Gosia Bryja, PhD
Times are changing. For the better, people say. Among other things, we have begun to recognize empathy and compassion as guiding principles in our co-existence with nature. We also increasingly extend the feelings that were previously reserved for our own species to non-human animals.
In the ideal world, that is. In reality, evil in man’s heart has hardly been eradicated by the ‘civilizing process’ and, as in a bygone age, a great number of people are still shackled by the mentality of violence. Yet in contrast to the earlier, lawless times, when suffering and abuse were often inflicted with relative impunity, violent tendencies can now be safely released only within legally confined environments.
Wildlife killing contests offer such a chance. Sponsored by private organizations and allowed by the B.C. government, they are a perfect outlet for satiating lingering savagery towards animals. During these events, after dropping a paltry fee, the hunter can step into the lushness of the vibrant forest and briskly get on with the random killing of wolves, coyotes, and other predators. And he can feel good about doing it. Validated. This is because — to dress up the slaughter in some utilitarian clothing and to remove the stigma of aimless barbarism — killing contests are promoted as ‘management’ efforts that help some species of animals by killing others. Defiantly and perversely, the legacy of the misguided past lives on. As in the earlier times, predators are still butchered under the guise of ‘scientific wildlife management’, with a spurious rationale ranging from increasing ungulate populations to defending ‘defenseless’ livestock. No, nothing has changed in the end.
Examples of cruelty abound. The latest are three ‘wildlife killing’ contests that took place in British Columbia. For a mere $10 fee, participants entered ‘Predator Tournament’ organized by the Creston Valley Rod and Gun Club and competed for cash prizes based on the number of points accumulated. A different contest organized by Chilcotin Gun Store near Williams Lake and named ‘Wolf-Whacking’ began Dec 1, 2018 and ran until March 31, 2019. Finally, a bounty of 500 dollars for every killed wolf was offered by the West Kootenay Outdoorsmen to its membership.
Such contests are perfectly legal and barely regulated; the scale of slaughter limited only by the skill of the hunter.
What they plainly reveal is that the stain of a callous disregard for sentient beings extends far beyond the forest and reaches upper layers of a provincial bureaucracy. Wolves and other predators are worthless and disposable not only to hunters participating in the kill but to the B.C. government, as well. Indeed, the government’s attitude to the carnage that wildlife contests facilitate is laced with a chilling detachment. They wash their hands of any interference because, as they state, predator populations are thriving and healthy in numbers. Nothing else matters: this is where the caring ends. It is as if the only defense for wild animals — their only path to escaping death — lay in them being deemed endangered. Only then can they be afforded some gesture of compassion, a modicum of protection from having their bodies shredded with bullets. This is their only hope.
All that vanishes, however, once predators manage to thrive in the harsh forest, or once people’s encroachment on their territories brings about inevitable livestock conflicts. It is then, suddenly, that the wolf or the coyote turns into a pest that needs to be hunted down with cruel indifference and a menacing joy that still, stubbornly, resides in the heart of some men.
This worn-down, almost euphemistic word “hunting” does not give justice to the injustice taking place during hunting contests. Rightly or not, the word “hunting” still carries some traces of respect — perhaps even spirituality or honour — but these traces are absent from wildlife contests. What is instead being promised to participants is a chance to experience the sheer fun of killing that is unchained from the inconvenient “burden” of mercy. Again, it is not that the organizers have any qualms about what their clients are lusting for. As if tacitly conceding the absurdity of a “wildlife management” component, they often dispense with any pretense of respectability and, unabashedly, advertise events for what they are — a “good time” killing adventure.
Does naming a killing contest “Wolf Whacking” suggest even basic respect for life, let alone spirituality? No, it doesn’t.
It is this callousness, this wallowing in death and suffering that is so shocking, so ultimately inhumane about killing contests. Nothing matters; even a notion of ‘challenge’ is debased. Although large predators are advertised as the most valuable prize, those who are unlucky in hunting down a wolf can still make up points by “whacking” raccoons or even ravens. They just have to kill more of them, toss more carcasses onto a bed of a truck. In a competitive game, it is solely species’ elusiveness that counts, as each animal’s life is reduced to a carefully calculated point value, turned into a number to be ticked off and high-fived.
And then there is an almost apocalyptic dimension that killing contests evoke. Everything dies in the hunter’s path. As the hunt commences and snowmobiles roar into the snow-laden forest, intelligent animals — with a rich inner life and with a family structure that we barely understand — turn into trivial objects in a lethal play, and their only significance, their sole usefulness, lies now in transient amusement their violent death can provide.
All life is under siege, all of it becomes a fair game in a killing spree that descends upon the forest. The crackle of indiscriminate rifle-fire merges with the sound of snowmobiles speeding through the snow. Loud cheering. Guttural laughter bursts out into the pungent, smoke-filled air. More firing, round after round. Blood splatters the whiteness of snow as animals keep falling to the ground, keep dropping from branches of trees. Contortions, writhing on the dirt, legs kicking, blood staining trembling blades of grass. More laughter. Cheering, again. The rifle-fire carries on and on, ceaselessly, peppering the forest like a hellish rain. This is it; this is it. The wilderness is no longer the wilderness. No, it has been erased, annihilated. Enveloped in clouds of gun smoke, the ravaged terrain emerges in its place: a grotesque image of desolation and anguish, as if everything that we cherish and long for has been scorched by a blast of doom.
Tragically, the horrors do not end when the shooting stops. Wildlife contests’ insidious legacy persists, lingers on, and it affects both the animals that survived the carnage and the people who witnessed it. The latest research demonstrates that killing contests engender such fear in wolves that a hormonal balance in their body gets disrupted, unleashing a cascade of pernicious consequences for wolf populations and, ironically, for the livestock that killing contests are explicitly designed to protect.
Finally, there is a human cost.
These events feed the culture of violence and send a message to children that some lives are so expendable that they can be snuffed out for brutish thrill. Killing contests instill this lesson indirectly by virtue of their very existence being promoted and sanctioned by the media, and also directly by having children join their parents in the bloodshed, gun in hand. Indeed, is it an accident that some of the contests coincide with Spring break? Probably not, and if so, is this what a bonding experience supposed to be, especially in the light of all that we know about the link between animal cruelty and human violence?
At some point the rifle fire will cease, and, for a while, wildlife will have a chance to live. There will be a momentary peace. Tranquility. But not before the violence unleashed in the depths of the forest destroys both the animals and the men.