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Aiming for Ethics: Examining Conscience and the Modern-Day Hunter

The poor behavior of even a small group of people can have long-lasting effects on all who enjoy hunting. If hunting is to continue, we all must work together to put an end to illegal and unethical practices in the field. (Keith Sutton photo)

It takes more than knowing and obeying the law to consider yourself an ethical sportsman

It was a perfect shot. The big buck fell in its tracks right beside a country road. That made it much easier to load the big whitetail in the back of your pickup.

Before you could load it, though, you needed to reduce its massive weight. So you field-dressed the deer right there beside the thoroughfare and left the steaming gut pile in the right-of-way. You didn’t even take time to bury it or cover it with leaves. A little girl and her mom found it the next day on their morning walk.

Huge flocks of mallards were flying that December morning. By 7:30, you had a limit. Still, you weren’t content. You returned to camp, dressed the ducks and put them in the freezer. After lunch, you went and hunted again, killing several more greenheads. Your son was with you morning and afternoon.

The property wasn’t posted, so you opened the gate, traipsed on in and killed six bobwhites from the two coveys you flushed. You never thought about finding the landowner and asking permission first. And you never thought to hitch the gate when you left.

Three of the landowner’s cows escaped. He was sued after his neighbor hit one with her car. Lucky someone wasn’t killed.

Now the property’s posted, and the owner is too worried about liability to allow visitors. They might forget to hitch the gate, and he couldn’t afford another lawsuit.

The dove hunt was successful. Your partner had 10; you had 12. Your friend offered you his share of the game, even though he and his family love to eat doves. You accepted.

“Want me to help you dress them?” your buddy asked.

“No, I’ll do it when I get home.”

It was late when you arrived at your house. You were tired and weren’t in the mood to clean doves. So, you didn’t. You just tossed them in the weed patch out back and let them rot.

You knew the shot was beyond your range of accuracy. But the huge buck was getting farther away with each step. It was now or never. So, you drew the bow and let the arrow fly.

The broadhead penetrated the deer’s right hip. The buck wheeled and ran. You never found the deer, but then you only spent an hour looking. It died from infection a month later. A hiker found it on a nearby trail, the arrow protruding from a horrible wound. “Damned hunters,” she said.

You took your 10-year-old squirrel hunting, hoping she’d learn to be a hunter, too. As you walked together through the woods, you spied a squirrel nest in a big oak. “Could be one there,” you thought. So, you instructed your little one to shoot it and see.

“What if there are baby squirrels in there, Daddy?” she asked.

“Don’t worry about that, honey. All the babies are grown now.”

You helped her aim and shoot. Leaves flew, and an animal fell to the ground. Your daughter ran to pick it up. It was a flying squirrel.

“Oh, Daddy. I told you there was a baby in there. Look at his big brown eyes. I’ve killed him.” Tears streamed down her cheeks.

She’s 23 now and an activist for the Fund for Animals.

Do you consider yourself an ethical hunter?  I do, and most of you probably do, too. But most of us have been in situations similar to those presented above.

We’d like to think we would do the right thing when confronted with comparable circumstances. But being ethical is rarely easy because it requires us to ignore our own wants and needs.

Ann Causey, a humanities professor at Arizona’s Prescott College, expressed that thought very well when speaking at the Governor’s Symposium on North America’s Hunting Heritage in 1993. “Moral hunters do not mindlessly follow rules and lobby for regulations which serve their interests,” she said. “Rather, they follow their consciences, sometimes setting their own interests aside. In short, ethics is guided by conscience and gives us something to aim for beyond self-gratification.”

In his nature classic A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold also addressed the topic of ethics and its connection to conscience. “A peculiar virtue in wildlife ethics is that the hunter ordinarily has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. Whatever his acts, they are dictated by his own conscience, rather than a mob of onlookers. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this fact.”

Conscience. Notice how often that word keeps popping up?

A friend and I have been discussing ethics.  His philosophy shakes down to this basic premise: A legal sportsman is an ethical sportsman. I feel otherwise.

An ethical sportsman knows and obeys the law. On that point, we agree. An ethical sportsman always studies the regulations carefully. He or she obtains the proper licenses and hunts and fishes only during designated seasons. Bag and possession limits are always obeyed, and only legal equipment and methods of harvest are used. Yet a person can do all these things and still not have one smidgen of ethics. Let me offer an example.

John is a law-abiding hunter. “I always obey wildlife regulations,” he says. “I have to, because if I got caught breaking the law, I could lose my job. I’m an outdoor sports writer for a big newspaper.

“I love to hunt,” he continues. “If they made it legal to spotlight deer, I’d go out tonight and shoot one. But unless it’s legal, it’s strictly a no-no as far as I’m concerned. I can’t take the risk.”

Bill is also a law-abiding hunter. “I always obey wildlife regulations,” he says. “I enjoy hunting, but I realize that without laws to regulate how we do it, there wouldn’t be much to hunt. Our first responsibility is to preserve wildlife populations. And if we do a good job of that, maybe there will be a surplus of animals we can hunt.”

