Category Archives: hunting ethics

Unpopularity Junction, a.k.a. Taboo of the Day

I met a turkey hunter at my day job today.  In fact he is a hunter of many species, including species that I frankly have not been able to devote time and energy to pursuing, including bears, moose, pheasants.  But it was turkey hunting that we met over; I’d never seen him before in my neck of the office but he was passing by my desk and heard me remark to another co-worker about my intention to possible extend my Easter weekend this year to include a couple of days of turkey hunting.
His question was simple.
“You hunt?”
These are two words that I have heard so often that I am simultaneously buoyed and suspicious when someone asks me that question.  Sometimes the conversation leads to a lively re-telling of stories with a potential new friend, other times it is a prelude to a vitriolic harangue from someone who is opposed to the pastime.
I told the man that yes, in fact I did hunt.  He said that I didn’t strike him as someone who goes hunting (but that debate is for another post later) before we introduced ourselves and talked for a couple of minutes about where we go, what we chase, and what kind of rifles and shotguns we favour.  Turns out he goes hours north to the Ontario/Manitoba to hunt moose every year, has a son that goes with him, and also likes going to Eastern Canada every other year to hunt bears.  I told him about my lunatic addiction to turkey and waterfowl calls and then mentioned my affinity for the Bruce Peninsula.  Then he went merrily on his way (to where I don’t know…lunch, the bathroom, home for the day?) and I settled back down to work.  It was a perfectly non-event of a conversation.  Except for one thing.
When I told him I liked waterfowling, he kind of snorted in a condescending way, almost by reflex, before relating a quick few words that I will certainly fail at telling verbatim…so I’ll just sum it up.
He said he didn’t waterfowl anymore, although he used to, because he had seen too many ‘goons’ (that is the verbatim the term that he used) out sky-busting, shooting illegal birds, abusing limits, and generally acting like clods.  He didn’t judge me (at least I don’t think he did) but he just said that he could care less for waterfowlers.  Which is too bad, because I know a lot of really good, really honest duck and goose hunters that obey the laws and respect the game and the landowners.  He also remarked subtly that he thought the possession limits on ducks and geese were too high, that he knew guys who shot more than they could eat, threw out game, and so on….which I am sure is absolutely true.  I know some guys that do that too.  And again, it got me to thinking.
Like it or not and try as we might to believe otherwise, not everyone in society is a saint, or even decent, all of the time.  And so it goes with hunting.  It isn’t savoury, and it certainly is not an excuse.  But it happens, and anyone who says they are immune to it is either a lying delusional, or is qualified for immortalization on a postage stamp.
“Slob hunting” is not the realm of the urban weekend warrior, or the young, or related to a hunter’s specific ethnic or geographical clique.  It happens all too often, and no one wants to talk about it.  Since I’m not even remotely popular enough to be concerned about ostracizing anyone, let’s not bury our heads in the sand any longer.  This will be a recurring theme here at Get Out & Go Hunting, primarily because I think (and maybe I’m being erroneously optimistic) that talking about the negatives helps the hunting community at large recognize, question, and evaluate their actions with the hopes of cultivating acceptable behaviour that is legal, ethical, and that improves hunter representation.
Today’s Topic: Laws vs. Ethics
By definition, “ethic” is the “principles of conduct governing an individual or a group”.  My thanks to Webster’s Dictionary.
Since I do not have the temerity to feel that I speak for the whole hunting community, and since this is a broad topic which has been the subject of scads of editorials, articles, and hastily written letters to the editor (yes, I’m guilty of it too), I won’t belabour this too much.  Instead I’ll just throw out some real-life anecdotes, some thought experiments, and how I myself generally approach this issue.
I was once caught by the cover headline of a national hunting magazine that boasted an article that roughly went by the title “The Thorny Issue of Hunting Ethics”.  Presumably this publication equates something “personal” with something “thorny” and therefore gives such topics short-shrift.  But I did not know this then and I excitedly purchased this magazine, only to be disappointed by the token wishy-washiness of the article that in no way wanted to offend anyone, question anything, or even promote dialogue among fellow hunters.
But they got my money and put a serious chip on my shoulder about some points of hunting ethics; a chip that still resides there, and which I will now share with you.  The squeamish or the quick to anger may want to go back to my ‘lighter’ post about labelling turkey hunters before I alienate my entire readership.
Hunting ethics should not be thorny, or murky, or cloudy, or any other euphemism that obscures the importance of this issue.  They are not hard to understand and the sooner people in the hunting community come to grips with that the better we will all be.
But before I go sounding all alarmist I will state that I believe the vast, vast, infinitely vast majority of hunters are doing their thing legally and in good ethics.  In fact that is what makes this such a hot button issue for me.  This is because when someone deviates from the law and what is generally called ‘sporting’ behaviour the actions and outcomes  receive heavy coverage and stain the integrity of the collective.  Again, whether it is right or wrong, the reality is that when these things happen (poaching, waste, accidental shootings, and so on) the media and the public do not cast the hunting fraternity (and sorority) in a positive light.  This translates into reduced acceptance among non-hunters, reduced access with private landowners, reduced political acceptance (which we sadly rely on heavily) and ultimately reduced opportunity to get out and go hunting.
So here’s my approach.  I always first ask myself, is it legal?  This takes a nanosecond to answer.  If the answer is, there really is no excuse for doing it, and I can’t feel bad for any one who experiences negative outcomes for breaking fish and game laws.  Period.  This should be the primary litmus test for all actions by anyone in society, but there are hunters out there who feel some sort of bizarre exemption from the law.
