Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Word (or two) about Duck Hunting

The beauty of blogs is that the blogger gets to set the rules. There are no moderators, no list “owners” piping in to squelch a perfectly worthy and lucid elucidation. No wonder blogging is so popular.

The discussion of hunting is verboten on the Virginia birding listserv--just too darn controversial--even though every couple of years or so someone new to the list gets in a few licks before being clobbered by the moderator. So, I plan to express an uncensored view on this barbaric activity.

I drove the George Washington Parkway again today, hoping to have close views of the ducks that have been concentrated together in the Potomac River in the little open water amidst the ice, often near the shore. In just two days, with temperatures as high as 55, the river again has become all liquid, beautiful and blue. Alas, the ducks were widely scattered and distant.

At Riverside Park, hunters were distant too, across the river in Maryland, shooting from a blind off shore. In front of the blind, they had their cute little decoys assembled, with fake wings spinning. A couple of guys in smart camo attire were walking the shoreline. With my spotting scope I could see one of them using a duck whistle, while the other carried a gun.  I certainly recognized them as human machomen, not a walking forest, but they were counting on the fooling the ducks. 

They were having a good day, I gather, judging from the many gun blasts and some splashing in the water. I wonder how they retrieved their prey, since no dogs or boats were apparent.  I also wonder about those hunters on foot when hunting is legal only from duck blinds. I plan to spend more time watching next time and have the Maryland Department of Natural Resources police phone number in my cell phone. 410-260-8888

How many more generations will pass before ducks will realize that the only humans to fear are those wearing camo. The rest of us enjoy watching ducks, identifying ducks, photographing ducks. Some who really shouldn’t, feed them, and some just plain ignore them. We’re all harmless. But ducks need to be on guard only for those walking forests, machomen in camo. I hope and trust they will learn that in time.

John Burroughs, writing in Wild Life about my Cabin, had it exactly right. In the end, he said, the hunter will have “only a dead duck” whereas the rest of us will have “a live duck with whistling wings, cleaving the air northward.”


MKT said...

Hear, hear! :-)

Bob Adamek said...

Dear Paula, I am a Listserv member, avid birder and very avid duck hunter. You and Richard are perfectly entitled to your opinions however they are not well informed in either case. First of all, Richard cited several game laws which were not correct, and you mentioned one yourself. The laws surrounding duck hunting differ for the Potomac River and the Potomac Tidal Basin. In the river you do not have to be anchored. Also, Virginia does have jurisdiction over several places in the Potomac area. Va state law allows that ducks may be shot on the water. Also, when chasing a duck that has been shot but not killed, you are allowed to leave your anchored blind post and as long as your boat has stopped its forward motion from the motor, then shoot to kill the bird. Also, hunting while walking on shore, or the edge of a pond or the like is perfectly legal in any area where that type of hunting is permitted. These laws change for all different parts of the state and different times of the year. I can't imagine how annoyed the DNR would get from a barrage of phone calls from people that have no idea what is and what isn't legal. Furthermore, I don't understand a community of outdoor enthusiasts purposefully trying to stop another group of outdoor enthusiasts that provide literally $100,000's of dollars to preserve wildlife habitat through the purchase of hunting licenses, federal and state duck stamps and contributions to conservation organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl. You should look up the amount of money hunters give to those organizations and the amount of habitat they preserve. Often that preservation comes in the form of "Safety zones" where hunting isn't allowed. I wonder out loud how much money you and Richard have contributed to the preservation of duck habitat in this country and Canada. My financial contribution has been substantial.
I never considered myself a "Macho man" while dressing in camo to pursue one of the great passions of my life. Observing the great ecosystems where ducks and geese live is a tremendous thrill. Actually participating in those ecosystems is even more thrilling. Finally, I am proud to say that to at least a certain extent, I deal with my own food. It is spiritually and intellectually uplifting to hunt, butcher and consume that which is provided for us. I may be wrong, but I'd be willing to bet that you yourself have eaten beef, chicken, pork or fish in your lifetime as well as worn some type of leather in some capacity as clothing. At the very least, hunters don't always hire it done, we take some of that responsibility on our own shoulders - Bob

Paula Sullivan said...

I’m happy to have a hunter express his point of view on my blog and I thank Bob Adamek for taking the time to write. Obviously, I have the ability to delete his comments, but I cherish the freedom to express a controversial view and will always grant the same to others. There was nothing disrespectful in his tone, despite his strong disagreement with my abhorrence of hunting.

Like Rich, I recognize that hunting is legal. If I was in error about one of these game laws, I stand corrected. Bob may agree, however, that learning the hunting laws of Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia is not an easy task. All are complex and the laws of each of these jurisdictions apply at various places along the Potomac River from Washington to Mount Vernon where I go to view and photograph birds. Dyke Marsh is federal land, so the National Park Service enforces federal laws in that area where it is next to impossible even to determine the jurisdictional boundaries. In my review of the Maryland laws which governed the men I saw hunting, I did learn that January 24 was the last day for duck hunting there. Hallelujah!

