Through a fictional dialogue, Canadian philosopher Trudy Govier puts the thoughts of an environmentalist against those of a trophy hunter. Govier is wedded to the idea that colloquial philosophy can play a part in tackling issues: it’s a style that’s easy to comprehend, lively and interesting.
The dialogue below, between Ned, a man who has just killed a grizzly bear in a trophy hunt in British Columbia; Gillian, Ned’s neighbour and environmentalist; and Anna, Ned’s 14-year-old granddaughter, sheds light on the many perspectives that exist and the value that each can bring to our understanding of the bigger picture.
Gillian: Hi Ned, that looks like an awkward bag you’ve got there.
Ned: It’s a bear skin. I’m loading it to take to a taxidermist to be cleaned. Last week I was off at a lodge in northern BC, just me and some guys, and I got this one, a big one. When this skin is all fixed up it will make a great decoration for our living room.
Gillian: You killed a grizzly? I thought they were an endangered species—protected due to diminishing numbers.
Ned: Not in BC. I killed this big one up near Prince George, and I’m going to show it off.
Gillian: God, I can’t believe it. This sort of thing still goes on?
Ned: Don’t be a killjoy. There’s nothing wrong with killing animals and some of us have a lot of fun hunting. Are you a vegetarian? If not, you’re eating the flesh of killed animals every day. Just because you don’t kill them yourself that doesn’t make you more virtuous than hunters.
Gillian: Actually, Ned, I am a vegetarian. People don’t need to eat meat to have a healthy diet and keeping off it really helps with blood pressure and cholesterol control. Many animals people eat are raised in terrible conditions, and growing grain for them takes up land and water that could be used to grow plants for direct human consumption.
Ned: Sure, sure.
Gillian: But what I’m questioning here isn’t killing animals for food or even hunting as a sport, it’s hunting for trophies. Hunting so you can brag about it, when you don’t even use the meat. When people kill animals for food, at least they use the flesh of the animal.
Ned: Oh come on, Gill. Human beings have been hunting animals since the beginning of recorded history—and probably much longer. Hunting animals is something people naturally do and taking pride in a successful hunt is just part of being human—part of being a man.
Gillian: <sarcastically> Oh, part of being a man. I’m not going to buy into that. Sure, hunting is traditional. But that doesn’t show it’s right. And just because something is natural, that doesn’t mean it’s morally acceptable.
Ned: Even if men killing animals has been part of human societies for many thousands of years?
Gillian: They killed to get food and shelter. If you’re going to convince me that it’s right to kill a grand old grizzly, native to our land, and scarce due to habitat depletion, you’re going to need a better argument than that. It’s traditional? Part of human nature? Or male human nature? Come on.
Ned: Were the Indians committing environmental or moral wrongs every time they killed a pronghorn or a buffalo?
Gillian: I didn’t say that. In their traditional lifestyle, First Nations people killed to meet their needs. They didn’t waste; they valued the animals and respected them. Some even apologised to the animals to acknowledge their value in the natural order. Anyway, it’s not ‘Indians’. It’s ‘First Nations’.
Ned: First Nations. <sarcastically> Picky, picky. You environmentalists will attack a few guys for going off to have a good time, but you’ll never criticize the Indians.
Gillian: That’s not the point and you know it. Aboriginal people can defend their hunts by pointing to their need for meat and bones and skins or on the basis of traditional pursuits central to preserving their culture. You just want the skin to show it off. This kind of killing is just to have ‘fun’ and get a false sense of achievement.
Ned: I admit it. I am proud of my bear skin. I also really like it and I’m going to display it so that I can appreciate it and admire it.
Gillian: Look, Ned, I don’t want to fight. We’re neighbours after all. We should be able to talk about it.
Ned: Gill, you’re right. We’re talking about one thing: trophy hunting. And I just can’t see what’s wrong with it, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a big issue. If you’re going to worry about nature, why don’t you spend your energy on wilderness conservation or water or forests? Or climate change—that’s the really big one!
Gillian: Everything counts. And anyway, trophy hunting is not such a small problem. It’s related to the extinction of species, which is a very big problem.
Anna (Ned’s 14-year-old granddaughter) comes in.
Anna: Hi Grampa.
Ned: Oh Anna, I’m glad to see you. I forgot you were coming over this afternoon. Your gramma’s out at the moment, but perhaps you can come along with me to the taxidermist. I’ve got a fine grizzly bear hide here in this bag, and I was just setting out to get it cleaned and fixed up so your gramma and I can hang it up over the fireplace.
