Selling Our Ethics
February 17, 2015
I just read a really good piece over on BowhuntingNet, by the founder of Bowhunting magazine, M.R. James. In the piece, James shares his thoughts about long-range bowhunting, and makes his arguments for why it’s a bad practice. He writes:
I’ll concede that a hunting arrow with a sharp broadhead can kill a game animal at any distance if it hits the vitals. But there’s the rub. Animals are not foam or paper targets. They can and do move. Taking 100-plus yard shots at a browsing buck or bull is not the same as shooting an unmoving 3-D replica of the same animal. No matter how good you are on the latter doesn’t mean you can consistently hit the kill area of live animals at great distances.
Personally, I couldn’t agree more, and I’ve made similar arguments, not only about bowhunting, but about long range shooting with firearms as well. Modern weaponry has come a long ways, and there’s no question that some of it enables the average hunter to perform feats that would have seemed virtually miraculous a few decades ago. There are new bows that sling high-tech arrows at remarkable speed. There are new broadheads that fly as true as field points, with blades that come out of the box as sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel. And there are sight systems that make it easy to consistently place an arrow at ridiculously long distances, as well as electronic rangefinders to eliminate the guesswork and essentially tell you which sight pin to use.
But as we overcome the mechanical challenges, we still have to face the variables of nature, not the least of which is the simple reality that live animals move. Consider that an arrow from a top-end bow begins its flight at about 300 fps. At 50 yards, (a distance that many modern bowhunters don’t consider “long range”), it takes a full half second for the arrow to arrive on target. Knowing that the arrow is shedding speed as it travels, it takes over a second to reach a target 100 yards away. An animal can do a lot of things in one second. It can take a couple of steps. It can lie down. It can turn 90 degrees or more. With this in mind, no matter how skilled the archer, or how technologically advanced the gear, there is a point at which a successful shot hinges on nothing more than luck.
So as with Mr. James, when I hear about a bowhunter shooting big game at distances of 80, 90, or 100 yards, I cringe inside. It’s such a huge risk, not simply of failure… of missing… but a risk of a crippling shot. And I recognize that, truly, whenever we attempt to cleanly kill an animal with a bow and arrow, we’re already stacking the odds against ourselves. But, at some point, I believe it’s simply bad practice to intentionally amplify that risk. And when I talk about why I don’t like long-range shooting on game, this is my primary rationale.
Of course, I have personal ideas about bowhunting that drive my own actions. Mr. James does as well, and he articulates some of them pretty clearly in the article. I find that I agree with everything he says, and expect that a lot of other bowhunters do too. We share an appreciation for the idea that the thrill of bowhunting is about getting close to game. To me, and I think to James, that’s the whole point of bowhunting… the challenge of getting close, drawing, and making a clean shot.
Mr. James writes:
Equally important to me is the satisfaction that I derive from being a hunter and not just a shooter. I prefer looking back on a successful hunt and crediting my hunting skills as much or more as mostly relying on luck and the bow I’m holding to put the animal on the ground.
And, as far as it goes, that’s awesome. I read and enjoyed James’s column as someone of similar mind.
But what if I didn’t think that way?
What if I bowhunted for the sole reason that it gave me an extra four to six weeks of hunting season? What if the only reason I picked up a bow was so that I could access places where I’m not allowed to use my rifle? What if the single most important measure of success, for me, was dead meat on the ground… as much as I can get?
I think that we too often forget that every hunter is not wired to the same frequency as those of us who have made a spiritual (for lack of a better word) connection to the hunt… and especially bowhunting. For a lot of people, the hunt is merely the means to an end. More challenge does not always equal more fun… the value of the prize is not necessarily elevated by the difficulty of attaining it. I know, from experience, that there are hunters out there who barely notice anything beyond the absence or presence of the game they seek.
How do you sell that person on the idea of what bowhunting should be about?
Even more importantly, how do you sell that person a set of ethics based on that point of view?
To be blunt, you can’t.
I think that’s the key weakness in most discussions (or arguments) about hunting ethics. You’re not starting from the same philosophical foundations. For a person who doesn’t make that deep, spiritual connection to the hunt, you’re never going to be able to play on that connection to convince them… because the connection isn’t there.
It seems simplistic when I write it here, but then I watch some very intelligent people bashing their heads against this basic, brick wall. It’s not selling ice to eskimos. It’s selling ice to someone who has no concept of hot or cold. Or… and I’ve made this analogy before… it’s selling religious fundamentalism to an agnostic. You can’t force these ends to meld, no matter how deeply you may believe.
So when you tell someone, “the reason long range bowhunting is bad, is because it goes against everything that bowhunting is about,” you have to consider that maybe it’s not at all what bowhunting is about to that person. It’s like telling someone who’s been hunting a certain way his whole life that the way he hunts “isn’t hunting.” That’s just ridiculous. It doesn’t compute. And it challenges the credibility of anything else you may have to say.
What do you do? How do you convince the person that you’re right… that you are only trying to show them the one, true way? How do you convert them?
You don’t. You shouldn’t. And that’s the point I’ve tried to make over and over again.
If the best argument you have against a practice is esoteric or aesthetic, then it really isn’t a good argument… no matter how deeply you believe. You aren’t going to convince someone that your beliefs are right and theirs are wrong on the simple basis that their actions conflict with your interpretation of, “the hunt.” If someone hunts over bait, or high fence, or long range, then in their mind they have “hunted.” You can’t argue that away. Why would you even think you could?
After saying all of this, I want to point out that I think Mr. James did a great job of articulating his position without really appearing to “preach” his “gospel”. I think it’s the right approach. He challenged some opposing viewpoints (the folks who argued in favor of long range shooting), but he didn’t challenge their validity as hunters. He started his discussion with a tangible truth… shooting at long range reduces your odds of a clean, humane kill. And the desire for a clean kill is fairly universal… whether you’re deeply committed to the ethics of the clean kill, you’re deeply opposed to missing, or if you hate the idea of following a tough blood trail for hours through rugged country.
But there are folks who are going to do it anyway, because when the moment comes, they are in that moment. They’re not thinking as much about failure as they are about success. It’s something deeply ingrained in our psyche, I think… that momentary lapse of reason where we push aside doubt and go forward with blind certainty, even when we should (and do) know better. Few hunters have the self-awareness to recognize it when it comes, and fewer still have the discipline to restrain themselves if they do.
So we get those 120 yard bow shots, or the 900 yard hail, Mary with the rifle… and there’s really nothing M.R. James or I can do about it but cringe. And maybe use it as fodder for a column or a blog post.