© Anne Benvenuti, June 2017
Last summer, while I was walking northern England’s Coast to Coast Path, I happened into the town of Kirkby Stephen, a town whose unlikely mascot is the South American Macaw, a type of parrot whose facial feather pattern is unique and identifiable on sight by other Macaws. Perhaps Macaw faces are easily seen by the humans who love them too, like John Strutt who, while he lived, owned Eden Farm in the nearby Eden Valley, and who endowed his farm as a nature sanctuary and permanent home for feral Macaws. The Macaws can be a bit naughty, removing roof tiles for example, so Strutt set up a fund to pay their way. They live free by day and return freely to their open aviaries at night.
Strutt grew up as a wealthy country boy/gentleman, and in his youth was an expert “stalker,” the name then given to British hunters. As a youngster he loved to be out in the wilds, gun in hand, following the wild animals over hill and dale, flushing them from hedgerows and bringing them home on a string. Gradually he realized that his joy in nature could be better expressed by not hunting the animals. He loved his land and traditions too, but he changed how he loved them, and who might be included.
I think of the English-Amazonian Macaws, and of John Strutt, as I look out over my own new landscape in southern Italy, a beautiful rural landscape surprisingly devoid of songbirds. I was horrified when I learned the answer to my question: why no birds? It’s the custom here to hunt little songbirds outside of breeding and nesting seasons, a custom cherished by some and regretted by others. The man who is building my pool weeps for the strings of dead little birds. He loves animals and his heart rejects a tradition that many others cherish. He’d rather have the pleasure of birdsong, the joy of seeing birds in flight. It’s a story that takes place all over the world, of course, the story of hunting that was once a necessity and is now a sport, often based on a sense of community tradition. It has taken place wherever Homo sapiens has lived, not to the benefit of other species, and often not to the benefit of Sapiens. (In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, author Harari notes that historically other species go extinct as soon as humans arrive.)
As a kid, I used to love to shoot cans and then bottle caps when I got good enough. First I shot a cap gun six-shooter, then a BB gun, then a rifle. I love being outdoors, where most shooting necessarily takes place, and I love the skills that combine to shoot a moving target out of the air: vision, reaction time, coordination of muscles and senses. When I was a little girl, going hunting was for the boys and men. But I knew it involved camping and being out in nature, so I lobbied hard until I was allowed to go along. After a solid year of badgering, one October I went out on the hunt, and, when the moment came that I had my rifle in my eight year old hand and the rabbit ran out of the bush, I had the perfect shot lined up. I dropped the barrel because I understood that to kill a little animal was not what I wanted. I vividly remember the moment of clarity.
Recently two African big game hunters died in the line of business. Both were professionals in the tradition of colonialism, making fortunes by charging tens of thousands of dollars to take American and European hunters into the bush, well protected and equipped, for the thrill of killing exotic animals without any risk to the customer. The first of these hunt operators to go, last April, was Scott Van Zyl of Zimbabwe, whose remains were found in the belly of a crocodile on the banks of the Limpopo River, where he had been leading a hunt. On this occasion the crocodile got the man with the gun, instead of the other way around. Then in May, South African big game hunter Theunis Botha was crushed by an elephant in its death fall, the elephant having been shot by one of the hunting party that Mr. Botha was leading. His website declared that his business was based upon “a mutual love for Africa and its natural beauty.” Many of my animal activist friends expressed a kind of celebratory satisfaction that these sports hunters were killed by the relatives of animals they’d killed in the past. While I hesitate to shout “divine retribution!” it is easy to see their deaths as an expression of the “mutual love” between the men and the version of nature they loved, red in tooth and claw.
I know that there are people who fit the description given by Roger Moore (of 007 gun-toting fame): “Fact: hunting is a coward’s pastime, and no one has demonstrated that more clearly than the American dentist Walter Palmer, who apparently paid over £30,000 to gun down a lion to add his head to a trophy wall. That wall includes the heads of animals he has shot at close range – with the help of paid facilitators, of course, from all over the world – including a leopard, an elk, a buffalo and even a polar bear, who won’t have to wait for global warming to be killed off.”
However, while there certainly are pathological hunters, I want to make the point that many people hunt because they love nature, animals, and the traditions of their lands. And some of them learn, as did John Strutt, that they can love nature and animals by caring for them rather than hunting them. I have heard more than one reformed sports hunter and sports fisherman express deep grief and relief, then celebration for the day when their heads turned, their eyes opened, and they decided to keep their love for nature and animals, while losing the traditions of hunting and fishing. They go out with field glasses now, but leave the guns and fishing poles at home. They enjoy the pursuit as a kind of courtship… the gaze, the encounter, with more attention, more joy, less denial about guilty feelings.
I am interested in the story of how humans are changing in our sense of relationship to other animals. I believe it is one of the most important behavioral evolutions taking place on Earth. I’d like for hunters to consider having the pleasures of the wilds without the kill, the pleasure of encounter. Dare I say love?