Why We Hunt: Call of the Chase
Why We Hunt: Call of the Chase
The Meaning of Trophy in Male Initiation
“I’m not a trophy hunter,” my hunting partner declares. So I ask him, “If there are two identical bucks, same size, weight and condition, standing side by side facing you, but one is a four-point and the other is a six, which one would you shoot?” His answer is the same as every “meat hunter” I’ve asked, “I’d shoot the six-point buck.” I ask him, “Doesn’t that make you a trophy hunter?”
My friend can’t stand to think of himself as a trophy hunter, but in the shed behind his house are the racks of a dozen deer and elk he’s saved for years. The head of the big bull his son shot at age 15 is mounted and hanging on the wall. No one is in the house for long before learning that the trophy bull scored 360 points.
So is he a trophy hunter or isn’t he? And why are so many hunters ashamed of the term? According to a survey conducted several years ago, the vast majority of non-hunters disapproved of trophy hunting, but so did 85% of the hunters surveyed. Yet I am convinced that nearly every one of those hunters collects trophies of one kind or another.
When a hunter saves an exceptionally long tail feather from a cock pheasant, he is collecting a trophy. He might wear it in his hunting cap or put it on the dash of his pickup or in a vase on the mantle at home, but it’s nonetheless a trophy.
The problem is semantical. To most non-hunters and hunters alike, trophy hunting means to hunt and kill animals strictly for the trophy, not for food. A colleague of mine at the University of Georgia annually gave a lecture to the new wildlife students. “Shoot ‘em and Leave ‘em Lay” was the title of his talk. He argued that killing animals for trophies made a whole lot more ecological sense than meat hunting. When a hunter kills a deer and takes only its antlers, the rest of its body decays and returns to the ecosystem, supporting all sorts of living things, including future trophy deer.
My buddy is not what Professor Gene Decker of Colorado State University calls a “competitive shooter,” meaning that his motivation in shooting animals is to compete for records in the Boone and Crockett Club book. His goal in life is not to shoot the elk with the biggest rack or have more record big game species to his name than anyone else. But he’s still a trophy hunter and so are most hunters. If he can challenge himself by investing the extra time and energy required to take a better specimen, then he will, even if that means coming home empty-handed and often it does.
I live in western ranch country where elk hunting is the ultimate challenge in every sense, and though most of the men and women who hunt elk here are not competitive shooters, strictly speaking, they are likely to hunt for extra miles or days to take a trophy animal. One rancher told me that as a young man he despised hunting for meat until he discovered the challenge and rewards of selectively hunting bigger or better bucks and bulls. He took me to the barn and showed me their racks, recounting each hunt in detail.
In those days at the University of Georgia most wildlife students were hunters, and being hunters they were distressed by the professor’s message. It was logical, but it bothered them at a deeper level. They didn’t feel it was morally right to kill an animal and waste the food. National surveys indicate that non-hunters feel the same: most agree with hunting as long as it’s done for food. The fact is that given a choice most hunters take a better trophy animal, even though they eat it.
Where does trophy hunting originate? Why do we do it? Those are the questions I began asking in l975 when I was hunting ducks with Sievert Rohwer, my colleague in zoology at the University of Washington, the only other hunter in a faculty of sixty. While we were eating breakfast before sunrise at a restaurant in eastern Washinton’s pot hole country, a guy walked by with a curly tail feather of a mallard drake stuck in the front of his cap. “Why do hunters put feathers in their caps?” Sievert asked, and I replied, “It’s a trophy I guess.”
Today we are most familiar with the awarding of trophy cups, which originates from the late stone age hunters of Europe who used the trophy skulls of enemies as drinking cups, a practise continued by civilized European warriors until a few hundred years ago. The discovery of human skull caps in Late Stone Age caves of Europe suggests the tradition may be thousands of years old. But trophies of all kinds originate from hunting.
A trophy is any part of an animal that communicates a hunter’s achievement. A tail feather advertises to others that a hunter killed a mallard drake or a cock pheasant. Antlers on the wall tell us that a hunter has killed a deer. Typical trophy values include size, rarity or elusiveness and ferocity. Species that are difficult to kill symbolize power precisely because power is required to kill them. Usually larger antlers or horns correlate with larger size of the animal, and the larger the animal the better the hunter which is why a six-point rack carries more status than a four-point. An albino deer may carry more trophy value than a normal deer of the same size because they are less common and harder to find, thus greater hunting skill is required to take them.
An animal that is extremely difficult to hunt, such as mountain sheep or goats, may not be very large or rare, but still they demonstrate a hunter’s prowess, fitness, determination and perseverance. The highest ranking trophies are from animals that are dangerous, such as Cape buffalo, grizzly bear, rhinos or big cats.
