Hunting in the Eyes of Rhetoric

For uninformed Americans with little or no hunting knowledge, trying to decipher the conundrum of hunting is like being forced to choose between various unmarked sailboats before setting sail to a stormy sea with no prior knowledge of how the sailboats were constructed, why they exist in the first place, or where they might be going. Without a transparent vision of the voyage ahead, it is ultimately impossible for someone to pick a ship that correlates with his or her compass of value.

Developing an opinion on hunting in today’s climate is no different. And it’s not because all hunters are bad people, or because hunting is, at its core, an unethical act. Instead, it relates to a plethora of underlying rhetoric that influences the public to either stigmatize hunting as an unwarranted act of violence or promote hunting as a right of freedom in America.

On all sides of the sailboats lie a rushing undertow, and the push or pull towards one side often runs far deeper than what’s presented on the surface. Thus, it is necessary to evaluate the surrounding discourse before advocating for or against present-day hunting.

In the following segments, I will attempt to showcase the rhetoric of the following: the rise and fall of the American bison, Wisconsin wolves and the concept of fair chase, and the complications of social media and hunting.

The Rise and Fall of the American Bison

The American bison roamed North America long before documented history became available. Even before the United States Declaration of Independence was adopted in 1776, the bison called the continent home.

Prior to the 1700s, the United States was a roaming-zone to somewhere between 30 and 60 million bison, most of them living and grazing on grasslands that ran along the expansive Great Plains, between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. Native Plains Indians, like the Oglala Sioux warrior, or better known as Crazy Horse, were the first people documented on the continent to hunt the bison, making up what we consider now to have been the free-ranging indigenous buffalo-hunting cultures of North America.

Fast forward a couple hundred years — post-Civil War-era — the bison numbers were dwindling faster than you can say buffalo. In 1911, the population of bison on the continental US was down to roughly twenty-two hundred in total (Rinella, 2009). It’s even said by some folks that the population was at one time dipping below five hundred. And it’s for reasons that only history can tell.

Why does this matter? Well, to start, many of the quarrels we see in today’s hunting debates are rooted back to early bison-hunting practices. Years after the Civil War concluded, many federal soldiers forged westward with newly developed Springfield weapons, ravishing through bison and wasting what “indigenous” bison hunters considered sacred in the butchering process. As depicted in the 1990 film “Dances with Wolves”, bison were stripped of their hides and tongues and wasted otherwise. Today, this long-standing debate acts as paint to brush the common American hunter as wasteful in their processes.

But the hunters before the rifle-carrying, said-to-be squatters weren’t always humane in their ways either. Although Native Americans relied predominantly on bison for their food, shelter, and other necessary resources, their killing tactics did not always reflect an upmost respect for the bison.

Around six thousand years ago, bison were herded off sheer cliffs in numbers up to a thousand at a time by native hunters, a type of mass genocide still remembered today as buffalo jumps. Ethical or not, the jumps represent a permanent interconnection between early American history and debate over questionable hunting tactics.

Among this, cultural America found comfort in representing the bison out of respect for its place in America. For example, the Philadelphia Mint began printing bison-headed nickels in 1913, depicting a bison, known as Black Diamond, which was considered by one critic “as if it had lost all hope in the world” (Rinella, 2009). The honorary depiction of Black Diamond fell short when it was later discovered that the bison was actually the offspring of two New York circus bison; and like its parents, spent its life in captivity. In this debate and others, the rise and fall of the American bison has become printed not only on the Philadelphia nickel, but on the foundation of American culture as a breeding ground for hunting hesitation.

The cumulation over time of native and nonnative hunting pressure on bison, and the role it plays on hunting values across American, is not a forthright sticking point for people grappling with hunting dilemmas; rather, a perplexed quagmire to reckon with before picking a side.

Wisconsin Wolves, Regulations, and the Concept of Fair Chase

I’ve always considered the concept of fair chase to be highly important when hunting. Fair chase happens when a hunter gives an animal a fair and full chance to evade him or her. The concept is grounded to a lot of debate surrounding unethical hunting tactics.

