The Psychology and Thrill of Trophy Hunting: Is it Criminal?

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animal-emotions/201510/the-psychology-and-thrill-trophy-hunting-is-it-criminal

“Still, the need to hurt animals that some children feel doesn’t explain why some adults hunt and kill large, and often dangerous (link is external), animals that they have no intention of eating. I have searched the psychology literature and, while there’s a lot of conjecture about what it means, the fact that very little research exists to support any assumptions makes reaching an understanding of this behaviour very difficult.”  (Xanthe Mallett (link is external), 2015)

Kids ask the darndest questions

A few years ago a youngster told me a story about a murder in his neighborhood in Boulder, Colorado, my hometown. I hadn’t heard about it so I asked him for more information and he told me about a cougar who had been murdered because this magnificent cat was living down the block from him. I instantly said something like, “Animals can’t be murdered,” and he looked at me – stared me straight in the eyes – and innocently but forcefully asked, “Why not?” I realized that I wasn’t going to “win” this discussion nor get out of it easily or cleanly, and his mother was calling him home, so I said that’s the way it is for now in the legal system, and, not unexpectedly, he once again asked, “Why?”

I was at a loss to say more given the time constraints and given the fact that I really wanted to let him know that I thought animals could indeed be murdered.” But, that would have made his mother angry and we both would have missed dinner. So, I told him that he really had made an impression on me, I thanked him for asking “Why, why, why,” and that I’d continue to think about this, for I do believe that killing an animal is murder (please also see (link is external)) when an animal is killed in the same manner for which it is declared that a human has been murdered. And, sanitizing the killing by calling it culling, dispatching, or euthanizing doesn’t really do the job.

I haven’t thought much about this conversation, although I have pondered many times why the word “murder” is reserved for human animals and categorically excludes nonhuman animals (animals). And, some recent events have led me to write this brief essay about why the use of the word “murder” should be broadened to include other animals and why, for example, “trophy hunting” is really “trophy murder.”

I’m sure many people will likely weigh in on this topic and many already have (link is external). There also are some interesting exchanges at debate.org where the question, “Is killing an animal murder? (link is external)” was raised. As of today, 58% of the respondents voted “yes” and 42% voted “no.” In addition, “Americans are turning thumbs down on trophy hunting by a two-to-one margin (link is external). Sixty-four percent of U.S. voters polled told the Humane Society of the United States that they also oppose trophy hunting in the United States.”

Definitions of murder invariably exclude nonhumans (link is external).  However, I can’t see any good reason other than “that’s the way it is.” Reasons given include misleading claims that animals don’t feel pain, they aren’t smart, or they don’t display what philosophers call agency (link is external), loosely put as the ability to make free choices and to act independently and to adapt in different environments. Furthermore, “All jurisdictions require that the victim be a natural person (link is external); that is, a human being who was still alive before being murdered. In other words, under the law one cannot murder a corpse, a corporation, a non-human animal, or any other non-human organism such as a plant or bacterium.”

The comments for the above debate make for interesting reading. One noted, “I love animals and have several pets but no killing animals for food is not murder. Killing animals for food is not murder because they do not have the ability to speak or have complex thoughts. For example, lets say there is a tiger hat is hungry and one of you who think its murder to kill an animal in a cage. That tiger would not hesitate to eat you so I say why can’t we do the same.” Another reader wrote, “Cruelty to animals is wrong, but it is not murder. People kill animals for a wide variety of reasons. Some of these reasons may be seen as cruel by different people: for example, some feel that killing animals for food is cruel, while others see it as a necessary evil, and some (like those who enjoy hunting) even take pleasure in it. However, even cruelty to animals does not rise to the level of “murder” as such.”

And, we also read, “(Non human) Animals are also sentient, conscious beings who feel pain and emotion If killing animals isn’t murder (because they are not people, or intelligent, or capable to express their fear, etc…) we should apply the same logic to humans who are handicapped or mentally retarded. No human ceases to be an animal simply because they are intelligent, we are merely perpetuating a sort of speciesism if we exclude unintelligent or unresponsive humans.”

