I lived in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg for thirteen years and it can fairly be said that I was outdoors a lot. But only once did I see a wild boar: a black flash in my peripheral vision as I walked the edge of the “core zone” of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Now I live in the northeastern state of Brandenburg, where it took only a few weeks for me to see my first boar family in the woods near town. There are a lot of boars up here in Brandenburg, possibly because hunters clutter up the woods with feeding troughs. These are large wooden chests filled to the brim with corn. The hunters keep them stocked for two reasons: (1) Corn in the woods deters boars from entering cornfields; (2) Feeding spares boar families the cruel scourge of wintertime starvation.
Again, like any animal lover, I feel hunters may be missing some key ethical point when they say boars must be spared the indignity of natural death in favor of gunshot wounds. My mother often warned me that hypothermia is painless. Mother boars likewise insist, “Don’t lie down in the snow!” But every winter day, you can be sure that somewhere an adolescent piglet, spoiled by the abundance and plenty of autumn, now desperate, ignores its mother, lies down in the snow, and goes to waste—dying for nothing, falling asleep for the last time so quietly that no hunter ever knows. The financial damage to the hunters, who in Germany must lease the land on which they cultivate and harvest piglets, is incalculable. Without that crucial gunshot wound, no trail of blood leads us to the piglet, who dies in vain.
Now I progress to a near-Heideggerian psycholinguistic fugue: Have you heard of “game” theory? And “game” animals? And the “gamy” flavor of the older, male animals most prized by hunters for their trophy body parts, such as antlers and long beards (chamois)? Or of animals that are “game,” coolly regarding the raised firearm, ringing in the chase themselves by bounding away without a word? See a pattern emerging?
Competitive sports and games have an ethics all their own: anything goes, as long as the participants can agree on what it is. From blackjack to no-holds-barred cage fighting, proper behavior is determined by consensus rules rather than personal preference or freedom of conscience. Rules help make the practice sustainable. No spear tackles, no high-sticking: Such rules let players live to play another day.
And so it is with hunting, with the difference that hunting imposes rule-based limits on blowing holes in animals, achieving sustainability by making it harder to aim at them.
But how is hunting even possible? It’s not legal to kill an animal that way! There’s an ASPCA! If you take your dog to the vet to be put down, does he or she blow a hole in its leg with a pistol and chase it around the yard until it wears out? Of course not! She or he puts it to sleep with a lethal injection that is for some reason unavailable in large doses. Horses and cattle must be shot execution-style, to spare their feelings and keep the meat from causing excitability or drowsiness, and human beings—well, the shit the state does to human beings guilty or innocent is beyond all imagining, and if you don’t entirely trust the state, I’m amazed you still live in a country with the death penalty.
Unlike the US electorate, hunters respect the dignity and uniqueness of each and every life. There are no executions in hunting. Hunters deplore unsportsmanlike conduct. If you shine a light, animals will come to investigate it and can be shot easily, so ethical hunters will not shine a light. Sitting ducks are easy to wound, so ethical hunters wait until they fly away. We all know where execution-style hunting leads: the way of the buffalo. Empty skies, empty forests. Albania, for example, recently declared a two-year hunting moratorium after researchers looking for lynx with motion detectors found no animals at all. Normally you would get squirrels, foxes, deer—something, anything!—triggering false alarms. In Albania, there was nothing. The parliament wisely resolved to give the remaining animals two years to reproduce in peace.
But can any rule-based situational ethics drawn from sports and games play a legitimate role in blowing holes in animals with guns?
A universal ethics aimed at minimizing pain and suffering, the ethics that informs discussions of animal and human welfare, would forbid hunting entirely. Hunters label its critique of hunting “romantic,” citing Bambi. If there were more large predators left, they say—particularly canines, which kill by grabbing abdominal viscera and running off—animals might ask for hunting by name. (I’m leaving animal rights out of this, because it’s a can of worms: animals with acknowledged moral agency would presumably exercise their rights as people do, consenting to an annual cull of the weak and sick in exchange for bonus payments to survivors; poor predators would be imprisoned and rich predators put in rehab.) Hunters instead seek to give animals a fair shake in a one-sided contest by enforcing rules that allow a few to survive.
