Dogs on Planes, Hunting, and Human Behavior

by Sherry F. Colb

In my Verdict column this week, I consider the question why the woman whose dog Kokito likely suffocated to death inside a United Airlines overhead bin did not release her dog to save his life. I suggest that the Milgram Experiment of the 1960's, a study that may not actually explain the Nazi phenomenon that it was intended to investigate, has something to tell us about what happened on that airplane. To boil it down to one sentence, the woman may have felt completely unable to disobey the flight attendant who told her that the dog carrier had to be in the overhead compartment.

The reason we might feel it necessary to explain the woman's behavior in this case is that many of us agree that the woman should have opened the bin and saved her dog. Why? Because Kokito was suffering and died unnecessarily, and many people believe that we have an obligation to prevent this from happening to a vulnerable and innocent animal.

So how do we explain hunting? How do we account for the fact that upwards of thirteen million people in the United States have gone hunting this year, if the numbers in 2011 are typical? Why do they do it? Hunters give an assortment of reasons. They say that they enjoy the outdoors, they like the kinship they develop with the other people with whom they hunt, they appreciate the challenge of having to track an animal, anticipate his or her movements, and finally aim and fire.

Although these explanations might sound like reasons, they are actually just motives. Hunters enjoy these aspects of hunting, and that is why they hunt. A serial killer might say some of the same things about his pursuit: he likes the thrill and the challenge of stalking his prey and of successfully bagging it. Hunters have another thing in common with serial killers: they often take a trophy from their victims, skin, hair, or a body part. In both cases, the killing gives the killer a sense of accomplishment and the desire to remember and relive the whole experience in the future.

I want to be clear that I am not saying that hunters are the same as serial killers. I am examining the justifications offered by hunters for hunting. And if those justifications are no stronger than what a serial killer might say to justify serial killing, then that might cast doubt on the legitimacy of both enterprises.

Ah, but hunters also provide some redeeming features for their acts, features not shared by the exploits of most serial killers. Hunters often donate the flesh of their animal victims to poor people to eat. Serial killers, by contrast, do not donate their victims' organs for transplantation. Hunters also say that the fees they must pay to hunt are used to support conservation. And best of all, they argue that hunting prevents animal populations such as the white deer from becoming too large, leading to starvation. Hunters also cite the fact that hunting is a tradition.

There are responses to each of these claims. First, one can help poor, hungry people without anyone having to aim a weapon at an animal. And if it is possible to do something charitable without killing anyone, then it becomes harder to justify an insistence on killing.

Second, if paying hunting fees supports worthwhile projects, then maybe we should all pay the fees and not kill anyone. We might think of our tax system as a method for collecting money to accomplish important objectives without the need to license any killing.

And what about the third redeeming act -- saving animals from overpopulation? Well, if that is a priority, then it is difficult to explain why so many hunters choose to aim their weapons at male deer victims rather than at does. If one wants to limit population through slaughter, one kills females, the members of the herd who provide a ceiling on possible offspring by their own number, not males, even a small number of whom can inseminate a large female herd. If one's goal were instead to collect an antler trophy or encourage the population growth of one's preferred killing targets, though, then shooting the males would actually make sense. And in any event, we would not countenance the murder of individuals to help stem overpopulation among humans, so why should we accept it when the victims are animals?

Fourth and finally, the fact that a particular form of violence is traditional is actually a reason to question it--because traditions have generally enjoyed a freedom from scrutiny--rather than a reason to think it is a beneficial or even innocuous activity. Some of the worst American practices, enslavement, racism, discrimination, xenophobia, female disenfranchisement, and lawful marital rape all endured for a very long time, despite being despicable, on account of their longstanding traditional nature.

Should we be surprised that the arguments that hunters and their allies make to support hunting do not survive careful scrutiny? The first "reasons" for hunting are in fact the real ones: people hunt because they like it. They use weapons to kill animals who want to live, who have families and others with whom they have bonded, who did nothing to harm or threaten the hunters, because hunters find it fun, exciting, and satisfying. The various allegedly redeeming features of the practice are there mainly to rationalize the practice after the fact. People can say, "I feel good about hunting, because I know poor people will be helped by my activity."

I have been reading a comprehensive book about the history of American racism, Stamped From the Beginning. I did not realize that the racist lies that our founding fathers told about African men and women emerged only after Europeans began kidnapping and selling them, not beforehand. That is, it was not white supremacist, racist beliefs that led people to engage in the African trade in enslaved persons. It was instead the desire to buy, sell, and own enslaved persons that led to the trade in enslaved persons. Once slavery was up and running, though, people felt the need to come up with arguments for why it was somehow okay to carry out the evil of slavery, so they did. They said, without evidence, that whites were superior. Nowadays, the racist lies persist but serve a different function; they provide many white people with an account of white success in this country that relies on white "merit" rather than on a society saturated in racism, racism that allowed an utterly unqualified white man to become President of the United States. And for whites who have not succeeded, racism allows them to feel wronged by successful African Americans like Barack Obama who supposedly took what was rightfully theirs.

In some ways, then, I have been asking the wrong question about hunters. I have asked what explains hunters' willingness to carry out violence against gentle and harmless individual animals. I mistakenly thought that this question was similar to the one I posed about the woman whose dog died in the overhead bin on a United Airlines flight. But in that case, there was a riddle, because the woman almost certainly wanted to free her dog from the overhead bin. The riddle was why she failed to do what she wanted to do and what was the right thing to do. But hunters want to hunt, and that is why they do it. There is no need to search for other explanations. The rationales that people articulate are flimsy and unpersuasive, because they were never meant to persuade anyone who regarded the behavior as unnecessary violence and cruelty to animals. Like a fake i.d. used by high school students, rationalizations for hunting are held up by perpetrators and winked at by bystanders, neither of whom has any real desire to challenge what is going on. Like many such rationalizations, people come up with them only after making and carrying out the decision to commit an immoral act.

A discussion of hunting would be incomplete without a mention of animal consumption. Some people criticize hunting as cruel and/or violent while simultaneously consuming meat, dairy, and eggs. Hunters sense the hypocrisy here and say "at least I do it myself rather than paying for it and picking up the end result at the supermarket." The hypocrisy may play a role in inhibiting gun control advocates from saying, as they should, "I don't care if gun control might interfere with hunting; hunting is violent and immoral." Instead, such advocates say that they "respect" the hunter and that the gun control they propose would not negatively affect him. Why does federal law have to take hunting into account? Is it because of a specious and unconvincing interpretation of the Second Amendment that a 5-4 split Court produced in District of Columbia v. Heller? Maybe, but given that citizens and politicians alike regularly propose unconstitutional measures without worrying about the courts, I think it may be something else.

It may be a desire to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy. When someone eats meat, dairy, or eggs, or  wears leather, they do pay for someone to commit violence and cruelty against animals. There are no "humane" animal products. And hunters are right to point this out, although most hunters in the U.S. are likely consuming animal products from the supermarket and slaughtering them in the woods. If you are moved by the argument that hunting is wrongful violence, then allow yourself to say so. You may discover that you are not alone, as only about six percent of the country hunted in the last year. And once you give voice to that sentiment, remember the approximately one million land animals slaughtered every hour in this country for food products. Remember too the even greater number of fishes, who also bond with one another and have feelings and thoughts, who die for people's tables. And remember that you can opt out of both slaughterhouse and hunter violence against animals, by going vegan, starting today.