Anna: <faintly> Right in the living room? Oh no! But how did you get the bear hide? Was the bear found dead on the highway or something?
Ned: I went hunting and killed a bear. I was just telling Mrs Edwards.
Anna: You killed a bear? That doesn’t sound very nice. What about Gramma?
Ned: Don’t worry, I’m not planning to hang her up too!
Anna: Grampa, I mean does Gramma want a bear skin in the living room?
Gillian: Living room wall? Oh no, poor Carol. Couldn’t you at least hang it in the basement?
Ned: Are we discussing interior decorating now? Look, it’s okay to kill animals. I killed that bear and I’m proud of it, the fur is beautiful. Killing animals is customary and acceptable: human beings have been doing it for a very long time.
Anna: You want to show off killing? You’re proud of it? The poor bear!
Ned: Anna, you’re a soft-hearted girl, but the point is, people kill animals all the time. You support the killing of animals whenever you eat a hamburger! And I really like this bearskin. <pats stuffed garbage bag affectionately>
Gillian: With all due respect Ned, it’s not as though you stalked that bear and risked your life to kill it with a bow and arrow. Didn’t you pay for a license and have a guide to lead you to it? It hardly qualifies as a sport.
Ned: Look, it felt like an adventure and it was an adventure.
Gillian: I’ve seen ads on the Internet for these adventures, and some of them guarantee a success rate of 95%. We’re not exactly talking about First Nation braves in the uncharted wilderness or anything like that.
Anna: If you were in the wilderness, wandering around on your own trying to find a grizzly bear, Gramma would be really worried about you. And so would we all.
Ned: I was with a paid guide, that’s important. People in isolated areas can make a decent living doing that. If you care about the native people, that should matter.
Gillian: That bear didn’t have a chance. What you did didn’t take courage; you weren’t risking your life in the wilderness. The hunter is merely a shooter; there is no skill at all.
Ned: It’s not so easy to shoot a target to kill. Gill, you’ve never tried it, so you wouldn’t know. We’re not talking about South Africa and canned hunting, where lions are raised just so they can be killed. I know there are issues about species there.
Gillian: Species extinction is a global problem.
Ned: Just what is the problem, in my case? Is it that I killed a single animal, this particular grizzly bear? Or is it the survival of the species? Or it is that I’m a white man and you don’t like my arguments?
Anna: Grampa, don’t get mad. It’s just bears are beautiful in the wild and in the wild they can move around, find their food, reproduce, and lead a real life. They are living creatures just the way we are. Grampa, I just don’t understand why you don’t take the bear’s life more seriously.
Gillian: Look, Ned I’m just looking for better arguments to defend this trophy hunting and I think Anna’s right. That animal was a sentient creature, and its life and welfare shouldn’t be ignored. It’s not just a commodity to exploit for human desires. You talk about pride where there should be shame. Killing an animal when you’re protected in a vehicle and armed with a rifle—that’s no real achievement.
Ned: So, Gillian, your concern is my character, not the survival of animals.
Gillian: It’s both, and they’re connected.
Ned: You have to do better than that. Surely you’re not going to wax sentimental about just one animal, this particular bear, now dead. What matters environmentally is not individual animals, surely. What matters environmentally is the survival of the species. That requires the survival of the habitats these animals need. They need land to roam in and get the food they require.
Gillian: Ok, Ned, I’m with you so far.
Ned: People who pay to hunt trophies provide resources to governments, and those resources can provide salaries for rangers, firefighters, guides, surveillance against poachers, and all sorts of things. Salaries make it possible for people to live in these areas, support families, and have a decent life. In Africa especially, there are really poor communities. People on the verge of starvation can’t be persuaded to stay away from poaching and farming. Funds from trophy hunting go to salaries, communities do better, and governments get the resources to enforce laws against poaching.
Gillian: Now we’re talking about Africa again.
Ned: Ok, ok. But the point is, money from hunters can be used to support wilderness and make its preservation economically viable. Hunters like me are helping to protect the environment and the species that live there. Hunting and conservation go together. We may kill some individuals, but we’re saving the species. And that’s what counts.
Anna: Are you saying that it’s ok to kill one grizzly bear for a trophy because by doing that you help protect other grizzly bears?
Ned: Something like that, but it’s not other individual grizzly bears. It’s the species that counts.
Gillian: Really? Now you’re saying you care about saving species?
