Sport Hunting and Our Trophy Obsession

The pursuit of trophy-sized whitetail deer now dominates the pages of magazines such as “Outdoor Life” (OL) and “Field & Stream” (FS).  Consider that between August 2010 and February 2011, the editors at FS included a cover photograph of massive, trophy-sized whitetail antlers in four of its six issues.  “Outdoor Life” did the same.  Four of OL’s last six issues contained a cover image of bucks with gargantuan racks.  Countless articles on how to successfully hunt trophy deer also appeared in these two magazines during that six-month period.  For instance, the writers for OL ran an article in the September 2010 issue under the cover heading “Trophy Deer.”  The next’s month’s cover of OL contained a header with the words “The New Whitetail Trophy Zones.”  “Outdoor Life” followed in the November issue with yet another cover that proclaimed in bold letters “Best of the Rut: We Researched 17,882 Trophy Records to Find the #1 Day to Hunt This Month.”  “Field & Stream’s” most recent issue contained a cover line with the brash assertion “More Big Bucks For You.”

Granted, the bulk of these magazine covers and their accompanying articles appeared just before and during the hunting season.  Undoubtedly, the writers of the articles wanted to make America’s hunters more successful in the field.  That is a good thing.  The magazine editors also want to sell magazines.  They need to make money to stay in business, that is the nature of the publishing industry.  I understand the financial impetus behind the media focus on trophy buck hunting.  In order to capture the attention of hunters, and potential customers, the magazines promote the pursuit of big bucks.  Big bucks means big bucks for the magazines.  Besides magazines, private blogs, hunting websites, and You Tube are filled with images, articles, and video clips of trophy deer.  In 2010, the hunting community took its obsession with trophy whitetail deer to new, and I believe, absurd heights.  It now appears as though taking trophies has become the ultimate goal of successful whitetail deer hunting.  The imagery of trophies are everywhere in the media.

The killing of small bucks or does no longer measures up in this new era of trophy hunting.  I believe this trophy emphasis in the media has gone too far.  It diminishes the sport of hunting.  It sends the wrong message to the young, it provides ample ammunition to the opponents of hunting, it devalues the vast majority of animals killed each year, and it creates an unnecessary hierarchy within the hunting world – a hierarchy with successful trophy hunters on top and the majority of hunters on the anonymous bottom.

I understand the thrill and excitement involved in the quest for a trophy buck.  It can take more skill and environmental knowledge to successfully kill a wily, old whitetail.  Frequently, when a hunter kills a trophy buck it is an indication of the hunter’s dedication to the sport, his/her patience and discipline, and the individual’s expertise in weapons, ammunition, animal movements, deer feeding habits, and deer rutting behavior.  But one of the reasons trophy hunting has saturated magazine and website coverage in the last year is the assumption that those taking trophies are the best hunters out there.  A corollary assumption is that those great hunters deserve recognition.  I do not believe those two assumptions are always correct.  Ignorant novices do stumble into big bucks and they do kill them.  We all know new hunters who have taken large deer.  Also, let’s not assume for a moment that all the photographs of men and women on the web with trophy deer are an indication that those individuals all knew what the hell they were doing in the field.  Some of those photographed and blogged bucks were certainly taken during massed, human-wave drives through draws and woods.  Other notable bucks undoubtedly perished by gunfire after being startled from thick cover by a passing hunter in a 4X4 pickup truck.  The point is that a dead trophy buck does not always mean the person who took it possesses any skill.  I believe a first step in deconstructing the trophy focus of the sport is to realize that the taking of trophies does not always involve only hunting gurus using purist methods.  Many big bucks die each year from just pure luck or highly dubious methods.  For this reason alone,  I question the now all-to-common media recognition of trophy hunters.

The trophy emphasis sends the wrong message to the the young because it focuses on only one small aspect of hunting’s totality – the killing of large, rare animals.  Other, more important, reasons exist for hunting whitetail deer.  I am convinced it is more important to hunt in order to come into contact with the vast forces of the natural world.  Such contact punishes our egos, our daily self-absorption, and our lack of connection to the biotic community.  All of that is a good thing.  Additionally, hunting, and the food that comes from it, enables its practitioners to achieve a level of independence from corporate America and its hormone-enhanced, feedlot-restricted, and salt-infused grocery store chicken, beef, and pork.  In killing and eating deer, hunters become freer men and women.  Physical exercise, camaraderie, and the honing of the mind through intense concentration are further benefits of hunting.  Trophy hunting ranks last on my list of reasons to hunt.  Dead last!  We need to teach the young that hunting has benefits far beyond the pursuit of trophies.

Our trophy obsession also opens up hunters to criticism from the opponents of hunting.  I believe the sport would be without moral justification if trophies became its primary purpose.  Why?  Because I think hunters who focus almost solely on taking a trophy have lost the point of hunting.  Hunting becomes about their egos rather than about food or independence or spirituality and connection.  The trophy focus makes the hunter’s self-image and his/her stature among other hunters as the paramount end of hunting.  I would argue that the worst reason to hunt is to satiate one’s ego.  I have to admit, I have pursued trophies (either fishing or hunting).  Over time, I came to realize that my trophy focus was all about me – and my ego – rather than about deeper meanings.  I wanted trophies to make myself look good.  I am convinced that killing deer for my own self-aggrandizement is a morally reprehensible reason for taking the life of another creature.

Finally, media emphasis on hunting trophies devalues all the non-trophy deer killed each year.  The vast majority of deer taken by hunters are non-trophy does or bucks.  In Wisconsin (one of the most popular deer-hunting states in the Union), the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources acknowledged that between 2000 and 2010, hunters took an average of 482,645 deer per annum, or 4,826,450 deer in that ten-year period.  During those same years, the state recorded 367 Boone and Crockett entries.  In other words, only 1 in 13,151 deer qualified as a Boone and Crockett entry.  Yet, so much media focus is on that tiny percentage of trophy animals.  What about the millions of non-trophy deer that died?  Do they matter?  The life of the two-year old doe is no less valuable than the five-and-a-half year old 14-point buck.  The doe will provide food to the hunter as assuredly as the buck.  Native American hunters on the Great Plains preferred to kill does of all species because the meat was fatter, more tender, and better tasting than the leaner, stringier bulls.  I am not aware of Native Americans engaging in any trophy hunting of bison, elk, or deer.  They did not do it because the hunt had far more meaning than merely the pursuit of big animals.  We modern-day hunters can learn much from past Native American hunters.  As hunters, we need to value every animal we kill – from the big buck to the small buck and from the old doe to the young doe.  We need to remember that the animals sacrificed their lives so that we can eat and live healthier lives.  All of them deserve respect for their contribution to the quality of our lives.  There should be no ranking of deer from great to good to modest to okay.

The trophy focus also devalues the skills of non-trophy hunters.  It creates an arbitrary structure among hunters.  The supposed best hunters take the trophies and therefore deserve media attention.  The anonymous remainder of the hunting fraternity takes the does and small bucks and does not deserve a mention in the media.  The reality is that the proper hunting of all adult deer takes skill.  There is no hierarchy of hunters unless we allow it – and accept it.  Anyone who hunts during the late season knows it is incredibly difficult to kill hyper-alert does at that time.  Taking a doe in the late season may require as much skill as the killing of a big buck during the early season.  Let’s acknowledge the positives, and the skills required, in non-trophy deer hunting.  Hunters and the editors of the sporting magazines can go a long way in that direction by abandoning their obsession with trophy deer and emphasizing non-trophy hunting’s more consequential benefits.

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