Hunting may be doomed.

I can foresee a time when our guns and bows will be hung up forever. I can see a future where wildlife will become scarce, and wildlands hard to find. Hunting will become a dark memory, painted by history into a black period of bloodlust and greed. Hunters will be portrayed only as caricatures of the worst elements; evil, stupid people who kill for joy, braggadocio, and power. The old timers who remember the last days of the sport will have only tales of sorrow and distress; and the young, conditioned by social mores, will not want to hear or believe the tales anyway.

How can this come to be? What foolishness am I pouring out on this computer screen? I can hear the grunts of disgust and disbelief coming from the complacent hunter as he reads these words. "Surely hunting won't become another victim of the progress of society," the reader might think. "Too much benefit is derived from the sport. What fools would ever really put a stop to it? The anti-hunting activists are too weak! It would be an ecological disaster!"

What fools indeed! The anti-hunters, with their emotional arguments and heartfelt disapproval of the barbarism of hunting. . . the complacent foolishness of hunters, who think there is no threat to the sport they claim to love. . . and the general public, foolish in their lack of knowledge and understanding, and in their blind acceptance of media hype.

The first two groups are, at least, known quantities. Anti-hunters are not going to change their emotional stance. And hunters are not, intentionally, going to sink the sport of hunting. If the battle stayed solely between these two camps, the fight would be carried, and hunting would continue.

But the third group. . .the general public. . .these are the folks who carry the sway, and they are the ones whom I fear most of all. The strength of the general public's sentiments determines laws. . .such as those governing hunting. For all their strength, the multitudes are merely sheep. Their sentiments are the plaything of a handful of shepherds.

The staff of the shepherd in this case is public relations. . .simple control of the presentation of data. Feed the general public a line of propaganda, and they will flock into the roaring flood. They are conditioned to almost unequivocally accept the media as the voice of all knowledge. If it's in writing, it must be true. . .a television image is more powerful than a sworn affidavit from the Pope himself. One well placed and timed commercial can change the minds of millions in 60 short seconds. And the media, or public relations, is exactly where the downfall of hunting will lie.

The image of hunting is taking some major hits as the information age advances. More and more people are living lives completely removed from wildness. Their only exposure to the natural world is on PBS, or the Discovery Channel. . .an hour or so per week. Their only knowledge of hunting is the images provided by television and print media. Unfortunately, the media tends to focus on the negative aspects of its targets.

This is not an indictment of the media, but simple truth. Bad news sells. People will tune in to see a pile of bodies left by a terrorist. Millions watched a murder trial where a man once loved by this same public was exposed to the harsh eye of the news cameras. It was not his fine points that were emphasized, only his alleged evils.

The same is the case with hunting. The media seldom focuses on the positive aspects of the hunt. Hunters for the Hungry, for example, may get a brief fluff spot on the local six o'clock news. But let a hunter mistake a white mitten for the flash of a deer's tail, and there is nationwide coverage of the resultant tragedy. A young man may grow to manhood wisened to the ways of the wild and stronger for it, and he will go unrecognized by the media. But a man who moves to the country, buys an assault rifle for a deer gun, and proceeds to shoot hell out of every animal that crosses his path will quickly get the attention of the masses. National attitudes toward hunters are based on this exposure. A brief leap of logic casts all hunters into the stereotype portrayed by these bad examples.

Even television programs aimed at hunters tend to glorify the kill as the end all, be all. These hunters whoop and holler with glee as their shotguns reap a stack of pen raised ducks over a preserve pond. They dance and preen over the carcass of a kill, seldom giving due to the magnificence of the life that once graced it. The programs tout advances in hunting technology, with the apparent belief that it doesn't matter how you kill, just as long as you do kill. The appearance then, is that the sole purpose of the hunt is blood on the ground. Some hunting magazines offer the same kind of image.

And image is what this is all about. It doesn't matter to John Q. Public what is really happening. . .only what appears to be happening. John Q. sees Goober P. Hunter shooting his buddy by mistake, or he sees Billy Bob Nimrod on the news, being dragged into court for baiting and killing a hundred ducks in one day, and he has a completely formed idea of what hunting is all about. It doesn't matter that this image is based on two examples, the generalization is formed. Hunting is a bad thing, and hunters are bloodthirsty morons who only want to kill lots of animals.

Let's say John Q. is a fair man, and he wants to get an even perspective, so he tunes in to watch a hunting program on TV. What he sees there only reinforces his opinion.. .Bubba and Ralph cackling gleefully as a ranch raised exotic goat thrashes its last. Or perhaps he goes so far as to observe some hunters near his rural southern home. He goes out and watches as they line the roads in pick-up trucks, bristling with rifles and shotguns as they wait for the hounds to bring the deer out where they can shoot it right in the highway. Or he watches as they go ripping through the forests on 4-wheelers, innocuous to the foliage and habitat they are destroying, or to whose property they are crossing.

Hunters are killers. . . by any means necessary. They use high technology to locate, lure, and destroy "dumb" animals. This is what John Q. Public sees,and believes, because these are the obvious, and easiest observable traits of hunters.

No one has ever really explained to John Q. the economics of hunting. No one has explained that the money brought in by licenses, equipment taxes, and sportsmen's organizations supports far more than the sport itself. Or how, in many cases, without the money raised from hunting, wildlife habitat would fall to the developer's axes and bulldozers. And no wildlife biologist has explained to him the need for an increased harvest, which is the reason that high success tactics, such as baiting and hounds, are legal.