Evidence from European caves indicates that the Neaderthal hunters collected the skulls and leg bones of bears as trophies which they stored in the oldest known stone chests. The fossilized footprints of a l6-year old Cro Magnon boy in one cave suggest that he was ritually initiated into manhood after killing his first deer. Behind where the boy stood etched in the wall is a deer. In front of the boy are the fossilized foot prints where four men encircled him. Teenage Cro Magnon males were buried with the single canine tooth of a deer around their necks. To this day in Germany and Switzerland, young hunters collect and wear the same tooth from their first deer, often throughout their lives. When I lectured in Slovenia to an international conservation group, I explained my theory to a Swiss hunter in his mid-50s, and the man unbuttoned his shirt and presented to me the trophy tooth of his first deer taken forty years earlier. It appears that some hunting traditions haven’t changed much in 30,000 years!
In fact, our lives are measured by trophies of all sorts, from the hides and heads of game animals to diplomas, graduation rings and expensive cars, all of which symbolize and advertise an achievement worthy of a certain degree of social esteem. Trophyism – the love of trophies – is fundamental to understanding human nature, and how, indeed, we gained dominion of the planet.
Contrary to the assertions of anti-hunters lobbying for the cessation of using dogs to hunt black bears and cougars, trophy hunting is hardly a recent invention of the Euro-American male ego! In contemporary hunting societies and during humanity’s vast hunting existence, the hunting success of males has been crucial to survival.
Because the ability of males to kill large animals directly influences the survival of themselves, their mates and children, it is not surprising that among hunting societies women evaluate the suitability of males according to their trophies. Any male who has killed a trophy animal stands to gain in competition for mates if his hunting prowess relative to other males is verifiable. Now you know why males take possession of part of the prey to advertise its kind or communicate its size. Manhood and candidacy for marriage are earned by demonstration of minimal hunting ability. The groom usually gives his prospective in-laws a present in the form of meat he has obtained by his own hunting; the only way a young man could marry was by proving himself as an able provider.
A male !Kung Bushman cannot marry until he has killed a “buck,” some type of antelope. Those men who never prove themselves worthy by killing an antelope never marry and never father children.
Nomadic hunters can’t afford to transport large animal parts, but any portable item constitutes a trophy if it clearly identifies the prey or its esteemed size or sex. The semi-nomadic Akoa pygmies wear elephant hair bracelets as trophies. An Akoa legend links hunting ability to such trophies and reproductive success of males:
“His arrows felled all game, and he had already
killed two elephants and he wore a necklace of hairs from their tails. All the women ran after him.”
Greatly admired for having killed four wildebeests in one hunt, a !Kung hunter displayed this feat with their tails. Bushman customarily cut strips of skin from the foreheads of the antelope they kill and make them into bracelets worn on their wives’ arms. The forehead skin communicates the particular species killed, a measure of hunting prowess. Bushman also fashion their hunting bags from the identifiable skins of trophy species. The abundance and kind of these trophies correlate with the success of the hunter and his social esteem.
Among Alaskan Eskimos the completion of full eligibility for marriage came after a male had killed a succession of animals of increasing size and difficulty, ending with a bearded seal or polar bear, the former being especially difficult, the latter very dangerous.
We are saying that for hundreds of thousands of years boys became men, husbands and fathers, according to their hunting success, which they demonstrated by presenting a trophy animal as proof of their hunting prowess and suitability as a mate and provider.
Collecting that first trophy is a turning point in a young man’s life, from boyhood to manhood. For males, the trophy has been an essential component of their rite of passage. That is why many hunters still value their first trophy above all others, even if it is rather paltry. My friend Russell Grieve is a perfect example. He has a wall full of fine deer head mounts, but the one that sets right above his desk and about which he speaks most fondly, telling visitors that he kissed the deer as soon as he shot it, is a little forked horn buck.
Jim Posewitz wrote a fine little book entitled Beyond Fair Chase, widely used in hunter education. In it he outright condemns trophy hunting, but to a young hunter especially the trophy is symbolic of his passage into adulthood and the self-esteem and social respect that deserves. Which is why Aldo Leopold said, “Trophy hunting is the perogative of youth.”
The advantages of trophy hunting extend beyond qualifying for marriage to status in male groups. Status among men influences a male’s mating success, for instance, number of wives, as well as wealth, influence and power. Display of hunting prowess to other males affects the probability of a male being accepted as a hunting partner. Contrasted with solitary hunting, cooperative hunting can be far more lucrative in terms of food and much safer in terms of risks from dangerous carnivores. By proving hunting ability to other males a man is accepted or sought for group hunts and thereby increases the amount of food available to himself and his kin. The same principle applies today.
