At Ghost Bear Photography, we try to keep things non-political in order to break down stereotypes and make nature – and, by way, conservation – more accessible to people from all walks of life.
However, there are times when opinions must be shared in the hope of enhancing the quality of debate around a critical issue and between the bear hunt in British Columbia, the potential delisting of the grizzly bear in the Lower 48 and the latest round of legal wolf kills on the border of Yellowstone, we feel its important to weigh in on the subject of hunting.
For an issue as far ranging and important as this one, it is depressing to see context being ignored and complexities be overly simplified. Indeed, without a rational dialogue, we’re doomed to a prolonged cultural war.
And this is increasingly looking like a culture war. Urban vs. Rural. The fight for the right to kill or, as the case might be, not kill.
Firstly, a disclaimer: I love bears. I love animals. I’d rather shoot them with my camera than with a gun. And I really don’t get killing for sport.
But I’m also a meat eater. I love food. I don’t kill my own game, I source it from someone else who does the dirty work for me, sparing me the gory details. So for me to say I hate all hunting would be hypocritical given my consumption of meat.
I’m also aware that the animal which I love the most, bears, also happens to eat meat. They eat in moderation compared to what we consume, but they do it with gusto and rarely with compassion for the animal they kill.
Yet on the flip side of the coin, I’ve witnessed animals heartbroken at the loss of life, spending days mourning death. Wildlife most certainly have complex societies and, while not like humans, they do, without question, feel loss and pain and sorrow. It’s a fact that I consider when offering my opinions on hunting.
All of this is to say: I understand this issue is not black-and-white, but very grey, with no easy or even right answers, and that most of us, one way or another, bring a bias to the debate.
The Two Solitudes
From the bear hunt to the creation of animal sanctuaries, the forces of this debate have been boxed into two solitudes – for and against. How demeaning.
For too long, ranchers and recreational hunters have been made-out to be evil-doers – a ridiculous viewpoint. While I might not agree with all of their views, I’m a realist in understanding that they are entitled to have opinions and that those opinions have equal validity as the ones held by staunch critics of hunting.
Equally, just because someone lives in a city and opposes hunting, it doesn’t mean they are prohibited from educating themselves on a subject that can impact their lives. Ethics, food safety and protecting the life systems that sustain us – all impacted by hunting – are issues that are as relevant in urban centres as in rural areas.
Yet what divides also has the potential to unite. Let me explain.
The Spirit Bear Example
When I was running the spirit bear campaign, we could have very purposefully asked for a protected area that restricted hunting. But why alienate a major constituency that potentially dislikes what environmentalism has come to stand for, yet actually supports the majority of the agenda – species conservation, interconnected wilderness, etc. Sure, motives might be different, but if non-traditional alliances can be forged to reach the same end more quickly, why not do it?
In my mind, there is no sense in creating unnecessary enemies. The environment needs as big of a tent as it can find.
After we succeeded in protecting an area of land for the spirit bear, it was then time to discuss its management. While anger and distrust was the currency of the day between environmentalists and the pro-hunt lobby, my organization had, over time, built meaningful relationships with hunters that allowed for each of us to respect the other’s opinion.
I wasn’t out to take away anyone’s gun. I acknowledged that it was far more ethical and sustainable to hunt your own food, rather than purchase it from my local grocery store who could have sourced the meat from a factory farm. And I understood there was a quality of life, a way of life that was critical to hunters and I refused to demonize it.
The Art of Balance
The hunters I dealt with equally acknowledged that in what they perceived to be a life and death culture war for their rights, they were too often signing onto a campaign that wanted to see hunting expanded to every square inch of the province. And that wasn’t something everyone within the hunt lobby actually agreed with.
The pro-hunting campaign was one built on fear, rather than actual principal. Not every hunter supported foreign trophy hunting operations. Most agreed there was no money in hunting anymore. Many felt that while hunters deserved their space, animals should also have their own areas.
And that was the principal that I kept coming back to: Balance. While I hate the idea of bears or wolves being killed for sport, I also know that the zero-sum game of banning all hunting, all of the time is gaining very little ground in policy, even if it has public support.
I also accept that while I don’t get and never will understand why bears and wolves are persecuted as blood-thirsty, man-killers, I do understand that life is more complex living in bear or wolf country, especially if your livelihood is one the line.
The Importance of Empathy
If both sides could take a step back, have some empathy and walk a mile in the shoes of the other, I think this debate would become a lot more meaningful, a lot more quickly.
Maybe trust could be established. Maybe education would prevail. Maybe policy could be established based not on personal bias or lobby efforts, but through collaborative effort.
Kids for Wolves, started by rising leader Story Warren, is one of the few advocates I’ve seen embrace this approach. And she’s succeeding. But why are so few adopting this strategy? Why are established leaders falling back on tired rhetoric, rather than proactively seeking solutions?
Yes, some people will want every wolf killed. They’re the extreme. Just as those who seek to end all hunting are equally in the minority.
Most hunters, I maintain, want animals to exist, but don’t want their way of life and their livelihood to be destroyed in the process.
Maybe this means not allowing for ranches on the borders of national parks.
Maybe this means protecting wildlife shouldn’t extend into established communities.
Maybe, most of all, it means that creating protected areas and reintroducing a native species can’t be railroaded down one constituency’s throat; nor can the mass killing of one species be waved in the face of the supposed opposition for the sake of political blackmail.
Ideas for a Truce
Where to from here? Well, what of that idea of animals having their place and hunters being enshrined their own?
What if large, connected corridors are established, with sufficient no-hunt buffer zones surrounding them, which, in turn, maintain self-sufficient populations of large, threatened carnivores? In essence, what if we have management-free zones where animals truly come first?
And in other areas? We accept that people deserve their space, their rights and their traditions. We allow hunting and, more importantly, we allow for the people who live there to never fear that someone will attack who they are and what they do and what they know.
How do we decide what happens where? Careful discussion with considerable collaboration between stakeholders, though I’m not naive to the fact that any solution of this sort will still leave hard feelings and an imperfect resolution.
But it could be a step in the right direction. Progress. Balance. Less hypocrisy and more empathy. For the state of perpetual culture war isn’t helping anyone right now, so how can this alternative be worse?
I don’t pretend to have all of the solutions and, as I wrote at the outset, I admit to my own biases. Yet I’ve seen first hand how market-based solutions and relentless incrementalism, built through trust and mutual understanding, started changing the lexicon in BC and is allowing for the creation of the first ever, true-in-action (if not in word) sanctuaries.
And if we can do it in one small, very divisive corner of BC, surely we can do it ecosystem-wide. Province-wide. State-wide. World-wide. If we do, then we will find a better way for people and animals to coexist.