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Why We Are Such Suckers for Trophy Photo Outrage

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 11, 2015

(Photo: It came from Facebook)

(Photo: It came from Facebook)

My weekly column for

Lately, I’ve been lurking on the outskirts of a provocative Facebook conversation about hunting. Everybody involved in the debate fit the description “conservationist.” But that was about the only thing they agreed on. (And if I’d stuck around a little longer, they might have gotten ugly about that, too.) The topic of the debate was: “Why have trophy photographs become such a standard object of Internet outrage?”

12308389_10207858489478242_7719123601841035935_nThe person who started it all put that question in an intriguing context: The earliest cave paintings almost always depicted hunters pursuing trophy-quality animals—mastodons with great curved tusks and antelope with enormous antlers. The primitive people who painted them were the ancestors of us all, and we would not be here without them or the hunting by which they lived. Their paintings also represent the beginnings of art and human culture. So how can we revere those ancient trophy images and yet also feel such anger toward their modern counterparts?

The two things are radically different, one writer replied. Scholars generally interpret the hunts in cave paintings as expressions of shamanic or magical links to the quarry. They also served as visual offerings, to solicit future hunting success. By contrast, the writer posted a modern photo of a trophy hippo, its mouth propped open with a stick and the hunter using its carcass as a backrest while reading a newspaper, the perfect image of contempt for his prey.

As happens in almost all such Facebook debates, a personal attack promptly followed: “Do something constructive for the wildlife and wildlands of the world,” instead of “this constant hating and stirring up of emotions.” The writer replied that he had been the driving force behind creating a 32,000-acre marine reserve. So just shut up. A third party stepped in as the voice of reason: “Reality is not binary. People are not always either ‘anti-hunting’ or ‘pro-hunting’.” It depends on context. Then she threw a punch: “Yes, primitive people hunted animals. Many primitive people also killed and ate each other.”

On the hunting side, the main argument was two-fold: “Hunting brings us closer to the realities of ecology, and puts us in touch with a foundational connection to our most remote ancestors in deep time. Even without any conservation or other advantages, it would be a worthy activity.” Hunters were also the original conservationists. One commenter claimed credit to hunters for “preserving millions of acres of wilderness and farmland.”

To me as a non-hunter, both claims seem defensible. Yes, half-wit Russian zillionaires can pop a captive-bred “canned” lion, pose for a trophy photo, and call it hunting. But serious hunters become as deeply knowledgeable as any ecologist about the animals they pursue. Big game hunters like Teddy Roosevelt were also the original conservationists. Certain hunting and fishing nonprofits like the National Wildlife Federation and the Coastal Conservation Association carry on that heritage today. The license and trophy fees hunters and fishermen pay can make a huge contribution to the cost of protecting habitat. Those fees also help win crucial support among local people for maintaining that habitat.

On the anti-trophy photo side, there were people who plainly just hated hunting and hated the taking of an individual life. But this seems to me like choosing to be a vegetarian: It’s pointless trying to impose your beliefs on other people and in any case you’ll get further by good example (and good recipes) than by trying to argue the point.

A better complaint was that hunters don’t do enough to keep out the halfwits or to prevent illegal and irresponsible behavior. Too often, they look the other way when someone they know hunts a threatened or endangered species. They tolerate hunting tournaments that are degrading for everyone involved. Organizations like Safari International also often fail to root out professional guides appearing under their auspices, even when their bad behavior is well known among other hunters.

Hunters need to make clear that conservation is their first priority and any trophy strictly secondary. Just being a hunter isn’t enough. As a group, sportsmen “tend to be politically naïve and easily manipulated by their worst enemies,” the outdoors writer and fishermen Ted Williams has written. “Because he fished and hunted and whooped it up for gun ownership, sportsmen ensured the election of George W. Bush—the most anti-fish-and-wildlife president we’ve ever had with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, also propelled into office by sportsmen.”

But conservationists and anti-hunting activists need to be doing a lot more for wildlife, too. The thing about those trophy photos is that they do nothing other than allow us to express our outrage. Certain dubious websites even specialize in such images, as easy clickbait. The more tasteless the photo, the better we seem to like it. Expressing our contempt allows us to go away feeling morally superior and environmentally enlightened, even as we drive our gas-guzzling SUVs, live in our McMansions, eat factory-farm meat and otherwise partake in the ruination of the Earth.

So here is my advice: For the hunters, sure, take your pictures. Even smile, if you want. Then print them out the old-fashioned way, on paper. Show them to your family or to sympathetic friends. But please, please, please, skip Facebook, Twitter, or even your local hunting club website. Any place digital is likely to turn your memorable moment into a nightmare.

