Steve Donoghue's book review on Open Letters Monthly - June 2012
Exposing the Big Game, Jim Roberton’s fire-breathing jeremiad on the evils of hunting, opens with a passage that deserves quotation in full:
During the nineteenth century, a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill terrorized the American West, shooting and dismembering his victims who numbered in the thousands. But no special agents from the FBI headquarters in Quantico were ever sent to stop Bill or the procession of copycat killers joining in the fun. The carnage was endorsed and encouraged; the targets, though gregarious, caring and benign, were nonhuman after all.
Robertson refers to the near-extinction of the American buffalo as “a holocaust to the tenth power,” with over 60 million bison massacred, sometimes by ‘hunters’ shooting from the windows of passing trains, often by shooters lost in blood-lust, and always, always, always by individuals who had no actual need to kill even one buffalo, much less almost all of them.
Language like this – explicit equating of human and nonhuman lives, explicit equating of the evil of ending human and nonhuman lives – is virtually guaranteed to be dismissed as extremist hyperbole, and Robertson must know that as well as anybody. But he’s a nature photographer living deep in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, and spending so much time in the company of animals tends to erode the sanctimonious sense of uniqueness humans feel about themselves. If you hike for even so little as a week in the northern Yukon, for instance, you will see many dozens of smart, fully engaged creatures going about their lives – concentrating on things they find important, waking groggily from impromptu naps, goofing around, playing with each other, and caring for their friends and their young … and none of those creatures will be human. Impossible to see all that and react indifferently to some human hiking in for a day and shooting those creatures for sport.
Robertson’s book is an angry, detailed call for the elimination of hunting, but it’s canny in its proceedings. Horrible statistics fill the pages of this book – figures on the killing-campaigns mankind has waged against bears, coyotes, prairie dogs, geese, beavers, elk, wolves, and moose – but much more detailed statistics are available, and Robertson could have used them. Likewise the visuals: this book could have been filled with shots of the sickening carnage inflicted on the animals it describes (the photos available just for wolves are dread-inspiring) – instead, on every page, there are magnificent black-and-white photos taken by Robertson himself, photos that show these animals in the full range of their natural glory. You are meant to hate hunting, yes – but you’re just as strongly meant to love the hunted.
There’s a slim bravery in appealing to subjectivities like love in a book so likely to be burned by hard-bitten cattle-ranchers. Robertson refuses to be driven onto firmer ground; vigorously protecting wild animals makes overwhelming ecological sense, but that’s secondary in Robertson’s book to the fact that it’s the right thing to do:
How many times have humane activists heard [hunters] say that laws regarding animals should be based on “science, not emotion”? Science is important for understanding behavior, the workings of nature and evolution or how heat-trapping carbon is changing the earth’s climate, but it’s not in and of itself a source of moral guidance. And whether hunters can take it to heart or not, how animals are treated is strictly a moral issue. There is no scientific argument against pedophilia, for example, or any other human on human crime a hedonistic perpetrator can dream up.
Our author is no fan of the more bloodthirsty members of his own species – he refers to them as “egomaniacal mutant carnivore apes” (and that’s in a restrained passage) – but who can blame him? He has patiently, carefully, and above all respectfully walked with wild animals in their own habitats, granting them their individuality and dignity and reaping the immense personal rewards of doing so. The casual cruelty of hunting will seem all the more repulsive to such a writer – it’s an outrage that’s been felt by a great many of those ‘caring few’ throughout America’s frenziedly homicidal past. Robertson quotes Rachel Carson at her most eloquent:
Until we have the courage to recognize cruelty for what it is – whether its victim is human or animal – we cannot expect things to be much better in this world. We cannot have peace among men whose hearts delight in killing any living creature. By every act that glorifies or even tolerates such moronic delight in killing, we set back the progress of humanity.
Exposing the Big Game brims with righteous anger, but it’s remorselessly rational in its arguments. It’s far too caustic toward hunters (“Elmers” in Robertson’s disdainful terminology) to give them a moment’s pause, let alone enlist their sympathy. But its passion and conviction should be more than sufficient to convert a few fence-straddlers to the cause of active wildlife protection.
And like most jeremiads, it’s a powerful lot of fun to read.