Why hunters hunt––and why far more men quit hunting now than take it up
Seán McCormack, managing trustee of the Animal Care Trust in Taiwan, recently brought to our attention “Hunting Linked To Psychosexual Inadequacy & The 5 Phases Of A Hunter’s Life Of Sexual Frustration,” by Brent Lambert, published in November 2016 under the subject headings Neuroscience, Psychology, and Society by the lifestyles web site FeelGuide.com.
Observed Lambert, a prolific writer on many topics, yet better known as a Hollywood set designer, “In his 2015 book, What Is Sport: A Controversial Essay About Why Humans Play Sports, social psychologist Rob Alpha explains how researchers with the Genetic Economic Analytics Group found the neurophysiological link between sex and a man’s desire to hunt.
Same parts of brain activated by hunting & sex
“It turns out the same regions of the brain that are activated in the sex drive and orgasm are also activated by the compulsion to hunt animals.
“Renowned psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger (1893-1990), who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter in 1981, and is the namesake of the Menninger School of Psychiatry, wrote extensively about the Erotic Sadistic Motivation Theory of sport hunting,” Lambert continued.
Said Menninger, “Sadism may take a socially acceptable form [such as deer hunting and deer stalking] and other varieties of so-called ‘sport,’” yet “These all represent the destructive and cruel energies of man directed toward more helpless creatures.”
“Abnormal psychology & modern life”
Resumed Lambert, “In the groundbreaking 1948 book, Abnormal Psychology and Modern Life, which remains the most authoritative survey of abnormal psychology, the authors state, ‘Perhaps more directly relevant are experiences in which individual infliction of pain on an animal or another person has given rise to sexual excitement. We have noted elsewhere the connection between strong emotional and sexual stimulation.’
“Menninger’s theory was later expanded by other leaders in the field of psychology, including Dr. Joel R. Saper (University of Michigan), who theorizes that hunting ‘may reflect a profound yet subtle psychosexual inadequacy.’
“While clinical psychologist Margaret Brooke-Williams adds, ‘Hunters are seeking reassurance of their sexuality. The feeling of power that hunting brings temporarily relieves this sexual uneasiness.’”
Lambert then extensively quoted and paraphrased “Killing the Female: The Psychology of the Hunt,” an often cited September 1990 essay by ANIMALS 24-7 editor Merritt Clifton, of which no current, updated, authorized version has been in print for many years––until now.
Killing the Female: The Psychology of the Hunt
(2019 expanded edition)
My former neighbor Lynn, the last time I saw him, nearly 30 years ago, had not shot a deer the preceding fall. He was the only adult male of his family who had not bagged a big buck.
Photos of Lynn’s elder brother, his son, and his nephew appeared on the display board at the country store that served as local buck pool headquarters, each standing or kneeling beside an entry in the annual competition, whose winner––the person who killed the biggest buck––took home a few hundred dollars.
“Just didn’t see a deer I wanted to kill”
As president of the local rod and gun club, and as a multi-time buck pool winner in past years, Lynn seemed conspicuously absent from the long list of buck pool entrants – over 150, in a rural district whose total population is under 1,500.
Sipping a non-alcoholic beer in a living room packed with mounted heads and a whole stuffed bear he later regretted killing, Lynn seemed unperturbed by his failure to kill a deer in the most recent hunting season.
“I was out there in the woods every day,” he told me, “same as usual, but I just didn’t see a deer I wanted to kill. I helped Sonny and Bubba get theirs, but you know, I don’t have to kill a deer every year any more. I’ve been hunting since I was nine, and I’m 49 now, and it’s kind of to the point where I don’t want to shoot anything unless it’s something worth having.
“I like to go out in the woods, take my time”
“Don’t get me wrong. I love to go deer hunting. It’s my favorite thing to do. But it’s not like when I was one of these guys who’s always in a hurry to get out and be the first one in town to get his buck and be first one back to the weighing station and then it’s all over with until next year.
“I like to go out in the woods, take my time, and enjoy the whole ten days or two weeks or whatever they give us to do it in. If I see the buck I want, I’ll shoot it, but if I don’t, I’ve shot plenty of deer in my time and I can kind of psychologically feed off the one I killed last year or the year before.”