Marksmanship can be a trophy value. If two bow hunters both shoot a l00-pound doe, but the one hunter fired one arrow and the other fired two, then the first hunter’s achievement ranks higher. Rock guitarist Ted Nugent was quick to tell me, “I’m no trophy hunter.” But he also went on to tell me exactly how many deer he’d taken that year and how many arrows he loosed to get them. To the “Nuge” number of deer taken and shots fired accurately are trophies.
The ability to kill a large animal such as an antelope or a deer is normally sufficient to earn marriage status and minimal rank in male groups. Those men who obtain more meat more often earn higher status among males and gain more wives or more surviving children. Competition among men of groups favors those who kill the largest, most elusive or most dangerous animals irrespective of their food value or even the need for food. The overall reproductive advantages of high status among men can be so great that males risk their lives against terribly awesome beasts. As competition for status, trophy hunting is a conspicuous expression of male egoism, and it explains why men, primitive and modern, kill animals for reasons other than food.
Among Zambia’s Valley Bisa people, the social ranking of hunters is determined by the kinds of prestigious mammals slain, these being largest or most dangerous – eland, lion or elephant. In bear hunting by Eskimos, a hunter’s prestige is measured by the risk of injury presented by the animal. As anthropologist Elliot Spiess said,
“There are times when prestige is the motivation behind a hunt, as in winter hunting
of denned black bears, or when an Eskimo who has plenty of food and skins looses his
dog team on a polar bear.”
Many of the native cultures of North America were hunting bear and cougar trophies using dogs when Europeans arrived. Which means that for millennia, trophy hunting has kept these species avoiding and evading humans. Scientific work I conducted on the development of predatory behavior in big cats further supports the conclusion of every rancher in the west, “If we stop hunting them they’ll soon be hunting us.”
Killing of predators is not only beneficial in reducing predation on humans and competition for big game, it is also very difficult. For all these reasons predator trophies carry especially high status. The advance of human societies from hunters to effective competitors against large carnivores, and, finally, to warriors against other humans, has been recorded in their trophies. At any point in time the trophy values of a people reflect their rank among larger predators and the importance of competition with them versus other humans.
When humans are subordinate to predators, warfare against humans is relatively rare or insignificant and the highest trophy values are for large game species. The !Kung Bushman are a good example. Until recent intervention by Europeans with firearms, they were co-dominant with the lion which they still fear and normally avoid. The outcome of a confrontation between Bushman and lions will depend on a range of factors including motivation from hunger, how many of each are present and so on. When Bushman occasionally kill leopards they do so in groups and with the aid of dogs. Leopards are not killed for food but because they pose a threat or have stolen prey wounded by the hunters. Their elimination can have a long-term benefit. Among !Kung trophies there are no risky carnivores or humans; their trophies are large herbivores.
The Tapirare Indians of Brazil are comparable to the !Kung in that their highest ranking trophies are herbivores. Like the !Kung, they do not make war. Rarely, they kill jaguars close to camp with the aid of dogs, but never hunt them for trophies. Their and many low-ranking peoples’ tabus against killing the largest game animals appear to be a cultural adaptation to avoid direct competition with big predators.
Among those societies that are equal or higher in rank to the largest predators, the most esteemed trophies may be dangerous carnivores or enemy warriors. Among several warring societies of South America, only the jaguar rates as high in trophy value as an enemy human. After the introduction of the horse, the Plains Indians’ primary resource, the bison, was mobile but also clumped in herds and relatively defendable. Such semi-nomadic societies warred among themselves and hunted large carnivores as trophies, among which the grizzly bear symbolized power. In numerous hunting societies of the north, brown bears have ranked as high or higher than a human trophy, such as a scalp taken in war, as evidence of warring ability.
The Eskimos’ major competitor for seals, their most important food resource, is the polar bear. Prior to the advent of firearms, Eskimos were at best equal in rank with the awesome white bear. If a man killed one he was held in high esteem. According to Richard Nelson, one Eskimo had killed a polar bear with his knife, “This feat proved him one of the greatest of the old-time hunters.”
Among pastoral societies, hunting ability is not directly important to the reproductive success of males; nonetheless, the advantages of predator control are obvious since the major food resource, livestock, is vulnerable to predation. As a way of life pastoralism would be impossible unless males were able to defend livestock against predators. For semi-nomadic pastoralists such as the Maasai, who typically warred with agrarian societies for grazing lands, the hunting of large carnivores can be ritualistic, done in such a way as to give individuals the opportunity to demonstrate warrior skills. Other examples include the Zulu, Suk and Turkana males who adorn themselves with the skins of trophy leopards.
