Vagneur: When the urge to hunt goes too far
It seemed to come out of the blue, not something we normally keep track of, the hunting and death of lions in Africa, but it struck our collective heart like a crazed yellow jacket disturbed from its hive, the death of Cecil the Lion. I mean, African lions get hunted and executed every day in that part of the world, but there was something special about this kill.
Never mind that he lived in a protected preserve, that he had a collar that said “don’t shoot”, and that he was allegedly lured from his shielding sanctuary. No, the fact that he had a name catapulted his supposed underhanded slaughter to the forefront of world consciousness. It appears no one wants to talk much about the lion that was used as bait to lure Cecil from the park, but that lion also was killed. What was her (or his) name, or do we care? The only real question we can ask, was Cecil deliberately poached?
The hunter, a dentist from Minnesota who originally shot Cecil with a crossbow, has been vilified, forced to suspend his practice and gone to the mattresses, so to speak, at least for the time being. The fairness or even the morality of such public condemnation may be questionable, at least without first a proper hearing in Zimbabwe. But even if innocent, he’s now been marked for life.
When I was at the T Lazy 7 in the 1970s, a couple of out-of-state hunters headed for East Maroon asked if I would pack out any elk they happened to shoot. I replied in the negative, telling them we didn’t provide that service. A couple of days later, another hunter told me he had witnessed those guys knocking down two bull elk, leaving them lay without even dressing them out. The thrill of the hunt and the thrill of the kill, I guess, drives some hunters beyond reason. I turned them in although they were long gone by then, but I did find the carcasses later that day, bloated and rotting in the sun.
The most egregious act, perhaps, was the man we took on a hunting excursion back in the 1960s, along with four or five other men. He was a little hot-rod of a dude, fast talking with an itchy trigger finger. We explained the rules numerous times — spike elk (those youngsters with only one point) were off-limits, as were cow elk. “Sure, I understand,” he said as we explained it. My dad didn’t trust him.
We left him on a ridge high above our ranch and took off to place the other hunters in a different area. We hadn’t been gone two minutes when the sound of gunfire drew us back. He’d shot three spikes as they came over the rise. Just couldn’t help himself, he said. We never let him hunt with us again, although he kept asking.
Over the years, we heard how he’d been to Africa many times, bringing home numerous and magnificent mounted heads and carcasses, some of them the most admired trophies ever killed in that part of the world. We weren’t impressed.
I understand that urge to hunt, to kill, for I had it when I was younger, but I never appreciated the fever it brings on some people, the sense of entitlement that drives them to strive for bigger and “better” game. The head of the first elk I ever shot hangs on a wall in Woody Creek, a reminder of those young days when hunting was a huge focus in my life. Sometime in the 1980s, I just walked away from hunting and killing — the satisfaction was gone and besides, it began to weigh on my conscience.
It would be foolish to argue that hunter’s and their license fees should be curtailed. In the world we’ve created for wild animals, the money (and management) goes a long way toward preserving endangered species and keeping populations under control. That may sound counter-intuitive, but I don’t think it is. However, hunting for trophies is much harder to accept than those who hunt deer or elk because they like the meat. In the end, hunting must be done according to the rules, in good faith and not at the whim of those ignorant enough to bend the rules to make a score, those people referred to as poachers.
We all know that lions, leopards, rhinos and other African species can be dangerous, but that’s not usually the reason we shoot them. As a woman who recently killed a grazing giraffe said, justifying her kill, “But giraffes are very dangerous animals. They could hurt you seriously, very quickly.” She might well have added, “And because I wanted the trophy.”
What she forgot to say is that humans might be the most dangerous species on the planet.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.