Why We Have Become Such Suckers for Hunting Trophy Photo Outrage

In the Facebook age, a photo of a hunter posing with a lion or elephant is worth a thousand comments. And that’s the problem.

(Photo: Facebook)

Dec 11, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

Lately, I’ve been lurking on the outskirts of a provocative Facebook conversation about hunting. Everybody involved in the debate fits the description “conservationist.” But that was about the only thing they agreed on. (And if I’d stuck around a little longer, they might have gotten ugly about that too.) The topic of the debate was: “Why have trophy photographs become such a standard object of Internet outrage?”

The person who started it all put that question in an intriguing context: The earliest cave paintings almost always depicted hunters pursuing trophy-quality animals—mastodons with great curved tusks and antelope with enormous antlers. The primitive people who painted them were the ancestors of us all, and we would not be here without them or the hunting by which they lived. Their paintings also represent the beginnings of art and human culture. So how can we revere those ancient trophy images and yet also feel such anger toward their modern counterparts?

The two things are radically different, one writer replied. Scholars generally interpret the hunts in cave paintings as expressions of shamanic or magical links to the quarry. They also served as visual offerings, to solicit future hunting success. By contrast, the writer posted a modern photo of a trophy hippo, its mouth propped open with a stick and the hunter using its carcass as a backrest while reading a newspaper—the perfect image of contempt for his prey.

As happens in almost all such Facebook debates, a personal attack promptly followed: “Do something constructive for the wildlife and wildlands of the world” instead of “this constant hating and stirring up of emotions.” The writer replied that he had been the driving force behind creating a 32,000-acre marine reserve, so just shut up. A third party stepped in as the voice of reason: “Reality is not binary. People are not always either ‘anti-hunting’ or ‘pro-hunting.’ ” It depends on context. Then she threw a punch: “Yes, primitive people hunted animals. Many primitive people also killed and ate each other.”

On the hunting side, the main argument was twofold: “Hunting brings us closer to the realities of ecology, and puts us in touch with a foundational connection to our most remote ancestors in deep time. Even without any conservation or other advantages, it would be a worthy activity.” Hunters were also the original conservationists. One commenter credited hunters for “preserving millions of acres of wilderness and farmland.”

To me, as a non-hunter, both claims seem defensible. Yes, half-wit Russian zillionaires can pop a captive-bred “canned” lion, pose for a trophy photo, and call it hunting. But serious hunters become as deeply knowledgeable as any ecologist about the animals they pursue. Big game hunters like Teddy Roosevelt were also the original conservationists. Certain hunting and fishing nonprofits, such as the National Wildlife Federation and the Coastal Conservation Association, carry on that heritage today. The license and trophy fees hunters and fishers pay can make a huge contribution to the cost of protecting habitat. Those fees also help win crucial support among local people for maintaining that habitat.

On the anti–trophy photo side, there were people who plainly just hated hunting and hated the taking of an individual life. But this seems to me like choosing to be a vegetarian: It’s pointless trying to impose your beliefs on other people, and in any case you’ll get further by good example (and good recipes) than by trying to argue the point.

A better complaint was that hunters don’t do enough to keep out the half-wits or to prevent illegal and irresponsible behavior. Too often, they look the other way when someone they know hunts a threatened or endangered species. They tolerate hunting tournaments that are degrading for everyone involved. Organizations like Safari International also often fail to root out professional guides operating under their auspices, even when their bad behavior is well known among other hunters.

Hunters need to make clear that conservation is their first priority and any trophy strictly secondary. Just being a hunter isn’t enough. As a group, they “tend to be politically naïve and easily manipulated by their worst enemies,” the outdoors writer Ted Williams has written. “Because he fished and hunted and whooped it up for gun ownership, sportsmen ensured the election of George W. Bush—the most anti-fish-and-wildlife president we’ve ever had with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, also propelled into office by sportsmen.”

But conservationists and anti-hunting activists need to be doing a lot more for wildlife too. The thing about those trophy photos is that they do nothing other than allow us to express our outrage. Certain dubious websites even specialize in such images as easy click bait. The more tasteless the photo, the better we seem to like it. Expressing our contempt allows us to go away feeling morally superior and environmentally enlightened, even as we drive our gas-guzzling SUVs, live in our McMansions, eat factory-farm meat, and otherwise partake in the ruination of the Earth.

So here is my advice: For the hunters, sure, take your pictures. Even smile, if you want. Then print them out the old-fashioned way, on paper. Show them to your family or to sympathetic friends. But please, please, please, skip Facebook, Twitter, or even your local hunting club website. Anyplace digital is likely to turn your memorable moment into a nightmare.

And for people who just want to protect wildlife? Next time you see one of those photos, look away. Skip the easy outrage. Forget about sharing the image to garner social status for your outrage. Instead, do something that actually makes a difference for wildlife, even if it just means writing a check to one of your favorite conservation groups.

One final point—and I am amazed that in the blizzard of words in the Facebook debate, no one mentioned this. Ancient hunters no doubt prized the animals they killed as precious meat for their families, and thus in some sense as trophies. But in their cave paintings, they always depicted their prey as living, bounding, beautiful creatures. That’s the vision—a world with plenty of wildlife—that all of us should be working toward.