Killing Tradition: Dominion and Autonomy
A folklorist explores some of the social and ethical issues of hunting. And reviewer David Romtvedt tracks down several more.
Coursers and their hunting dogs, Isle of Wight, c. 1920
Photo: Courtesy of Simon Bronner
Killing Tradition: Inside Hunting and Animal Rights Controversies
By Simon Bronner
320 pp., University Press of Kentucky, 2008, $40
Simon Bronner’s Killing Tradition is engaging, clearly written, and generous. The book explores three aspects of human “recreation” dependent on the “use” of animals—the North American traditions of deer hunting and pigeon shoots, and the British tradition of hare-coursing–using dogs to chase rabbits on open but circumscribed fields. In the first two practices, the aim of the activity is to kill one or more animals. In hare-coursing, the aim is to test the abilities of dogs in pursuit of a rabbit. The rabbit sometimes is captured and killed by the dogs and sometimes escapes into the wild. All three of these activities have come under intense scrutiny and, indeed, in the British Isles publicly sponsored hare coursing is illegal. The same is true of publicly sponsored pigeon shoots in many parts of the United States. Deer hunting remains legal. It has even been targeted by some state legislatures as a heritage activity deserving of special protection.
I recommend Bronner’s book to all readers but especially to those who are grappling with the ethical and emotional questions surrounding the human relationship to the animals with whom we share the Earth. Killing Tradition is timely and provocative. It’s a useful book. I want to emphasize this as I also found it to be an unsatisfying book.
Here are a few things that go wrong for me in Bronner’s work. First, the author’s attempt at neutrality. Bronner tells us that he will not take a side as his purpose is to “get inside the issue, to probe its significance as part of culture at this moment in history”¦.” I don’t think it’s possible. Indeed, with an issue that has become one of the hot-button subjects of our politics in Western societies, the stance of disinterestedness seems to me misleading. I would feel more confidence in Bronner if he had told me his feelings and gone on to tell me that his hope was to keep these feelings from interfering with the exploration of his subject. I am suspicious of the structure of neutrality as I feel it just ain’t true.
It’s clear from Bronner’s discussion of the meaning and place of folk practices and tradition that he has a deep sympathy for the role of long held practices in the lives of small communities, communities that find themselves marginalized by the urban society in which we live. He notes that “Hunting and gaming are prime examples of time-honored practices that provide social capital or human benefit through the idea of tradition in an increasingly individualistic, fragmented society.” In various places, I felt that Bronner couldn’t help but express his feeling that if it’s traditional, it deserves support. If it’s a folkway, it has value. He said he wouldn’t take sides but his training and feelings for folk practices made it hard for him not to. It’s better, I think, to say how you feel and do your best to respect the full range of arguments. I trust Bronner to do his best in representing the feelings of various parties in the debate. I trust him less when he attempts to behave as if he were not personally engaged by the issues.
This is related to a sense I had in reading the book that “tradition” was too weighted while being too vaguely defined. Maybe tradition is simply things people do over a number of generations and that give them a sense of identity. But I know that Bronner is an astute folklorist and that he has thought about the fluidity of tradition, the ways that tradition is in flux, always being remade by its practitioners, always changing. Thus, when Bronner seems to accept without much questioning the use of tradition as a defense of various human recreational activities that end in the deaths of animals, I feel let down. I wanted more of a dive into what role tradition has in our lives and how we recreate traditions to serve changing cultural and environmental circumstances.
Bronner has made much use of feminist scholarship and psychoanalytic theory in analyzing hunting and live target shooting. This was a part of the book that I found deeply engaging. At the same time the polarities that Bronner set up didn’t seem to reflect my experience. In general terms, we’re told that hunters reflect male values and interests and that animal rights activists represent female values and interests. In this model, hunting reveals the need for a kind of male testing of self against nature and against powerful animals that are male competitors for strength and potency (Sexual potency comes into play quite a bit in Bronner’s analyses). Hunting is sometimes a battle with another male—the powerful male deer—and sometimes a pursuit and conquering of a weaker female—the hundreds of pigeons killed on a single day in a pigeon shoot. Hunting is seen as a realm rooted in the past and that’s somehow male—rural life, hunting and trapping out of necessity—while animal rights supporters are seen to represent urban values—values that are domesticated and therefore feminine.
Photo: Julie Ardery
None of this feels accurate to my experience. I’m a middle-aged man who lives in a town of slightly under four thousand in northern Wyoming. People here hunt and fish. I learned to shoot at age eight (rabbits). I’ve been taken on the proverbial snipe hunt in which a novice deer hunter is made to sit out on a cold night shining a flashlight into an open burlap bag into which will run the wily but light attracted snipe. I’ve been in deer camp where the men drink beer and tell tall tales while sitting in an uninsulated cabin, the walls of which are graced with centerfolds from “Men’s” magazines. But I don’t feel that these things reflect maleness, the meaning of a male life, the role of a man in society. They’re just some things some men have done and which could go away without interfering with my experience of life. Neither do I feel that the city is somehow feminine, somehow a place where female values (bad values?) are dominating—order, tidiness, schedules. Where I live women have done much the same work as men and have been tested by the natural world in the same ways. It has nothing to do with deer hunting.
Pigeon shoot supporter and sign — “Pigeons are Rats with Wings, Shoot ‘Em!” — at Hegins Pigeon Shoot, 1994
Photo by Simon Bronner
I think the real point may be less about gender and the need to hang onto specific traditional practices than it is about a general loss of autonomy in the face of a mechanized, centrally controlled, globalized economy and culture. Who are we who live in these particular places? How are we only who we are, not who others are? What gives us purpose and satisfaction? Why are we so afraid that some unnamed outsiders want to take our lives away from us? These are issues that are raised by Bronner’s look at hunting and animal rights but not quite opened up.
Maybe I’m being small minded here because what Bronner does, he does very well. He is, for example, keenly aware of people’s changing sense of ethics in animal human relations and he points out that animal rights activists have often said that in the absence of necessity, there is no defense of taking animal lives. That seems to me a question deserving of more attention. I once asked a Buddhist master if he thought one had to be a vegetarian to be a Buddhist. He told me he didn’t think so but he did feel that we should do our best to avoid causing suffering. I feel that way—there’s plenty of suffering and if I can live without killing the animals around me, then great. Let’s do our best to kill less. I think my hunting friends and neighbors have thought about this as much as I have and I’ll bet so have the hunters that Bronner spoke with in writing his book. I wish I could have heard more from Bronner and from them about that.