In fact, Lynn had not killed a deer in three years. A construction worker with a high school education, Lynn was markedly more relaxed than he was three years earlier, when we first became acquainted, shortly before he shot what was was then his last buck.
Lynn knew then that I did not hunt, never had, and was a lifelong vegetarian, but that was never an issue between us.
Overcoming a difficult start
We talked about animals, baseball, and local political issues, and I quickly saw why Lynn had become a respected community leader despite a difficult start in life.
With the aid of his priest, Lynn had long ago controlled the alcohol problem that had raged in his family for three generations.
Thirty years of a difficult and sometimes violent shotgun marriage had settled down into a comfortable truce: he hadn’t hit his wife in four or five years, nor had she hit him. Both were proud enough of their progress in learning to defuse stressful situations to tell me about it, and about the church-hosted 12-step program that had helped them both.
Lynn had also learned to ignore old and malicious stories told by envious former buck pool rivals, who pretended to be friends but were anything but, that he might be homosexual.
Those behind-the-back whisperings probably began in grade school when other children decided Lynn had “a girl’s name,” and as best I could tell, never had any credible basis.
“Armed nature walkers”
Developing an internal sense of self-worth, Lynn appeared to have become one of the growing number of licensed hunters – as many as 20% – who rarely if ever fire their guns, for whom hunting is mainly “armed nature walking,” as sociologist Thomas Heberlein of the University of Wisconsin put it in a study published five years earlier. The study, however, was then unknown to either me or Lynn.
“Armed nature walkers” still carry weapons, because they learned young, like Lynn, that men who don’t carry weapons when walking in the woods may be thought effeminate.
Imbued with the work ethic, hunters like Lynn still pretend that they are hunting for meat, because this provides an economic rationale for their activity––though, as Lynn admitted, “You could live on filet mignon for what shooting a deer costs,” in license fees, equipment, ammunition, and time.
Vulnerable to peer pressure, “armed nature walkers” vocally support hunting and gun ownership. But “armed nature walkers” are also just one “jail break” away – in self-confidence and self-understanding – from teaching a lesson to their sons and grandsons slightly different from the one they learned themselves, from passing along their love of the woods and knowledge of wood-lore without punctuating it all with a baptism in blood.
Still trying to prove something
Gerry, a mutual friend who lived around the corner and was ten years younger than Lynn, was another story. Gerry did not have anything to prove to us, but his life often seemed to center on trying to prove something to someone.
Though of semi-rural background, Gerry held a dead-end white-collar job in a nearby town. His wife hated hunting. His two sons took after her.
Hindered by an old knee injury, Gerry had all but given up hunting, until, as domestic and professional frustrations mounted, he found refuge at a deer camp one autumn with old buddies.
He shot an underage deer, was nabbed by the warden, and became the butt of considerable rough humor – about his limp and his marital troubles, as well as “buck fever,” the hunter’s term for what nonhunters call being “trigger-happy.”
Gerry, the last I heard, was still out there every deer season, hoping to regain lost standing with “the boys,” who by then mostly considered him slightly dangerous.
What hunters kill, and why
Lynn and Gerry, by then exclusively deer hunters, make up 80% to 85% of the U.S. hunting population, according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and National Shooting Sports Foundation surveys.
After deer, the next most popular targets are rabbits, hunted by 71%, and squirrels, hunted by 60%, followed by quail (48%), pheasants (45%), turkeys (26%), and waterfowl (21% to 24%).
Both Lynn and Gerry also fell easily into categories defined in 1977 by Robert Jackson and Robert Norton of the University of Wisconsin, who in a study done for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service discovered hunters typically pass through five phases of outlook and behavior that roughly correspond with stages of maturity.
Most start as “shooters”
Interviewing 1,600 licensed deer and waterfowl hunters, Jackson found that in phase one, the Shooter stage, hunters are principally concerned with exercising their firepower; they don’t much care what they hit. Such hunters tend to be young.
