Hunting Philosophy

Hunting Defined

Jose Ortega (1942: Page 87) suggests that "Hunting is, then, clearly a relationship between two animals of different zoological level, a relationship in which two systems of instincts confront each other: the aggressive instincts of the hunter and the defensive instincts of the game."

Robert Jones (1996: 129) looks back to ancient times for a definition: "Hunting, like religion, is incomplete without death. Indeed it is a religion, older, deeper and more visceral than Judaism or Christianity or even Islam, as old at least as the Pleistocene cave paintings of the Dordogne or Altamira. It has its own prayers, of thanks coupled with a plea for forgiveness each time we kill what we seek; its own dark sacraments and rituals and symbols; its own distinctive art."

According to Ortega (1942: 52), the definition of hunting has remained unchanged for thousands of years. He compares a scene of a deer hunt painted on a cave wall near Valencia, Spain by Paleolithic man to one that might be painted of a 1940 hunt and says there are no "important" differences.

What Makes a Hunt? What Makes a Hunter?

"Seeing a flock of Canada geese from a blind in the prairie potholes is far different from seeing a flock on a golf course or city park." (Seng 2001: 203)

Only those who have experienced waiting for, seeing and calling Canada geese in the hunting blind will understand the above. And almost everyone who has done so has also watched geese in the city and knows the difference. Those who have experienced only "city" geese cannot envision hearing geese, first behind them at a half mile, then turning in response to a hunter's flute call, increasing the intensity of their insider conversation, swinging over the decoys, quieter now, and turning into the wind to land.

"It is not essential to the hunt that it be successful. On the contrary, if the hunter's efforts were always and inevitably successful it would not be the effort we call hunting, it would be something else. ... The beauty of hunting lies in the fact that it is always problematic. ... Doubtless, man opens this margin (ecological distance) to the beast deliberately and of his own free will. He could annihilate quickly and easily most animal species, or at least precisely those he delights in hunting. ... There is, then, in the hunt as a sport a supremely free renunciation by man of the supremacy of his humanity." (Ortega 1942: 57)

Ortega argues that most all the things that man does are the means to an end - man works, expends energy, to achieve or get something. He then says: "But in hunting as a sport this order of means and end is reversed. To the sportsman the death of the game is not what interests him; that is not his purpose. What interests him is everything that he had to do to achieve that death - that is, the hunt." (Ortega 1942: 110)

He continues this discussion of the death of an animal: "Death is essential because without it there is no authentic hunting: the killing of the animal is the natural end of the hunt and that of hunting itself, not the hunter. ... To sum up, one does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted." (Ortega 1942: 110)

Ortega brings the following perspective to the fact that man hunts at all: "In order to subsist, this early man had to dedicate himself wholly to hunting. Hunting was, then, the first occupation, man's first work and craft. ... Hunting was, then, the first form of life that man adopted, and this means - it should be fundamentally understood - that man's being consisted first in being a hunter." (Ortgea 1942: 118)

Ann Causey (1996: 85 & 88) adds: "Whereas ecologists study systems from without, examining and analyzing from a perspective necessarily distanced from their subject, dedicated hunters live and learn from within, knowing parts of nature as only a parent or child can know his or her own family. ... Hunters celebrate their evolutionary heritage and stubbornly refuse to be stripped of their atavistic urges - they refuse to be sterilized by modern culture and thus separated from nature. ... Moreover, there is no one factor that motivates all hunters to hunt or even that motivates one hunter on each hunt; nor is there such a thing as the hunter's mind-set."

These writers bring the essence of hunters and hunting to just a few words. Hunting is not just something people do: it is something they long to do. And if not permitted to do so through any set of circumstances, the hunter would be as sad as angry. The modern hunter has more than accepted - even demanded - limits on hunting, as noted above by Ortega.

Phil Seng (2001: 222) and his co-authors noted: "Hunting has been shown to contribute positively to the development of individuals, the cohesiveness of families and the vitality of communities. In doing so, it contributes to the conservation of culture in North America." The total loss or even a reduced level of these much-needed contributions would indeed be sad.

Hunting Ethics

"Grandpa Wilson once told me: 'A good hunter .. that's somebody the animals come to. But if you lose your luck with a certain kind of animal - maybe you talk wrong about it or don't treat it with respect - then for a while you won't get any, no matter how hard you try.'" (Nelson 1996: 317)

Hunting ethics is an immense subject and there will be no attempt here to fully examine it. Thousands upon thousands of words have been written about it including essentially all of the references below which in turn contain many other references.

Ortega (1942: 35) did provide a summary: Hunting "involves a complete code of ethics of the most distinguished design; the hunter who accepts the sporting code of ethics keeps his commandments in the greatest solitude, with no witnesses or audience other than the sharp peaks of the mountain, the roaming cloud, the stern oak, the trembling juniper, and the passing animal."

We shall leave the deeper examination of the ethics of hunting to the reader.

