Un-sporting killing

24th March 2009

Like almost every user of email, I am plagued by junk email, and I have to waste time every day deleting it. But one recently caught my eye addressed to “Dear Hunter”. A joke, I thought. As I read further, I was invited to visit Argentina to shoot animals and birds. Another joke in rather poor taste I thought. But no. “Our bird hunters averaged over 100 ducks a day per shooter and the average total bag for a week long mixed bag trip was over 3000 birds/shooter” claimed the author, who provided a link to a “sporting” website, which showed, inter alia, graphic photographs of rows of dead birds and animals shot by “sportsmen”.

The communication assured me that the world economic situation has “reduced the number of sportsmen who travel for their hunts” so that “these high volume hunts for duck, dove, pigeon and flushing birds over dogs are [now] offered at greatly reduced prices”. The cost is now as little as $295 a day.

What are we to make of these “sporting” activities? Can they claim any moral justification? Interestingly enough, the website tries to offer some. “I can understand that some people would feel bad that millions of birds are being shot by sport hunters every year in Argentina” maintains the writer. “I understand because I realize that it is their nature and their instinct. I hunt for the same reasons, because it is in my nature and instinct.”

By any standards, this is a curious argument, i.e. an attempt to reduce moral obligation to “nature” and “instinct”. I say “reduce” because morality cannot adequately be characterized as acting by nature or instinct. Indeed, acting morally sometimes means acting against our natural feelings, such as the desire for revenge. If acting according to our nature was identical with acting morally, we would all be saints.

Neither is it satisfactory to claim that killing birds, specifically “doves”, can be justified because the “number of dove[s] and the rate at which they reproduce is such that they pose a serious threat to the livelihood of many people”. Such claims are frequently made, but founder on hard evidence. Hunters who want to kill see overpopulation everywhere. Nature is a self-regulating system: animals and birds breed in relation to the food and environment available. The false assumption is frequently made that killing controls populations, whereas compensatory reproduction demonstrates that animals compensate, even over-compensate, for their declining numbers. Attempted control by killing can therefore be a self-defeating process.

A sport may be defined as a contest between two, or more, parties who test their normally equally matched skills. But there are no equally matched parties in bird shooting. What characterises killing for “sport” is the unequal nature of the encounter, as witnessed by the rate and ease of the kills. Against guns, birds have little chance to escape, and most don’t or, if they do, die of their wounds. There is no such thing as the “sport” of killing, only humans enjoying themselves at the expense of animal life and suffering. It deserves the greatest moral censure.

Andrew Linzey