A Brief History of Hunting Animals to Extinction
by Jim Robertson President, Committee to Abolish Sport Hunting
I could begin this historical overview with the Big Bang and the spreading out of all matter throughout the once-empty universe, followed by the resultant formation of stars and the planets which took up orbit around them, but for the sake of promised brevity, I’ll skip ahead a few billion years and focus on the fully-formed, sufficiently-cooled Earth. And as far as the ongoing human-driven extinction spasm, our story must skip on to the final few moments of a12-hour timescale.
If you’re with me so far, we’re talking about the arrival of the most cunning, ruthless, self-aggrandizing. overly-intelligent primate species ever to reach the dead-end at which we now find ourselves, thanks to hunting. Hunting and meat-eating in general.
Evolution is the process through which dinosaurs sprouted wings and gave rise to birds, horses grew from equines the size of miniature ponies to mustangs (while controlled breeding spawned thoroughbreds and behemoth Clydesdales—and actual miniature ponies) and wolves led to dogs (resulting in pugs, poodles and Great Pyrenees).
Meanwhile, primates evolved from tree shrews not long (well, a couple of million years) after the extinction of the (un-feathered) dinosaurs some sixty-five million years ago, branching out and diversifying over time to become plant-eating specialists in their chosen niches.
Humans and their direct fore-bearers were the only primates to follow the path of carnivism and become full-time predators of everyone else they came across, including other species of primates and hominids—many of whom were likely hunted to extinction early on in human evolution. No one can say which was the first species that humans wiped off the face of the planet, or when. Chances are it was another primate, somewhere between 100,000 and a million years ago.
No doubt any other hominids around at the time were hunted down and killed as competition. Homo Sapiens may not have always eaten their conquests, but modern-day trophy hunters often don’t bother to eat their kills either.
Other species hunted to extinction partly for hubris or bragging-rights included mammoths, mastodons and any other relative of today’s elephants, as well as any early rhino or hippo human hunters could get their spears into.
Early species of giant armadillo and beaver, cave bear, camel, horse and ground sloth were all wiped out when pioneering pedestrians stumbled onto this continent full of unwary mega-fauna who had never met humans before and found their horns, hooves or bulk were no match for the weaponry of these new super-predators. This “American blitzkrieg” (as Jared Diamond, author of The Third Chimpanzee, Collapse and Guns, Germs and Steel labeled it) marked the tragic, catastrophic end of 75% of North America’s indigenous large mammals, including the American lion, dire wolves and saber-toothed cats—none of whom were prepared for humans’ hunting tactics.
Even back in the Pleistocene, so-called “modern” humans (not the ones of today’s world, glued to their smartphones), armed only with primitive weapons, quickly wiped out the noble mega-fauna that had taken millions of years to evolve.
The Pleistocene was a time of great diversity of life—it was in fact the most diverse period the Earth has ever known—but a few centuries after our species were on the scene they had already hacked away at Nature’s masterpiece and started an unparalleled extinction event. It was the first time that one intelligent species was responsible for eternally snuffing out so many of its larger-bodied brethren. No other species had caused the kind of damage as did this cleverly destructive, self-centered, weapon-wielding primate.
Early in pre-human evolution, bipedalism became a necessity for primate-predators, if only to free up a couple of appendages to carry clubs and spears—followed by bows, rifles and harpoon cannons. It seems our species never took the time (until now?) to look back to their earliest days of living by plant-eating. But, if a 500 lb gorilla can, surely the human primate can survive without animal flesh.
One of our species’ closest relatives is the orangutan, a highly intelligent primate who, like the gorilla, wouldn’t be caught dead eating meat. Both species are among the most critically endangered animals on Earth, hunted (poached) nearly to extinction outside zoos or other captive situations.
Human beings are one of four currently living species of “great” apes, including gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans. Only one of those species is grossly (morbidly) overpopulated and routinely eats the flesh of other animals to excess. Care to guess which one? (No fair peaking at the shiny front cover of the grocery store ads that magically end up in your mailbox or the ubiquitous golden arches on the street corner.) Of course, it’s the humans. It’s interesting that the USDA still places meat and dairy in their essential food pyramid, when no other primate really needs those things. Hmm, it seems that the government is wrong about that. Do you suppose? Perhaps they need to take another look at that in context of the situations the world now faces.
