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Why (Mostly) Men Trophy Hunt: a Biocultural Explanation

Photo Source Robert Tadlock | CC BY 2.0

Wolves do not stay anywhere for long. This is partly a function of their prey’s movement, but it’s also a function of being hunted for seven months of the year, at least in Montana, where residents can “harvest” up to five wolves for a paltry $19 dollars. A quick online search reveals dozens of images and videos of (mostly) men posing with wolves they had killed. The majority of the hunters are wearing what researchers K. R. Child and C. T. Darimont call “pleasure” or “killing” smiles. In their essay “Hunting for Trophies: Online Hunting Photographs Reveal Achievement Satisfaction with Large and Dangerous Prey,” the authors note that hunters’ smiles tend to be more pronounced when the prey is large and/or dangerous, that is, as opposed to when they pose with smaller and presumably less dangerous animals of the same species.

Similarly, a cursory glance of online images of wolf hunts (which is all I can stomach) supports this finding by showing all the creative ways that hunters display and accentuate the size of their trophies. Some men carry the wolf across their shoulders. Others string up, lay out, or hold up the wolf to show its length, height, or mass. Another pose motif shows the hunter, often with gun in hand, kneeling behind and standing up the wolf so that it appears to be alive.  One hunter—I will call him “the artist”—went so far as to prop up the wolf on a moss-covered rock.  But the wolf’s size is not the only cause for celebration; so too is the fearsome appearance of the wolf’s teeth, which hunters often display, apparently, to show how much danger they were in as they hid in their blinds and shot the wolf from 150 yards away.  The hunter’s killing smile tells only one part of the story, however.

Referring to images of hunters with their quarry, Edward Abbey observed how dead animals have a more powerful presence than do the humans who killed them.  Dead animals that remain intact are also more beautiful.  Although 99% of the time I don’t agree with killing wolves, I understand (which is not the same as agreeing with) a rancher or herder’s decision to kill a wolf in defense of his livestock.  But I will never understand why anyone would kill a wolf (or any other predator/carnivore) otherwise.  And I’m not alone in my efforts to fathom this bizarre, perverse, and baffling behavior. In their article The Dark Triad and animal cruelty: Dark personalities, dark attitudes, and dark behaviors, Samantha James and her colleagues document a correlation between some sport or trophy hunters and a trio of undesirable behaviors that they call the “dark triad.”  Narcissism (ego-driven admiration of oneself and no compassion), Machiavellianism, and, most notably perhaps, psychopathy, which is characterized by a profound lack of empathy, among other socially undesirable behaviors.

I have never trophy or sport hunted, nor personally observed a trophy hunt, but I have unwittingly caught the last few minutes of a hunting show that featured a hunter who could have been the poster child for the dark triad.  He had travelled from his home state of Missouri to hunt coyotes in southeastern Arizona, though his methods required one to have an extremely loose definition of hunting as well as a strong stomach.  Although I am not a hunter, I am familiar with the tools and techniques hunters use to kill the animals I study.  One tool is the call or caller, which calls in the target by mimicking survival relevant vocalizations in its environment, including the cries of distressed fawns and rabbits.  Calls can be made manually (usually with the hands and mouth) or with technology that ranges from a whistle-like tool made of wood, to electronic devices that broadcast recordings of attractive sounds.

Apparently lacking the ability to manually call in his quarry, the hunter set up an electronic caller on the side of a ridge, where he broadcasted the cries of a distressed rabbit and waited for his prey to appear.  After unceremoniously dispatching two coyotes with a rifle powerful enough to kill an animal three times the coyote’s size, the hunter set his sights on a bobcat that had come to investigate.  The feline, which was about half the size of the coyote, couldn’t have been more than 50 yards away, a distance that was reduced to mere feet with the aid of a high-powered scope mounted on the rifle.  The hunter made the shot and then, with a spring in his step, walked down and retrieved the bobcat, or rather, what was left of it.  As he neared the bloody and mangled jumble of fur and bone, he slowed down, as if he were beholding something magical.  Then he lifted up the cat by the scruff of the neck.

“I gut-shot it,” he said excitedly, which was both odd and unnecessary because anyone with eyes could see that the cat’s entire midsection was gone and the only thing holding it together was its spine.

