“I rather wonder both by what accident and in what state of soul or mind the first man touched his mouth to gore and brought his lips to the flesh of a dead creature, he who ventured to call food and nourishment the parts that had a little before bellowed and cried, moved and lived. How could his eyes endure the slaughter when throats were slit and hides flayed and limbs torn from limb? For the sake of a little flesh we deprive them of sun, of light, of the duration of life to which they are entitled by birth and being.” — Plutarch
There have been times and places in human history where stalking, baiting or trapping and killing for sustenance was likely (and regrettably) necessary for survival. For those who live in the developed world today, there is no such need; only the desire to make money if you’re on the supply side of these activities, or to harm and kill innocents if you’re on the demand side.
Some animals are burdened with a predatory nature and the blood lust that must accompany it, but we are not. We are born instead with a strong natural aversion to violence and blood, to the act of preying upon another. We possess the ability to recognize our fellow animals’ pain and fear, to imagine how it might feel if it were our own, and to use this empathy, if we so choose, to guide our judgment.
When people actively participate in slaughter, they must numb themselves to the horrific nature of killing. One cannot allow feelings of sadness or remorse or horror and still follow through with the act of taking another’s life. In order to do so, one must silence the part of oneself that is horrified by the idea of causing the essence of an animal to drain out of her body.
To understand what is actually going on under the thin façade of respectability in an extremely speciesist culture, it’s helpful to replace the innocent victims of these activities with peaceful humans. When we imagine this replacement of innocent nonhumans with innocent humans, it becomes clearer to most people how morally repulsive it is to stalk, bait, trap, kill, or otherwise harm nonthreatening innocents when there is no need to do so.
Yes, nature is also cruel, but we don’t use this fact in a ridiculous attempt to justify harming innocent humans. It’s just as ridiculous to attempt to justify unnecessarily harming innocent members of other species. When we reject the prejudice of speciesism, we see how absurd is the argument that anything can be justified simply because it can also be called ‘natural’.
According to the website of the US Fish and Wildlife service, the most recent survey report in 2016 indicated that around 13 million people (including 1.4 million children aged 16 or younger) “enjoyed hunting a variety of animals within the United States”. Americans hunted 184 million days and took 147 million trips. Hunting expenditures totaled $26.2 billion. An estimated 9.2 million hunters spent $14.9 billion pursuing large animals such as deer and elk. 3.5 million hunted small animals including squirrels and rabbits. 2.4 million people hunted migratory birds such as doves or waterfowl, and 1.3 million hunted other animals such as free-living pigs and raccoons.
While hunting may have played a necessary role in humanity’s past, today it is a needless, cruel practice that inflicts agony and terror on unsuspecting nonhumans in their own homes, and sometimes even causes them to be killed in the presence of their children, mates, and other family members. At the same time, it encourages humans (and teaches children) to suppress our basic decency in favor of hardening our hearts to the suffering of others at our own hands.
Hunters often argue that hunting is a natural component of human existence, conveniently ignoring other examples of ‘natural’ human behavior (such as rape, murder and, at one time, cannabalism) that no rational person would ever excuse as being morally justified, let alone consider an enjoyable activity to participate in.
While subsistence hunting still occurs in some remote, isolated corners of the world, the majority of hunting happens as a leisure activity. During this brutal and archaic practice, free-living animals are tracked and stalked in their natural habitats, by unnatural predators who enjoy the extreme advantage of being armed, often with highly sophisticated weaponry.
It’s rare for a hunter to kill with the first shot. After causing an initial injury, many hunters will pursue the terrified victim, often inflicting a fatal wound only after the tormented individual has suffered tremendous pain, sometimes for hours or even days. Hunters who kill with a bow and arrow can many times inflict even more suffering than those using firearms, as evidence suggests that nearly half of all those hunted by an archer are crippled and maimed, rather than killed. If a hunter strikes an individual in the “wrong” part of the body, it can make the animal’s flesh unsuitable for eating, so, to prevent “spoilage,” many hunters aim to shoot at the gut or even the face.
Many people point to nature conservation as a justification for the continued legality of hunting. While it’s true that hunting fees do often go toward improving the public image of this activity by supporting conservation efforts, hunting itself inflicts stress on local ecosystems, such as by forcing native animals to change their migration patterns, and by breaking up families who then struggle to survive. Hunters who target natural predators, like wolves and bears, also pose a significant threat to the balance of the local ecosystem, as when too many predators are removed from a given area, herbivorous animals can proliferate and eat too much local vegetation. This can eventually lead to mass starvation for local herbivore populations. Ecosystems with no human activity are the closest to a natural state, and thereby the healthiest. And besides, any ecological benefit resulting from hunting revenue can never mitigate the harm caused by hunting itself.
