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

Trophy hunting is gratuitous violence that can justifiably be called murder.

Posted Oct 18, 2015

“Still, the need to hurt animals that some children feel doesn’t explain why some adults hunt and kill large, and often dangerous, 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 anunderstanding of this behaviour very difficult.”  (Xanthe Mallett, 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) 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. There also are some interesting exchanges at where the question, “Is killing an animal murder?” 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. 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.  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, 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; 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 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 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, 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, 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 (please also see).

There are many, far too many, examples of trophy hunting accompanied by pictures of happy hunters. 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). We read, “Coloradans are proud of the wildlife 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, 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” “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) 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,” 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. One essay called “Why we may never understand the reasons people hunt animals as ‘trophies‘” by criminologist Dr. Xanthe Mallett reports “Research shows increased levels of hostility and a need for power and control are associated with poor attitudes towards animals, among men in particular.”

Dr. Mallett also writes, “Another paper 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 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 seeand 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.” The man who killed the elephant has now been identified.

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate ConservationWhy Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed, and Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and CoexistenceThe Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson) has recently been published. (; @MarcBekoff)

A Pair of Psychopathic Thrill-killers

[The question is, which one looks/sounds more psychopathic?]…

“Paddock did not have a criminal record, ABC News reports. He worked as an accountant before retiring and had a pilot’s and hunting license. ”

Stephen Paddock did not have a criminal record. He is said to have worked as an accountant and had a pilot’s and hunting license.

“I have a God-given right to pursue happiness, and happiness to me is killing things, skinning them, plucking them, and then having a good meal. What makes me happy is going out and blowing a duck’s head off.” – Phil Robertson

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‘Nothing more than a thrill kill’: Humane Society asks Cleburne’s Kendall Jones to stop her big-game hunting

It’s official: For now, at least, 19-year-old Kendall Jones is The Most Famous Big-Game Hunter in the World … if, that is, we’re going by Huffington Post, FOX News, The Independent in England, every local TV station and, oh, that email I received this morning from a Norwegian journalist wanting to know how to reach the Cleburne teen who’s a Texas Tech cheerleader when she’s not hunting in Africa. Pictures of Jones and her trophies are no doubt filling your Facebook feed as you read this.

And now there’s this: The Humane Society of the United States just sent The Dallas Morning News a statement about Jones, who made her bow in the Cleburne paper Sunday before becoming an Overnight International Sensation. The missive came bearing the subject line “Statement on Texas Cheerleader Hunting Controversy.” And in it, the Humane Society’s vice president for wildlife protection, Nicole Paquette, begs Jones to lay down her arms.

“Traveling halfway around the world to shoot some of the world’s most magnificent, and threatened animals is shameful,” says Paquette. “Many of the species that Ms. Jones has killed face declining populations due to loss of habitat and poaching. Amidst this crisis, trophy hunting only adds to the threats to the survival of these iconic species and is nothing more than a thrill kill.

“Our affiliate, Humane Society International, works in the field to protect wildlife and prevent human-wildlife conflicts in Africa and around the world. Rather than pose for social media with these rare species, lying lifeless, Ms. Jones should support true conservation efforts to combat poaching and protect both animals and communities.”

Meanwhile, earlier this afternoon Jones took to her heavily trafficked Facebook page to once again insist that big-game hunting and conservation are not mutually exclusive. As proof, she points to none other than President Theodore Roosevelt.

“Our 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, has been labeled by many as the Father of Conservation,” she writes above this photo of Roosevelt on safari in 1910. “He helped create and establish the United States Forestry Service, which would later become the National Forest Service. Roosevelt created five national parks (doubling the previously existing number); signed the landmark Antiquities Act and used its special provisions to unilaterally create 18 national monuments, including the Grand Canyon; set aside 51 federal bird sanctuaries, four national game refuges, and more than 100 million acres’ worth of national forests.

