For the Birds Radio Program: Bear Baiting
I don’t like hunting. Or fishing. I just don’t. I avert my eyes when a Peregrine Falcon zooms in for the kill, and cried for days when a Merlin picked off a red squirrel I’d raised from a baby. When my big brother used to bring home pheasants he’d killed, I was mesmerized by the lovely plumage and saddened deep in my soul by the lusterless emptiness in eyes that hours before had been wild and alive.
I have a little screech owl named Archimedes who must eat meat. Not just chunks of it, but whole animals. I don’t have the heart to give him live mice, and he was raised in captivity in a clinic in Ohio and seems to prefer his mice already dead already anyway, so every night I defrost a mouse which I ordered from a mail-order company. Somehow it makes me feel less guilty, though the once living mouse is no less dead.
I love Peregrine Falcons, and Merlins, and owls, and my big brother. Birds of prey are obligate hunters—every individual must eat dead animals or become dead itself. We humans are omnivores. Our teeth and digestive system and basic nutrition needs are designed for a diet including plant and animal matter. We can design a vegetarian diet, but for good health we must carefully balance the various amino acids to ensure that we get enough protein because our bodies simply are not designed for vegetarianism. Deep in our genetic makeup are urges to plant and harvest crops, and to chase down animals. I do my animal chasing with binoculars, and although I eat very little meat, what I do eat I pick up as carcasses at the grocery store. But my brother loves to hunt his meat. He takes pleasure in the hunt, and somehow, though I can’t understand it, he takes pleasure in the kill, too. But it’s not the blood-thirsty, vicious thrill anti-hunters paint it. As far as I can tell, Jimmy seems to be thrilled by matching wits with the natural world and winning. It’s a primitive urge, in the way a Peregrine stooping on a duck at 200 miles per hour is acting on a primitive urge, but no less an honorable urge.
Some methods of hunting seem fairer than others. Those of us who don’t hunt often prefer hunters who stalk their prey in the woods—somehow that seems to require more skill, which seems to heighten the honor of the hunt. So a lot of non-hunters are strongly opposed to baiting animals. After the Duluth News-Tribune ran a controversial editorial against bear-baiting, people on both sides responded emotionally. But as far as I can tell, bear-baiting is no less honorable a strategy for hunting bears than using bait to catch fish, or decoys to hunt ducks and geese. Bear-baiting probably even selects for bears most attracted to human odors, which might at least somewhat reduce the number of bear-human interactions during other seasons. Those of us who love bears realize that ultimately it’s the bears who suffer when they start spending too much time around people.
When it comes right down to it, bear-baiting is probably a more humane hunting method than stalking bears in the woods. When a hunter waits near a bait station, he sits where he knows he can get a clean shot, and even one or two extra shots if he doesn’t bring down the bear instantly. Stalking bears in the woods far increases the likelihood that a wounded bear will get away, suffering for hours or days before dying. And the tragedy of wounded bears dying in the woods is multiplied because scavengers eating the carcass are likely to ingest bear shot, which is often lead, or bullets, which are virtually always lead.
We human beings are complicated animals. Somehow the exact same people who shoot at deer or bear during hunting season are among the first to jump in and help an orphaned fawn or cub during spring. We are a complex bundle of primitive emotions and instincts and advanced thinking. We take pride in our individuality and liberty even as we become civilized and rein in our urges to advance our sense of community. I wish we’d start using our sense of community to make more connections between hunters and non-hunters. We all have a stake in the future of the natural world, which is in great jeopardy right now, and not from hunting. We’re far too quick, as a nation and as individuals, to paint those who disagree with us as evil-doers. Let’s ease up on one another, and start working together to make this a better world for humans and animals both.