A while ago while on Twitter, I saw people were tweeting about individuals who hunted giraffes and posted pictures of themselves posing next to their kills. Because I thought the whole discussion was one-sided, I responded by posting a link to the explanation that a woman hunter, Tess Halley, provided as to why and how she hunted a giraffe so everyone would be aware of the other side of the argument. I followed that by posting a link to an interview with her.
The effect this had was like spraying gasoline on a fire.
My followers on Twitter called Halley: vile, sad, disgusting, despicable, heartless, a coward, a monster, scum, a sociopath, immoral, and a POS. Her killing of the giraffe was labelled egregious, sickening, outrageous, and appalling. She was branded a person without a moral compass who destroys the balance of the Earth and nature, and who deserves to burn in hell. A few people criticized hunters in general while the majority just criticized trophy hunting in particular. Others only chastised Halley for posting the picture or at least considered it an aggravating factor.
I know several hunters personally, and they are all decent individuals, so I took exception to the comments my Twitter followers made. In this post I’m going to recap some of my arguments while analyzing the apparent reasons everyone was so outraged over Halley killing a giraffe and my thoughts about it.
Was it because she killed a sentient animal?
A sentient animal is one which has the ability to perceive or feel things. So this clearly goes beyond giraffes, and covers, for example, farm animals such as cows, pigs, and chickens. In the United States more than 8 billion chickens, 100 million pigs, and 30 million cattle are slaughtered each year, and the slaughter of these animals is a traumatic process which stresses the animals before they die. I suspect that the majority of the people who displayed indignation at Halley killing the giraffe also eat meat, so I have to point out that by buying meat, you are financing those who kill sentient animals (cows, pigs, and chickens) to feed you. By this reasoning, in terms of killing a sentient animal, people who eat meat are no worse than her. Indeed, a vegetarian wrote that whereas trophy hunters kill 70,000 wild animals each year worldwide, meat eaters finance the killing of 70 billion farm animals. He also argued that whereas wild animals enjoy several years of freedom before they are killed, farm animals lead short, restricted, miserable lives before they are slaughtered, and those who eat meat support all this.
Was it because she did not have to kill the animal for food? Was it because she did it for sport?
People could argue that killing or paying others to kill animals specifically raised for food is justified (although vegetarians would disagree), but Halley killed a wild animal for sport, and that’s not acceptable.
This is a value judgement. However, I have to point out that Halley was not a poacher. She obtained the permission of the authorities of the preserve where this giraffe lived. The giraffe belonged to a managed herd, and in these herds animals have to be killed (culled) occasionally for the overall good of the herd. Giraffe populations, while still low, are increasing. The giraffe was also not left out in the field to rot, all of its body was used. Although Halley claims that she is foremost a hunter, she views her kill as fitting within the framework of a conservation effort. There are groups of hunters that have spearheaded efforts to protect wildlife and their habitat through organizations such as Ducks Unlimited.
It must also be mentioned that in the United States today the majority of people have no need to kill wildlife for food in order to survive. Therefore, most hunting is hunting for sport. From this vantage point, the killing of that giraffe by Halley was no different from the killing of deer, elk, moose, boars, etc. There are 15 million hunting licenses issued in the United States each year, and it is estimated that close to 5% of the population of the United States engages in hunting. If you include people that fish at least once a year (yes, fishing is a form of hunting that kills a sentient animal), that covers 55 million Americans. Should all these people in the United States receive the moral condemnation that Halley received?
There are multiple reasons for hunting, but the hunters I know hunt for the experience, the challenge, the bonding (if they are hunting with others), and the proximity to nature. Many hunters will tell you that killing your own food beats buying it at the supermarket. And the vast majority of hunters are mindful of the need for conservation. They buy their hunting or fishing permits and follow the laws.
Was it because she posted a picture of herself smiling next to the giraffe?
This struck a nerve with many people who argued that if you are going to kill the giraffe, so be it, but at least don’t post a picture of yourself smiling next to it on social media.
This is another value judgement, but it must be pointed out that the activity of hunting is as old as humanity, and so is the pride hunters take in their kill and their desire to document it. In humanity’s past this took place in the form of stories, paintings, and trophies (tusks, horns, etc.), and with technological advances this has also included photographs and videos. The most visible example of this practice is photos of fishermen posing with the fish that they have caught. Thus social media is the next logical extension of this activity.
So why was it?
I suspect the real reason why people were so outraged is the same reason why they would be outraged if someone killed a cute puppy, but wouldn’t bat an eye if someone killed a rat, even though both are sentient animals. Some animals have just gained a cultural foothold in the empathic human consciousness. Large majestic animals such as giraffes, elephants, or lions have an iconic appeal to the contemporary human psyche that other animals just don’t have, and their killing triggers strong emotional reactions even if it is carried out within a legal conservation-oriented framework.
I am not a vegetarian, and I am not a hunter, although I have caught and eaten fish, and I use small animals for research. I rationalize our use of animals in terms of humans being the dominant predator of the planet. Although I like the outdoors and often go on short hikes, my regular life is far removed from nature. From this vantage point I believe that conservation-minded hunters are closer to nature than me or anyone with my lifestyle. Finally, I also think that viewing nature through the prism of human morals is going against the very essence of what nature is, and I have written posts about this in my blog. But in the end, societies decide what is acceptable or not. People can always lobby their elected representatives to ban the importation of hunting trophies of the animals they care about, or people can pressure social media companies to ban the posting of photos of hunted animals as part of their terms of service. I think that these two initiatives would be more effective than short-lived outbursts of social media outrage.
So those are my thoughts on this issue. What do you think?
I do not own the rights to the photograph of Tess Halley posing with the giraffe she killed in South Africa. This photo has been widely circulated in social media and is used here under the doctrine of Fair Use.