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In very general terms, hunting refers to the activity of pursuing and killing free-roaming animals. It is often assumed that these are wild animals, but that is not necessarily the case. There are many reasons why human beings hunt. These range from a need to obtain protein-based sources of nourishment to the pursuit of recreation or of a thrill. People also hunt to collect raw materials that are used for industrial purposes, as in the case of the fur industry, or to collect trophies, amulets, or the ingredients for magic and aphrodisiac potions. Why people hunt, how they hunt, what they hunt, and what they do with the products of hunting endeavors say a lot about a society’s social organization, economic systems, culture, and values. Some people in Western societies condemn hunting as an extremely inhumane form of unnecessary cruelty. Hunting may indeed seem unnecessary and cruel when animals are butchered and left half alive so that humans can extract a small part of their bodies to use as “good luck” charms. However, the social scope of hunting is far too wide to be reduced to such a reality. Three examples illustrate the range of possible forms of hunting and their relation to different societies, cultural premises, and ecological environments.
The industrial hunting of many species of wild animals is directly related to the history of the Industrial Revolution and Western modernization. In this context, some species were hunted to the brink of extinction. Mainly between the 17th and the early 20th centuries, an enormous number of whales were killed so that their blubber could be extracted and for oil. This oil, in turn, was used to illuminate the streets of the world’s first major industrial centers. Subsequently, whale-derived oil-especially the spermaceti of sperm whales-was used to lubricate the war machinery of World War II.
Today animals continue to be hunted for industrial purposes. This is the case, for example, of baby seals in Canada, which are hunted for the fur industry. Hunting for industrial purposes has been linked with different moral values at different historical junctures. Between the 17th and 20th centuries, most Western societies saw this activity as a perfectly legitimate means to satisfy human needs. More recently, many people contest industrial hunting as an immoral and selfish feeding of human whims. In either case, those values reflect the cultural worldviews that are most typical of a society at a given point in time.
Recreational hunting refers to the pursuit and killing of animals for the purpose of enjoyment. Sports hunting, as exemplified in the well-known case of fox hunting in the United Kingdom, is but one of many forms of recreational hunting. The analysis of recreational hunting can provide fascinating clues about a society’s class relations, structures of power, and environmental understandings. The royal hunt, which was pursued in Euroasian countries until the 19th century, is one such example.
Besides hunting, it was a means to train armies and to display the military power of a nation. The historian Thomas Allsen has studied the royal hunt extensively. His work shows that this activity also served the purpose of sending diplomatic signals to neighboring powers (as a display of strength) and to assert a ruler’s mastery of the forces of nature. Clearly, the cultures of the societies where royal hunts took place viewed the human-environmental relationship as one of domination of people over animals and over nature.
The organization known as Ducks Unlimited is another interesting case that affords a view of a particular perception of the relationship between humans, hunting, and the environmental-although from a different perspective. This is an association of hunters who see their main mission as the conservation, restoration, and management of wetlands that constitute habitats for North America’s waterfowl (the animal they hunt). A side effect of the conservationist efforts of this association has been the creation of many natural reserves that actually benefit other species of animals. Group members conceptualize hunting activities as a type of sport that is intimately associated with both a particular lifestyle that comes with the appreciation of nature, and the obligation to engage in sound practices of wildlife conservation.
A third example is subsistence hunting, a practice historically common in many Western societies where most people no longer hunt, yet there are many examples of societies that still obtain most of their protein sources through hunting. The core characteristic of subsistence hunting is that its practitioners hunt for the purposes of feeding and clothing themselves and their community. They normally kill only the number of animals that they need in order to survive. More often than not, waste-hunting more than is needed-is considered immoral. So is the inflicting of unnecessary pain and cruelty on the animals during the hunting process.
Many hunters in subsistence economies perceive their relations with the animals they hunt as reciprocal. From their viewpoint, humans and animals communicate with one another during the hunting process. If the human being follows proper norms of conduct and sticks to culturally accepted values, the animal will collaborate by allowing itself to be killed. The main cultural premise in this context is that humans are not superior to animals, and that therefore humans should not have the right to attempt to dominate animals. These societies are normally structured so that any individual has access to the animals, although people often opt to divide labor between them such that some will hunt, others will gather fruits or grow cereals, others will collect water and so on. The products of these different activities are normally shared by means of reciprocity.
- Thomas Allsen, The Royal Hunt in Eurasian History (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006);
- Katja Neves-Graca, “”A Whale of a Thing’: Transformations from Whale Hunting to Whale Watching in the Azores,” D. diss. (York University, 2002).