Why we no longer idolize big game hunters

We used to idolize those who hunted big game. Now we shame them on social media. What happened?

Kathy Willens/AP/File
In this June 9, 2015, photo, Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Rider hat hangs on the horns of an elk head shot by the nation's 26th president in his trophy room at Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt's summer White House and his home in Oyster Bay, N.Y. The 28-room mansion has undergone an extensive four-year, $10 million renovation by the National Park Service. Every one of 12,000 items owned by the 26th president, including an estimated 10,000 books and dozens of "trophies" from his hunting expeditions, were removed. They were all painstakingly cleaned, repaired and replaced exactly where he left them.

It’s just not socially acceptable to be a big game hunter anymore. At one time, trophy hunters were lionized, as it were. But today, those who kill for sport and glory are now the targets of social-media shamers and governments alike

Gone are the days when President Theodore Roosevelt was celebrated for bringing Americans the thrill of the legal big game hunt.

“Theodore Roosevelt was a passionate hunter. He loved the thrill of tracking and chasing game, the skill in marksmanship, the careful and deliberate recording of his observations about each hunt, the demanding—if smelly—preservation of specimens, and the pleasure of capturing in rich and vibrant language this ephemeral experience so that he could share it with the world,” according to the Theodore Roosevelt Association’s website.

Compare that to Sabrina Corgatelli, who like Teddy Roosevelt also hunts big game legally. The Idaho hunter is being attacked on her Facebook page after posting an image of herself with a legally-killed giraffe.

Calls for the hunter to lose her job began on Twitter.

These calls come on the heels of what authorities in Zimbabwe say was the illegal slaughter of a beloved park lion named Cecil by an American. Zimbabwean officials have called for the prosecution of Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer, who is accused of illegally killing Cecil on a $50,000 hunt in Zimbabwe.

Cecil's death has also sparked a hunt for other illegal trophy seekers by Zimbabwe’s national parks authority. Officials are seeking Pennsylvania physician Jan Seski for the alleged illegal killing of a lion in April this year.

Adam M. Roberts, the CEO of the animal advocacy nonprofit Born Free USA writes in an email interview, "As we have learned more about wild animals in the past century, there is a greater global interest in compassionate conservation instead of cruel killing. Those who glorify the slaughter of elephants, lions, rhinos, and other imperiled species — and broadcast their elitist exploits on social media — expose themselves to well-deserved, widespread ridicule. The fact that women seem to increasingly seek attention for their bloodlust is less of a comment about women killing threatened species (as men do), and more of a comment on the hunters’ attention-seeking behavior."

Forrest Galante, marine and wildlife biologist sums it up in an email writing, “People are becoming more educated and realize 1) we don't have enough wildlife to kill it just for the sport and 2) there is no great skill involved in shooting an animal in a small management area where the animal is confined and unable to escape, which is what we see most often on these African hunts."

Society's growing antipathy to trophy hunting, however, may run deeper than just a desire for conservation.

What has fundamentally altered our view of trophy hunting is the moral shift that comes as the result of an amalgam of factors, including film, celebrities, and even vegan trends pushed by animal rights groups. According to a Harris Interactive poll commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group, about 5 percent of Americans – that's about 16 million people – say that they never eat meat, fish, seafood, or poultry. Of these vegetarians, about half say they are vegan.

It all adds up to basic moral development of our species over a long period of time, according to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker.

Dr. Pinker discussed this moral development in his book, "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined."

He writes in an email to The Christian Science Monitor: “It’s part of a century-plus-long trend against the cruel and callous treatment of animals, which includes a steady decline in the popularity of hunting (at a time when wildlife-watching with binoculars or cameras has become more popular), an increase in vegetarianism, a drop in the popularity of bloodsports like bullfighting and foxhunting, stringent regulations on animal experimentation, and the famous 'No animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture.' "

“Like all moral movements, the emotions are more strongly felt when the harm is public, and there’s nothing more public than trophy-hunting, particularly in the age of Facebook, and it’s not surprising that this would ignite a firestorm,” Pinker adds.

Pinker writes that “Teddy Roosevelt and British upper-class hunting twits are today seen as barbaric rather than heroic, and new hotels and vacation homes seldom have decapitated mammals on their walls. Of course, there’s more outrage over public violations like trophy-hunting and dog fighting than private ones like the treatment of broiler chickens.”

Celebrities like Ricky Gervais and others who relentlessly call out trophy hunters, as well as those who shame them in retweets and comment threads, reinforce this outrage in the public sphere.

Therefore, President Roosevelt himself was likely a major contributor to the anti-trophy sentiment that exists today because of his refusal to kill an old, sick bear that had been tied to a tree by his guide just for the sake of shooting something on an unproductive hunting trip.

The event was made popular by political cartoonist Clifford Berryman. Shortly thereafter toy bears, dubbed “Teddy’s Bears,” went like an arrow to the hearts of generations of animal lovers.

But, Pinker cautions, “It’s not due to a single influencer – when there is a broad cultural and moral trend, many voices join in. It’s like the antiwar movement of the 1960s and 1970s (which is not unrelated – both are a part of the overall decline of violence), where you had film-makers, rock and folk musicians, politicians, editorialists, and comedians all pushing in the same direction.”

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