A Natural Relationship

Ortega and Causey point to a strong relationship between hunters, their evolutionary heritage and Paleolithic man. Ortega: (1942: 129): says that hunting is the "only occupation that permits him (the real hunter) something like vacation from his human condition.: He argues that "Happiness has generally been thought to be simplicity and primitivism."

Ortega (1942: 139) brings a perspective to this idea by saying "Man is a fugitive from Nature. He escaped from it and began to make history... History is always made against the grain of Nature." This concept is explored in depth in a book entitled Ishmael by Daniel Quinn (Quinn 1992).

Quinn (1992) contrasts two groups of people: Takers and Leavers. The "Mother Culture" of most humans today - the Takers - began when man adopted agriculture as a way of life and a belief system that holds that the world was made for him. He was here to own and conquer the earth, an idea depicted everyday in phrases such as "our environment, our seas, our solar system. ... our wildlife." (Quinn 1992: 64) The Mother Culture leads us to believe that man is exempt from the "laws" of nature that govern all the lesser creatures. Further, if humans can increase control of the earth, any problems created by ignoring these laws can be fixed.

Each generation of Takers is more cut-off from their Leaver past because the Takers threw out the Leaver reality and started their own history. Takers assume that humans came into being at the same time as their culture - that their culture made them human. Leavers have simply continued their inherent connection to the larger natural community around them and they abide by that community's laws.

While Quinn (1992) doesn't discuss hunting explicitly, it is easy to see that modern hunters are able to step into the Leavers world, even if briefly. They are able to step back from the Mother Culture and acknowledge and even participate in a life style as part of the living ecological community that makes man what he is.

Hunter's Contributions to Society

This section focuses on economics and other tangible contributions hunters have and continue to make to North American wildlife and wild land conservation. The information in the following table was collected from a professional paper (Southwick 2001) and shows the enormous contributions hunters have made to wildlife and habitat conservation over the last six decades. More than $8.9 billion dollars have been expended by hunters and hunting organizations protecting more than 43 million acres of habitat for ALL wildlife, not just game species. These habitats include the entire gamut of ecological types in and the entire breadth of North America. No other conservation program has spent more or accomplished so much.

Program or Organization Start Year* Dollars Habitat (acres)
Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration (Pittman-Robertson) 1937 4.1 billion+ Acres are included at State Wildlife Agencies
Federal Duck Stamp 1934 500 million 4.5 million
North American Wetlands Conservation Act 1989 1.5 billion 7 million
State Wildlife Agencies - Land Owned 14 million State Wildlife Agencies - Land Owned 14 million
U.S. Hunting Licenses/Stamps In 1998 561 million
Canadian Hunters 1985 900 million
Ducks Unlimited, Inc 1937 1.2 billion 10 million
National Wild Turkey Federation 1973 120 million 2.2 million
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation 1984 3 million
Quail Unlimited 1981 6 million 400,000
Pheasants Forever 1982 70 million 2 million
Ruffed Grouse Society 1961 7 million** 450,000**
Foundation for North American Wild Sheep 1976 20 million
Totals 8.9 billion 43.5 million
+ Central Flyway states have received about $915,000 or 22% of the total.
* Except where noted, contributions are for the period from the Start Year through 2000
** 1985-2000

To put some of the contributions hunters make into a perspective, consider the following statistics from 1996 (USDI 1996): 14 million hunters spent 257 million days afield and $21 billion on retail purchases creating over 700,000 jobs with wages and salaries of over $16 billion and a total economic "multiplier" effect of $61 billion.

"If hunting were a company, it would generate sales equal to United Parcel Service and support three times more jobs than Wal-Mart. ... State and federal income tax revenues generated by United States' sportsmen exceed the combined box office earnings of the all time top ten films (Titanic, Star Wars, E.T., Jurassic Park, Forest Gump, The Lion King, Return of the Jedi, Independence Day, The Empire Strikes Back and Home Alone)." (Southwick 2001: 240) Three million of these hunters hunted migratory birds, spent 26 million days afield and $1.3 billion. 1.6 million hunters own or lease 362 million acres of land at a cost of $3.2 billion (USDI 1996). Much of this land is managed to improve habitat for all the animals that live there.

The Future

A conclusion of a study published in 2001 is that "hunters and hunting have and will continue to contribute a great deal to our (wildlife agencies') missions." (Williams 2001: 251) This is good news for hunters and non-hunters alike since hunters demand that agencies manage habitats in a sound manner. This benefits all species of wildlife and sustains the diversity needed for a healthy ecosystem to thrive.

However, Ortega (1942: 79) offers this warning: "Now it is a matter of a dramatic reality: that the game is disappearing, that hunting is dying, that soon man will have to stop being a hunter, and that this outstanding form of his happiness is on the verge of vanishing." He blames progress or "'humanizing' the planet."