Ned: I assumed you would care.
Gillian: I do. About species preservation, let me tell you just quickly the two best arguments I’ve come across. One is that we don’t know what species will prove to be useful in the future, for human beings and for the preservation of habitat in which other, valued species live. So we should try to preserve them all. Even the humble mosquito may be food for birds or frogs or something else that is essential for life.
Ned: Even a smallpox virus?
Gillian: Keep it in a jar in a lab.
Anna: Just in case someone might need it for something, someday?
Gillian: That’s the idea.
Ned: Ok, well, let me temporarily agree with you environmentalists that the preservation of endangered species is valuable. And let’s assume, at least for the sake of argument, that the grizzly bear is an endangered species. What I want to say is this: trophy hunting can serve to protect endangered species.
Anna: You kill grizzly bears to save the species, grizzly bears? How does that work?
Ned: What endangered species need most of all is habitat—a place to live, feed, roam and reproduce. When you permit trophy hunting, the habitat is saved. People profit from these animals and they have an interest in keeping the land safe from logging and other things.
Gillian: Trophy hunting generates money.
Ned: That’s my point. So it turns out to be a positive thing. You people should support it, instead of going on about false male pride, rich white men, the domination of nature, philosophy and metaphysics, and all.
Gillian: As you say, Ned, this sort of argument could be a way of justifying trophy hunting. But we need to ask whether trophy hunting is really the best way of preserving threatened species. I really doubt it. Some African countries doubt it too—Kenya and Botswana have banned trophy hunting. There’s a better way: what they call eco-tourism.
Anna: What’s eco-tourism?
Gillian: People can be taken in by guides to see the animals, take pictures, draw pictures, get inspiration from seeing the wild, and so on. An animal that is shot and killed dies. It’s not there to be shot again. Yet an individual animal can be photographed hundreds or even thousands of times.
Ned: I don’t see how you get support for habitat out of this.
Gillian: People who go on environmental safaris will also pay guides, pay for accommodation, meals, souvenirs, and so on. There will be ordinary people doing these things—not just rich white men. The eco-tourists will pay and generate employment for people who are guides, cooks, craftspeople, and so on. They pay for those privileges on these trips. One African study estimated there are 15 times as much economic benefit from eco-tourism as from trophy hunting.
Ned: We just can’t get out of Africa, can we? But look, for eco-tourism, wouldn’t you need more infrastructure—roads, and lodges, and even airports? You have to disturb the habitat just to get all these eco-tourists in there, and that threatens the very same animals you’re trying to protect… Isn’t this a problem?
Gillian: Infrastructure can be kept modest, and anyway in many areas of North America, much of it is already there. Anyway, that’s a detail that would have to be worked out.
Anna: People could see beautiful animals in the wilderness and take pictures, and they wouldn’t have to kill the animals or have them skinned or anything—that sounds a lot better. Maybe I could go on a trip like that someday. Grampa, you’re a good photographer, maybe we could go together!
Ned: I’m not sure. Yeah, I like taking pictures, but I wouldn’t like to substitute that for the adventure of hunting. And as for beauty… look Gillian, how beautiful is a black rhino? Have you looked at a picture of one of these things lately? Or a grizzly bear, for that matter? Ethics, animal rights, beauty? Metaphysics? Look, you’ve got to be practical. Trophy hunting is quite all right, and it can resolve a lot of problems.
Gillian: Ned, I’m afraid your so-called practicality is not really that. Your focus is just too narrow, and the benefits you are claiming would be short term. When the animals are gone, there will be no trophies left, whereas eco-tourism is sustainable.
Ned: I don’t know, given the habitat risks. But look, I’ve got to get going here. The taxidermist closes his place at about four. Are you coming with me, Anna?
Anna: Grampa, I don’t want to go. It sounds awful and I’d be scared to see all the dead animals and birds. But I still hope you could take me on a photo safari someday! Anyway, since Gramma isn’t home, can you drop me off at Katie’s house?
Ned: Sure thing. Gillian, we don’t agree, but maybe we can talk about this some more.
Gillian: Anna, I’ve got some information on a photo safari, I think. Maybe I can show it to you and your mum someday soon. Ned, see you soon. But please do me at least one favour and put that skin in your basement so I won’t have to look at it when Carol and I are having coffee.
Ned: I’ll think about it.
Anna: And the photo safari?
Ned: Perhaps. Anyway, we have to go. Bye for now, Gillian. Come on, Anna, let’s go.