When people discuss Fair Chase, they often view the topic through a tunnel instead of holistically — and miss the fact that predation is central to conservation. Hunters are often as unaware of this natural principle as non-hunters. Hunters defend their tradition because it helps control population, generates conservation revenues and Fair Chase expresses good sportsmanship.
While Fair Chase is a worthy ethical principle, it is also physiologically better for wildlife and habitats. Predators change animal behavior. When Yellowstone Park’s restored wolves stalked and menaced elk herds in the riversides which elk preferred and overused, elk herd grazing patterns changed and riparian areas recovered.
Just like wolves, cougars, bears and other apex predators, humans have always been a part of the predation equation. The form that most closely resembles ancient patterns is called Fair Chase hunting.
Fair Chase: The Sportsman’s Legacy
Only about 5% of Americans these days participate in any form of hunting. An activity that just a generation or two ago was a venerated part of American life—combining traditional virtues of independence and self-reliance, frontier spirit and wood lore, good sportsmanship and character-building for the young—has become increasingly stigmatized and felt itself under siege. Animal-rights groups call the killing of animals for sport immoral or sick; suburbanites balk at hunts in their backyards, even as they complain of being overrun by deer; ballot initiatives to outlaw hunting methods successfully portrayed as inhumane have met with success from Massachusetts to California.
Hunters, who now account for only one-fifth of all gun owners, find themselves derided even by firearms enthusiasts, sneeringly dismissed as “Fudds” (as in Elmer, the perennially hapless pursuer of Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny) for their quaint lack of enthusiasm for military-style hardware.
How hunting came to hold an iconic place in American culture in the first place is an interesting tale, and in “The Fair Chase” Philip Dray explores it with a balance and fair-mindedness that is unusual for such a contentious subject. His subtitle, “The Epic Story of Hunting in America,” is misleading. This book is less about hunting per se than about the way hunting has been portrayed in literature, popular culture and iconography. Mr. Dray, an independent historian who has previously written about labor history, the reconstruction period and Benjamin Franklin, limits himself almost exclusively to the particular notion of recreational hunting that arose in the second half of the 19th century, with its emphasis on wildlife conservation and respect for rules, limits and sportsmanlike conduct, embodied in the idea of the “fair chase.”
This was a self-consciously elitist, Eastern and urban movement. Its advocates were eager to elevate hunting, removing from it any taint of association with the rude subsistence-hunting backwoodsman, the mercenary market shooter or the boorish fast-liver that the word “sportsman” connoted at the time. Mr. Dray quotes an early evangelist of American sport hunting, Henry William Herbert (a transplanted Englishman who became a leading writer for the sporting publications that burgeoned in the mid-19th century): “The word sportsman was understood to mean, not him who rises with the dawn, to inhale the pure breezes of the uplands or the salt gale of the great salt bay, in innocent and invigorating pursuit of the wild game of the forest or the ocean wave; but him who by the light of flaring gas-lamp watches, flushed and feverish . . . to pluck his human pigeon over the green field of the faro table.”
The recreational hunting movement was deeply entwined with a more general wave of enthusiasm for getting back in touch with nature and reversing what many influential Americans feared was a loss of manly virtue brought on by urban luxury, vice and the meanness of “trade.” Hunting offered wholesome outdoor exercise, salutary lessons in patience and escape from the soul-eroding toil of the office, as well as the softness of feminine society. It would, advocates believed, cure the epidemic of nervous breakdowns and “Miss Nancyishness” afflicting American manhood.
Clergymen extolled Moses and Jesus as exemplars of “vigorous outdoorsmen.” The Rev. William H.H. Murray, the “shooting parson” of Boston’s venerable Congregational Park Street Church, set off a virtual stampede to the Adirondacks—“Murray’s Fools,” the travelers were called by the locals—with his pulpit exhortations and popular guidebook promoting the region as a sportsman’s paradise. Even Ralph Waldo Emerson and his fellow philosophers and litterateurs of Boston’s famous “Saturday Club” got into the act, taking to the woods for a vacation, where they reveled in “the circle of life in the forest”—living in tents, chopping wood, cooking the trout and venison they caught and shot, and experiencing “a form of independence” they had never known.
Mr. Dray’s approach to such material is mostly anecdotal and impressionistic. He is not always careful to distinguish between the things hunters said about themselves and the things they actually did, and it takes more assiduous digging than he has done to get to the experience of hunting as it existed outside the pages of the sporting gazettes. The author, who currently lives in Brooklyn, acknowledges in his introduction that his personal contact with field sports is limited to a boyhood enthusiasm for hunting-adventure stories and some desultory casting for sunfish in small urban lakes. There is often a second- or third-hand feel to his writing, and the small but irritating gaffes he makes about boats, guns, horses and other details of outdoor life (confusing caliber and gauge, for example, or not knowing that punt is a type of boat, not a part of a boat) reveal just how much of his own knowledge comes out of books.
