Empathy override begins early with gigging and plinking

Kathleen Stachowski Other Nations

Hunting season starts with a bang…and ends with a long, relieved sigh such as we breathed one-half hour after sunset on Sunday. Animal advocates–probably pretty much everywhere, but definitely here in Montana–hunker down, grit our teeth, avoid favorite hikes in the wilds, avoid the newspaper, and count down the days until the elk and deer–and this year, wolf–slaughter ends.

October 18th & 19th, the two days prior to the deer and elk season opener, were designated Youth Hunting Days (deer hunting only for kids 12 to 15, though some aged 11 can participate depending on birth date) and coincide with the state’s no-school teachers’ professional development days. Kids 12 to 17 purchasing their first hunting license don’t actually have to raid their piggy banks–the license is given to them, a gift from the state, perhaps in a bid to cultivate youth ambassadors  for hunting’s declining numbers. (See a previous discussion of youth hunting elsewhere at Animal Blawg.)

Conventional wisdom maintains that small kids feel a natural bond with animals, but some research indicates that empathy for animals increases starting in 2nd grade and ethical concerns starting in 8th grade. Do children ever have to be encouraged, cajoled, shamed, pressured, or even forced to engage in blood sport by avid hunter parents? Said one successful first-time child hunter in our local newspaper: “I was kind of nervous at first because I never killed something before.” (Was he reflecting on the gravity of taking a life? Did he empathize with his future victim?) But afterward? “It was pretty cool.” Two years from now, the article continued, it will be his little sister’s turn to “see if she can match her brother’s first day.” The pressure’s on.

Speaking of pressure–as in peer pressure–a summary of a recent Hunting Heritage Trust study, “Understanding the Impact of Peer Influence on Youth Participation in Hunting and Target Shooting,” reveals attitudes of kids aged 8 to 17 on target shooting as opposed to hunting (and harming) live prey. Download the executive summary for some fascinating reading–and insight. Peer pressure is apparently another weapon in the arsenal when it comes to recruiting new hunters. Excerpt:

…many youth tend to be standoffish about hunting when the  activity is presented as a sport or something engaged in as means of obtaining trophies. This attitude tends to be most pronounced among females, but other segments of the youth population show similar hesitation. In any case, appeals to newcomers to try hunting may be most effective if they concentrate on the activity as a venerated pastime of human culture (or as a way of obtaining tasty game meat, experiencing the outdoors, or engaging in wildlife management and conservation).

Yes, gratuitous killing for sport and trophy tends to make me, um, standoffish, too. The text goes on to assert that “the role and involvement of youth ambassadors is crucial to this aspect of the social acceptance of hunting.” In a South Carolina focus group, for example, several kids “who were initially somewhat opposed to hunting later deferred to a fellow group member with actual hunting experience.” Of course, mere deference to an outspoken peer in a group setting doesn’t equate to agreement or acceptance. And while their hunting peer assured them that hunters “attempt to minimize the suffering of animals at all times while hunting,” it’s telling to note that “(t)he most common reason that youth hold a negative opinion of hunting is their distaste in causing pain to animals.” Imagine that…empathy.

Empathy — more complex than we thought?

According to one researcher (Zero Degrees of Empathy), empathy is an umbrella concept–not only cognitive knowledge about what another is feeling and the appropriate emotional response to it, but also based–in part, anyhow–on our genes, exposure to early (fetal) hormones, and gender. And while we might naturally display more empathy for those closer to us genetically (family, tribe) or culturally, “(s)tories and perspective-taking play a critical role in the development of moral reasoning” (source). In other words, empathy is learned despite propensities toward or away from it.

Says Nicole Forsyth of RedRover (formerly United Animal Nations), “In order to feel empathy, a person must…be able to take the perspective of another and share another’s emotional state. …By the age of eight, most children have the ability to take the perspective of others and anticipate others’ reactions based on unique perspectives, so this is a great age to work on their empathy development” (“Why Empathy is the Key to a Kinder Society“).

But here’s the rub: you can’t empathize with things, and in our society (domestic “pets” excepted), kids learn that animals are commodities–those unfortunate ones stuffed into factory farms who turn up on our plates; those wild ones who are natural resources for harvesting as fur, food, and trophies; and those charismatic ones who exist to entertain us at zoos, marine parks, and circuses. Humans who learn to empathize with these animals have overcome a great deal of speciesist conditioning that denies animals their sentience. That’s a tall order for a little kid who isn’t taught that animals want, basically, what we want: life, and the freedom to pursue their interests.