In the early 1990s, nearly 80 percent of Americans approved of legal hunting (Duda, 2010). Since then, in 2013 a team of researchers concluded from a national survey that 61 percent of Americans viewed regulated hunting as acceptable. Interestingly, from the same survey, 17 percent of Americans identified as current hunters, while 53 percent said they would never hunt a day in their lives (Decker, 2015). These numbers reveal that a portion of people in America are supporting regulated hunting from the sidelines, possibly exposing something about the way we regulate hunting that might be scarring people away.

When a hunter sits hidden in a ground blind looking out at a turkey, or perches in a tree-stand peering down at a deer, the animal is in no way hindered by the presence of the hunter. The animal is within its entire capability to wander away from the kill zone at any time. Thus, sit-and wait-tactics such as these offer the hunter and the hunted a taste of fair chase.

That’s not how it always goes, though. Example: Hunting tactics such as hunters using dog-packs to sniff out their target or setting snare apparatuses to catch their target. Tactics like these do not exactly scream fair chase — even though most state regulations deem them as legal practices.

I considered these tactics and ended up mitigating the ethical conundrum they distilled in me, as I assumed they probably don’t happen often in the states; or at least the lower-48. Not to my dismay, I was wrong.

In fact, if you take this year’s Wisconsin Wolf hunt that was put in place by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), for instance, its harvest numbers speak for themselves to prove my flimsy theory wrong.

Prior to the wolf harvest, an initial quota of 200 gray wolves was allocated across the entire state for tribal and nontribal parties. Following the tribal declaration through federal law and stipulation, that quota was reduced to 119 wolves allowed by the DNR for nontribal hunters and trappers to harvest. Somehow, a total of 216 gray wolves ended up exceeding the DNR’s 119 set quota of wolves “allowed” in the harvest. But the allocation of federal and state harvest quotas is an entirely separate topic on its own.

A breakdown according to the DNR of the 2021 wolf harvest consisted of 86 percent taken by the use of dogs, 5 percent taken by trappers, leaving only 9 percent taken by other hunting methods. That means fair chase methods, like the sit-and-wait, are entirely off the table.

Using this lens gives a clearer view of how an outsider looking in might dub hunting regulations with some sort of negative connotation.

Social Media and Hunting

Generating opinions of hunting through peering at single photographs on social media can be beguiling. It enacts a potential to be misled as an outside looking in. Everyone has heard the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” — and of course, we shouldn’t. Yet, that same everyone knows it is predominantly hard not too when the cover is all that’s being shown. This is essentially what happens when a hunter snaps a photo of themselves holding up the head of their kill to post via social media accounts.

Given social media’s extreme growth over the past decades, the perception of hunters as a whole is now often times represented by the presence of celebrity hunters with major social media followings. What unfortunately comes of this happens to be that the great majority of hunters gets tied into the representations and views of only one hunter. In such, hunters get generalized as being one whole entity, which they are not.

Take Janice Jadresko, a trophy hunter from Victoria, B.C., for instance. Jadresko flaunts her killings of big game animals — such as lions, giraffes and elephants — to her 10 thousand or so Instagram followers. Despite the countless number of uproars from animal rights activists she stirs up, her loyal supporters still repost and share her endeavors on the daily, continually spreading the idea that hunting Big Five game animals is accepted in the hunting community.

But the examples of this fragmented hunting perception don’t only happen in the extreme cases like those of Jadresko. The same kind of thing happens when a small-town Wisconsin whitetail deer hunter poses for a picture with his or her deer to post on social media. Their photo can only say so much.

Even though that hunter might have hunted countless hours over a wide range of landscapes, followed every rule and regulation put forth by state statue and regulation, or learned to hunt ethically from their grandparent as a meaningful family heirloom, the matter remains that the picture does not necessarily represent any of that.

Therefore, it’s greatly important to view the broader hunting community as individual people hunting for interpersonal purposes, rather than viewing the broader hunting community as mirroring a single celebrity hunter asynchronously. Hunting goes far beyond the trophy photos people post to their social media accounts. Although pictures are said to tell a thousand words, they just might not be the right words.

