Why Is Big-Game Hunting So Repulsive?

The pictures are sad and grotesque. An American dentist and his guide grinning over the remains of Cecil the Lion. Our sympathies run directly to the victim of the hunt, the lion. Walter Palmer, the dentist who killed Cecil, is not the first American to ignite disgust over the slaughter of some of the world's great animals. A little more than a year ago, it was the Texas Tech cheerleader Kendall Jones who posed, armed and in camouflage, her boot resting on top of a lifeless lion.

Big-game hunting has become repulsive. Why? It was not always so. I remember as a child -- the middle-to-late 1960s -- being taken by my parents to the Field Museum in Chicago. We viewed row upon row of glass cases containing big-game specimens shot dead in hunting expeditions. Teddy Roosevelt's sons, as I recall, Theodore, Jr., and Kermit, contributed an especially large quantity of "trophies" to the Museum from their 1920's expeditions across Asia. They even killed a giant panda.

They hunted their prey at a time when big-game hunting was considered sport. That it was ever considered sporting to track down and kill large animals is in need of explanation. For, when viewed in historical context, big-game hunting seems to be an outgrowth of all that was wrong and wicked and distorted about late-19th- and early-20th-century Western culture and society.

This was the era of social Darwinism, after all. Social Darwinism followed a strict creed dictated by the unfettered capitalism of the day: society was naturally competitive -- "red in tooth and claw." The winners were those who accumulated fortunes and controlled vast wealth. The losers, on this distorted ideology, were those who did not succeed and who struggled for their daily bread. Big-game hunting was an expression of this ideology, a way in which the rich and power could travel to distant lands, pantomime acts of conquest, and assert their might and power in ritualized killing.

But big-game hunting represented and reflected yet other noxious ideological currents of that era. Nature, a century ago, was conceived of as an implacable foe, a hostile power that had to confronted, combated, and tamed. Think of the polar explorers and the mountain-climbing expeditions of that day and age. For sure, they dared greatly and accomplished much. They expanded the horizons of human knowledge and inspired heroic acts of courage and will. I remember, again as a child, fairly weeping when I read of Robert Falcon Scott's doomed 1912 expedition to the South Pole. How he finished second in the race to the Pole behind Roald Amundsen, and how he and his crew died in their tents on the return journey, only a few miles from resupply.

While expeditions like Scott's served the cause of science and even stirred the hearts of twelve-year-old boys, they were also fed and fueled by the ambition to subdue nature. Nature was an inhospitable force that had to be made to serve human needs. It was, it goes without saying, also a time of environmental catastrophe. One is reminded of the Salton Sea in southern California, formed in 1905 in the aftermath of a failed irrigation project. The era's big-game hunting was just another aspect of the urge to bend nature to human will and to wring from it the wealth that was stored within.

And finally, course, big-game hunting was a manifestation of colonialism. White Americans and Europeans traveled to exotic lands and slaughtered the local wildlife because they wished to demonstrate their political dominance. They wanted to display their weaponry, their wealth, and their command of the instruments of power over lands and peoples for whom they had little respect.

We no longer live in the world of a century ago. Yes, to be sure, social Darwinism remains a force. It has its defenders, in business, in industry, and in the academy. And our world remains cursed with the effects of the maldistribution of wealth. Innocent children still die in large numbers from malaria, malnutrition, and a host of other problems associated with preventable poverty. On the other hand, great moral voices -- secular and religious -- have spoken against this state of affairs and social Darwinism can no longer be said to command the heights in quite the way it did a hundred and more years ago. We live in a world where many of us, at least, appreciate the values of collaboration, cooperation, and, yes, even sharing.

Nature, furthermore, is no longer viewed as an enemy that we must defeat. We have a century of tragic experience telling us that we must live with and not against the natural world. Scientists report that we are on the cusp of a sixth great mass extinction event -- an extinction event brought about not by runaway volcanic eruptions or by an asteroid impact, but by environmental degradation. Similarly, we are faced with potentially catastrophic climate change, as polar ice caps melt and sea levels rise. We have learned the bitter lesson that a century's worth of hostility to nature has truly baleful and world-altering effects. Big-game hunting as a sign and symbol of that old and discredited way of life seems entirely out of place in the world we now inhabit.

Finally, of course, there is colonialism. We still live with its deplorable effects. Racism, that poisonous fruit of colonialism, haunts us still, in this nation and across the world. People are still made to suffer and die because of their ethnicity. Big-game hunting reminds us, at least at a subliminal level, of those days when wealthy white hunters depleted the landscapes of foreign, distant locales merely to assert their ascendancy and control over other peoples.

Big-game hunting leaves us troubled, I surmise, because it summons us to think of this sordid past. Big-game hunting no longer serves any social utility. The hunters' targets -- lions, elephants, rhinoceroses, and other mega fauna -- are all endangered species. Perhaps big-game hunting will vanish from the modern world, through the force of social criticism if not by positive legislative enactment. And, much more importantly, we should strive to make a better world -- a more cooperative economy, a safer, cleaner environment, and a place where peoples of different ethnic and social and religious backgrounds can live and prosper as equals.

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