Then something strange and unexpected happened: The hunter began to cry-talk, or talk and cry at the same time.  Cry-talking invites a mixed reaction (plus it’s hard on the ears), but I was glad he did because otherwise I wouldn’t have really known why he was crying.  “This is an emotional experience for me,” he said as he dropped the ruined bobcat on the ground.  His face was coated with dust so I could see the paths his tears had taken.  Then he wiped them away, looked right at the camera, and explained how he had always wanted to shoot a bobcat, and now he could finally say that he had.  Then he looked down at the bobcat and said again that it was an emotional experience. I’ve never been one to yell at the TV, but for this guy I made an exception.  Here he had just exploded this beautiful animal and the only thing he could think about was himself.

While these findings and this anecdote may illuminate the personalities or mindsets of trophy hunters, they don’t address why this mindset may exist in the first place.  For that we can look at Why men trophy hunt, a paper by Evolutionary Anthropologists Brian Codding and Kristen Hawkes, and Chris Darimont, a Conservation Scientist at the University of Victoria.  After finding the current hypotheses for why men trophy hunt (for meat, recreation, population control, among other apparent benefits) incomplete or implausible, Darimont, Hawkes, and Codding offer an evolutionary explanation for what they describe as this “perplexing activity.”

This “seemingly irrational behavior is resolved by costly signaling theory. . . [which] considers the social status and prestige that accrue to successful hunters.”  This explanation suggests that recreational hunters accrue status from the costs that they appear to absorb (economically and otherwise), despite the high risk of failure.  According to this view, from the audience’s perspective (particularly that of rivals and prospective mates), only the fittest of the fit can afford to hunt big-game or trophy animals, especially when the hunt is for large, and/or dangerous animals and has no guarantee of success.

While the signaling of non-human animal species tends to be more genuine, for humans what appears to be the case may be more important than what is actually case.  As the authors point out (and as the images of wolf hunters posing with dead wolves illustrate), regardless of their actual ability, “men generally target species that are not only large-bodied but also—and, importantly—impose high cost.”  The carcasses of large (and often inedible) animals aren’t just valued as food, but also serve as “a signal of the costs associated with the hunter’s accomplishment.”  Ultimately, then, the bigger the animal of any species, the greater the accomplishment.  The rewards of this signaling don’t end with killing the animal; rather, they begin with it. For in addition to the images of hunters with their prey, which are often posted on social media and can reach thousands of viewers, a common and well-documented practice among hunters is to have the whole or parts of the animal prepared for display.  (Perhaps the bobcat hunter cut off one of the animal’s paws or mounted its head with teeth exposed for this purpose).

Darimont, Hawkes, and Codding discuss how, in today’s global context, costly signaling theory of trophy hunting doesn’t just extend to the small social groups that were characteristic of our recent and evolutionary past, but to a world-wide audience.  Because of social media and the internet, today’s trophy hunters have signaling opportunities that would have been unthinkable to hunters of the past, as well as to hunters from extant hunter-gather societies.  Prior to the 2015 killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe, one of the consequences of this increased visibility was an uptick in trophy hunting and, in the case of some species, a hastening toward extinction. Despite claims that trophy hunting plays an important role in the conservation of threatened species, the anthropogenic Allee effect, which describes how “the demand and associated costs increase when otherwise unprofitable rare resources become attractive, thereby speeding up their decline,” suggest that these hunts, while contributing to local economies, may in fact be contrary to conservation.

For those of us who are interested in the practical applications of this paper’s findings, and how they might be used to discourage this destructive behavior, the authors recommend developing policies that diminish the perceived cost of trophy hunting so that it will no longer function as a costly signaling opportunity.  Given the international media coverage of Cecil’s death and the outrage that followed, the authors also suggest that public shaming may have a dampening effect on signaling by eroding the apparent status of the trophy hunter. Walter J. Palmer, the American dentist who killed Cecil and received hundreds of hateful messages, probably knows this as well as anyone.

Far from being perceived as a superior male and/or desirable mate, Palmer became the international persona non grata within days of killing Cecil.  If the years before Cecil’s death saw an increase in trophy hunting, the years after it saw a decrease that was so dramatic it became known as the Cecil Effect.  This result not only validates the authors’ call for more research into “the conditions that influence trophy hunting motivation,” it also provides proof of their prediction “that social media boasting about lion hunting declined following the widespread shaming after Cecil’s death.”  Together, these studies offer interesting insights into the biological basis of human behavior and, more importantly, the biologically responsive strategies for changing it.

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Maximilian Werner is an Assistant Professor (Lecturer) of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at the University of Utah.  His most recent book is The Bone Pile: Essays on Nature and Culture. He can be reached at: mswerner@gmail.com.

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