As actor Richard Kiley recalled, speaking out against mountain lion hunting in California in the 1980s, “When I was a boy on my uncle’s farm in Michigan, I killed everything that moved. Birds, rabbits, woodpeckers, squirrels. It was a wonderful game. I loved guns – the feel, the smell, the power of them. And I remember the moment it stopped,” the moment Kiley broke a squirrel’s back without killing it outright, and felt, watching it struggle, “as though a door opened in my head and a bright light flooded in,” carrying “an overwhelming burden of sorrow and shame and compassion and regret.”
While Kiley gave up hunting as a result of his flash of insight, most hunters merely progress to phase two. As Kiley theorized, they are not evil but asleep: “A portion of their awareness is obscured.” They go from random killing to the Limiting-Out stage, where satisfaction still comes from firing the gun, but success – and social status – comes from “bagging the limit.”
At this stage, as then-Lewiston, Maine Morning Tribune editor Bill Hall succinctly put it, “They hunt for the bragging rights on what they kill.”
The trophy stage
When killing in volume no longer wins the desired amount of acclaim, hunters pass to phase three, the Trophy stage.
Now winning the buck pool becomes a paramount objective. Hunters begin passing up shots, trying instead for the heaviest weight and biggest rack of antlers.
Trophy stage hunters are typically in their mid-thirties or early forties, at about the same point in life where basic economic needs have been satisfied and community status is being established. The car and house have been bought and mostly paid for.
Raising status through obtaining a newer car and a bigger house are the major economic concerns for men in this age bracket; killing a bigger buck is an abstraction of the same objective.
The Method stage
By phase four, the Method stage, the hunter – like Lynn – has already won the buck pool and collected trophies of local species. He now takes maximum pride in his ability to kill animals by more difficult means, e.g. bowhunting and with muzzleloaders, and in his ability to use woodcraft, such as luring and tracking, rather than relying on sheer firepower.
Killing the target animal has become the climactic part of a quest.
For the most affluent 1% of hunters this may include trophy hunting expeditions abroad, to shoot species that are reputedly more difficult and dangerous to kill––albeit that in reality, shooting trophy animals on African hunting ranches is really little more difficult and dangerous than shooting fish in a barrel.
The biggest risk in that is that the hunter might get his feet wet.
Then comes phase five. After years of hunting and a few years of not killing, for various reasons that translate into no longer wanting to, the hunter acknowledges that killing simply isn’t necessary, that nature can be most fully enjoyed by simply sharing in the life of the woods.
As Jackson and Norton summarized, the phase five hunter “seemed to be more fully mature as a person and as a hunter, and no longer needed to measure his worth, or control his world, by the taking of game. Instead he talked of hunter satisfaction in terms of total appreciation of nature or the companionship of partners or family.”
Many an animal defender has found friendship and even emotional kinship with elderly ex-hunters, some of whom become volunteer wardens or in other ways seek to protect the animals they once would have killed.
“A successful hunt if we just see deer”
I certainly did. Though I did not hunt, most of the older men I enjoyed talking with in my younger days were phase five hunters or former hunters, like Lynn, who enjoyed sharing with me everything they knew about wildlife.
Two of these older men had become local game wardens. I helped one of them to find and remove traplines illegally set on posted land every morning for 12 winters, until he died and I moved away.
“I consider it a successful hunt if we just see deer,” 63-year-old Cecil Smitherman told Bob Secter and Tracy Shryer of the Los Angeles Times at about the same time I last saw Lynn, a man for whom I had come to have a high regard, despite the heads and stuffed bear in his living room.
Unfortunately, between the anti-hunting animal defender and the gentle middle-aged to elderly man who delights in describing animals he has seen alive, there remains an army of often hostile, aggressive, mostly younger men––or older men afraid of aging––with rifles and shotguns blazing – and as many as 100 million animals die each year (about half as many as 30 years ago) in a journey toward self-understanding that many hunters never complete.
“It’s like a bar mitzvah”?!
According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the average hunter starts at age 15, just past puberty, at about the same age he begins seeking such other symbolic transitions as learning to drive and gaining his first sexual experience.
“It’s a big thing when you get to go deer hunting,” Cecil Smitherman’s grandson Todd Dennis told the Los Angeles Times reporters. “It’s like a bar mitzvah. When you go deer hunting, they start to look at you as a man and you feel like a man.”