These and other comments raise many of the issues that are central to arguing for using the word “murder” when an animal is involved in situations when it used for humans, and that laws need to be changed to reflect this.

A few recent events have made many others and me revisit the selective and speciesist use of the word “murder.” A few weeks ago a dog was killed and skinned in my hometown and once again, someone asked me if this could be classified as murder. Animals in zoos also are killed rather often (link is external) even if they are healthy and could live longer lives. Marius, an otherwise healthy young giraffe, was killed in the Copenhagen zoo in February 2014 (link is external)because he didn’t fit into their breeding program. Zoo administrators said he was euthanized, but of course this wasn’t a mercy killing but what I call “zoothanasia.” And, I also noted it could well be called murder.

Is trophy hunting really trophy murder? Cecil the lion and the recent killing of the largest African elephant in almost thirty years

“As for trophy hunting, I think it is probably the kind of animal killing that most resembles murder – murder in the first degree. It is done with planning (premeditation) and without provocation or biological justification. The animals are entirely innocent creatures killed only for ego-gratification and fun. It’s time we began to see this practice as akin to murder.” Kirk Robinson (executive director of the Western Wildlife Conservancy (link is external), comment on this essay)

Trophy hunting in the wild and in places where animals are bred and held captive for the purpose of being killed (canned hunting), also makes the news especially when a charismatic animal is slaughtered. Basically, trophy hunting is a gratuitously violent act that often results in dismemberment and taking the head as a “trophy.

This past summer the world learned about, and millions were outraged by, the killing of Cecil (link is external), a magnificent lion, by a Minnesota dentist under the guise that it served some conservation purpose. Cecil’s undoing was premeditated, he hadn’t done anything to deserve being killed, and the dentist paid a royal sum to be allowed to kill him. And, this week, we’ve learned that a magnificent elephant killed in Zimbabwe for fun was the biggest killed in Africa for almost 30 years (link is external) (please also see (link is external)).

There are many, far too many, examples of trophy hunting accompanied by pictures of happy hunters (link is external). Indeed, recreational sport hunting that doesn’t involve long-distance travel or huge sums of money can also be called murder. And, sport hunting is often glorified. Colorado has “hug a hunter” and “hug an angler” campaigns because Colorado Parks and Wildlife claim that hunting is a conservation tool (but please see (link is external)). We read, “Coloradans are proud of the wildlife (link is external)and natural beauty in Colorado. And we have hunters and anglers to thank for helping to support it. So if you love protecting Colorado and its natural beauty, go ahead and hug a hunter.” Of course, not all wildlife is valued.

Let’s get the discussion going and let’s begin by making it simple

The time has come to open the discussion about the limited use of the word “murder.” Detailed scientific research has more than amply shown that reasons for excluding animals that include their supposed lack of emotions, that they are not really sentient, and that they really don’t care what happens to them, for example, clearly don’t hold.

I’m sure there are people who are passionate on both sides of the ledger and we need to hear all voices. Attorney Steven Wise and his team (link is external), who have worked tirelessly for granting animals rights, have been focusing their attention on chimpanzees, so to begin, let’s just consider mammals. And, perhaps to get the discussion going, let’s only consider animals who are killed for trophy hunting, for sport and for fun, and exclude, for the moment, animals who are killed for our entertainment (dog- or cock-fighting), animals who are killed because they harmed, or supposedly harmed, a human(s), animals who wind up living in urban or suburban areas “dangerously” close to humans because we forced them out of their preferred and natural homes because of relentless development, animals who are killed for food or research, animals who are considered to be “pests,” animals who are “collected (link is external)” “in the name of science.” We can also limit our early discussions to animals who clearly are sentient, which includes the vast majority of animals who are killed when there is no other reason to do it other than for fun.

I’m sure readers will have a category of animals they’d like to add to the list of candidates, and this is all part of the ongoing discussion. It’s difficult, for example, to exclude companion animals who are brutalized for no reason at all, so perhaps in early discussions we can also consider them as animals for whom the word “murder” applies.

