Hunting rites and animal rights – one historic, one not so

Those of us who love to hunt are conscious of critics of our pastime with the anti-hunting brigade endlessly at work trying to undermine our legal rights as well as the morality of our traditional practices ‑ our hunting rites. These represent a continuation of the hunter-gatherer instincts which have motivated humans since the dawn of our existence.

Among the most strident anti-hunting views come from the ‘animal rights’ movement, people who believe animals shouldn’t be exploited or adversely interfered with in any way. According to this philosophy, animals should not be used by people whether for food, other products, sport or entertainment.

Yet the proposition that animals should not form part of the human diet is to ignore the evidence of evolution, since from the time our species was emerging in Africa, our existence has mainly been sustained by hunting animals and gathering edible vegetable material. It was only relatively recently the productivity of agriculture was developed sufficiently to sustain permanent towns and then cities.

Humans eat meat, it’s as simple as that. Sure we can exist on a vegetarian diet but it’s misleading to claim we’re not meant to indulge in carnivorous habits. The observation that humans don’t have the dentition of a carnivore has led to claims that meat is unnatural fodder. Clearly we don’t have the teeth for biting and shearing – but we don’t need to.

The fossil record clearly shows ancient humans used stone tools to butcher animals and also evidences the use of fire to cook meat and render it more palatable. If humans had tools which gave them the ability to reliably kill animals – and to cut them up and cook them – the dentition of an omnivore worked just fine.

This was happening more than a million years ago when the early human, Homo erectus, stalked the wilds of Africa and into Asia. Evidence of the use of fire for cooking goes back that far, indeed anthropologists believe it was hunting, meat-eating and the use of tools and fire which distinguished humans from the apes with whom they shared a common ancestry. Modern man and meat-eating are inextricably linked.

During the most recent Ice Age in Europe, peaking about 25,000 years ago, much of northern Europe was covered in ice and in many locations our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, would have existed almost entirely on a meat diet since the summers were too short to provide any alternative and such climate-enforced dependence on hunting and a meat-based diet has continued into the modern era. The Inuit of Canada and Laplanders of Scandinavia – both living in the Arctic Circle – demonstrated well into modern times that an animal-based diet can provide the platform for a sustainable existence – it’s unarguable that meat-eating is unnatural or ‘wrong’ in these instances.

Those of a Christian persuasion may recall the words of St James Bible (Genesis 1:23): And God said, Let us make man … and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

While many may not interpret this literally, the underlying principle is clear – humans have rights which animals don’t because humans make the rules. If humans say animals have rights it’s because the human brain subjectively conceived of the concept. As ethical hunters we choose to conserve wild populations and to not inflict unnecessary suffering on our quarry. Animal-righters make a judgment call that animals deserve more.

But underneath these arguments is the reality that humans are an exception from the rest of nature. Humans alone have the combination of high intelligence, the ability to pass on knowledge inter-generationally to predictably control the environment in which they live and this control extends to using animals not just for food but a variety of other products. In a world inhabited by more than seven billion human beings, wilderness areas are ever-shrinking and ecosystems under stress. We’d all agree animals and humans would preferably live in a world without such environmental degradation but the animal-righters’ utopia of all creatures blissfully wandering around enjoying a carefree existence, unaffected by human intervention, is just impossible.

One of the fundamental building blocks for animal rights ideas is non-human animals are sentient beings and therefore somehow universally eligible for a benevolent protective umbrella (presumably enforced by the very humans who conceived the concept). Some definitions of animal rights which can be readily found online extend the concept of ‘sentient’ to mean animals have ‘feelings’, presumably equivalent to those felt by humans, and also some form of awareness of self.

There’s a huge difference philosophically and physiologically between an animal feeling pain and an animal being self-aware and having human-like feelings. Many primitive animals clearly experience a nervous response to physical trauma which may be interpreted as ‘pain’. Animals unarguably can distinguish between pain and the absence of it and anyone who has attached a live earthworm to a fishing hook knows this. But in the absence of a complex brain and any form of higher consciousness, it’s a matter of conjecture what such animals are sensing.

It is also a completely subjective judgment whether animals have the right to a pain-free existence. After all, in the natural world all animals feed on other living things. If creatures aren’t being killed by other animals which want to eat them they’re killed painfully by parasites, starvation or a myriad of other environmental challenges. Like it or not pain is the norm, not the exception. We as humans may choose not to inflict it unnecessarily on each other or on animals but the ability to make that choice arises from our peculiar exceptionalism in the animal kingdom.

There’s a 100 per cent certainty animals in the wild will experience plenty of pain from something or another. Humans come along and have created in recent times the concept that animals have the right to a ‘happy’ life without experiencing pain. On any dispassionate analysis the concept of sentient animals having an ipso facto right to anything in particular is the product of the imagination of humans, especially in the minds of many affluent city dwellers whose daily existence is largely divorced from the realities of the natural world.

Academia has generated a massive body of literature exploring what’s meant by ‘consciousness’. Researchers talk about ‘sensory consciousness’ which means the ability to sense the environment and change behavioural states in response to stimuli and if it’s this concept of ‘sentient’ the animal-righters use to justify attributing feelings and awareness to animals, the argument enters shaky ground.

Bacteria can sense nutrients in the environment and use this to orient themselves (a phenomenon called chemotaxis) while plants can sense light and modify their biochemistry to bend their growth towards it (phototrophic response). These organisms are sentient with respect to their environment yet lack any form of nervous system and clearly have no prospect of having feelings or awareness. Any claim that possession of sensory consciousness creates special rights is somewhere between subjective and plain loopy. Perhaps only the cute and cuddly creatures which appeal to human emotions are permitted to be ‘sentient’ in the minds of the animal-righters?

Moreover, the presence in a non-human animal of higher-level functioning such as working memory, social learning, planning and problem solving still doesn’t necessarily correlate with ‘sapience’ as sapience comprises a high level of cognition, intelligence and ability to perceive your self. Interestingly there are only a handful of animals capable of recognising their own image in a mirror, which puts into context the animal-righters’ belief that animals have a conscious awareness comparable with our own.

It seems clear the building blocks of animal rights philosophy are mired in subjectivity and unbridled emotionalism and all around we see this subjectivity demonstrated in the way different groups of people regard animals. The Hindu religion bestows special rights on cattle while the Islamic and Jewish faiths deem some animals less worthy than others, most notably if they have curly tails and go ‘oink’. Likewise animal libbers will draw their own subjective lines in the sand regarding the rights to self-determination of pests like flies, tapeworms, rats and feral cats – not to mention domestic livestock and pets which have been deliberately bred by humans for pleasure or resource.

So all that we of the hunting fraternity can ask of our critics is to pause and question the basis of their own beliefs – before humans existed did animals have rights? Hunters care deeply about the conservation of wild places and wild creatures, they’re practical folk who view the world realistically. Hunting is not ‘wrong’. Life’s tapestry is rich and varied and holders of alternate views to those of the animal-righters should be at least given a fair hearing instead of being subjected to unthinking and often angry knee-jerk reactions.

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