“There’s something addictive about deer hunting,” opined Dave Petersen in the Mother Earth News “Beginner’s Guide to Deer Hunting,” and then suggested why: “Consider that the term venison, for the meat of the deer, is derived from the name of Venus, the Roman goddess of love. Venery means both ‘the art of hunting’ and ‘the pursuit of sexual pleasure.’”
Subliminal confusion of hunting with sexual pursuit and achievement of manhood gushes through hunting terminology, from the ritual of “first blood” to technical discussions of the penetration power of ammunition to the frequent, casual, unconscious use of “her” (as in “I shot her right there”) to describe male animals.
When symbolically represented, the hunter’s effort to assert sexual supremacy often looks transparently silly, e.g. 1990 Texas gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams’ rumored “honey hunts.”
“In one version of the story,” Newsweek recounted, “Williams and his chums strip to their underwear and shoot water pistols at nymphs dancing in the nude. Another version has Williams inviting prostitutes to tag along at deer hunts and cattle roundups. A third sends Williams to Africa on safari with hookers in tow.”
Williams, incidentally, though holding a 20-point lead in the polls over Ann Richards at the time, eventually lost to Richards, who was Texas governor for one four-year term, after she prominently posed with hunting weapons in hand.
When the symbolic turns sinister
Symbolic representations of hunting as sexual conquest can turn sinister.
In his teens, Marc Lepine of Montreal massacred pigeons with a BB gun. On December 6, 1989, he donned hunting fatigues, declared his intention to massacre “feminists,” and killed 14 female students at the Université de Montreal with a semi-automatic rifle and a buck knife.
Whether or not hunters shoot deer to demonstrate sexual potency or out of sexual frustration, in symbolic lieu of raping and killing women, there can be little doubt that as a social ritual, much hunting is all about killing the feminine in the hunter’s own self.
Not only are the targets male animals with the stereotypical female traits of grace and beauty, but as a social ritual the pursuit itself involves – indeed requires – sequestering the hunters, the men, away from female influence.
Deer camp is an all-male world. Instead of cleansing themselves as women require, as prelude to sexual contact, deer hunters cover themselves with “scent lures,” a polite name for urine and feces.
Deer camp hunters don’t wash because detergent residues reputedly reflect ultraviolet light that deer can see, making camouflage useless.
Deer camp hunters wear boots indoors, curse, play poker, drink from the bottle and eat from the can – and many never actually hunt at all, getting no closer to a deer than viewing a so-called stag video.
“I went with five other guys,” ostensible hunter Steve Costello admitted in 1989 to a New York Times correspondent who wrote about the deer camp culture. Costello’s group didn’t even take weapons. Admitted Costello, “We never even left camp.”
Deer camp & gay bars
A 1974 study by James Kennedy for the Wildlife Society found that 75% of the hunters surveyed would prefer hunting with their buddies in an area with only a 10% chance of killing a deer to hunting alone with a 50% chance of making the kill.
Seeking the kill is only the pretext for the various other rituals that “separate the men from the boys,” determining “who’s a pussy.”
This, not the supposed difficulty of shooting a deer, probably best explains why approximately 70% of all licensed hunters don’t get one – while those for whom the kill is the paramount experience tend to “get their deer” year after year, perennially bagging the limit and/or placing high in the buck pool.
The deer camp atmosphere of exaggerated masculinity is apparently not unlike the atmosphere of “leather trade” gay bars, albeit that the gay bars more likely try to emulate deer camps than the other way around.
“Hunting is anything but expression of manhood”
One must wonder, ultimately, how sexually secure any of the posturing denizens are.
“You can take my word for it,” snorted former hunting guide Douglas Townsend some years ago. Having escorted hundreds of big game hunters, he concluded, “This hunting habit is anything but an expression of manhood.”
Gregory Hemingway, son of author Ernest Hemingway, would probably have concurred.
Trying to impress his macho father, a living symbol of hunters and hunting to a whole generation, Gregory at age 11 won the World Life Pigeon Shooting Championship. At 19 he was arrested for transvestitism. Trying to regain his father’s respect, he next slaughtered 18 elephants on a single African safari.