Both hunters obey the law, but does that mean they’re both ethical hunters? No. John obeys the law because he’s worried about himself. In his case, conscience might get a lot of credit that belongs to cold feet. Bill obeys the law because he’s concerned for the resource. Who do you think is the ethical hunter?

To fully grasp the concept of ethics, we must understand the difference between legality and ethics. Many unethical activities are illegal, but not all legal activities are ethical. Therefore, in order to make an ethical decision about a certain behavior or activity, we must first ask, “Is it right?” not “Is it legal?” In other words, we should be guided by our conscience first, a regulations guide second. Ethics are more a matter of attitude and awareness than of rules and regulations.

As hunters, we must be concerned about ethics for very important reasons. Foremost is the fact that we are a very small minority in this country. Of the U.S. population 16 years and older, 8 percent of males and 1 percent of females enjoyed hunting in 2016, the most recent year for which figures are available. That’s half what it was 50 years ago, and the decline is expected to accelerate over the next decade.

 Presenting a positive image to the majority of citizens who don’t hunt is crucial to the continuation of our pastime. Society has a legitimate voice in curtailing hunting activities if they fail to meet social expectations.

Unfortunately, problems with irresponsible outdoor activity seem to be worsening. Each year, I run across more and more people to whom hunting is shooting and everything between shots is time wasted. I see many – far too many – who think it’s no big deal to violate game laws. Many hunters show no respect for the game they hunt and have no concept of the word “conservation.”

I’ve also noticed that opposition to hunting is widespread and growing. If we don’t get serious about cleansing our ranks of irresponsible participants, we put our sports at risk. We must be sure hunters are good environmental stewards whose images are not tarnished by unethical behavior.

The strongest influence on hunter behavior is peer pressure from parents, relatives and friends. Negative peer pressure – a father urging his son to kill an out-of-season deer, for instance – is equally as strong as positive peer pressure – a father telling his son why he will not condone out-of-season hunting. That’s why it’s important that we express our feelings to others. Let your hunting companions know you are proud to be an ethical sportsman and insist they behave likewise. Do your best to set high ethical standards for your children.

Should you witness illegal acts, your reaction should be swift and firm, whether you know the lawbreakers or not. While rabbit hunting last year, for example, a friend of mine was approached by another hunter. The guy seemed nice and offered my friend 10 rabbits (two over the limit) he killed that morning. My friend refused the offer but did nothing to express his outrage that the man had intentionally broken the law. He told me later it made him “uncomfortable” to confront a stranger in the field. Yet he didn’t even copy down the man’s license number and report the violation to a wildlife officer.

Apathy and apprehension must not override our obligation to respond to unethical behavior. We must send a message, loud and clear – to our children, to our friends, to fellow hunters, to the slobs within our ranks:

It is not OK to violate wildlife laws.

It is not OK to trespass.

It is not OK to litter, or to drive across a farmer’s crop field, or to waste game, or to disregard safety.

We should insist that all hunters behave in a responsible manner. We should teach our children and fellow outdoorsmen that being a sportsman is more important than being a hunter. We should be guided more by conscience and less by legality alone.

As you hunt this year, you will have to make many decisions. Please do your best to make the right decision, the ethical decision.

Will you take a limit of ducks both morning and afternoon? Or should you be content with one or two for supper?

Will you leave a stinking pile of entrails on the roadside when you field-dress your deer? Or should you thoughtfully return them to the earth in a place where others won’t be offended?

Will you walk uninvited onto private property? Or should you ask permission before hunting or fishing?

Will you take a poor shot on the off-chance it might find its mark? Or should you wait until you’re confident of a clean kill?

When facing such choices, let your conscience be your guide. Think carefully about the potential impact of your actions, then do what you should do. Do what you know is right.

Show respect and consideration. Demonstrate forethought. Aim for something beyond self-gratification. Set a good example for others to follow. Leave positive images of hunters for those who don’t hunt.

Have you morals, or have you not? For all our sakes, I hope you do.

Tips for How to Exercise Your Ethics:

  • Pass up a shot at the next game animal you see while hunting. Prove to yourself that killing isn’t the main reason you hunt.
  • Volunteer to teach the ethics section at a Hunter Education course.
  • Trade your shotgun or rifle for a garbage bag. Instead of hunting, spend a day picking up litter on your favorite public hunting area.
  • Organize a “Hunters for the Hungry” program in your community. Projects like this help foster a favorable image of hunters among non-hunting citizens.
  • Write an essay titled “Why I Hunt.” Share it with friends who don’t hunt.
  • Read the hunting regulations guides cover to cover this year, and stick by the rules – all the rules – all season.
  • Memorize your state’s toll-free “Stop Poaching” hotline number. When you witness law violations, call with details.
  • Discuss ethics with your sons or daughters who hunt. Explain your personal code of ethics and encourage them to “do the right thing” when outdoors.

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