Sarah Palin hunting: Why the world shakes when she shoots a caribou

Sarah Palin hunting: Some commentators see a political commentary in Sarah Palin hunting caribou on 'Sarah Palin's Alaska,' calling the caribou, 'Obambi.' Others see animal cruelty. To hunters, though, the furor shows that urban America doesn't understand rural life.

Gilles Mingasson/Discovery Communications/AP
Sarah Palin holds her son Trig and watches fireworks on a beach in Dillingham, Alaska, in this July 4, 2010 photo.

A caribou peeks over a ridge in the north Alaskan tundra. Shots ring out, the animal collapses.

It's a familiar scene on cable hunting shows, but this time, with Sarah Palin hitting the target on the widely watched TLC program, "Sarah Palin's Alaska," the kill shot became so much more. A "snuff film," fumed Hollywood producer Aaron Sorkin. "An allegory for politics" with "Obambi" representing "the elegant animal standing above the fray," posits The New York Times' Maureen Dowd.

The scenes playing out on "Sarah Palin's Alaska" – including her clubbing a large halibut, per common fishing practice – have goaded liberals to attack the former vice presidential candidate for exploiting animals for her own political purposes. But they also raise a deeper question: how much do urban and rural America – blue and red America – understand each other, or even want to?

Quiz: How well do you know Sarah Palin?

The rural-urban divide on issues of conservation and hunting "is an interesting sociological experiment you're watching, the unfolding of a real debate going on," says Gary Lawson, a spokesman for US Sportsmen's Alliance, a pro-hunting group.

The idea that hunting and a pioneer mentality is morally wrong "is a mindset that's gaining in currency as people move to the cities and try to impose new ideas on top of ideas that have been tried and true historically for as long as can ever be remembered."

In that light, adds Lawson, "Palin has almost become a Rorschach test for how people feel about different kinds of cultural issues, which are often founded in the differences between where people live."

Mr. Sorkin's statement that Palin's caribou shot was akin to NFL quarterback Michael Vick killing dogs showed that ideas about husbandry have changed dramatically in the US.

Though surely aware she'd face attacks for the segment, Palin seemed perplexed by someone with Sorkin's weighty pop culture influence – he most recently wrote the screenplay for "The Social Network," a movie about Facebook – drawing a parallel between hunting and dog fighting.

“So a left-wing Hollywood producer thinks there is no ‘distinction’ between harvesting healthy, wild organic protein to feed my family and engaging in dog fighting?” Palin wrote in an e-mail to the Associated Press. “I didn’t know anyone ate dogs, tanned the hides, and made boots out of them.”

Yet even some hunting defenders say Sorkin missed the opportunity for a more substantial critique of Palin's tundra hunt.

"She repeatedly missed a standing caribou; her father had to work her gun's action; and she acted like she was along for the ride," writes the Guardian's Craig Dougherty. "She is a beginner at best, which is fine – unless you portray yourself as something else. And Palin does. Americans are suspicious of pretenders, especially when they are talking about being the leader of the free world."

But beyond being a TV show led by a potential presidential candidate, the issues raised by "Sarah Palin's Alaska" do resonate more broadly in an America teetering politically – see "tea party" – between rural and urban values. In Ms. Dowd's eyes, the gun-toting Palin's hailing of "mama grizzlies" and rural "pioneer women" poses a direct threat to political and cultural enlightenment.

"Even with a rifle aimed at him, [Obama as the caribou is] trying to be the most reasonable mammal in the scene, mammalian bipartisan, and rise above what he sees as empty distinctions between the species so that we can all unite at a higher level of being," writes Dowd. "[T]rigger-happy Sarah represents the Republicans, who have spent two years taking shots at the president, including potshots, and tormenting him in an effort to bring him down."

To be sure, the flap over Palin's caribou shot may ultimately be more about her polarizing persona and the fact that the show is aired on a network that usually doesn't feature animal bloodshed.

After all, 78 percent of Americans support hunting, according to a 2006 poll by Responsive Management, which carries out research for universities and state natural-resource agencies. But hunting groups are aware that that support is shifting as Americans leave the heartland for more urban and suburban destinations.

"There are so many dramatic changes in terms of the demography that just allowing people this window to see that this is a legitimate lifestyle is a good thing," says Mr. Lawson. "At the same time, you run the risk of shooting the messenger."

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