People usually discuss the topic of animal rights from an ethical, scientific, or pragmatic point of view. The rightness or wrongness of the positions is discussed in a courtroom like style assuming the conversation has not devolved into a shouting match.
Killing Tradition by Simon J. Bonner approaches the topic from a decidedly different perspective. He, a folklore specialist, investigates the controversy like an anthropologist who has just discovered an unknown tribe of aborigines. Bonner studies the oral and behavioral traditions of hunters and anti-hunters in order to better understand their respective beliefs that gave rise to those traditions. Rather than studying their self-declared rationalizations for their position, he looks more at their customs and actions. Ultimately, Bonner details the behavior and interactions of the members of these groups and then constructs a framework that explains how the members of each group perceive the world. Bonner states, “I probe the way symbols and rituals are formed, enacted, gendered, and reshaped in animal rights controversies to deal with foundational traditions that appear to simultaneously destroy and regenerate life” (2009, p.11).
In his analysis, Bonner tries to remain neutral and objective. He is generally able to keep his opinions out of the book by focusing on the description and explanation of the positions rather than on an evaluation. Bonner does not allow the reader to duck the hard questions though. He explicitly forces the reader to consider questions such as, How much say should urban residents have over how rural residents use their land?, and To what extent should landowners have control over their land?
To illustrate the cultural divide between hunters and animal rights activists, Bonner discusses deer hunting, pigeon shooting, and hare coursing (i.e., a competition among greyhounds involved with chasing and directing hares in a large enclosure). The first two topics occur in an American context, while the third provides an international flavor by delving into a very controversial debate in England. Bonner approaches each topic in a similar fashion. He begins by establishing the cultural stage for the tradition by providing background information including statistics regarding the tradition, an outline of the tradition’s role in society, and the controversy surrounding the tradition. Then Bonner transitions to the specific customs inherent in the tradition. For example Bonner describes how shirt-tail cutting, blood smearing, and hunting stories function within the deer hunting culture. Finally, Bonner analyzes the customs to explain their place within the broader hunting tradition, their role in maintaining order in the community which supports hunting, and their intellectual role in buttressing the community’s worldview. Throughout this analysis, Bonner presents the views of the animal rights community and why it believes the hunting tradition should end.
I found the folklore approach to be, at times, bewildering yet intriguing. I questioned the strength of the connection between behavior and belief: How does one’s behavior accurately exemplify their understanding of the world? For instance, is it really appropriate to investigate the traditions of Christmas in order to evaluate the Christian doctrine of Jesus Christ? I was embarrassed by Bonner’s employment of sexuality, which seemed almost Freudian, to interpret the symbolism of hunting practices. For instance, he interpreted the custom of cutting the shirt-tail of a hunter who overshot a deer as homo-erotic by arguing that the custom exploits the masculine fear of having one’s buttocks exposed to other men (p. 44). In addition, he saw the cutting ceremony as a form of symbolic castration, adding additional humiliation to the victim.
I am not convinced that Bonner’s sexual explanation of hunting traditions accurate. I suggest that the rifle could be understood as an extension of one’s tongue as the hunter is extending his tongue to consume the deer. Readers may smirk at this suggestion, but since ancient warriors spoke of swords as devouring enemies (2 Samuel 11:25), should an oral interpretation of shooting be different? Is a dietary interpretation of guns less reasonable? To be clear, I do not deny that gender plays a role in the controversy. I agree that some of society’s opposition to hunting may stem from the decline in masculine values of toughness (pp.90, 196). However, I deny that masculine behavior is just another way of speaking of sexual intercourse. It should not surprise anyone that different genders express dominion over creation differently. To think otherwise would be to deny the role our gender plays in shaping our identity. I suspect Bonner’s use of sexual analysis was aided by his unfortunate neglect of how the different community’s theological understanding contributed to the opposing views between the groups. I also think Bonner should have supported his claim regarding the guilt hunters feel after a kill (p. 81). I suggest that the emotion he called “guilt” could easily be identified as the sadness of the hunter, who was reminded that he too is mortal.
At times the diversity and complexity of the ideas and customs under discussion can cause the reader some confusion. For example, Bonner argues that hunting exemplifies a male combat ritual (man versus buck) in which the fight is to the death (p. 80). Later, he suggests that hunters oppose anti-hunting legislation out of concern that such legislation violates their dominionist world view (p.91). How should the reader understand the relationship between these ideas? Is one subordinate to the other or do they stand in parallel? I think the addition of concept maps and more subheadings would have assisted reader apprehension of the material.
Readers will find useful, Bonner’s discussion of the sociological indicators of the cultural divide between hunters and anti-hunters, such as the urban-rural divide and the modernist-traditionalist divide. While these cultural issues are mentioned throughout the book, they are dealt with in detail in the last chapter. I want to warn readers that the text is a difficult read. Many of the concepts are abstract and nuanced so reader beware.
Killing Tradition provides helpful insight into how non-hunters may view hunting. If knowing one’s enemy is critical to victory, then reading this text will be essential to promulgating hunting in a society that no longer holds a worldview that is congruent with hunting or other consumptive uses of wildlife. Bonner raises two questions that I find particularly worthy of reflection by those supporting the sporting tradition. I have paraphrased them as: 1) Is tradition alone sufficient justification for killing animals? (p.8) and 2) Do rural communities have the right to be different from urban ones (p.201)? The responses society provides will determine whether we maintain the tradition of killing or whether we adopt the new tradition of killing the hunting tradition.
Stephen M. Vantassel is an expert in wildlife damage management and is a Christian theologian interested in environmental issues and human-wildlife interactions.
He is author of