Gregory turned Gloria
But Gregory Hemingway remained an unhappy transvestite, who spent, he admitted in a 1987 interview, “hundreds of thousands of dollars” trying to overcome the cross-dressing habit. He had partial sexual reassignment surgery in 1995 and changed his first name to Gloria, but then changed his mind, tried to have the surgery reversed, and remarried his fourth ex-wife.
Gregory/Gloria Hemingway died on October 1, 2001 at the Miami-Dade Women’s Detention Center, hours before he was to appear in court after being arrested for indecent exposure and resisting arrest.
Gregory Hemingway appears to have never been an actual practicing homosexual, just insecure – like his father, who likewise spent his whole life trying to prove masculinity that no one else ever seriously called into question.
“Killed the wrong animal”
Literally killing the female, Cameron Robert Kocher of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, nearly ten years old, said he was only “playing hunter” on March 6, 1989, when he fatally shot Jessica Ann Carr, age seven, with his father’s rifle.
Observing subsequent legal proceedings, Cleveland State University law professor Victor L. Streib unequivocally blamed the killing on Kocher’s exposure to guns and hunting. “All he has done,” Streib summarized, “is kill the wrong animal.”
There have been hundreds of comparable incidents, including one not far from ANIMALS 24-7. Avid hunter Jaylen Ray Fryberg, 14, on October 24, 2014 shot five fellow students at Pilchuck High School in Marysville, Washington, killing two, putting two more into critical condition, and then killing himself
“Just another woodchuck”
An upstate New York man named Dave Goff cited childhood hunting experience, which he said helped him learn to “kill the wrong animals,” in persuading former Congressional Representative James T. Walsh to obtain for him a Distinguished Service Cross, a Silver Star, and nine other medals for Vietnam War service that he never performed.
“I was brought up on a dairy farm,” Goff explained to syndicated veterans’ affairs columnist Laura Palmer. “I used to shoot woodchucks all the time. It got to the point where I would flash it through my head that it was just another woodchuck and it didn’t mean anything. It was just a job.”
Goff claimed to have been assigned to killing civilians as part of the CIA’s infamous Operation Phoenix while still in his teens. After military service, Goff said, he went through 13 years of breakdowns and alcohol abuse, trying to deprogram himself from having been a killer, trying to find his way into becoming a caring, responsible human being.
Walsh saw to it that Goff in 1989 received the medals he said he had earned. But Goff was in 1994 prosecuted for unlawfully wearing military medals and decorations, after Stolen Valor author B.G. Burkett established that Goff actually spent his alleged time in Vietnam as an Army mail clerk in Okinawa.
Culture of hunting, not the killing, may have had the greater influence
All of that leaves open the question of how shooting woodchucks––or saying he had shot woodchucks––really influenced Goff.
It may be that what Goff really learned was the knack of rising in status among other men by telling what are often called “fish stories,” whether or not fish are involved.
“My objection to deer hunting,” once observed the former syndicated columnist Sydney Harris (1917-1986), “is not so much to what is done to the deer as to what is done to the boy,” who witnesses a hunt for the first time. “For one thing, it desensitizes him to cruelty; for another, it justifies whatever is done to win your antlers (the symbols of manhood); and for another, it turns killing into a casual, thoughtless act.”
Douglas Townsend had made a similar observation almost a decade earlier. “I am convinced,” he said, “that there is a relationship between the obsession with guns and hunting and mounting violence and crime.”
Hunting & violent crime
While psychologists have long theorized from case studies that early and intense exposure to hunting can desensitize young people, making killing unnaturally easy, University of New Hampshire director of Family Research Murray Strauss in 1987 sought objective proof.
Strauss used indicators including the audience for violent TV shows, football player production per capita, National Guard enrollment, and sale of hunting licenses to determine which states most seemed to condone violence.
Strauss found that the states most culturally predisposed toward violence had the highest rates of homicide by teenagers, with Alaska leading the list and several western states with strong levels of hunting participation ranking high.
Unfortunately Strauss’ analysis was so complex that quantifying an exact relationship between hunting and homicide statistics was impossible.