“But he was a hunter too, right? He killed the same species that hunters now chase today under a mound of anti-hunting pressure. Yet, how can it be possible that someone can love the earth, and take from the Earth in the name of conservation? For some folks, they’ll never understand. For the rest of us … we were born that way. God Bless Teddy.”

Meanwhile, Jones has scrubbed from her Facebook page those photos featuring her and her trophies.

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Some People Simply Like to Kill Other Animals

In the title of an October 2nd post to his blog column in Psychology Today, University of Colorado evolutionary biology professor Marc Bekoff, PhD, asked, “Do Some People Simply Like to Kill Other Animals?”

The answer seems to me a foregone conclusion.

Bekoff writes, “Many know that Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, made a pledge in May 2011 only to eat meat he hunted so that he could be ‘thankful for the food I have to eat.’ Of course, it’s not obvious that he has to eat other animals… Surely, in the arena of who, not what, winds up in our mouth, Mr. Zuckerberg and others are not my moral compass. It’s always good to remember that a significant percentage of the food we eat was once sentient beings who cared deeply about what happened to them and to their friends and family. They should be referred to as “who” not “that” or “what.” So, when someone wants to talk about a meal it’s a matter of who’s for dinner, not what’s for dinner.”

His post included the subheading, “‘Ethical hunting’ raises numerous difficult and sticky issues,” about which Bekoff states, “I see no reason to kill other animals for a meal that isn’t needed. Every time I read an essay about “ethical hunting” it makes me reflect on a number of different and challenging issues. One that comes up time and time again is that maybe some people simply like to kill other animals and then offer a wide variety of excuses about their lust for blood (consider also the unrelenting war on wildlife including the wanton killing of wolves, the man who used a trapped wolf for target practice…)”

Sea Shepherd’s Captain Paul Watson backs up the assertion that some people enjoy killing other animals, “Behind all the chit-chat of conservation and tradition is the plain simple fact that trophy hunters like to kill living things.”

But no one makes the case as clearly as hunters themselves. One anonymous thrill-killer recently posted the following shocking admission to an animal advocacy site: “What i like to do as a hunter is go in the woods and kill everything possible and let my dogs chew on it. I once shot a deer and it layed in the creek and i had to shoot it again in the head while it was crying and it kicked me lol when i stuck my knife in its belly so my brother cut its throat it was soo funny. Me and my uncle was guttin one he told me to hold its head and when i did he pushed on its belly and made it bahh at me and scared the crap out of me haha. Hunting is awesome like when you see a herd of deer and just start firing right in the middle and then go and see how many different blood trails there are.”

Prairie dog hunting is a popular “sport” that can in no way be defended as “ethical” or necessary for subsistence (people don’t eat them). Private ranches offer “sportsmen” the chance to kill prairie dogs to their heart’s content—for a fee. The following is an ad for a typical prairie dog hunting excursion: “We approach the edge of a prairie dog town and set up and shoot for an hour or two or until the prairie dogs start getting scarce, then we pull up and drive over the hill and continue prairie dog hunting…after you get tired of the carnage, it‘s also fun to try shots over 1000 yards.”

Note that the ad uses the word “fun,” laying to rest any doubt that they enjoy the killing. So, why shouldn’t people be allowed to have their fun? Beyond the obvious answer that their animal victims are not enjoying this “sporting” behavior, society at large should discourage this kind of conduct for public safety reasons.

Keith Hunter Jesperson’s history of aggression toward animals began when he was only six. An avid hunter and part-time serial killer, Jesperson got his first taste of killing living beings by bashing in the heads of gophers. He discovered that he enjoyed it. Later, while living with his parents in a mobile home park in Washington State, he started killing larger animals. He would beat stray dogs and cats to death with a shovel, strangle them with his bare hands, or shoot them with his BB gun. His proud father bragged to others about how Keith had gotten rid of the stray cats and dogs in the trailer park.