While hunters represent a vocal part of the population, they’re actually only a small segment of people in the United States – just 4 percent of Americans. Wildlife watchers, who represent 22 percent of the nation’s population, spend $20 billion a year on nonviolent activities that also benefit wildlife conservation.
Like other types of sport hunting, many trophy hunters veil their intentions as “conservation” but trophy hunting causes devastation to already threatened and even endangered populations, including rhinos, elephants, bears, giraffes and big cats. Trophy hunters usually aim to collect a body part, like a head, to preserve and mount. Trophy hunting is most often practiced by wealthy Americans and Europeans who can afford to pay the exorbitant fees.
On many so-called hunting preserves, nonhuman victims are fenced into small, controlled areas so trophy hunters can be guaranteed a kill. Many private game preserves offer hunters the opportunity to kill exotic animals who have been purchased by the landowner from a circus or a zoo, and some of these preserves advertise that they will custom-order species “not already in stock”. These murdered individuals are then mutilated and taxidermied before being (perfectly legally) imported into the United States or Europe. In the U.S. alone, 1.26 million wildlife trophies were imported between 2005 and 2014.
While the adverse ecological impacts of commercial fishing are well-known and well-documented, many people see “sport fishing” as an innocuous pastime. In actuality, any kind of fishing is a cruel practice that causes extreme suffering and needless death, while often doing damage to the environments in which these persecuted individuals live.
Many believe, erroneously, that a fish’s nervous system is too rudimentary for her to consciously experience pain. Because of this, there is a common (often unconscious) misapprehension that fishes don’t feel pain in the same way a human (or another species of animal) might. This is one reason that some people who abstain from eating the flesh of other animals for ethical reasons might still choose to consume “fish.”
While evidence surrounding fishes’ ability to feel pain was murky for decades, science is beginning to paint a clearer picture that fishes feel pain in much the same way as other animals. It turns out that fish nerve structures are anatomically very similar to those of humans and many other species. Among these common structures are receptor cells called nociceptors, which are found throughout animals’ bodies and are activated by stimuli expected to cause damage to bodily tissues. Tellingly, some species of fish have upwards of 58 different nociceptors located in their lips alone, the very part of their bodies ravaged by fishing hooks.
As in human anatomy, these nociceptors are wired by nerve fibers to the central nervous system (the spinal cord and brain). When pain centers in the brain are activated by signals from the nociceptors, they trigger the body to respond to these potentially harmful or life threatening events.
Fish anatomy is so complex that fishes have even evolved the same “pain-blocking” substances (endorphins) as humans. Endorphins are akin to naturally occurring morphine, although their role in the body is more complex. (It is also worth mentioning that some analgesic drugs used by humans also appear to reduce pain in fishes.) It is theorized that endorphins help animals to tolerate pain from severe injuries in order to help them escape from predators. This leaves us with the question: Why would fishes have endorphins in their bodies if they couldn’t feel pain?
And why is there still a debate over their sentience?
When fishes are caught for sport, they’re enticed to pierce their own flesh with a barbed hook hiding inside a lure or a piece of food. Tugging the line sets the hook in the cheek, so a fish can be slowly pulled to the surface. Once outside of the water she will begin to suffocate, as she can’t breathe air through her gills. Flailing around as she struggles for breath, she will experience a tremendous amount of pain as the barb is ripped out of her cheek.
Fishes will frequently swallow these hooks. A fish who swallows a hook will almost always die within a few minutes, because the hook tears up her internal organs as it makes its way through her fragile body. She might not be able to cry out or vocalize with the sounds that help us to empathize with land-based nonhumans, but she suffers in agony nonetheless.
From a very young age, many children are taught to “catch and release” fishes from their natural habitats, leading them to internalize the idea that it is a perfectly normal and acceptable practice to rupture a fish’s body with a barbed piece of metal, rip that barb out through the flesh, and then free the fish to return to the water while she bleeds out. Catching and releasing might appear to be a more civilized way of fishing, but in reality, it is simply the practice of mutilating a sentient individual before likely ending her life: an act of torture for the sake of entertainment.