High-ranking, dangerous and difficult-to-kill predators such as the lion, bear and eagle symbolize might and aggression in warring peoples. Warriors not only don the skins and weapons of predators, they also label their groups with these animals’ names, for example, the Leopard Group of the Turkana and the Lion Hunters of Niger. We all are familiar with fraternal societies with the names of Eagles and Lions. Similarly, on a raid, Hidatsa Indians likened themselves to wolves and wore wolf skins.
Pseudo-trophies are found among some Indian societies of the Amazon Basin, the men of which trade with other tribes for jaguar claws and teeth that they wear around their necks, giving the impression to enemy warriors that they must be powerful adversaries. The illegal market in grizzly claws comes from a demand for pseudo-trophies that suggest a man’s prowess as a hunter.
Men who are able to demonstrate their warring skills by taking dangerous or difficult game benefit from perfection of skills transferable to warfare, as well as from gaining status in groups. Warrior skills are highly valued by agrarian societies, wherein trophyism prevails. With civilization the opportunity arose for display of otherwise burdensome parts of large animals, such as tusks, heads and whole specimens. The cultural extensions of trophyism as the pronouncement of power include sculpted concrete lions and eagles adorning buildings of state.
As weapon technology accelerated to the level of sophisticated firearms, the risks of hunting dangerous animals was lowered, shifting trophy values from what previously had been dangerous animals, indicative of the hunter’s bravery and suitability as a warrior, to extremely rare or difficult species, indicative of leadership qualities. Among males of agricultural-industrial societies, a trophy of an extremely rare species has become as significant as one of a dangerous species, so that, today, the most esteemed trophies are the rarest on den walls.
The previously esteemed “Big Five” of Africa - elephant, rhino, Cape buffalo, lion and leopard- include exceptionally large or potentially dangerous species which are not especially rare. The “Grand Slam” includes trophies of North America’s rugged mountain game, valued not for rarity, size or danger, but because the successful hunter has to possess qualities desirable in a warring society. These are self-control, physical conditioning and stamina, patience, tenacity and wealth. It is no mere coincidence that disproportionate numbers of men with high status or great wealth in modern American society, business tycoons, military leaders and holders of high state office, are trophy hunters.
Because trophies carry so much importance, confirmation of the kill is often required in hunting societies. Today, organizations such as Boone and Crockett Club are detectors, demanding clear proof of the kill. Some recent oil millionaires have purchased trophies and hung them on their walls, but nothing is more contemptible among trophy hunters.
For thousands of years trophies have signified manhood and virility. A man is described as “randy” if he is especially virile or has a high libido. The term “randy” actually originates from an old Latin word, “randall,” which means “wolf shield.” In the pre-Roman era, men qualified for marriage by killing a wolf, the threat to herds of sheep and goats, the important food supply. By killing a wolf, a man demonstrated that he could protect herds and therefore be a worthy provider, and he signified his achievement by carrying a wolf shield. To this day in northern Italy when a man asks a woman to marry and he offers her a single hair from a wolf the people of the village say they will have many children!
Lycanthropy or werewolfery also has its origin in pre-Roman trophy hunting. A Greek historian who witnessed the annual carnival during the winter solstice wrote about the men of the wolf cult – those men who had killed wolves – donning wolf skins. His description later was mistranslated to say that they “took on the appearance of wolves,” thus giving rise to the myth of men transforming into wolves.
Because trophies are associated with virility, rhinos are killed for their horns and tigers for their organs. The belief in the Orient that consuming rhino horn will revitalize a man and elevate his sex drive can be traced back thousands of years to when vital, robust men killed rhinos to demonstrate their prowess and desirability as mates.
During most of human history, God was a tiger, lion, jaguar or bear. Man’s original gods were ruthless, they ruled his life, stole his food, ate him and his kin and terrified him by day and night. As man progressed as a hunter, winning a place among carnivores by common defense and weaponry, a few brave men acquired the power of carnivore gods by killing them. The original good was a predator trophy, divine because it pointed human destiny towards greater freedom, security and material wealth.
Every culture known in the history of the world has a hero who killed an awesome beast. The last immense stride made by humanity was pastoralism and full domination of large predators, made possible by trophy hunting. However, while domination of predators meant lower risks and less competition it also promoted the growth of human societies, possibly the overkill of game, and, eventually, extreme competition and warfare among human societies.