The great strength of this telling is the author’s ability to see that little about his story is black and white. He makes a strong case for the credit due to sport hunters for successful campaigns to save the American bison, halt the wanton slaughter of birds for their plumage and set aside land for nature conservation. He acknowledges the nearness to nature that hunters uniquely experience: Theodore Roosevelt, even as he extolled hunting as a way to put some backbone into spineless American youth, insisted that “all hunters should be nature-lovers.” In promoting regulations to promote sportsmanship and the long-term conservation of game, Mr. Dray argues, recreational hunters laid the basis for a “consciousness of equilibrium and an ethics of restraint” toward nature that became the cornerstone of the modern environmental movement.
At the same time, this “gentlemanly” conception of hunting, derived from traditional rules of English sport that for centuries had been the exclusive domain of the privileged, was full of contradictions for democratic America. Bag limits and closed seasons, sportsmanlike conduct, conservation ethics and other principles championed by the recreational hunting movement are now a fixed part of state and federal game laws and hunter education. But many rural residents resented the high-handedness of city-slickers imposing strictures against traditional practices linked to the necessities of feeding a family or earning a livelihood. And they saw little more than hypocrisy at being branded as unethical by “sportsmen” who slaughtered animals for trophies to place on their walls while leaving valuable meat and hides behind to rot.
Immigrants and African-Americans likewise were the target of scorn from the new arbiters of the sport, for their supposed lack of gentlemanly conduct. Shortages of game in Virginia and the Carolinas were blamed on a “constant stream of loafing Africans,” as one white Southerner complained to a sporting magazine in 1875. In 1913 prominent American conservationist William T. Hornaday offered a serious proposal to bar Italians and other southern European immigrants—who “swarm through the country every Sunday, and shoot every wild thing they see”—from carrying firearms or being issued hunting permits until they had been naturalized American citizens for 10 years.
Even in the heyday of sport hunting, moral qualms were often voiced about it. Repelled by Roosevelt’s African big-game safaris and his enthusiasm for racking up vast tallies of animals killed, Mark Twain opined that TR was “still only fourteen years old after living a half century.” More poignant is the story Mr. Dray relates of Sarah Winchester, the wealthy widow of the heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company fortune. Tormented by the thought of all the Native Americans and animals slaughtered by the firearms her husband’s company had produced, in 1884 she purchased a huge home in San Jose and had it filled with trap doors, secret rooms and hidden passageways to baffle the ghosts she claimed perpetually haunted her.
After such a nuanced picture of hunting’s virtues and shortcomings, it comes as a bit of a shock in this book’s final pages when Mr. Dray lays down his cards and declares himself ethically opposed to any human use of animals. In fact, he calls abstaining “the only ethical choice.” “Is the time approaching,” he asks, “when we thank hunting for its several millennia of service to mankind, and with a heartfelt ‘job well done,’ bid it adieu?”
In predicting the imminent demise of hunting due to evolving “ethical” attitudes, Mr. Dray, I think, underscores the historical inadequacy of his equation of American hunting as a whole with the elite sport hunting movement. He barely touches on the history of hunting in America before the late 19th century, brushing aside the “American backwoods hunter” of that earlier era as “a loner living at world’s end,” whose practices played little part in shaping modern game laws and attitudes toward hunting.
But this is a serious omission, for in parallel to the aristocratic sport hunting movement, there is a much more venerable and democratic tradition of hunting in America that goes back to its earliest European settlers and has proved remarkably resilient. It also helps explain some of the enduring contradictions he observes.
In conscious contrast to the exclusionary hunting laws of England, courts in colonial America embraced the doctrine of “free taking,” holding game to be the property of all, subject to regulation for the common good. English-style rules that reserved hunting for large landowners were rejected as “contrary to the spirit of our institutions,” and many of the colonies enacted laws guaranteeing the right of free access across undeveloped private land to hunt and fish. If one reads accounts of boys growing up in colonial times and in the first century of the republic, heading into nearby woods to shoot birds and small game was an indelible part of American boyhood experience—not just for the “backwoods hunter” but for the sophisticated likes of Henry David Thoreau in Concord and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in Boston.
It is easy to see hunting as beleaguered today. But the 5% national figure cloaks a vast rural-urban divide, as well as a much older urban-rural difference in attitudes. Today, in red and blue states alike, New England and the Deep South, California and the Midwest, the proportion of hunters in rural areas remains a steady 20% to 25%. Given the still overwhelmingly male cast to the sport, this suggests that nearly one-half of rural adult males hunt. This is not an evanescent or marginal cultural phenomenon, but a tradition with roots far deeper in American feelings about the democratic sharing of the New World’s freedom and natural resources than the elite sport hunting movement Mr. Dray so ably chronicles.
Fair Chase: The Sportsman’s Legacy – can be purchased on Amazon
—Mr. Budiansky is the author of many books on animals and nature, as well as a forthcoming biography of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.