Environmental Devastation from Fish Stocking
The process of fish stocking involves a private landowner or government agency filling a river, lake or pond with hatchery-bred fishes. These species are often non-native to the area, and are selected because they’re prized by sport fishers. Some of the world’s most pristine, scenic natural environments have been deliberately violated in this way with invasive fish species.
Often, fishes are transferred from one body of water to another. This creates an imbalance in the population of the original lake or pond where the fishes were taken from, and introduces the possibility of other, unintentionally introduced invasive species, ranging from microbes to freshwater mussels.
In many areas of the country, the practice of fish stocking is devastating indigenous wild fish species in favor of supplying sport fishers with the types of fishes they like to catch. The ecological implications of fish stocking are hard to overstate. For example, the Center for Biological Diversity says non-native trout stocking is arguably the largest source of native fish species decline in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
One of the effects of industrialization and suburbanization is that, as humans push themselves into the natural habitats of other animals — disrupting the balance of nature — they often end up seeking new ways to eliminate the free-living animals with whom they are now competing.
People often think of these individuals as invasive creatures who are taking over “our” living space. In fact, we’re the invasive creatures who have disrupted the natural environments around us. Because our presence makes it increasingly difficult for free-living animals to find food and nurture their young, it’s inevitable that we will encounter the creatures we’ve displaced as we go about our lives, and they theirs.
There’s no real definition for which type of animal qualifies as a “pest.” Some might think of a wild rabbit burrowing under the fence as a pest, while others keep “pet” rabbits as members of the family. Raccoons, rats, mice, bats, snakes and rabbits are among the most targeted animals for exterminators, and the fate of animals categorized by us as “vermin” can be exceptionally harsh, as extermination methods are particularly cruel, and tend to involve gassing, baiting and poisoning, frequently causing lengthy periods of agony before the individual dies.
There are a number of different types of poison used by exterminators. Anticoagulants, for instance, which are commonly used to kill rodents, can take as long as 14 days to kill, causing torturous experiences, as individuals become sick and unable to care for themselves as they slowly die.
Burrowing animals, like rabbits, are usually killed by gassing, using a chemical like phosphine. Phosphine destroys the central nervous system, causing the last several hours of one’s life to be spent convulsing in unimaginable pain.
Many exterminators tell clients that live trapping and relocation is more humane than extermination, but live trapping often also leads to a slow, agonizing death. Once an individual is taken away from her natural habitat, she often won’t be able to care for herself, so many relocated animals slowly die of hunger and dehydration. One of the most common effects of relocation is the orphaning of babies, who are left alone and often starve to death.
Free-Living Animals Who Compete with Agriculture
Many people are not aware that commercial free-range grazing involves the eradication of the free-living animals, including threatened and endangered species, who once considered those grazing lands home.
The USDA’s Animal Damage Control (ADC) was established in 1931 for the purpose of eradicating wildlife considered detrimental to the grazing industry. In 1997, the program was renamed “Wildlife Services,” following advice from public relations consultants.
The Wildlife Services agency was put in place to kill any free-living animals that might compete with animals being grazed for slaughter. Methods used include poisoning, trapping, snaring, shooting, aerial gunning, and denning, where government agents pour kerosene into a den and then set it on fire, burning both mothers and babies alive in their nests.
Animals unintentionally killed by Wildlife Services include domestic dogs and cats, and several threatened and endangered species, but the animals killed intentionally include badgers, black bears, bobcats, coyotes, gray and red foxes, mountain lions, opossum, raccoons, striped skunks, beavers, nutrias, porcupines, prairie dogs, black birds, cattle egrets, and starlings.
Wildlife Services intentionally kills more than 1.5 million wild animals annually, using taxpayer dollars to protect the private interests of ranchers using public lands to graze the animals they will ultimately slaughter and sell to consumers as free-range, grass-fed “meat.”
Dr. Mike Hudak is an environmental advocate who is a leading expert on the harm to wildlife and the environment caused by public-lands ranching. He is the founder and director of Public Lands Without Livestock, and the author of Western Turf Wars: The Politics of Public Lands Ranching (2007). In his article, Public Lands Ranching: The Scourge of Wildlife, Hudak elaborates:
“How extensive is the carnage that ranching inflicts on wildlife? One reasonable measure is the number of affected species that are either (1) federally listed as threatened or endangered, (2) candidates for federal listing, or (3) the subject of petitions for federal listing. By that criterion, ranching’s victims number 151 species in all: 26 species of mammals, 25 species of birds, 66 species of fish, 14 species of reptiles and amphibians, 15 species of mollusks, and 5 species of insects.”