Consider this loaded question: Should grizzly bears, wolves and cougars be hunted for sport? Worldwide, given their rarity and declining numbers, should lions, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars and tigers?
If so, why?
Across North America we find ourselves in another big game hunting season. For many the harvest is as much about putting meat in the freezer — a form of modern subsistence — as it is about the profoundly personal act of communing with nature.
From an early age, a lot of us were taught two guiding ethical principles: Don’t take the life of an animal unless you intend to eat it, and, if you do kill, there ought to be a good reason.
As states sanction hunts of iconic predators (grizzlies and black bears, wolves, mountain lions and coyotes), there remains a fact: People will eat little of those animals that they kill.
The search for a rationale in targeting predators must necessarily speak to reasoning beyond the simplistic argument advanced by fish and game departments that selling hunting tags generates revenue.
The issue of whether there’s an underlying moral — and compelling biological — justification for killing predators is taken up by two university professors in a new thought-provoking scientific analysis, “Wolf Hunting and the Ethics of Predator Control,” soon to be included in a new book, “The Oxford Handbook of Animal Studies.”
Author John Vucetich is a well-known Midwest wolf researcher and conservation biologist at Michigan Tech University; Michael P. Nelson is on the faculty at Oregon State University. In their paper they examine why large carnivores — which possess undeniable ecological value — are hunted.
Before we proceed let it be clear that Vucetich and Nelson did not write the paper to advance an anti-hunting agenda. They wanted to determine if any “good reason” for hunting predators exists.
“What counts as an adequate reason to kill a sentient creature?” they ask. “The hunting community has long recognized the value of this question to understanding the conditions under which various kinds of hunting is appropriate.”
Vucetich and Nelson consider the spectrum of societal attitudes toward predator hunting as expressed by trophy hunters, government wildlife managers, those who hunt for food, those who eat no meat and animal rights advocates.
They dissect the premise that predators must be controlled to ensure healthy populations of elk, deer, moose and pronghorn — and even, as is sometimes asserted, to protect people. They test the assertion that the best way of promoting conservation of a species is to place a value on its head and hunt it.
They also scrutinize the attitudes of so-called “wolf haters,” pointing out that unlike hunters of edible big game, whose pursuit seems to make humans more respectful of the animal, many who kill wolves are actually driven by a lack of empathy.
In a statement certain to spark debate, they charge: “Many instances of wolf poaching … are wrong because they are primarily motivated by a hatred of wolves. These instances of poaching qualify as wrongful deaths, if not hate crimes.
“To legalize such killing does not make them any less wrong. Moreover, people who threaten to poach wolves unless wolf killing is legalized are engaging in a kind of ecological blackmail … .”
Vucetich and Nelson also share thoughts about trapping: “A trophy is a kind of prize, memento or symbol of some kind of success. To kill a sentient creature for the purpose of using its body or part of it as a trophy is essentially killing it for fun or as a celebration of violence.
“And although there was once a time when trapping wolves for their pelts might have been a respectable means of making a living because wolf pelts were then a reasonable way to make warm clothing,” they state, “we no longer live in that time.”
Ultimately Vucetich and Nelson conclude that killing predators for sport isn’t justified biologically or on moral and ethical grounds.
They take government agencies and universities to task for not brokering honest discussions about such controversial issues as wolf management and predator control with citizens and students.
So often we do things in our society, they suggest, without bothering to provide the “good reason” for why.
Readers can judge for themselves. A copy of the analysis is attached to the online version of this story.