Contemporary life resounds of trophyism and the social esteem associated with the domination of predators. A cover of Newsweek depicted Jimmy Carter and his cohorts lion like “in the lion’s den,” a common phrase. Dozens of beers, some for over 600 years, are symbolized by the lion. Lowenbrau means “lion beer.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the most common name given to taverns for hundreds of years has been “Red Lion.” A red lion is a dead lion, and the fraternity of the red lion are those men who killed lions. Automobiles named Jaguar, Cougar, Bobcat and Panthera are powered by putting a “tiger in your tank.”
As an anthropologist said about these ideas, “Perhaps this is enough to explain the failure of the Edsel. Driving a car with a name like that is not going to affect the reproductive success of an American male.” Regarding mate selection, the most esteemed fur coats, have been those of big cats, and imitation fur coats have the same appearance.
But there is more to trophyism than male egoism. There is a positive, spiritual side to the trophy, too. At the age of l3 I collected my first trophy, a mallard hen, which I very carefully skinned and preserved. That skin was sacred to me and it stayed there in the basement of my parents’ house in “my” old hunting room for decades, just as it survives even now in the “basement” of my mind. Every hunter remembers his first kill vividly and can accurately recount it, not unlike the first time he made love.
For me that mallard hen was not merely a symbol of my first big step to manhood. By preserving her skin I also honored her from a level of pride that transcends ego. That trophy also honors her life as well as the spirit of her nation, and above all else it is a public statement of gratitude for the gift of her life that I might become a man worthy of her sacrifice. So it is that at the deepest level the trophy is a personal statement about connection with life and a commitment to serve life with respect, the unspoken, common commandment of all true hunters.
A famous taxidermist, Mike Boyce, who also is an artist and an articulate spokesmen for hunting, told me he keeps a bear mount in his den so that he can be in communication with the essence of the bear, which means to him the spirit of the bear. I’ve learned from native people why an eagle feather is a prized trophy. It might require climbing a very tall tree and risking your life to get one as nesting eagles dive at and strike you, but on the other hand that Indian will tell you that his trophy connects him with the spirit of the Eagle Nation. The Kahunas of Hawaii would say that the trophy connects us via an “aka chord” of etheric energy with the spirit of the animal.
So in an egoic sense, trophies rank a man socially, but they also are a record of that man’s deep connections with the creatures he killed. A trophy is both an egoic statement and a spiritual symbol.
On one hand, trophies may explain how humans came to rule their world. On the other, the overwhelming success of trophy hunting precipitated the modern crisis of declining resources and threat of global war. Now that “the lion’s share” is ours, only the regulation of ourselves and our relationship to the environment can save us and our precious natural heritage. Perhaps it is no surprise that World Conservation Force and its membership of high-ranking trophy hunters are at work to conserve the remaining lion population in Africa. Outside of national parks, the lion’s only real ally is the trophy hunter.
From a conservation perspective in a severely beleaguered world, the popular moral judgment against trophy hunting isn’t valid. Throughout the history of civilization, powerful men have established preserves for the purpose of perpetuating trophy game. Otherwise, many species would have been eradicated owing to their competition with humans, livestock and farm lands. The Asiatic or Biblical lion, for example, survived into the modern era solely because it was protected by Indian royalty as a valuable trophy species. Its value as a trophy animal is what brought the white rhino back from near extinction to a secure population level. Similar programs dubbed “Campfire” and “Axmade” have helped recover the elephant in Africa, and could do wonders for the grizzly bear and tiger.
In recent history, the greatest conservationist of wildlife and wilderness was this nation’s best known trophy hunter – Theodore Roosevelt. Even if we do not agree with their motives, we owe a vote of gratitude to Roosevelt and the men and women like him whose love of trophies is a powerful conservation force.
What cannot be denied is that a young man’s trophy signifies his passage from childhood to manhood, and if we intend to initiate young men properly then it is essential that we encourage them to collect a trophy from the animals that make their passage possible. The trophy symbolizes an achievement worthy of manhood, and it plants a sense of self-worth and confidence at a subconscious level, but it also represents a spiritual connection with the animal from which comes a sense of the unity of life.
Levi Carson is Nez Perce, a robust man who used to ride bulls in the rodeo. He described to me his first deer hunt, mentored by his grandfather. When they came upon a buck, Levi’s grandfather gestured to the deer and whispered in Nez Perce, “There. Your good heart.” His grandfather was saying to Levi that in taking the deer, his intentions must be pure. With tears in his eyes, Levi said that those very words gave deep meaning to his rite of passage, and that without them being passed on there will be no reverence for the animals. Perhaps there will be no good-hearted men.
A young man’s trophy holds his heart.