A plea for good ethics in the field.
“In our rather stupid time, hunting is belittled and misunderstood, many refusing to see it for the vital vacation from the human condition that it is, or to acknowledge that the hunter does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, he kills in order to have hunted.”
So wrote Jose Ortega y Gasset, the early 20th-century Spanish philosopher, who remains one of history’s most passionate and eloquent voices for hunting. Nearly a century later, Ortega y Gasset’s sentiment holds true: hunting is routinely criticized, and often condemned, by those who do not hunt. And in our increasingly urbanized, modernized, digitized world, things are only going to get worse. Our time, it seems, is rather stupid, too.
But it’s also rather wonderful. Especially here in Montana, where wildlife numbers are high, public-land access is abundant and legally protected, and there are plenty of like-minded people with whom to swap hunting stories around the campfire. Our hunting culture is vibrant and proud and even those who don’t hunt are delighted to share in the bounty: juicy deer brats, seared antelope tenderloin, and cabernet-colored elk backstraps grilled up and passed around the table. For many of us, hunting is our lifeblood and all year long we gear up, plan, and dream about our “vital vacation,” that long-awaited foray into the mountains and forests and prairies that makes the rest of the year, and the rest of our lives, bearable.
This reveals an unfortunate but undeniable dichotomy: on the one hand, the hunt, primal and natural and pure; on the other, the inexorable march of progress. Like it or not, these forces are colliding, like two great tectonic plates carrying the weight of continents above them. It’s time to start planning for impact, lest we find ourselves on the wrong side of the subduction zone.
Which brings us to Hunt Right, a hunter-ethics campaign developed by a concerned group of hunters around southwest Montana who noticed an increase in unethical incidents—most notably, the White Gulch elk slaughter of 2014—and decided to raise awareness of proper behavior while afield. The campaign commenced a couple of years ago and continues to spread across the state, with bumper stickers bearing the Hunt Right rallying cry and ethics cards imparting tips on how to keep one’s conduct above reproach. There’s a website with plenty of ethical-hunting resources (books, DVDs, other websites), as well as a two-minute video encapsulating the campaign. The aim is to both teach and refresh: some hunters never learned proper ethics, while others just need a little reminder now and then. (Hint: that’s you. And me, and every other hunter out there.)
So, what exactly is ethical hunting? In the words of Aldo Leopold, it’s doing the right thing, even when the wrong thing is legal. Or: doing the right thing, even when nobody’s looking. That’s all a bit nebulous, of course, but it’s supposed to be. Ethics are personal. There are some general guidelines—and a small handful of hard, fast dos and do-nots—but overall the rules are simple: respect the animals, respect the land, respect each other. Everything else flows from these three principles. And when we demonstrate our ethics to others, they cannot but see in us a shadow of themselves, perhaps even a better version of themselves. So the seed is planted, and the movement spreads.
And spread it must. For we hunters are members of a community, and like all communities, we’re bound by a set of beliefs. We believe that hunting is a proud and honorable pastime. We believe that “flock-shooting” and other ignoble incidents are unacceptable—they sully the reputation of all hunters, they compromise our relationship with non-hunters, and they endanger the future of hunting. We believe that our values are our own and thus must be enforced from within—and we know that if we don’t, nobody will, and our proud, honorable pastime will dry-rot, eroding from the inside out, suffering ever greater scrutiny and disapproval.
At the same time, we accept that we are human, imperfect, flawed and fallible; we’re prone to mistakes, indiscretions, moments of weakness, and lapses in judgment. We must therefore not beat ourselves up, but rather lift ourselves up. We must celebrate our ethical standards, constantly strive to raise them, and help others elevate their own. We must take pride in hunter ethics and hunt right. We must do this for ourselves, for other hunters, and for the future of hunting.
And if we falter? That’s okay, too. As Ortega y Gassett reminds us, the purpose of perfection is not to achieve it, but only to strive for it—in this case, “to orient our conduct and to allow us to measure the progress accomplished. In this sense, the advancement achieved in the ethics of hunting is undeniable.”
Undeniable but also incomplete. The work must go on, the word must be spread, and we need all the help we can get. To learn more, get involved, or show your support, visit huntrightmt.com and follow the Hunt Right campaign on Facebook.
This essay originally appeared on the Mystery Ranch blog.