I know it is always argued that through organizations like Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl and by the purchase of licenses and duck stamps hunters contribute substantially to conservation. Though true enough, it can hardly be denied that the reason hunters do so is that there would be few ducks to kill if the populations of waterfowl were not healthy. Heaven forbid, that some species would become rare enough to be listed on the endangered species list. What then to hunt?

I am not opposed to hunting by people who live off the land or need to supplement a meager diet, but I am opposed to recreational hunting, even when the animals taken are eaten. In suburban Virginia and Maryland, food is available in mind-boggling variety, including domestic ducks raised for food.

Yes, it is a tremendous thrill for me as for Bob to observe the great ecosystems where ducks and geese thrive, but I am a passive observer and he is a killer. There is an enormous difference. To enjoy the kill, for its own sake, is something I will never understand and for which I make no apologies.

I think all birders, hikers, and all other users of parks and open space should contribute to conservation in every way, especially financially. I contribute annually to the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, The Nature Conservancy, The American Bird Conservancy, The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory, the National Audubon Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Potomac Conservancy, and The Wilderness Society. These organizations have a broader mandate than Ducks Unlimited, working not only for the preservation of waterfowl habitat, but also for grasslands, forests, rivers, marshes, and all other natural places. I do think I pay my dues. Yes, I do eat meat, except for beef and veal. I won’t belabor this point to name the organizations to which I contribute which advocate for humane treatment of animals, including those slaughtered for food.

I recognize there are many hunters who follow all the laws meticulously and I assume Bob is one of them. I applaud him for that and hope he will encourage all the hunters he knows to do the same.

Bob Adamek said...

Thank you Paula for your thoughtful and considered response. I also appreciate you allowing my opinions, being so contradictory to yours in some ways, on your blog. I wish to add just two more things if you will indulge me. First, don't assume that the only reason hunters contribute to DU and the like is because it helps produce more birds to hunt. That is in fact a large part of it. However, The hunters that travel in my circles, like myself, are outdoorsmen. DU etc., conserves 10,000's of acres of grassland, marsh, delta and even woodland. This benefits many more non-game species than game species, a fact that is celebrated, not shrugged off. The hunters traveling in my circles never rate the success or quality of a hunt based on the size of the game bag. I was never more at peace with my father than when we were traipsing through the farm fields of NJ chasing rabbits and pheasants. The quality of my hunt is somewhat diminished when my son or daughter can't accompany me.
The second point is about being a participant and not just an observer. You are right, I am a killer, or a predator, and there is a big difference in that, than an observer. I asked a game warden what to do about a situation that I came across once. The limit on Canada Geese at the time was two/day. I had two on a particular river float near my house, but near the end of the float, came up on a bird that was crippled (most likely by us on an earlier shot that morning). I told the game warden that I'm an ethical hunter and don't want to leave a piece of game in the field injured but don't want to exceed my bag limit either. He told me to abide by the law always. That when you hunt, you are a predator, just like a fox, coyote, hawk or eagle. They injure prey all the time and the prey escapes. They will benefit a myriad of other creatures upon their eventual demise. He told me that it is the way the ecosystem works in its natural state, you are just a part of it.
I don't expect you will ever take a gun into the field for obvious reasons, however, I do hope you see that the opinions of these two groups of enthusiasts are much closer than you might have expected. Also, if Richard reads this, I would encourage him to post the wonderfully written argument he posed to me an in email last night for anyone else to read. I appreciate once again the opportunity for a civil and respectful debate on a very charged issue. I only wish it could have been done on the listserve - Bob

Norm said...

I guess the difference is that in the end a bird is dead and the birdwatcher is sad whereas the hunter is not.

Paula Sullivan said...

Bob, I’m so glad we could prove that it is possible for people with very divergent views to have a respectful and rational discussion.

I do accept your point that Ducks Unlimited conserves more than just waterfowl breeding habitat and so many non-game animals share in the benefits. That is a very good thing. I also can understand very well the peace and bonding you and your family derive from a shared walk though fields or woods. I experience the very same thing. Like you, I have to learn all I can about the animals we seek, their habitats, behavior, calls, or songs in order to find them successfully So, to that extent, we are both hunters. Hunting can be difficult, with misses and disappointments, and we often do it in cold, windy, even wet conditions. It is a thrill to find what we seek.

The major difference between us is that when I find my quarry, I shoot it with a camera and you shot yours with a gun. I take mine home as you do, but I look at my bird on a computer screen, discover the features I couldn’t quite see in the field, marvel at its beauty, its pose. Sometimes I’m delightfully surprised to find the bird I shot wasn’t even the species I though it was. I learn something from almost every photo I take. I get to keep my bird forever and return to its image as often as I wish, to refresh a fine memory. You bring yours home too, but it is hardly the beautiful specimen that I have. Yours is silenced, bloody, and broken, and all you can do is eat it. Then it is gone forever.