Crimes against children
Taking a similar approach to Strauss, but simply comparing rates of hunting participation per capita to crime rates at the county level, in 1994-1995 I found that rates of hunting participation stratified parallel to rates of crimes committed against children, especially sex-related crimes, throughout the states of New York, Ohio, and Michigan.
(See also New York state statistics show link: hunters & molesters; Ohio data confirms hunting/child abuse link: stronger than link to rural poverty; and Michigan stats confirm hunting/child abuse link.)
99% of hunters are male
According to Thomas Heberlein’s 1985 demographic profile of U.S. hunters, “most [like Lynn and Gerry, and Goff] grew up in rural areas and were taught to hunt at an early age by their fathers.”
Over 99% were male; only 2% of all American women hunted, most of whom were the firstborn or only children of avid male hunters.
The greatest number of hunters were aged 18 to 34, which was then also the largest segment of the U.S. male population.
The next greatest number of hunters were aged 35 to 44, the second largest male population group. The National Shooting Sports Foundation simultaneously pegged the average age of hunters at 38, six years older than the average U.S. male.
Hunting participation drops over age 45
“Over the age of 45,” Heberlein found, “there is a substantial decline in the proportion who hunt.”
While Heberlein suggested that this might be due to “the strenuous nature of hunting,” the decline could also reflect the number of one-time hunters who have passed through the fifth phase of maturity and laid down their weapons.
Ten percent of licensed hunters were over age 60, Heberlein learned, but many of these men apparently bought licenses primarily because they believed the money supported pro-hunting conservation programs that they favored.
The Heberlein and National Shooting Sports Foundation data together indicated that as the general population aged, the number of hunters would decline even more sharply.
That is exactly what has happened, continuing a trend already well underway even then.
Hunting population aging out
Nationally, according to the 2016 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, & Wildlife-Associated Recreation, the licensed hunting population has decreased from 17.9 million in 1975 to 11.4 million today. The annual dropout rate is roughly 6.3 percent, against annual recruitment of about five percent.
Six million of the 11.4 million currently licensed hunters are older than 45 years of age; 3.5 million are older than 55; 1.5 million, or about 25%, are older than 65.
Noting that hunting participation is lowest among teenagers, and that hunters are most likely to begin hunting in their early teens, most states and pro-hunting organizations long ago escalated hunting recruitment efforts.
“Discover” passes vs. killing contests
But, beginning to recognize that hunting is a dying pursuit, most state wildlife agencies have also begun issuing “non-consumptive use permits,” such as the Discover Pass required of visitors to Washington state parks, as a means of raising money from people who visit state lands for purposes other than killing.
Increasing reliance upon revenue from non-consumptive visitors is slowly, grudgingly obliging state wildlife agencies to move away from serving consumptive interests first––albeit often only when prodded by lawsuits.
A hard-core nucleus of some of the most avid hunters still hopes to perpetuate the status quo, or even to turn back the clock to frontier days, when there were no season restrictions on killing animals, and no bag limits. Killing contests targeting species such as coyotes, crows, and prairie dogs, who are not protected against massacre, have proliferated in recent years in the name of hunter recruitment.
Sign for the future
But the number of active hunters continues to drop at both ends of the age range.
Even as far back as 1977, a study by James Applegate found that in New Jersey, at least, there were already more than twice as many ex-hunters as actives.
This was, and is, a promising sign for the future.
Argued Margaux Hemingway (1954-1996), granddaughter of the author, on a promotional visit to the Peninsula Humane Society, in San Mateo, California, around the time her uncle Gregory was becoming Gloria, “Hunters are the greatest lovers of nature and wildlife. If you can just reeducate them, they’ll be a real force.”
Like Ernest and Gregory, Margaux also hunted and fished, and even modeled furs, she said, until “about two years ago I woke up.”
Stepping out of her grandfather’s shadow, Margaux went on to speak out against hunting and the fur trade, at last freely expressing the love of animals two generations of men in her family felt, but could only express with gun in hand.
Unfortunately, that did not sufficiently liberate her from the shadows of her past. Her death, like her grandfather’s, was by suicide.