And no one has ever explained the emotional side of hunting, deep and varied as it is among different hunters. He has never sat silent in the pre-dawn, chilled and thrilled. . .seeing nature's night shift hitting the time clock, while the day shift begins to turn out for duty. Wild animals, to John Q., are two-dimensional creatures moving across his TV screen. . . or possums and raccoons crushed on the highway. The only open air he has breathed regularly may be the draft as he crosses from home or office to parking lot. And he has never felt the moment of uncertainty when the sights are aligned, and the moment is at hand to shoot or hold. He has no idea of the intense decision to kill, and the shuddering, harsh reality of pulling the trigger.

For John Q. Public, meat comes sanitized, wrapped in cellophane and plastic. There is no connection to the death, or violence, required to bring that meat to their table. He is, through no fault of his own, insensitive to the fact that someone is standing ankle deep in blood and gore to provide that tidy parcel so prettily displayed in the grocer's cooler. He sees no reason, or desire, to go out and collect his own meat. . .to bloody his own hands to provide for the table. And because he sees no reason for himself, he certainly cannot understand why anyone else would.

So all he knows of hunting is what he has seen, in the media and with his own eyes. And what he has seen has been disturbing. Coupled with the anti-hunting propaganda, which leverages these generalizations into pseudo-fact, it is very easy to see John Q. Public's opinion of hunting turn negative. Anthropomorphize a little for him, use his human senses of guilt and pity, and he will come to see the animals as victims of some grave inequity. Paint him a picture of the "evils" of hunting using the colors his own eyes have provided, and you have easily created one more anti-hunter, ready to damn hunting into the dark annals of history alongside slavery and genocide.

This is what hunting is up against. Not so much against PETA, or Earth First, but against John Q. Public's personal perceptions.

So what do we do about it?

The obvious first step would be to offer some propaganda to counter that of the anti-hunting factions. To some level, this is being done. But an even more important step would be to do something to alter the appearances of the sport. The images upon which John Q. Public base his generalizations must be revised. And to do so will require some significant changes in both the actual sport of hunting, and how we, as hunters, see ourselves. We need to examine our self-images, and realize that our outer appearance may belie the truth that is inside. It is time for hunters to consider what it is worth to them to keep the sport alive. Some sacrifice may be required in the battle to change public perception.

For example, a great source of negative hunting publicity in southeastern North Carolina is deer hunting with hounds. This is a powerful topic, and one generally guaranteed to raise hackles from all angles. Dog driving is a deep-rooted tradition in this part of the country. It is also one of the most effective methods for hunting deer where the coastal pocosin and swamps are impenetrable to human hunters. But dog driving is a relic from a time when landholdings were vast, and the suburb was unheard of. It is an anachronism now, with subdivisions and urban sprawl placing more and more homes throughout the countryside.

Dog drivers now find that they must cross paths with homeowners and farmers who do not want them on their property. There are well publicized cases of dog drivers closing with their prey in the front yards of suburban homes and killing game right under someone's picture window. . . more fodder for the anti-hunting movement. Certainly not all houndsmen participate in this kind of action, but those who do paint the stereotype for all hunters.

Range laws dating from ages ago state that these hunters may follow their hounds onto others' property in an effort to recapture them. But this law is all too often used as a cover for hunters to trespass and poach on private land. The resultant conflicts can become heated, and since the parties are usually armed, they are eminently dangerous. At least two people were killed during the 1996 southeast NC deer season in incidents related to dog drivers trespassing during the hunt.

When this kind of thing hits the news, it is not dog driving that becomes the issue, but hunting in general. This kind of thing provides fodder for the anti-hunting movement, and it feeds well.

Perhaps it is time for a revision of the range laws. Or maybe it is even time to reconsider the legality of dog driving for deer. It is very clear though, that it is time for something to change. In the interest of hunting, something must be done.

The changes need to be made from a grass-roots level. In every part of the country, there are hunting practices which, while legal, tend to provide a negative image to the sport. The practices may be dangerous, such as using rifles in areas with thick populations, or road hunting, where shots may be fired onto a paved road. Or they may merely raise intense ethical arguments, such as baiting, hunting from vehicles, or using some high tech advances to locate and pattern game. All of these things, while many are arguably justified, provide the non-hunting public with negative images of the sport.

The general public is notorious for throwing out the baby with the bathwater. They take no time to focus on specifics when they are riled. They focus on the generalities. . .and remove the problem. They do not see Hunter Safety Courses as a remedy for accidental shootings. . .they see a ban on hunting as a more effective cure. They would as soon see all hunting removed from a growing area, as opposed to simply restricting hunting in the area to shotguns or archery.

It is vital to hunters that we recognize this trend, and act. We need to tend to the specifics before a problem arises for the general public to deal with. We need to make changes in what is legal, or acceptable, with a view toward how we are going to be perceived if changes aren't made. And it is most important that it is hunters who are working for the changes. This comes back to public relations. We need to be seen in some light other than what we've been shedding so far. It is actions, visible actions, that are
going to swing the tide of public opinion.

And the time to start is yesterday.

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Copyright 1997 Elwing Enterprises
All text and photos by Elwing Enterprises unless otherwise noted
Last revised: May 21, 1998.