The other day I was doing a radio interview about hunting on an NPR show called On Point. During our discussion, the host played a clip from another interview in which Ted Nugent said that hunters who discuss hunting ethics are actually feeling “guilty” about being hunters. While I happen to be a huge fan of Nugent’s music (Stranglehold is pure genius, and I’ve even attended Nugent’s Whiplash Bash), I couldn’t help but wonder what the hell he was talking about. It made me think of something that happened the other day, when I tried to explain to my 2-year-old son why he shouldn’t walk up to old ladies and point to their face and announce, “That’s an old lady!” While I didn’t use the word “ethics” when discussing this with him, I certainly made it clear in a two-year-old way that we abide by codes of conduct. It was very similar to discussions I’ve had with him while dissuading him from walking out of a store with a Blow Pop that wasn’t paid for, and from throwing ripe tomatoes across the kitchen in order to see them splatter. But after hearing Nugent’s comment, I wondered if I was wrong for discussing these things with my boy. Maybe, perhaps, I’m harboring a bunch of guilt about old ladies, stealing Blow Pops, and destroying ripe tomatoes.

At the risk of betraying all the guilt that I also feel about being a hunter—guilt that I’ve camouflaged through 30-plus years of hunting, and by writing dozens of hunting articles and three hunting books—I’m going to talk for a moment about hunting ethics. Particularly I’m going to talk about the ethics of canned hunting, which is a euphemism for hunts that are basically guaranteed because the “hunter” is shooting critters that can’t get away because they’re trapped inside a fence that was built for the purpose of containing them. I was prompted to meditate on this subject a bit after making a recent hunting trip to New Zealand. While there are great opportunities for legitimate free-range hunts in New Zealand, including public land hunts (you’ll see four of them on upcoming MeatEater episodes; two on public, one on timber company land, and one on private land), the place might very well be the world’s capital of canned hunting. In some ways, the abundance of canned hunting opportunities in New Zealand is related to the fact that the country is certainly the world’s leading exporter of commercially raised venison produced from red deer. They raise these deer in a way that’s similar to how we raise beef and lamb here in the U.S., except red deer have some secondary markets which cattle and sheep do not. First, there’s strong Asian demand for their antler velvet, which is believed by some to have aphrodisiac and medicinal qualities. Second, there’s strong demand for the mature bulls, or stags, among European and American hunters who are willing to pay thousands and thousands of dollars for an opportunity to shoot the trophy-sized animals in a setting that is meant to loosely mimic an actual hunt.

Many of these trophy red stags spend their lives at velvet harvesting facilities, where they are raised for the annual crop that is collected from their antlers in late summer. Once the stag hits his peak size, with his anticipated maximum antler growth, he’ll be sold to someone who owns a “park.” The park manager then advertises the sizes of the various stags that he’s purchased to his affiliated outfitters, and these outfitters bring out clients to “hunt” them. For the sake of the clients, the stags are often aggregated according to their size as determined through the Safari Club International scoring system. The amount you’re willing to pay determines the enclosure that you get to shoot a stag in, though the stag’s final measurement determines the ultimate price.
For an example of how this works, consider something that I heard about while I was in New Zealand. Some guy from America was visiting a canned operation, but he couldn’t afford to shoot anything at or above 400”. He went into an enclosure and selected a stag that he figured to be around 380”. He was off by about 20”, erring on the low side. The mistake equaled a difference of $5,000. Last I heard, there was some ongoing debate over who was ultimately liable for the screw-up. (We’ve all heard of range-finding rifle scopes; I’m thinking that there’s a market for barcode-reading rifle scopes.)

Ultimately, my gripe with this kind of hunting isn’t so much that it’s immoral, because I don’t believe that there’s anything wrong with killing domestic animals for human purposes. Rather, my gripe with the activity is that it cheapens the meaning of hunting when guys insist on applying the term “hunting” to the practice. Just the other day, a good friend of mine named Doug had an emergency on his farm and had to dispatch one of his steers with a rifle. He described it as “putting it down,” not hunting it, a distinction that this friend understands very well.

In fact, I believe that all hunters—even those who do canned hunts—know the difference. I believe this because they intentionally fudge the lines when it comes to how they discuss their activities. How come you so infrequently meet a canned hunter who admits openly that the trophy on his wall was taken behind a fence? How come hunting shows that do canned hunts never bother to mention the fact that the animals they’re supposedly stalking can’t really get away? I know a guy who hunted New Zealand once, and he killed a huge stag there in a place that I know to be fenced. When he got home, he talked a lot about the experience. He told the history of New Zealand, how it was discovered by Captain Cook. He talked about the fact that it was once home to flightless birds that stood thirteen feet high, but that the birds were killed off by indigenous hunters; he talked about the weather where he hunted, and the kinds of plants there, and the sorts of terrain he walked on. He even talked about the quality of the light in the early morning. But through all that detail, he always failed to mention the fact that his stag was released into that enclosure from a truck, and that he knew before he arrived that he’d be killing it. I’m not sure why he doesn’t mention these things, but perhaps the word “guilt” has something to do with it.