I’ve read many specious and offensive statements in the press recently, which paint hunters as vicious and cruel people, irresponsible and violent by nature, the despoilers of public safety. Greens and preservationists are particularly fond of playing-up what they portray as the extraordinarily cruel and painful deaths suffered at the hands of wicked hunters. While I admit that save for the close-quarter headshot from a high-powered rifle it would be ridiculous to claim that hunted animals are dispatched painlessly, I do believe that responsible hunters can take steps to minimise pain and suffering, and I believe the vast majority do.
All that aside, the thing that strikes me as particularly non-sequitur is the fact that the anti-hunting/cruelty lobby appears to premise its arguments on two very flawed beliefs: 1) that an animal that is not taken by a hunter will live forever, and 2) that an animal that proves to be mortal after all, will eventually die by nature’s hand, at a rare old age, quickly, without pain or distress, probably in its sleep.
In many years of hiking through some extraordinarily remote and pristine locations in Australia, and elsewhere too, I have come across a number of dead or dying animals in ‘the bush’. It has always struck me that many of these animals have suffered lingering, unpleasant, wasting declines while waiting for nature to “take its course”. Indeed some have been so weak from illness or malnutrition that they’ve fallen prey to healthier predators that have shown no concern whatsoever for the comfort of their prey. I’ve seen ancient deer nearing the end of their lives, too old and tired to defend themselves, being torn apart by wild dogs. I’ve witnessed pigs in a similar state, eaten by other pigs and I’ve witnessed buffalo, too old and weak to escape a marsh, die a slow and unpleasant death in the mud. I once came across a very old, emaciated and tick infested Kangaroo lying under a bush, and having been disturbed by my hiking group, it raised itself from its deathbed and took-off at a staggering hop, straight into a billabong where it drown, very slowly and in great distress. But of course I have described only the fate that may await animals that die of old age in a natural setting.
I have also seen the majestic wedge-tailed eagle taking rabbits, wallabies and lambs with no apparent concern for the pain felt by a prey that has been impaled on massive, needle-sharp raptor talons. I have seen pythons crushing the life out of bilbies and bandicoots, lizards and frogs, none of which appeared to expire either quickly or painlessly. And I have witnessed the unique approach that Komodo dragons apply to the ‘hunt’; one where the prey – which can vary in size and type from that of a small child, to a fully grown water buffalo – is bitten with a mouth so rancid that the resulting bacteria-filled wound kills the victim slowly, days later. It’s not a pretty death! And of course there are crocodiles in some locations, which use massive jaws to take their unsuspecting prey by the head as it stoops to drink at a waterhole. Thanks to the marvels of modern wildlife photography we have all witnessed graphic hunter-prey images on the tele, which demonstrate quite conclusively, how inhumane death in the wild is really likely to be.
As one who lives in the bush I have seen literally thousands of dead kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, possums, bandicoots, potoroos, foxes, rabbits, cats, dogs, raptors, ducks, moorhens etc. ad nauseam, all mown down by cars. And this tally only accounts for the animals that ended their lives on the roadside after their encounters with cars. It does not include the many thousands more that, after being ‘clipped’, continue into the undergrowth, only to die lingering deaths along with any young they may harbour in a pouch. As I understand it, Greens and preservationists, while concerned about how their cars are powered, drive cars nonetheless, often in the country and even into National Parks. I suppose they must consider that the risk they pose is an acceptable one, as assessed against principles that determine that the impact of a car is less painful, more humane and therefore more acceptable than the impact of, say, an arrow. I’d dearly love to see the objective, peer reviewed research supporting that belief.
My point is this – any suggestion that denying hunters access to public lands will in some way guarantee that all wildlife will live long and fruitful lives, followed by a swift and painless death surrounded by family and friends, is anthropomorphic and non-sequitur at best. Anthropomorphic because animals are not people and do not share human expectations of life and death. Non-sequitur because there is an abundance of available evidence that clearly demonstrates that life in the wild is highly unlikely to culminate in a surgically swift and painless conclusion as if by divine right.
Hunters have a responsibility and the capacity to ensure that when taking animals, they do so ethically, taking all precautions to ensure that the death they aim to cause is not unnecessarily slow, painful or otherwise unusually cruel. This is a responsibility that must underpin each and every hunting expedition and, in my experience, for the vast majority of hunters it does.
The key to promoting a culture of responsible ethical and ‘humane’ hunting is a combination of education, peer-example, the diligent reporting of bad practice, and penalties for breaching the rules, whether they are the rules of the State, or a club’s rules. There will always be a minority who will not want to abide by the rules. Responsible hunters and politicians can no more ensure 100% compliance with sensible, ethical hunting rules, than Greens can ensure that 100% of the people they encourage to attend a ‘peaceful and non-violent demonstration’ will behave in a peaceful and non-violent manner.
Hunters cannot guarantee that hunting accidents will not occur, anymore than National Parks & Wildlife staff can guarantee that no camper will ever be hit by a falling limb, and no Ranger will ever be bitten by a snake in the course of his/her duties. Life, outside the bubble, is not safe and when the inevitable happens we must remember that fact, and try not to overreact.
I am both a conservationist and a hunter, and I believe there is scope for all to enjoy our public lands for myriad purposes – walking, camping, horse and bike riding, 4-wheel driving and hunting. If a hunter breaks the rules, he/she should be prosecuted and not every hunter banned. We accept that there are certain risks associated with driving on Australian roads. When someone breaks the rules in such a way as to make the risks unacceptable – people who drink and drive for instance – we prosecute the irresponsible party, we do not ban all driving on suburban streets. I believe that opposition to this cooperative philosophy of land use and social responsibility is often born of what is nothing more complex than cultural intolerance. Many people who call hunting excessively cruel and dangerous, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, do so simply because they have no interest in hunting themselves, and do not respect hunting as a cultural practice of many thousands of years. Yet, many anthropologists believe that the invention of the bow & arrow, as a reliable means of taking game, was as important an epoch in human development as the discovery of fire on demand, the invention of the wheel and the development of language.
For those of us who make bows and arrows, who enjoy the hunt and strive to use the game we take to the fullest, the preservation of the cultural aspect of what we do is our driving force. Some would have you believe that this is in fact the preservation and proliferation of a weapons culture, but that’s a shallow and deceptive argument. Many assaults and murders are committed by assailants wielding screwdrivers and hammers. Are carpenters and electricians responsible for surreptitiously fostering a weapons culture? After all, hammers are very effective weapons, and every household harbours at least one. Sneaky antisocial carpenters!
I think the passage of cars on Australian roads is an astonishingly clear and graphic example of what can be accomplished in the spirit of tolerance and mutually beneficial cooperation. There are 15 million vehicles registered to drive on Australian roads, many of which will, at times, do so at speeds in excess of 100 kph. Yet all that separates me travelling south at 100 kph, from you travelling north at 100 kph, is a 4 inch wide white line painted on the road, a set of constantly evolving rules, and an appreciation for the fact that as we pass each-other, it is mutually beneficial to abide by those rules and remain on the correct side of that line. I think that by comparison with the risks associated with driving on the highway or in the suburbs, the risks associated with sharing the bush with a very limited number of licensed, responsible hunters, simply pales into insignificance.
I encourage opponents of hunting to redirect their efforts towards developing the rules, principles and systems that will allow us all to enjoy use of our public lands. I also encourage Greens, preservationists and anti-hunting lobbyists to consider carefully the statements they make publically; statements that are often highly offensive to law-abiding hunters, and disrespectful to a culture thousands of years in the making; one of the oldest traditional skill-sets still in practiced today.