Yes, I have a very different way of looking at a wild animal and my relationship with it. I am not a predator. I could never inflict pain on another animal and end its life just because I was capable of it, because I had a gun and the animal didn’t. As a contest, a sport, the sides aren’t remotely even, and to attack an animal that poses no threat, to kill an animal when I’m not hungry, makes no sense whatsoever to me. I’m afraid I was not persuaded that it was better to allow a bird you had shot to suffer for hours from its wounds, rather than quickly dispatch it, because of some bag limitation. Maybe you should have thrown one of your dead ducks back in the water, killed the suffering one, and put it in your bag? Compassion, responsibility, fairness, and common sense are qualities that characterize civilized human beings. We don’t expect those qualities from animals. You said when you hunt you are a predator, just like a fox, coyote, hawk, or eagle. Why would you want to set aside the highest and noblest human qualities to take on the role of an animal with no capability to understand the pain it inflicts on its prey. These predatory animals must hunt to live. It’s not a sport, but a necessity. Although our ancestors had to do the same, only a small proportion of people living today must hunt to live. For them, too, it is a necessity, not a sport. I don’t understand recreational predation.

Though I will never take a gun in the field, I would like to think that you might consider taking a camera in the field. I know a number of birders that used to carry a gun, but now use only a camera or a pair of binoculars to hunt birds. It is in many ways a similar experience, and you might be surprised how much satisfaction you can derive from this non-consumptive enjoyment of our natural world.

Thanks for the exchange of ideas.

Anonymous said...

I have followed this thread with interest and am happy to see an open exchange of ideas.

I am an avid birder and wildlife professional and AM NOT a hunter, nor have I ever been. That being said I have no issue with ethical, legal hunting. The point that Bob raised which I think becomes the crux of the ethical question regards whether or not those that choose not to hunt eat meat or utilize animal products. To be ethically consistent one really can't eat meat and decry the cruelty of hunting. For all practical purposes those that eat meat (myself included here) are killing animals - we have simply inserted a number of layers to insulate us from the actual act. Is it simply that a wild animal has more value then a domesticated one? If so why? Is the part of this equation that causes discomfort the fact that hunter is deriving pleasure from the act?

Hunting may also serve as a valuable ecological tool. Burgeoning deer populations threaten numerous rare plant species and can severly degrade habitat for interior forest nesting birds through overbrowsing. Large snow goose populations are negatively impacting tundra breeding grounds - which regenerate quite slowly, if at all, a process which may impact not only the long-term population viability of snow geese but of other tundra nesters such as semipalmated sandpipers or yellow rails.

The commercial production of domestic animals for consumption also carries with it high environmental cost. Commercial poultry and hog farms especially, contribute enormously to the waste stream impacting aquatic ecosytem health. While there are agricultural practices that can greatly reduce this impact - they have not yet been widely adopted.

To be honest, these issues have caused to strongly consider hunting or vegetarianism as a way to become ethically consistent. If I can't bring myself to kill my own meat - perhaps I shouldn't eat it.

Paula Sullivan said...

Anonymous, You made excellent points, some of which I can agree with, or almost agree with. You said:

“To be ethically consistent one really can’t eat meat and decry the cruelty of hunting.”

I think you can. One can accept killing, while being opposed to cruelty. Killing an animal is not necessarily cruel, but I believe hunting is. Cruelty does exist in slaughterhouses, but there are many signs that slaughter is becoming more humane. PETA works tirelessly for humane treatment of animals in slaughterhouses, spotlighting abuses and promoting advances in humane treatment. It has presented awards to Dr. Temple Grandin whose animal handling systems, now found in some slaughterhouses, have decreased the amount of fear and pain experienced by animals, and to Safeway, Albertson’s, and Whole Foods for their efforts in working with the Food Marketing Institute and meat suppliers, to establish guidelines, monitoring programs, and audits designed to improve conditions in slaughterhouses. This is a slow and difficult process, but the the movement is in the right direction.

Still, I believe vegetarianism is the way to go. Your points about the environmental impact of the waste from the commercial production of hogs and poultry are valid. I don’t eat beef or veal, but do eat pork, chicken, and fish. I am married to a dedicated carnivore and do all the cooking in the house, so dropping beef from the menu 5 years ago caused lots of problems. My personal decision, a reasonable compromise, I believe, has been to eat less of the animal products I still consume and support humane organizations that promote humane treatment of animals raised for slaughter.

I agree completely that deer and snow goose populations impact negatively on the habitat they share with many birds and other animals. Their numbers need to be controlled. Again, I think they should be killed as humanely as possible when scientific studies determine how many animals need to be culled in a particular area. I would prefer hired professional sharp shooters, rather than recreational hunters to carry out this duty.

And that gets to the most important question you asked: is it the pleasure from the act of killing that bothers me? The answer is absolutely yes. If killing a sentient animal and watching it die is pleasurable, it is sadism by definition: “the tendency to derive pleasure from inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation.” Only humans can be sadistic, not animals. I do find sadism abhorrent and, so I cannot abide hunting. As bad as conditions can sometimes be in slaughterhouses, I doubt that the employees actually take pleasure in the act of killing. It’s a dirty, difficult, boring, emotionless job.

I recognize that hunting is legal. It won’t happen in my lifetime, but I hope the day will come when hunting will be illegal and all birds will be “non-game” birds.