Whatever Happened to Hunting?
Whatever Happened to Hunting?
by Justin H Phillips
On late August evenings I have always enjoyed sitting quietly in my backyard and immersing myself in the dry heat and decreasing daylight. The two phenomena signal the end of summer, as do the mourning doves I observe that are beginning to gather in flocks and the juvenile ducks that wing across the darkening sky. I find soul-soothing comfort in the fact that autumn and the hunting seasons will soon begin.
For many years hunting was central to my existence. Over the decades I had the good fortune to travel the length and breadth of the North American continent in pursuit of waterfowl, my favorite quarry. I was obsessed with ducks. I can honestly state that over the past half-century nary a day has passed in which I have not thought about ducks. Nor am I alone. Other dedicated hunters think each day about white-tail deer or bull elk or wild turkeys or bobwhite quail or whatever their preferred quarry. All of us wonder what the upcoming season will bring. Will we bag a big buck? Will we be covered up with multitudes of decoying ducks? Will a plethora of coppery pheasants erupt from a fencerow with a loud clatter?
But the other evening as I sat in my backyard, I once again got to thinking about hunting. I pondered how it has changed over my lifetime — and not for the better. I am not referring to the gradual change in the species make-up or abundance of game. Locally, we have more whitetail deer and Canada geese than in my youth, but fewer ducks, pheasants and quail. What disturbed me was the changing mentality of so many of today’s hunters, especially younger ones. Devoting years to learning the skills necessary to become a consistently successful hunter, or the reward of coming home empty-handed, as occasionally happens to the best hunter, has become abhorrent. The new generation of hunters views success afield and a heavy bag as an entitlement.
Naturally, a new industry has developed that caters to these individuals It began, I suspect, with game farms that offered pheasants and quail. The pen-raised birds are released shortly before hunters enter the field. Success is guaranteed, and you can kill as many as you are willing to pay for. The emergence of these farms began decades ago. They were mostly found on the fringes of urban areas, places where dense, sprawling human populations had more or less eliminated wildlife habitat or a place to hunt. The hunting community did not object. They were viewed as a harmless escape for urban-dwelling outdoorsmen who wanted to go afield and shoot something. Nowadays, these game farms are found everywhere, even in rural states where wild game abounds. They cater to individuals who want success guaranteed, who want to kill a lot of birds, and who want to feel as if they have escaped the trappings of daily life.
In the interest of journalistic honesty, I should add that I have shot domestically reared pheasants and quail at game farms, mostly as a guest. I do not find them ethically offensive.
But I do not consider my game-farm outings as hunting. I would have no issue if game-farming had remained confined to upland birds. But it has grown today beyond anything one could have imagined. Along the Atlantic Flyway sporting clubs each year release tens of thousands of pen-raised, free-flying mallards. These provide shooting when diminishing numbers of “northern ducks” sit tight. Thousands more pen-raised quail are released on southern plantations where wild bobwhites once flourished.
“High-fence” deer-hunting preserves are springing up like dandelions. These enterprises keep deer confined behind fences, assuring a hunter of success. The prices are astonishing. A whitetail buck scoring 135 Boone and Crocket antler points will cost you $4,000. This would be considered a very good but not fabulous buck. A fair number of bucks of this quality are killed each year by local hunters. The price goes up according to antler size. Expect to pay over $8,000 for a buck scoring 155 or above. You can even hunt elk or exotic game. A new and expanding livestock industry has emerged to supply high-fence hunting operations with trophy animals. A friend recently recalled that while he was visiting (not hunting) a high-fence operation an employee walked in and announced, “The elk are here.” A truck transporting three elk had arrived. The big bulls were to be released for hunters to kill.
The practice is so widespread that South Africa recently passed legislation prohibiting outfitters from the common practice of releasing domestically raised game animals to be shot by unsophisticated sports who believed they were bagging wild African game. Even pen-raised lions were released for hunters to shoot. What is the allure of these pay-to-shoot operations? In part it reflects our growing cultural demand for instant gratification. You don’t have to hunt for years to bag a big buck. Dollars substitute for years afield. It further reflects our cultural belief that each of us — even a beginning hunter — is entitled to a heavy bag. Dollars substitute for hunting skill.
In my youth, some hunters put out a salt block to attract deer. Others dumped shelled corn into a pond to attract ducks. These acts were very effective in bringing game to the gun. They also were illegal. Both sportsmanship and the law demanded you earn your game. But this attitude has disappeared from hunting’s moral firmament. Fair chase has been tossed on the trash heap, along with the chase itself. This attitude and the industry that fosters it represent the future of hunting. I see no way to stop its continued growth. I hear no loud groundswell of opposition to these practices by concerned hunters or sportsman’s organizations. As I sit in my backyard on these warm August evenings and think about the upcoming season, I am saddened by this development. It represents a step backward in moral evolution. I give thanks that I came of age in an earlier time when we actually went afield to seek “‘wild” game, coming home exhausted, wet, cold, scratched by briars and what-not, when we sometimes bagged our limit and sometimes were skunked. It was a time when the rules of sportsmanship and fair-chase were more than empty platitudes.