And for people who just want to protect wildlife? Next time you see one of those photos, look away. Skip the easy outrage. Forget about sharing the image to garner social status for your outrage. Instead, do something that actually makes a difference for wildlife, even if it just means writing a check to one of your favorite conservation groups.

One final point—and I am amazed that in the blizzard of words in the Facebook debate, no one mentioned this. Ancient hunters no doubt prized the animals they killed as precious meat for their families, and thus in some sense as trophies. But in their cave paintings, they always depicted their prey as living, bounding, beautiful creatures. That’s the vision—a world with plenty of wildlife—that all of us should be working toward.


6 Responses to “Why We Are Such Suckers for Trophy Photo Outrage”

  1. david retes said

    Now hunters fly to their quarry, They hire a truck, a guide, use weapons of war. You can kill anything from great distance. As mentioned, hunters often pose in positions of dominance and lack of respect. All of which is not that important. What’s important is, how many billion people are there? it hurts my head to think about that. And how many trophy type animals are there? Then if we go back in time, That balance was the polar opposite. Lots of animals and few people.
    That said, If a hunter, trophy or otherwise, took their quarry, with a weapon made by their hands of natural materials. I would not like it, but I would be impressed. If the hunter located, traveled to, and did the dirty work themselves, admirable comes to mind.
    What’s next, sit in your office, make a payment, push a buttom, software does the arrangements, a hunter Drone finds and kills the quarry, A taxidermy drone prepares the mount, a butcher drone, cuts it up, and a UPS drone sends it back.
    To me, trophy hunting is more about psychiatry then anything else. I am sure, whatever syndrome is evolved, drugs will fix it and we can leave the animals be. The reality, its not about the animals, our prehistoric history or any of that. All it takes to kill any living thing on earth, is the ability to pull a trigger.

  2. From Stewart Lands, a reader at

    Interesting analysis. From the perspective of a hunter, I cannot understand why so many people fail to observe an even more basic justification for well-regulated, sustainable hunting/fishing. There are, after all, only two means of feeding ourselves. We may pursue wild fish and game on undisturbed lands, or we may resort to agriculture. Many reject hunting and fishing as unnecessary and cruel without ever considering the impact of each in comparison to the option of agriculture. To clarify, an animal hunted is immediately replaced by another that would otherwise perish for lack of resources. Nature always breeds more animals than habitat can support and the rest die of starvation or disease. To consume the excess in a sustainable manner has no impact on animal populations and no impact upon the habitat upon which wildlife depends. Agriculture (even plant agriculture), on the other hand, kills every individual, of every major species, on any landscape converted to that purpose. Fields of beans or broccoli are not developed from barren dirt, and wherever they exist the myriad wild creatures that once inhabited these spaces are destroyed. In fact, they and every generation descended from them that might otherwise have been expected to inhabit the land are forever eliminated.

    Consider the millions of acres of forest, wetland and grassland converted to exotic monoculture serving no species besides man; consider the billions of pounds of chemicals dumped into the soil, water and air, and consider the trillions of gallons of fresh water diverted from sensitive aquatic systems, all for agricultural purpose. Agriculture is today recognized to be the foremost cause of extinction, world-wide, as well as the single greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Certainly, meat production bears responsibility for a great part of this damage, but this does not alter the fact that where we may consume, in a well-regulated and sustainable manner, some portion of those wild populations inhabiting undisturbed lands, then we have the responsibility to do so in order to avoid the even greater animal death and environmental impact that results from agriculture of any sort.

    Of course, the human population is too large to exist entirely off wild fish and game, and so will continue to rely primarily on agriculture for its nutritional needs. But where wild foods are available, it makes sense to utilize them fully. Hunters in the state of Tennessee consume over 500,000 squirrel, annually. Add to this the millions of deer, pronghorn, elk, turkey, geese, pheasant, and innumerable fish taken across the continent, and it becomes apparent that wild game may effectively provide tens, if not hundreds of millions of meals each year. It is a mistake to criticize the rural resident who supplements his diet with fish and game considering that his alternative is to reduce the acreage of wild land available to native species in order to grow his own meal. Putting all prejudices aside, we should encourage those who would step off the back porch and into the woods to hunt deer or turkey rather than drive fifty miles in each direction to the nearest store in order to purchase his meal from the vegetable. counter.

  3. […] Sourced through from: […]

  4. I’ve read that bushmeat poaching is a problem for sustainable wildlife management.

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