The Super Slam: Ethics and the Trophy Hunt

It has been a busy news cycle.  Our economy continues to tank, the conflict in Gaza continues to rage, an unarmed man lying face down in police custody in Oakland is shot dead.  The list goes on.  Much other news, both good and bad, permeates the airwaves, print, and ether.

Faced with all this, I turn to the sports pages of the NY Times for a little distraction and find this story about a group of bow hunters whose goal is to kill 29 North American species.  It used to be 28 but just last summer the Pope and Young Club (the keeper of records relating to this quest) announced the inclusion of the Tule Elk, bringing the grand total to 29.  Killing all 29 is known as the North American Super Slam.

The Times story breathlessly relates the way the men (they seem always to be men) stalk the animals.  One of the hunters profiled described it as “a personal goal” of his to “harvest all 28 species… now 29.”  Those pursuing the Super Slam must adhere to a rigid code of conduct.  Among other things, they cannot kill an animal helpless in a trap, in deep water or snow and they cannot shoot from powered vehicles or boats, use night lights, tranquilizers, poisons.  They seek intimacy: “That’s the advantage of bow hunting,” according to a surgeon from Anchorage.  “You’re forced by the equipment you’ve chosen to spend more time with the animal.”

The code seems to contain a normative component – one cannot kill an animal in a non-sporting way.  Yet nowhere in this code, which encourages people to kill 29 different animals, is there any discussion about whether the killing itself has any moral relevance.  I find this curious.  A code mandating that one not kill animals in certain ways would seem to require antecedent consideration about whether it is right to kill the animals at all.  Certainly, no necessity exists here (one of the hunters interviewed estimated that he had spent over $400,000 pursuing the Slam).  The term “harvest” seems misplaced since the animals do not get eaten.  The entire point of the endeavor (other than fueling the taxidermy industry) appears to revolve around killing for no other reason than fun.  This raises some pressing moral questions.

I believe it safe to assume that Slam seekers would agree that the animals they hunt are sentient (otherwise, why the code of conduct?).  They would probably also agree that the animals can experience fear and suffer.  Why then would it be ethically neutral to kill them for no other reason than fun?  Does the infliction of unnecessary pain and/or ending the existence of these animals rate no consideration at all?   If so, why does the Pope and Young Club call itself a “conservation” organization?  What does it hope to conserve and why?

The club’s mission statement declares that it is dedicated to “protect[ing] the future of our bowhunting heritage” (parsing that little syntactical chestnut must wait for another day…) as well as the “conservation and welfare of habitat and wildlife.”  Should we infer then that the club views bowhunting as the sole reason for conserving nature?  And does sponsoring a quest to kill dozens of animals dovetail with a conservation ethic even thus described?

The ethics page of the P&Y website offers no answers to these questions.  It quotes Aldo Leopold’s adage that “A peculiar virtue in wildlife ethics is that the hunter ordinarily has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. Whatever his acts, they are dictated by his own conscience, rather than a mob of onlookers.”  The P&Y page does not mention that Leopold also said: “[T]o acquire a reputation for killing limits is a doubtful compliment, at best.”

Leopold believed that “think[ing] like a mountain” involves understanding that animals exist for purposes other than hunting fodder.  Most memorably, he declared that: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”  In the aggregate, I read Leopold to be saying that hunting has a place in the scheme of things but that killing for its own sake or purely for fun seems per se wrong no matter the species of the victim.

For my part, I would add that writing a puff piece about the people who do it seems little better.  And that leads me to a related issue currently awaiting cert before the Supreme Court and about which I will post in the near future: Are depictions of animal cruelty protected speech?  Stay tuned.

David Cassuto