The trick, it seems, to creating a child hunter unburdened by empathy or even simple compassion for animals, is to start early.  Here’s #5 of 12 tips from How to hunt with a kid:

5. Start small: Small game, that is. I don’t think I know any deer fanatics who didn’t start out on rabbits, squirrel, or some other small game. There are several reasons why deer hunting is not ideal for very young kids. For one, he might be unable to appreciate a hunt that ends without something being harvested. Five-year-olds and under will get more out of an outing if it’s plinking squirrels, catching bluegills, gigging frogs, or blowing a box of shells on doves than if it’s sitting motionless for hours on end. Try to put them in the action.

Is this the key to creating kids enthusiastic about killing? Start before their personalities are fully developed, while they’re still into imitating and pleasing mom and dad, and before compassion for animals has taken root and empathy has developed (or, if nascent, can still be overridden). Teach them about “respect” and “fair chase” by shining a bright light into a frog’s eyes, thus dazing and blinding him so he can be easily speared, or by blasting an unsuspecting squirrel to Kingdom Come. Plinking–heck, that hardly sounds like killing at all. As for “blowing a box of shells on doves,” adults can model empathy-free but courteous behavior by telling the dead quarry, “Thank you for participating in our sport, Mr. Dove,” as does one video poster. Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up.

This is not to say that kids lacking empathy for animals will have none for their own kind. It does seem likely, though, that where disregard for animals’ lives is concerned, peer pressure later in life is somewhat iffier than early childhood gigging and plinking. (And neck-wringing.)  An early override of empathy’s roots increases the likelihood that a child’s compassion footprint will not expand as he or she grows up.

12 Responses

  1. Typical from the A.R. ideology playbook — assume those who don’t agree must somehow be pathologically conditioned, or mentally “broken”, as it were.

    The argument (indictment, really), that “you were conditioned as a child” is really nothing more than a weak and lazy attempt to discredit anything anybody might disagree with, for whatever reason. So, ironically, the same charge could be leveled against animal rights activists whose parents held the same philosophy.

    I find it amusing, the volume of time and mental energy expended by anti-hunters, trying to find out what’s wrong with those of us who hunt. When, in fact — and despite the usual notable exceptions that will occur in any group — I think you would find in general, hunters tend to have an unusually high degree of understanding of, empathy for and connection with animals.

    I personally know veterinarians and wildlife biologists who hunt, and they are perfectly well-adusted, happy people — as am I.

    Hunters were the founding members of the large animal rescue organization in my community, and have already saved at least two horses — that I know of — from what would have been slow, agonizing deaths.

    And the grandfather of conservation and environmentalism as we know it, Aldo Leopold, was a hunter. (He also spoke out favorably of wolves and other predators, long, long before it was popular to do so.)

    Animal advocates? Indeed, we are.

  2. Hal, you wrote, “I personally know veterinarians and wildlife biologists who hunt, and they are perfectly well-adusted, happy people — as am I.”

    Krishnamurti has a quote about compassion and empathy which goes something like this:

    “To be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick world, is not a sign of good mental health.”

    His point, of course, was that those who can easily abide by the suffering, violence and abject cruelty in this world with no seeming ill effect are not necessarily the healthy ones. They’re the ones who’ve learned to effectively shut off the feelings that would preclude them from harming others or being upset by witnessing harm.

    You also wrote, “So, ironically, the same charge could be leveled against animal rights activists whose parents held the same philosophy.”

    I don’t have a statistical analysis, I’m not sure if one is available, but I’ve met very few people who advocate for animals, who came from animal rights or vegetarian households. Many people, if not most, who come to care enough to change their lifestyles and choices do so because they’ve seen with their own eyes the atrocities we permit against nonhuman species. It’s precisely the opposite of what you say. They challenge and open their eyes to their childhood indoctrination which, in our culture, usually means accepting violence toward animals in many forms.

  3. Because I hadn’t heard of the man who Ingrid quoted, I looked his name up on Wikipedia and found that Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986) was “an Indian born speaker and writer on philosophical and spiritual subjects.”

    Might as well mention here that I also found his exact words, which were: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

    I second Ingrid’s point about the majority of today’s adult animal advocates not having grown up in fully animal-friendly households.

    At our monthly vegan potlucks the only attendees who have been taught by their parents to respect animals by not eating or wearing them are the youngsters, ages two to ten. Most of them understand why their family doesn’t eat animals for ethical reasons. The very idea of harming any creature is foreign and repulsive to them.

    These dear little ones rush through dinner so they can play games and chase each other around the room. They’re fun to watch. They remind me of fawns and cubs and kits who bound blissfully through fields and forests, feeling utterly safe at their loving mother’s side.

    These human children have reason to trust that all is well, for no predator stalks, chases and shoots them or their parents in that safe space.

    The same cannot be said for the free-living animal children and their parents. They cannot escape their land being invaded and their bodies assaulted for weeks on end. I’m referring not to the natural cycle in which some nonhumans are forced to eat nonhumans of other species out of true need, but to the most prevalent predator — the human intruder who takes innocent lives out of what appears to be sheer greed.

    Recently I read a sentence that reminds me of hunters’ unwarranted prejudice against nonhumans — a sentence with a premise and a promise that gives me hope. Hope that every hunter’s (and fisher’s) innate empathy, overridden at an early age by the forces Kathleen describes, will ultimately surface — and prevail. “The weapons of bigotry, ignorance, envy, fall before an honest heart.” ~ Science and Health, p. 464

  4. Today I ran across this short audio clip by an Aussie chap; it fits perfectly with your post, Kathleen: http://davidcolescounselling.com/2012/11/01/essential-learning-for-children

  5. Yes, indeed, BlessUsAll…

    “One of the fundamental flaws that currently exists in child education is the manner in which we teach value systems – they are too inconsistent and misleading and lead to confusion and inappropriate acts of abuse disguised as “normal” behavior, dependent on the belief structures in which the child has been educated…”

    It seems that we humans have to perform some serious mental contortions and intellectual dishonesty in order to make the concept of empathy consistent with taking the lives of sentient others. Those of us who didn’t grow up vegan (as Ingrid points out) understand this all too well–most of us (I’m guessing) played that game, at least for awhile.

  6. A *high* level of empathy for prey just seems necessarily counterproductive to the pursuit of hunting, so empathy override has to take place at some point – for many it starts during childhood.

  7. “To indoctrinate is to impose an idea without acceptance of question or criticism. The animal rights movement is built of people who refuse indoctrination—free-thinking individuals who will question and criticize
    and are not afraid to tell others what they have found. That is education.” ~ from The Manual of Animal Rights, by David Cowles-Hamar (quoted in Chapter 24 of http://www.CreatureQuotes.com)

  8. Thank you Kathleen for this close inspection as to how and why the hunter/predator mentality indoctrinates. As I’ve seen over and again, the choice “game” usually starts out as a species least like us (least deserving of our empathy) – And so the “Take your kid out fishing” campaigns are launched every year. Many advise starting the kids at a well stocked pond so their enthusiasm remains cranked.

    Just last night I caught the tail end of a Preppers show on t.v. – A (staged) trapping of a goat and then his brutal slaughter with a knife. One man and his two young sons. The eldest boy around 10 did the throat slitting. The father smeared blood on the child’s cheek and said “Now you’re a man!”.

    When the boy was interviewed he said the worst part was that he felt sorry for the goat… And that he was concerned the goat would be hurt… Apparently the father convinced his kid that these issues didn’t matter. The pressure on the pair of kids was obvious: Perform or be a sissy. In my better world I’d have parents like this investigated for child abuse… You can cripple a mind just as much as a limb.

    CQ – I love your quote so much that it deserves repeating and deserves to be the last word said:

    “To indoctrinate is to impose an idea without acceptance of question or criticism. The animal rights movement is built of people who refuse indoctrination—free-thinking individuals who will question and criticize
    and are not afraid to tell others what they have found. That is education.” ~ from The Manual of Animal Rights, by David Cowles-Hamar (quoted in Chapter 24 of http://www.CreatureQuotes.com)

  9. Thank you Kathleen for your article. It is interesting to note that our species is the only species that kills for sport. It makes me think of this quote:

    Wild animals never kill for sport. Man is the only one to whom the torture and death of his fellow creatures is amusing in itself.” ~JA Froude, Oceana

  10. Empathy override with a Texas twist:http://james-mcwilliams.com/?p=2892

  11. Hunter recruitment in Idaho:

    Those who are 8 and older and have never held a hunting license in Idaho or any other state or country can now obtain a hunting passport for just $1.75. The document, similar to a license, allows people to hunt with a license-holding mentor for up to one calendar year prior to taking a hunter education class and purchasing a standard license.
    …The program was designed as a way to get kids interested in hunting before they might be distracted by other activities like youth sports or video games.

    Read more: http://billingsgazette.com/lifestyles/recreation/idaho-offers-new-hunters-route-to-check-sport-out/article_a3a93f29-836c-54e0-896c-d95ff989dbfa.html#ixzz2Hu1R7pNc

  12. […] Yes, the killing does give one pause. This year’s obligatory youth hunting story in our local paper featured a photo of a 12-year-old girl at the check-in station clutching the side of dad’s pickup truck while considering the deer she’d killed, the doe’s slit-open abdomen gaping at the camera. The pre-teen, sporting bright blue nail polish and numerous rings, told the reporter, “It was good, but it was sad too. This was my first deer and it’s hard to kill something, but I’m pretty happy about it too.” Her words echo the very same conflicted emotions of a boy on his first-ever hunt in last year’s iteration (see “Empathy override begins early with gigging and plinking“). […]

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