“All this did is spawn in me the urge to kill again,” Jesperson told an interviewer. “I began to think of what it would be like to kill a human being. The thought stayed with me for years, until one night it happened. I killed a woman by beating her almost to death and finished her off by strangulation,” he said.

Keith Jesperson is by no means the first hunter to go on to become a serial killer of humans. As long as we enshrine hunting in books, magazines, cable TV shows and acts of Congress, there will always be people wanting to expand their species hit list to include our own.

Text and Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson

“Ditch the Bitch, Let’s go Hunting!”

That insolent motto was the message of a bumper sticker displayed on the back window of a beater pickup truck parked at my local store yesterday. The words read above and below the outline of a trophy four-point buck (with his body turned sideways, presenting the kind of “perfect shot” that hunters have wet dreams about). If you’ve been through a rural American town during hunting season, you’ve probably noticed this popular line of window decals—many of which show the animal within the crosshairs of a rifle scope—on about every truck and SUV around, often accompanied by the ubiquitous NRA sticker.

The telltale idiom, “Ditch the bitch, Let’s go hunting,” calls into question the average sport hunter’s oft-professed “respect,” not only for deer, but also for women—both of whom are equally objectified.

It also brings up the question, how can a woman who loves animals be with a hunter?

The polite answer must be, with much internal conflict.

Depending on how much and how heartily a woman loves animals, they would have to be willing to accept hunter’s feeble rationalizations and disregard their own gut feelings. If they really loved animals, surely they’d be saddened by a bloody carcass hanging in the garage, and uncomfortable knowing that it was the product of their significant other’s murderous intent.

Some women adapt by retreating into their shell, denying their own principles. Others go even further, actually becoming hunters themselves—which is really schizo when you think about it. No, actually schizophrenia is too tame a word for whatever disorder they must be suffering from. Boasting rap sheets that include the pre-meditated murders of such victims as deer, elk, caribou, pronghorn antelope and polar bear (not to mention untold African trophy animals), some of these monsters make Sarah Palin look like a choir boy.

These confused women are so into it they write articles about their exploits for kill magazines or participate in wildlife snuff films for the sportsmen’s channels. One of them tells her readers, in an article she calls “Antelope Addiction”: “Feeling a little defeated anyway, I decided to call it a day… [Phil] was determined for me to get my antelope. Day after day he put me in great places and I just couldn’t get it right. Back in camp, I went straight to our room and cried in frustration.” Typical of a psychopath, her tears are not shed for her victims, but for herself. We never hear of her crying for the animals she causes to suffer and die—only when she doesn’t get her way by making a successful kill.

On a “better” day, she boasts of impaling a female black bear with an arrow: “The beautiful sow carefully approached my bait area from behind my stand…she finally approached my shooting lane…I sent my arrow through the air for a perfect hit. She jumped and growled and ran off for a short distance of fifty yards before I heard what most people call the ‘death cry’. That’s when I realized I had made the perfect shot!” The perfect shot?!? The bear struggles for FIFTY YARDS before dying, and she calls it a “perfect shot”???!!

As an example of how these lady-nimrods are duped into thinking that their actions don’t result in the misery of a sentient being, she goes on to say, “Hearing the death cry didn’t disturb me, because my husband had told me that the death cry is just the air being released from the lungs after the animal has expired.” How convenient. Knowing that women may have a bit more compunction about the torment they’re inflicting, their male counterparts are quick to draw from the hunters’ volumes of validations, or dream up all new justifications on the spot, to quell any concerns for the animals that members of the fairer sex might have.

For a more in depth examination of animal thrill-killers, visit Shannon Wright’s great blog and list of the 12 Most Vile:

Hunters aren’t the only ones clever enough to come up with catchy slogans for bumper stickers. How about: “Ditch the Bastard, Let’s Stop Hunting!” Got another idea for a sticker? Feel free to post them to the Comments section. Here are a couple of my favorites: