Killing Wolves for Fun

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Killing Wolves for Fun

By Randy Cohen on ethicist.blogs.nytimes.com
September 2009

Beyond what it inflicts on the wolf — pain, death — hunting damages us. It coarsens us. It inures us to suffering. One measure of a society is how it treats the weak and vulnerable, including animals, including those deemed “wild” or outside the bounds of society.

The Issue

The Interior Department has ruled that wolves have sufficiently increased in numbers in the Western continental United States to allow some wolf hunting there. The Idaho hunt began on September 1; Montana’s starts on the 15th. A case might be made for the right to hunt for food and to manage wildlife populations, but surely some of the more than 14,000 people who bought wolf-hunting licenses are interested in neither wolf sandwiches nor animal husbandry: they simply enjoy hunting. Is it morally acceptable to kill a wolf for the fun of it?

The Argument

Unsurprisingly, I believe it is wrong to inflict pain and death unnecessarily on a creature capable of suffering. (Peter Singer more broadly examines the moral standing of animals here.) While this belief might not compel us to be vegetarians, it does demand significant changes in the way we raise animals for food, and it forbids wolf hunting as a form of entertainment. To be clear, I concede all putatively practical justifications for hunting and repudiate only the idea that hunting is a legitimate recreation. It is the person who claims as much who bears the burden of proof — a wolf need not make a case for its not being shot in Montana. I’m not persuaded that hunters have made their case.

Some declare that hunting is a cherished tradition in their region or for their family. But having done something in the past is insufficient to justify its repetition. It was traditional in my family to be roughed up each spring during pogrom season, a time-honored custom in our part of Russia, and one we gladly abandoned when my grandparents emigrated to America.

Some note that hunting is a challenging activity. No doubt. As is juggling flaming axes while blindfolded. And drunk. But not everything difficult is desirable. Or ethical. Pickpocketing, too, is tough.

There are people who find it fulfilling to cultivate shooting skills, learn to track, take a walk in the woods, maybe bring the kids and make it a bonding experience or bring a couple of buddies and make it a beer-drinking experience or just an opportunity to avoid spending time with the spouse. All of these might be amiable ways to beguile the time, but none need culminate with a killing. Inflicting death is not an acceptable leisure activity.

That hunting is widely regarded as a sport is undeniable. Indeed, an article about the Idaho wolf hunt ran in the sports section of the Los Angeles Times, in a subsection called “Outposts — outdoors, action, adventure.” It sounds like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. But this is a curious designation. In other sports, participation is voluntarily. No sports fan, enjoying himself at a tailgate party, is knocked out and shanghaied into the Green Bay Packers’ defensive line, like a sailor impressed into Nelson’s navy. But in hunting, the wolf doesn’t get a say.

And while there are other sports criticized for cruelty to animals that are involuntary participants — horse racing comes to mind — such diversions are at least potentially amenable to the kind of reforms that improve animal welfare. What would that even mean in hunting? Should we genetically engineer a superwolf and teach it to shoot back? (Another Bruckheimer movie.) In any case, misconduct in one arena does not justify it in another.

Beyond what it inflicts on the wolf — pain, death — hunting damages us. It coarsens us. It inures us to suffering. One measure of a society is how it treats the weak and vulnerable, including animals, including those deemed “wild” or outside the bounds of society. While it is hard to see the grim parade of human history as a march of moral progress, there is something hopeful in Western cultures coming to regard animals not just as property, as things to be used any way we wish, but as beings entitled to legal protection. We had room for improvement. As recently as the 18th century, various forms of animal torture were popular entertainments: bull baiting, bear baiting, cock fighting, dog fighting. Francis Place, the British reformer, writing in 1835, describes a scene of recreation earlier in the century: “In the Long Fields were several large ponds; the amusements here were duck-hunting and badger-baiting; they would throw a cat into the water and set dogs at her; great cruelty was constantly practiced and the most abominable scenes used to take place.”*

The ensuing advance of animal protection law gives us cause for pride. In 1822 the British passed Richard Martin’s Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle, perhaps the world’s first parliamentary legislation for animal welfare. In 1835, the British banned bull and bear baiting as well as cock and dog fighting. A 1911 measure ratified the legal concept of “causing unnecessary suffering.” It is difficult to see hunting wolves for pleasure as other than a retreat from that ideal.

A coalition of environmental organizations has filed suit in federal court to restore the wolf to the protections of The Endangered Species Act and thereby end the hunts. The argument in this case is based on ecological, not moral, grounds, but it would be no less gratifying for that if the court found in their favor. Nor need that outcome be unalloyed bad news for would-be wolf-killers. If the judge halts the hunt, Montana residents who purchased wolf licenses get their $19 back.

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