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Issue #1711      November 18, 2015

Culture & Life

If it flies or runs or hops or walks, blow it away!

Did you see the photo of Senator Bridget McKenzie on the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald at the end of October? It was quite fetching: the Senator, in jeans and an open-necked shirt, was smiling, a shotgun broken open and carried nonchalantly over her shoulder. Why a shotgun? Because the Senator enjoys killing wildlife and thinks that people who don’t share her view of the “sport” are displaying “snobbery and elitism”.

Senator Bridget McKenzie, hunting but not gathering.

Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers, combining a diet of berries and nuts, fruit and roots, insects and grubs, eggs and seeds, with meat and fish. To obtain the latter two required hunting, the rest could be gathered. But with the domestication of live-stock and the discovery that certain plants that produced grain could be cultivated, the uncertainty of hunting and gathering could be avoided.

Although no longer necessary, humans continued to hunt: to vary their diet, to conserve their limited stock of domestic animals, or with some people, just for fun. Fishing was often indulged in (and still is) for the sheer pleasure of it, although what was caught was generally eaten, if not by the fisherman’s family then by friends and neighbours.

When land, and the right to hunt or fish on it became the property of the ruling class, the poor often had to hone their hunting skills if they were to avoid starvation. However, hunting really took off with the invention of the gun. The ability to kill with accuracy from a distance made hunting almost a leisure sport, and members of the ruling class took it up with gusto. Wherever people of wealth lived, whether in Britain, France, Russia or the USA, they developed a culture – and a mystique - around hunting as a recreational sport.

Whenever the well-to-do held a house party or the like, the entertainment always included some shooting, with state workers employed to drive pheasants and other game birds towards a line of shotgun-toting guests who had a delightful time killing every bird they could. But woe-betide any poor person who shot a bird (or a rabbit) on an aristocrat’s land!

Whenever imperialism explored a country they coveted as a colony, the explorers took their guns and happily shot every animal that crossed their path. They were followed by “sportsmen” and big game hunters, who proudly posed for photos with the corpses of the animals they had shot, then they cut off the heads of the animals they had shot, to display on the walls of their homes. If they shot an elephant, they removed its ivory tusks as souvenirs and cut off al least one of its feet to make a novel waste paper bin. If they shot a gorilla, which they did ‘till the animals were almost extinct, they severed its hands to make into equally novel ash trays.

Some animals – quite a few actually – were hunted to extinction (most notably the passenger pigeon, the dodo and the marsupial wolf or “Tasmanian tiger,” to mention only three). But times have changed. There has been a growing cultural shift, from killing to conservation, from whale catching to whale watching, from shooting with a gun to shooting with a camera. Even the sport of angling has changed from catch as many as possible and display as trophies to catch and release. The days have fortunately gone when just about every country property in Australia displayed on its front fence by the farm gate the corpses of our magnificent wedge-tailed eagle that the farmer had shot, tacked to the fence with their wings outstretched as grisly reminders of just how superb they had been. They are now protected, but Senator McKenzie can still find plenty of other things to kill, I’m sure.

Clearly, not everyone – not even every country’s government – has embraced this new humane approach to wildlife, with its overriding concern for the future of species diversity on Earth and preserving the glories of the natural world for future generations. Those with money – a genuinely privileged elite under capitalism – are still able to ape the aristocrats of the past and to derive enjoyment from killing animals without risk to themselves. In Australia, the reactionary Shooters and Fishers Party made being given carte blanche to shoot animals in national parks a condition of its support for the NSW Liberal Party government! A truly extraordinary demand, on par with right-wing demands in the US for example for the right to drill for oil in designated and supposedly “protected” wilderness areas.

In countries that are heavily dependent on tourism, most tourists come to see the sights. They bring their cameras, and are content to see the wildlife, the scenery, the ruins, whatever the main attractions are, photograph them, enjoy the experience and treasure the memories. In some places, however, the enticement of people offering money in return for being allowed to kill wildlife has proved too much. In South Africa, for example, lions are bred in captivity to be released into enclosures as young adults so that wealthy foreigners (mainly but not exclusively Americans) can – with the help of a guide – “stalk” them and shoot them. They then proudly pose beside their kill for the obligatory photo-op.

Far from being snobbish and elitist as the good senator claims, those who oppose killing wild animals as “sport” are simply expressing the sentiment that is fast becoming predominant all over the world.

We want to enjoy wildlife: enjoy seeing them in films and TV, enjoy observing them from tourist coaches, launches and headlands, enjoy learning about them. Killing wild animals is not something human beings should enjoy. It should be as repugnant to us as killing human beings. Eliminating introduced pests like rabbits, foxes and deer should be carried out by a government agency like the National Parks and Wildlife Service on scientific advice, not placed in the hands of thrill-seeking gun-nuts.

How can we call ourselves civilised if we condone killing things for pleasure?

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