Animal Narratives

It’s pretty obvious that the act of hunting animals is majorly contradictive of the endless number of fictional animal narratives humans have dramatized over the years. It’s a strange contradiction for people, as both hunting and animal narratives have played irreversible roles in the concoction of American culture and beyond as we know it. The confusion is seen when animal rights activists use creative ingenuity to produce fictional animal-narratives as cultural symbols to market their beliefs, which gives way to nullifying the reality of hunting with artificiality.

Rhetorician Warner Krauss articulated this idea of humans and animals by looking at otters and environmental protesting tactics in the South of Portugal. From his research, he came to the conclusion that many environmentalists have switched the rhetorical nature of their arguments from protection and pollution to “abstract concepts” like animal power and identity. Furthermore, he found these premises as a way for some environmentalists to purposefully disconnect nature from culture by creating and defining a “culture of nature” (Krauss, 2006).

An example Krauss relayed to portray this shift came in the form of a written article titled “Chronicle of an Abduction” that was published by a Portugal publication known as the Expresso. The article transformed one biologist’s routine expedition — planting a transmitter on an otter for data collection purposes — into a skewed narrative of abduction. Instead of objectively explaining the process of how the biologist captured the otter, planted the transmitter, and released it back to the wild, the author begged the question of facts and presented the encounter, not as between a human and an animal, but an encounter of human and human. The article did so by humanizing the otter, first by naming it “Natalia” and then creating a fictional scenario in which the transmitter abled “Natalia” to speak to the biologist.

Krauss criticizes fictional representations like that of “Natalia” as being rhetorical strategies of animal rights activists, strategies that speak “in the name of nature” and leave the public to “make sense of a world which is characterized by unequal power relations” by “weaving artfully current political affairs into a traditional narrative script” (Krauss, 2006).

But the discursiveness of fictional narratives does not need to be driven by a hidden agenda to potentially expose humans to rhetorical appeals. Any depiction of animals as something they naturally are not has the potential to influence the way humans view their relationship with animals. Even things as harmless as Disney characters influence the way we view animals. When children watch animals on TV being comprised of human characteristics, the floodgates open for them to begin associating nonhuman animals with something they eminently are not.

I’m not saying these influences are necessarily good or bad. What I am saying, is that they indirectly contribute to the “culture of nature” that persuades peoples’ opinions of hunting.

Conclusion

I want people reading this to know that I’m not arguing for or against the act of hunting. Instead, I’m arguing the way in which we consume the widespread content of animals, hunters, and nature is where the foundation of our values begins to be constructed.

Ergo, my presentation of the rise and fall of the American bison should not make you want to shun hunters any more than you would environmentalists for interchanging fiction with political nature. Instead, they should be factors of consideration when deciding where to stand on the debate of hunting.

When I began researching for this rhetorical analysis of hunting, I assumed that by the end, I would be able to neatly justify my reasons for hunting. I thought maybe I’d say something about the cherished, childhood memories I have of hunting with my grandfather. Or something about how I’ve been able to reduce my carbon footprint by harvesting my own meat in the winter.

But in lieu of my premature assumptions, what I thought would solidify my stance on hunting has actually made me wabble more than ever. Now, I see hunting as more of a quagmire than ever; a conundrum I’ll continue to grapple with in the eyes of rhetoric.

Works Cited

Rinella, S. (2009). American Buffalo. Spiegel & Grau.

Duda, R. (n.d.). Hunting Techniques, Wildlife Offtake and Market Integration. A perspective from Individual variations among the Baka (Cameroon). In Kyoto University. (Reprinted from African Study Monographs, 2).

Decker, D. J., Stedman, R. C., Larson, L. R., & Siemer, W. F. (2015). Hunting for wildlife management in America. The Wildlife Professional, 9(1), 26–29.

Krauss, W. (2005). Of otters and humans: An approach to the politics of nature in terms of rhetoric. Conservation and Society, 354–370.

***Other citations hyperlinked in text

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