Let me strongly emphasize that this early focus is not to say that other animals shouldn’t be granted legal rights nor that they can’t be murdered. However, we’ve got to begin somewhere, so let’s begin with the clearest cases in which an animal is killed for no other reason than someone thought it would be okay to kill them, perhaps for sport, perhaps for fun, perhaps because they like the high of the thrill, or perhaps because they enjoy killing the animals by “playing predator,” but surely not in any way that could be considered playing fair.

One of my friends suggested to me that perhaps the world isn’t ready for such a discussion, but surely there are crimes against animals that fall smack into the arena of crimes that are considered to be murder when there is a human victim(s). Trophy hunting is one clear case; it is voluntary and intentional and there is no reason to engage in it other than the hunter finds it to be a form of recreation or fun. It’s often not that challenging, and surely one doesn’t have to do it.

The psychology of trophy hunting: What drives people to thrill kill?

Hunting for ‘sport’ is basically another way to describe the thrill of killing.” Graham Collier, Psychology Today

The phrase “trophy hunting” – a form of thrill killing (for example, please see (link is external)) is all about nonhumans, but gratuitous violence in the form of thrill killing also occurs in humans. When there are human victims it’s clearly considered to be aberrant and criminal behavior that rightfully is called murder. The bottom line is that anyone who thrill kills should be punished regardless of whom the victim is. And we also should keep in mind what psychologists call “the Link (link is external),” the close relationship between human-animal violence and human-human violence.

While I cannot find any formal studies of what drives trophy hunting specifically, many people have weighed in on questions of this sort (link is external). One essay called “Why we may never understand the reasons people hunt animals as ‘trophies (link is external)‘” by criminologist Dr. Xanthe Mallett (link is external) reports “Research shows increased levels of hostility (link is external) and a need for power and control are associated with poor attitudes towards animals, among men in particular.”

Dr. Mallett also writes, “Another paper (link is external)has linked personality traits of some people who hunt for sport to a different ‘triad’ of behaviours, known ominously as the ‘dark triad’. This includes narcissism (egotistical admiration of one’s own attributes, and a lack of compassion), Machiavellianism (being deceitful, cunning and manipulative) and psychopathy (lack of remorse or empathy, and prone to impulsive behaviour).”

Dr. Mallett ends her essay as follows: “And that [the lack of hard data] means we may never know why hunters are compelled to seek animal trophies for their walls. Indeed, we might be condemned just to watch and wonder about their motive and emotional capacity.” Surely, if people just want to “get out into nature” and rewild (link is external) themselves, there are better and much less harmful ways to do it. Trophy hunting also violates the tenets of compassionate conservation, namely, first do no harm and all individuals matter (please see and links therein).

What drives trophy hunting is a field rich in questions and ideas that should be of interest to many readers of Psychology Today and also practitioners.

Words count

The wide-ranging concern and condemnation of trophy hunting is not merely an animal rights or vegan perspective, but rather one grounded in concerns about respect and decency. Many people who eat and wear animals are outraged by Cecil’s demise and by the latest elephant to be killed for fun. Many of my friends say something like, “It just isn’t right,” and all the academic arguments in the world aren’t going to convince them that trophy hunting can be justified. And, hunters with whom I’ve spoken are appalled by canned and wild trophy hunting. There’s a lot going on here about which I hope to write later on.

Words count. The failure to use the word “murder” for nonhumans is due to a misleading extension of the “them” versus “us” way of thinking, one that is, or should be, long gone, and a view that ignores who other animals truly are – their cognitive and emotional lives and capacities — based on large amounts of detailed empirical research. While we surely are different from other animals, we also share many traits that make us all very similar to the magnificent animals who are routinely hunted as trophies. These shared traits are those that are used erroneously by some to separate “them” from us as if the differences are black and white, rather than shades of gray.

So, if legal systems change and recognize the fact that animals can be murdered, we can expect that crimes that count as murder will be punished accordingly, other than by shame. And, perhaps, someday I’ll be able to tell some inquisitive “annoying” kid that animals can indeed be murdered. And, I’ll also let him or her know that when people say they love animals and harm them, I always say I’m glad they don’t love me.

Note: For more on ways to stop the killing, please see Hope Ferdowsian’s “5 Ways to Stop the Killing (link is external).” The man who killed the elephant has now been identified (link is external).

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation

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