Is Fair Chase A Liability To The Future Of Hunting?
September 28, 2012
Yeah, I know. That’s a pretty sensational headline. It’s really not a new thing, though… at least not to me. The recent passage of California’s SB1221, outlawing the use of hounds for hunting bears or bobcats just brought it back to the fore.
I’ve made the argument before. The deeper hunters get into constructing this mythology of a Fair Chase ethic, the further we get away from a couple of realities. First of all is the reality that, when it comes down to it, there’s a lot of variation in motivation and method across the hunting community. One hunter’s tabu is another hunter’s standard operating procedure. One man hunts for spiritual fulfillment, another hunts because he enjoys the meat, and another hunts as a way to escape the pressures of the workaday world. What is important to the former may be utterly meaningless to the latter. “Fair” is an individual concept.
The other reality is the simple reality of the field. Nature doesn’t follow our agenda, and hunters often find themselves in a position that may conflict with their stated ethical mores. Maybe it’s the shot that’s just a little longer than we’re comfortable with, or the animal’s refusal to offer a really good shot angle. Or perhaps it’s that one day when the birds simply won’t flush, and the only way to bring home dinner is to ground sluice, or knock one out of a tree. It could be the day we’re invited to a hunt where it turns out the status quo doesn’t mesh with our usual standard.
We are all masters of justification. There is little we cannot rationalize, especially when there is no one around to argue the point. Which all comes down to another way of saying, we can all talk a big game when we’re hypothesizing and pontificating, but when the decision comes to pull the trigger or loose the arrow, we’re simply not all that consistent. Some hunters are, to be sure, but there are enough exceptions to cast real doubt on the sincerity or credibility of the whole. We begin to look like hypocrites.
Fair Chase is an ideal, and it is rooted in some pretty fertile, moral ground. The concept has been defined many times, with a few variations and by better wordsmiths than me. But at its essence is the argument that the animals we hunt for sport deserve a certain amount of respect, including the right to a “sporting chance”. It comes, in its modern form, from a time when men still found sport in fighting chained bears with dogs, chased wild turkeys with greyhounds or shot them off the roost at daybreak, and when market hunters with punt guns slaughtered entire flocks of sleeping waterfowl. It came as a justification for recreational hunting. It was a defensive tactic to morally segregate the sport hunter from the market hunter and the subsistence hunter. It is purely an elitist construct.
Nevertheless, I can get behind the philosophy of Fair Chase, inasmuch as I do find the most challenging hunts to be more rewarding. I get the idea of “the honorable hunt.” I think the parameters this concept defines are certainly worth aspiring to on a general level. I have great respect for the individual who holds himself to the highest level of ethical behavior.
But as a “rule of the hunt” and a standard by which to judge other hunters… I think it is sorely flawed.
I’ve already mentioned the reality that hunters are driven by a wide variety of means, motivations, and methods. We don’t all see things, even basic things, the same way. We certainly don’t all behave the same way. But I’d wager that most of us, in our own minds, see ourselves as pretty ethical hunters.
The issue, as I see it, comes when we (the hunting community) lean so heavily on ethics, and specifically on Fair Chase, as a justification or defense of the sport of hunting. As a public relations tool, it’s certainly useful to paint the picture of the “noble sportsman”. The idea of giving animals a “sporting chance” and attendant trappings of sportsmanship and “fairness” does blunt the sharper edge of the image of blood sport.
The problem is that this carefully cultivated image is easily turned against us. In the recent California decision to ban the hunting of bears and bobcats with hounds (and several insidious attachments to this law), a leading argument was that such activity does not meet the standards of Fair Chase.
From a recent article about the new law in the LA Times:
“It’s typically a high-tech hunt that results in an animal being shot out of a tree, which is unsporting and the equivalent of shooting an animal in a cage at the zoo,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States.”
The same logic is being applied to efforts to ban other types of hunting, from high fence to mourning doves. And it’s pretty effective at affecting public opinion. Non-hunters often tolerate hunting based on little more than their impressions of the sport. Studies show, time and again, that public opinions are highest when they believe the hunters eat their kill. Results are also positive when the hunt is portrayed in terms of fairness… of giving the game a “sporting chance.” And they tend to be quite negative toward behavior that doesn’t fit that image of sportsmanship and utilization.
Justification of hunting on the basis of “fairness” is a dangerous road which, if followed to its end, gets steadily narrower and narrower until there’s very little left. If it’s not fair to chase and tree a bear with hounds, how fair is it to shoot one at several hundred yards with a high powered rifle? A common cliche in the anti-hunting argument is, “why don’t you be a real sport and hunt and kill the animal with your bare hands?”
It’s a ridiculous suggestion, of course, but it’s also logical if we are indeed so enamoured of the idea of fairness. At what point is the playing field between hunter and hunted truly level? If you think about this from the perspective of the non-hunter, isn’t that what the whole concept of Fair Chase and sportsmanship is really suggesting?
And how do the tenets of Fair Chase apply in cases where hunting is a management tool, for reducing or controlling wildlife populations? Is Fair Chase in conflict with itself, when it calls for both a humane kill and giving the wildlife a “sporting chance” to escape? Consider wingshooting. Challenging indeed, and few bird hunters would enjoy the sport as much if the object were to ground sluice birds, or snipe them from a distance. But it also carries a relatively high rate of wounded and lost game.
In most cases, the most humane kill can only be ensured under very non-sporting conditions. This is, in my opinion at least, one of the strongest arguments in favor of baiting big game animals. Bring them in close and distract them with food while you wait for the best shot opportunity. This is hardly the epitome of Fair Chase, but the result is hard to argue.
The thing is, Fair Chase promotes a false standard that many hunters simply don’t follow. When the apparent message is, “this is how all hunting should be,” then what do you expect people to say when it turns out that all hunting isn’t like that at all? Is this really the kind of foundation on which we’d build the defense of our sport? What will we do when those walls come tumbling down?