Giving one’s opponent a sporting chance is the old-fashioned way of conferring human dignity. It informs the laws of war, by which fighters must wear uniforms, refrain from mass destruction, and release POWs at war’s end immune to criminal prosecution. Goebbels promoted “total war,” but here in civilization, war is a sport. Likewise hunting is conceived as a contest, not a massacre.
Many critics of hunting show loyalty to sporting ideals with such remarks as, “Hunting would be fair if hunters used their bare hands.” Hunts of penned, tractable animals by children, wheelchair users, and visiting dignitaries especially horrify such critics. But can we make hunting fair? Deer are gentle and shy. They resolve conflict symbolically, with antlers. And what can you possibly do to anybody that’s fair and leaves you alive and him dead?
Maybe hunt dangerous animals instead? But can you even fluster a dangerous animal without a weapon that acts at a distance? A bear or a wolf or a cape buffalo has no way of holding a weapon at all. Pandas have thumbs, but you can’t legally shoot back at a panda. The panda would mow you down in a flurry of lead. Fairness in the hunt is simply not happening.
Now try to imagine a fair duck hunt. The hunter faces off against the duck. Both are unarmed. The duck makes a sudden move. The hunter retreats at forty miles an hour.
On May 1, Baden-Württemberg’s Ministry for Rural Areas and Consumer Protection ended the public comment period for the hunting reform bill on its web site.
I had high hopes for this bill. The Green Party dominates the legislature in beautiful Baden-Württemberg—a park-like paradise resembling Housman’s Shropshire, bordered by France and Switzerland, with the locally famous Albtrauf in the role of Wenlock Edge—and the initiative for hunting reform came from a Green representative: Reinhold Pix, a forest service veteran, jovial organic vintner, and passionate advocate of animal welfare. He wanted to move in the general direction of Canton Geneva (hunting ban since 1974), with extra lynx to take up the slack. The Genevans kill boars execution style at feeding stations. There is no other wild species they feel they must kill.
But legislatures everywhere are overworked and understaffed, so that bills not written by lobbyists—that is, bills originating with the sitting government—originate in the executive—that is, in the aforementioned Ministry for Rural Areas and Consumer Protection, still crawling with supporters of the previous administration, some of whom could be described as hunting industry lobbyists if they didn’t have tenured jobs in government.
The public was invited to help draft the bill. Much criticism of hunting was offered, and most of it ignored. The first president of postwar Germany, Theodor Heuss, remarked that hunting is murder and a symptom of mental illness. He is much quoted—in defense of cats. (German hunters shoot stray cats.) Blowing holes in coots, swans, migratory woodcock: no problem, the draft says. Some language about not firing into airborne flocks unless you’ve had a recent exam in trap shooting. Phase-out of lead shot over wetlands. As for how we train duck-retriever dogs without violating every known principle of animal welfare—principles enshrined in the German constitution since 2002—the reader is referred to separate regulations, TBD.
Hunting is ethically weird. But duck hunting—it’s just totally out there. You fire a handful of BBs ahead of a fast-moving target. (Slow-moving duck species are rare in modernity and confined to isolated populations.) Maybe you hit a wing and it falls down and your dog finds it and brings it back so you can wring its neck. But maybe you hit a beak, eye, foot—something that just hurts and cripples. And maybe when your dog brings it back you see it was an older, male duck, which in the case of ducks is not a trophy but trash. By-catch. And possibly, because you always hunt in twilight at a time of year when ducks look drab, it was a protected species. But it’s too late now to shoot anything legal. See you next week, because your shotgun fired in the air made every bird for five hundred yards in all directions decamp for points unknown.
I am as aware of war and unimaginable suffering as much as the next person. On the other hand, hunting greatly enriches firearms manufacturers while serving as window dressing and a convenient earnings and R&D alibi. I would even suggest that duck hunting could prove easier to abolish than war. Ducks possess little mineral wealth and no strategic importance. Thus I urge all readers of n+1 to write letters of support to Reinhold Pix, encouraging him to redraft the shit out of that sucker before it goes up for a vote. Democracy now! End the war on ducks! Don’t let Albania show us up again! Man versus duck is not a duel in the mud, it’s a massacre.
(Possibly a trivial one, but human dignity is something we can all acquire. We display it every time we have a chance to kill the weak for sport and say instead, “____________________.”)
(Deliberately left blank. Say anything. It will be an improvement on killing the weak for sport.)
If you like this article, please subscribe to n+1.