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The Myth of the Noble Beast, etc.

I read this article last week warning hunters to think before you post to social media. The gist is that, in the shadow of the zeitgeist, hunters (and, I would add, shooters in general) need to manage their public relations carefully. It's good advice—sad, but true—and recommended reading whether or not you hunt.

With that acknowledgment done, I want to address a couple of points. But first, this is my uncle Howard, in 2013 at age eighty-five, with his elk:


The Myth of the Noble Beast

This is just barely touched in a couple of brief statements:

When it comes to taking that final photo of the hunter and the animal, ethical hunters are guided by one of the main tenets of hunting: showing respect to the animal.

It's an exciting moment but it's also a moment of reverence because an animal has just died.

I've been reading hunting publications since I was old enough (still single digits) to take my first shot at a prairie dog, and woven into many narratives is the idea seen above, in which animals are more than mere beasts whose purpose is to glorify God by serving man.

Now, let me pause to make one thing perfectly clear: Ethics have a place in animal husbandry. Irresponsible and cruel practices are not to be tolerated.

But when I read, for example, of “mourning the death of a noble beast,” I must object. I've never mourned an animal death (other than a couple of dogs, but that's different). I have given thanks—to the creator, not the creature—but I've never paused in reverence over a slain whitetail.

The myth of the noble beast is, at best, sentimental nonsense, at worst, animism. Animals are neither noble nor ignoble, and their death in the service of man to be celebrated, not mourned. They possess no character at all, good or bad. Just as the purring kitten is not being good, its man-eating African cousin is not doing evil. This is what separates man from animal. We are created in the image of God, and therefore possess moral agency that they do not. Because we bear that imago Dei, our lives have intrinsic value that animal lives do not. The value of animal life is only extrinsic, measured by its service to God and his image bearers. That is why we mourn human death, but shed no tears over a cheeseburger.

In fairness to every hunter I've ever known, I've only read the myth of the noble beast in books and magazines. No one I've ever known has believed it, or at least, expressed it out loud. Contrary to Hollywood propaganda, no first-time hunter I've ever known has ever knelt tearfully over his kill, horrified at the wicked deed he has done. (Speaking of Hollywood, we also don't drink the blood of our first kills, eat the heart raw, or practice any other dangerous and stupid customs.) It is, as it should be, an entirely guilt-free experience.

Where's the beef?

On the subject of ethics, much is made of meat use. This is generally good—no responsible hunter should or would kill an edible creature without the intent of eating it. However, it is worth noting that not every kill is for meat.

I'd guess that most hunters these days are not doing it primarily for the meat. (In many cases, the cost of harvesting game is considerably more than its equivalent purchase of beef, pork, poultry, or fish from the grocery store.) Hunters hunt for the same reason mountain climbers climb, that is, for the joy of the experience and the satisfaction of the accomplishment; there is nothing wrong, and much right, about that.

Furthermore, not every animal is killed for its meat. Think of fur-bearers, for example. Who eats a mink or fox? Other animals are killed—be prepared to be shocked—just for fun and target practice. I think of the literal thousands of prairie dogs I shot as a pre-teen in South Dakota that were neither eaten nor mourned. Sure, there was a practical reason that ranchers let us on their land, that prairie dogs are pests that ruin valuable pasture land, but that was not our primary reason. We never would have done it if it hadn't been so much fun.

My point is not that hunters may acceptably waste their kill, but that meat acquisition should not be made a sine qua non of hunting. In fact, if hunters never harvested their meat, it would not actually be wasted. There are, after all, many links in the food chain. I've heard of a deer stolen by coyotes, and once lost a rabbit to a fox, not to mention birds I've downed but couldn't find that were eventually eaten by something.

I'm not sure how to summarize these points, but these thoughts come to mind:

Posted 2018·10·08 by David Kjos
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