. But jumping to the conclusion that killing a sentient creature is like killing a person is quite illogical and there are two problems in logic here. One is the idea that being sentient creates a particular class of creature which is deserving of special treatment and the other problem is it suggests humans have some sort of prima facie responsibility to any sentient creature to alleviate its pain or prevent its demise.

Sentient means having sensory consciousness or, put another way, having a capability to sense the surrounding world. A sensory response that might be called ‘pain’ is a natural phenomenon shared by all creatures with a nervous system. Jellyfish have a primitive nervous system and by this definition earthworms and insects are also sentient, along with fish and lizards. But considering the differences in brain structure and function, any suggestion that all these sentient creatures have the same consciousness of pain as humans is far-fetched.

The question then turns to whether humans have an inherent responsibility to any sentient creature to alleviate its pain. To put the discussion in context, reflect on nature’s most fundamental law: animals can survive only by eating some other lifeforms. Observation of ecosystems leads to the inevitable conclusion that pain and suffering are part of the way nature operates.

To this extent suffering is normal and cannot therefore be inherently bad unless humans see themselves operating outside the laws of nature. Sure, we can bend the laws of nature to suit ourselves but we cannot exist outside those laws. The ethics of suffering exist only in the minds of humans – there’s no scientific law which says pain is intrinsically bad. The 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant apparently formulated the idea that while pointless suffering should be avoided, inflicting discomfort or killing could be justified on the basis of the benefit to humans. According to this philosophy, using animals for food or other products justifies their use as resources.

Keep in mind that cats, dogs and livestock were bred specifically as resources for humans and their sub-species wouldn’t exist except for the whim of humankind. We created them for the perceived benefits to us. They were formed to act in our service, whether by sacrificing their lives for food or by acting as our companions.

Not so long ago the only source of insulin for diabetics was by extracting it from the pancreas of pigs, dentistry routinely uses bovine bone for jawbone grafts, we use rats, dogs and primates during clinical development of new drug products. Only through such testing (all of which must be approved by independent ethics committees) can the efficacy and safety of new drugs in humans be predicted.

Presumably animal libbers want to enjoy the benefits of safe and effective drugs? Well there’s a consequence. No amount of wishful thinking about other types of in vitro tests which might substitute for a complex living organism can make the need for animal testing go away. In all these cases the balancing act is weighing the benefit to humans versus the actual or potential harm to the animals involved.

Let’s not forget we also apply the same cost versus benefit equation to our fellow humans. We send young people off to war to kill other humans when there’s a perceived justification, we lock people up and inflict pain (hopefully limited to the mental variety in our Australian prisons) as punishment. Our legal system decides the benefit to society outweighs the right to freedom by the offender.

Even today there are plenty of countries which retain physical punishments as part of the cost versus benefit. Are those jurisdictions wrong or do they simply work to a different code? Regardless, the point of the discussion is to highlight the subjectivity of opinions regarding inflicting pain and death on other creatures. This is not a binary situation – shades of grey prevail.

To further illustrate the subjective element to what is ‘cruelty’, we see it depends on culture and especially on the affluence of a culture. Moral standards depend on the particular cultural group as demonstrated by this excerpt from Peter Capstick’s The Last Ivory Hunter, a biographical yarn recounting the life and times of an African hunter called Wally Johnson.

Wally relates the following in relation to his native workers: I remember once coming around a bend in the road, near camp, and seeing a dead dog in the road. It had obviously been hit by a vehicle. The six or seven men I had with me broke up into uncontrollable laughter, so I asked them what was funny. “We’re laughing about the dead dog, Baas. Did you never see anything funnier in your life.” Now I don’t think the bush African is purposefully more cruel than anybody else but he seems to be . . . unthinking about somebody’s pain, never mind the suffering of animals. An animal had to have a function – food, a labor tool . . . the idea of animals serving as objects of affection and companionship is alien.

Human consciousness in survival mode is so focused on securing the basic necessities of life that esoteric considerations such as that of the quality of life of animals become irrelevant. The tendency to apply human emotions and principles to animals not only creates unreasonable prejudice against hunters but is also a major impediment to practical conservation of wild animals. Conservation is underpinned by the ecological principle that the life of any particular individual is insignificant but the survival of the species is paramount.

What this means in practice is it’s okay to harvest the surplus population created by nature because it doesn’t impact the long-term survival of the species. This principle is used routinely in the sustainable management of fisheries, wildfowl, kangaroos and African plains game like kudus and elands. Indeed, African game ranching has been responsible for major increases in native species which otherwise would have been doomed to extinction through poaching by locals for bush meat.

It’s understandable that many city-bred folk, far removed from the realities of nature, may be uncomfortable with killing and eating other creatures. It’s also understandable that a child’s emotional attachment to family pets can be extrapolated later in life to other beasts and for these reasons hunters must be well versed in the arguments supporting their recreation. Given that urban folk vastly outnumber the hunting fraternity, the need for each and every one of us to convincingly argue our case is greater than ever before. Our very freedoms depend on it.

  • Readers may also refer to the first two articles in this series which appeared in the September 2021 and February 2022 issues of Australian Shooter.
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