There are rules I don’t like.  For example, I’d love to hunt turkeys right until sund-down every day of the season.  But the law says unload and lock it up at 7pm in Ontario, so that’s what I do.  It has cost me exactly one turkey, but really who cares?  That bird was still there the next day….even though that did not help me harvest him.  There are ways to influence legislation (again for a future blog post) but one of those ways is not non-compliance with the law.  The penalties are steep and justifiably so.
Unfortunately, tacit acceptance of law-breaking is still common, particularly in the “everything is fair game unless you get caught” vein.  I would support some sanctions from within the hunting community, but again that’s just me.  Delta Waterfowl does a good job of this in their monthly publication with the Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down section wherein they highlight their opposition to illegal activity (which is called POACHING) disguised as legitimate hunting, as well as applaud positive stories about hunting and conservation.  I’m not promoting a medieval public shaming replete with stockades, but I am talking about a nudge in the right direction from within our own community.
But let’s say that an act is not explicitly proscribed by legislation, what then?  For example, in some states it is explicitly illegal to shoot a turkey off the morning roost limb, while in Ontario there is no law (at least not one that I could find) making it illegal to shoot a turkey while it is still roosted, provided it is no more than thirty minutes from sunrise.  So which is right, and more importantly, if you were hunting in Ontario, would you shoot a tom on his roost limb?  I wouldn’t.  But I would (and have) shot ruffed grouse from tree limbs and off the ground, which some adamant wingshooters would never do.
I see it this way: the turkey is sleeping up there and his daily habit is to just stand there until he’s ready to fly down.  He is in a word, defenseless.  Ruffed grouse on the limb or walking on the ground on the other hand can, and usually do, get up and fly.  More than once I’ve been lining up a shot at a walking or standing ruffie, only to see them bust away in a flurry of thumping wings, leaving me either swinging hurriedly after them for a flying shot or just standing there looking defeated.  I have another friend who will never shoot at a flying grouse, primarily because he does not like fine shot pellets in a bird that he plans on eating.  So where do you stand on this?
I have a contentious spot for bait, as I’m not quite sure how to lean on this one.  I think food-plotting is paramount to baiting, but the law calls it “standing crops” even though all the marketing for the products seems to run counter to that definition.  I know other hunters that swear by food plot hunting because in their mind it not only improves odds for success, but can set up close range, more lethal shooting opportunities, which is ethically supportable.  I’ve hunted over apples and corn for deer with no success at all, primarily because I think the deer almost exclusively visited those locations to feed at night.  And then there is bear baiting, which is where I tend to slide into the “anti-bait” camp.  The most egregious example I ever saw?  On an internationally syndicated hunting show, I saw a nationally famous hunter who I will not name walk into a spot with a guide.  While the hunter got into position in the treestand, the guide filled two empty oil drums with garbage bags full of donuts, bagels, and white bread.  All were then thoroughly soaked in honey.
After laying the bait, the guide banged on the drums loudly with a stick and left the hunter to wait for a bear.  Inevitably, and not surprisingly, a few of them (four I think) showed up and one was arrowed by our intrepid hunter.  Again, my interpretation of this is as follows.  While this is obviously legal, this falls well shy of even food-plotting on my standard of what defines acceptable baiting.  Unlike the deer, the black bear is an opportunistic feeder, and these specific bears seemed to be well accustomed to come to what was basically a “bear feeder”.  The guide himself even said, on the record and in the show’s footage that the banging on the oil drums was the signal, the proverbial ‘dinner bell’, notifying the bears that food was there.  Again, the pro-bait camp is perfectly correct in that such a setup can provide more lethal and humane shot opportunities, as well as improve gender identification opportunities in areas with a “boars only” rule.  Still it just did not, and still doesn’t, sit right with me.
Likewise I once watched another hunting show (and in this case I use the term loosely) where first a hunter had his pick of over sixty elk that had literally flocked like birds to the only cistern on a property, and then after a commercial break a different hunter shot one of over two dozen deer that were loitering broadside around a feeder.  The deer in this case were so tame and accustomed to this set up that the hunter and the guide sat in the blind and spoke in normal, conversational tones while they were ‘choosing’ which deer to harvest, as opposed to the hushed tones or total silence of any deer blind I’ve ever sat in.  I’m probably about to earn myself hate  mail from those television producers (should they ever read this) but for my money, I’d be hard pressed to find a non-hunter anywhere that I would want to see any of those three displays.  That anyone could equate those three scenarios to ‘fair chase’ is obviously stretching to the broadest sense of that term imaginable.
Before anyone brings it up, I have a special post almost fully prepared for preserve hunting, and I’ll touch on that some other before I go on sounding like a rambling malcontent.
So now that I’ve ensured that I’ll never be invited on a bear, elk, or deer hunt by any of those unnamed outfitters (again, I don’t think they are subscribers) I’ll get off my pseudo-soapbox and close with this.
Do not let me have the last word on ethics.  I’m only qualified in the broadest sense of that term imaginable.  Again, while ethics are indeed personal, I don’t think they are thorny or complex and I believe that we as hunters can self-police ourselves and recognize something as dicey without getting self-righteous and combative.  As with all philosophies, there will be dissenters and subscribers to your specific beliefs. Have a debate about it, it is the only way we can learn.  The bottom line is this: if you don’t like it, don’t do it; just politely and articulately explain your objection and so long as no one is breaking the law learn to respect those who disagree.
After all, being courteous is an ethic we can all appreciate.