The only one of our closest ape cousins still clinging to existence on the planet who has been observed to step out of the plant eating regimen of the monkeys, non-human great apes and other primates are the chimpanzees, who, while normally peaceful plant-eaters, will on rare occasions venture out on violent forays, killing and eating monkeys or other hapless creatures they come upon. Once a kill is made, the real excitement begins for the chimps, who loudly advertise their blood lust with whoops and screams, proclaiming their conquest.
Therein lies a grim parallel and exposes the roots of modern human’s sport hunting behavior.
Continuing on our rapid flash forward, we enter the European Middle Ages and a period when animals were farmed to feed the peasantry, while hunting became a sport reserved for the “elite.” Wolf trapping, sometimes practiced by lower castes, was smiled upon by the royalty since it took out the competition for their prized game species: stags, elk and other horned “lordly game” creatures, as Teddy Roosevelt would later dub them.
Speaking of Teddy, let’s skip ahead to Roosevelt’s era. After Europeans had made it their task to “settle” the New World, they infamously hunted the plains bison to near extinction in the 1800’s. During that same period, over-zealous hunters completely killed off the once amazingly abundant passenger pigeon and Eskimo curlew (both killed en mass and sold by the cartload for pennies apiece), the Carolina parakeet (the only parrot native to the U.S.), the great auk (a flightless, North Atlantic answer to the penguin) and the Steller’s sea cow (a Coastal Alaskan relative of the manatee). Of sea cows, the 19th Century German zoologist Georg Wilhelm Steller wrote in his journal that this peaceful, plant-eating herd animal showed “…signs of a wonderful intelligence…an uncommon love for one another, which even extended so far that, when one of them was hooked, all the others were intent upon saving him.”
Meanwhile, elk, bighorn sheep, wolves, grizzly bears and prairie dogs—once hunted, trapped and poisoned down to mere fractions of their original populations—continue to be targeted today. And when certain species, such as black bears, Canada geese and coyotes prove to have adapted to the human-dominated world, they are hated, hunted and trapped with a vengeance.
In the words of the Fund For Animals founder, Cleveland Amory, “Theodore Roosevelt…could not be faulted for at least some efforts in the field of conservation. But here the praise must end. When it came to killing animals, he was close to psychopathic.” Dangerously close indeed (think: Ted Bundy).
In his two-volume, African Game Trails, Roosevelt lovingly muses over shooting elephants, hippos, buffaloes, lions, cheetahs, leopards, giraffe, zebra, hartebeest, impala, pigs, the less-formidable 30-pound steenbok and even a mother ostrich on her nest.
But don’t let on to a hunter what you think of their esteemed idol, because, as Mr. Amory wrote in his book, Mankind? Our Incredible War on Wildlife “…the least implication anywhere that hunters are not the worthiest souls since the apostles drives them into virtual paroxysms of self-pity.” Amory goes on to write, “…the hunter, seeing there would soon be nothing left to kill, seized upon the new-fangled idea of ‘conservation’ with a vengeance. Soon they had such a stranglehold [think: Ted Nugent] on so much of the movement that the word itself was turned from the idea of protecting and saving the animals to the idea of raising and using them–for killing. The idea of wildlife ‘management’–for man, of course–was born.”
Almost without exception, state and federal wildlife “managers” are hunters themselves. Being both delegates and lackeys for the hunting industry, they would have us believe the preposterous party line that hunting helps animals—that they won’t continue to live unless we kill them. This is particularly outrageous in light of how many species have been wiped off the face of the earth, or nearly so, exclusively by human hunting.
Nowadays, hunting season is like a bunch of weapon-wielding, over-sized pre-schoolers on an Easter egg hunt creeping around the back-roads hoping a deer will jump out in front of them and stand still long enough for them to get a shot off. It doesn’t even have to be a good, clear shot, either. I’ve heard hunters bragging about taking a few “sound shots” at whatever they heard in the bushes, as if blasting their noisy rifles is the main reason to be out there (never mind the target).
But, it’s never quite as satisfyingly thrilling for them as making an actual kill, the carcass of which they are fond of displaying on the hoods or in the open beds of their brand new $60,000 pickup trucks.
“Survival” of the fittest? Don’t even get me started…
This article includes excerpts from the book, Exposing the Big Game: Living Targets of a Dying Sport