Quinn (1942: 243) takes this a bit further and suggests that the Mother Culture depicts man as the end of evolution. This premise leads to there being no successor to man. And as mankind takes more and more control of the earth, reducing diversity and trust in the Leavers culture, the devastation will be complete and the Mother Culture will fill its destiny of ceasing to exist. However, Quinn (1992:246) offers an alternative scenario. If the Leavers philosophy - that where man is part of the larger natural community as opposed to conqueror - can be adopted, man can become the model on which the future of millions of years is based. That hunters can play an important role in instituting this latter alternative is clear. They, along with a few tribes of peoples around the world, already have the ability to envision such a future.

Hunters and other conservationists have been trying to keep the earth as "wild" as possible. And the Governors' and Premiers' Symposium on North America's Hunting Heritage is working on the maintenance of hunting. They drafted a Millennium Accord on North America's Hunting Heritage in August 2000 at their Ontario, Canada meeting. Discussion on adoption of a final Accord was scheduled for the Governor's and Premier's Symposium on Hunting Heritage in Houston, Texas in 2003. Four Purposes are identified for the Accord:
1. Create a philosophical environment for consensus and action on hunting related programs, strategies and initiatives.
2. Showcase and renew hunters contributions and commitments to wildlife conservation.
3. Provide focus to hunters' efforts not only in wildlife conservation, but in hunter education, safety, recruitment, ethics and cooperative initiatives with others.
4. Provide a basis for progress reporting by agencies and organizations associated with hunting.

And finally, Phil Seng (2001: 224) and his co-authors ask this thought provoking question: "Does the hunting community have a responsibility to provide these broad benefits to society, or does society have the responsibility to help sustain hunting because of the benefits accrued?"


An attempt has been made to define hunting in the words of thoughtful writers and philosophers. In each case, they reached back to ancient times when man was simply a part of the larger natural community - when hunting was a way of life. They describe modern hunters as maintaining that connection.

The importance of the hunt itself - and its natural outcome, the death of an animal - was discussed. The necessary approach required by hunters to fully participate in hunting was identified by Ortega: "one does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills to have hunted." That there is no "one factor that motivates all hunters to hunt or even that motivates one hunter on each hunt." was set out as a premise by Ann Causey. Yet, the evolutionary heritage of hunting is celebrated by all hunters. Their desire - their need to have millennia-old experiences releases them temporarily from stresses of modern life and provides communication lines with family and friends.

Hunters possess the knowledge and skills to turn the world from a path of certain destruction to one where humans live in peace with nature rather than constantly being at war with her. Hunters know their place in the natural community and can provide a bridge so that others may know it too. Their history of financial and political contributions to society and wildlife habitat conservation provides a model for others to follow.

The future of hunting is either dismal or bright depending on one's perspective. It is within the philosophy of the Central Flyway Council to work toward keeping hunting a proud vocation and one available for generation upon generations to come. There is hope for this to occur through improved communications, joint efforts with others across North America and beyond and vigilance to protect the habitats wildlife relies on.

Additional Information

The above is a brief overview of hunting and how hunters contribute to the conservation of wildlife and their habitats. There are additional aspects of hunting not covered here. The interested reader will, in particular, find more information and many additional references in the 15 papers given at the Sixty-sixth North American Wildlife and Natural Resource Conference (Rahm and McCabe, 2001) in two sessions entitled The Changing Role of Hunting in North American Conservation. This publication should be available at most universities and state wildlife agency libraries.

Several publications not mentioned above but which the reader may find useful include: Beyond Fair Chase (Posewitz 1994); The Other Side of Eden (Brody 2000); In Defense of Hunting (Swan 1995) and; The Hunter in Conservation (Council for Wildlife Conservation and Education). This latter publication contains statements about hunting by 21 organizations across the US (last updated in 1995).


Abbey, Edward. 1996. Blood Sport. In A Hunter's Heart (Petersen 1996).

Brody, Hugh. 2000. The Other Side of Eden. North Point Press. 376 pp.

Causey, Ann. 1996. Is Hunting Ethical? In A Hunter's Heart (Petersen 1996).

Council for Wildlife Conservation and Education, Inc. The Hunter in Conservation. Cncl. Wild. Cons. and Ed, Inc., 11 Mile Hill RD, Newtown, CT 06470-2359199 pp.

Jones, Robert F.. 1996. It Wouldn't Be The Same. In A Hunter's Heart (Petersen 1996).

Nelson, Richard K.. 1996. The Face in a Raindrop. In A Hunter's Heart (Petersen 1996).

Ortega, Jose Ortega Y Gasset. 1942. Meditations on Hunting. Translated by Howard B. Wescott. 1972. Charles Schribner's Sons. 152 pp.

Petersen, David. A Hunter's Heart: Honest Essays on Blood Sport. 1996. Henry Holt Co. 331 pp..

Posewitz, Jim. 1994. Beyond Fair Chase: the Ethic and Tradition of Hunting. Falcon Press. 118 pp.

Quinn, Daniel. 1992. Ishmael. Bantum Books. 266 pp.

Rahm, Jennifer and Richard McCabe, editors. 2001. Transactions of the Sixty-sixth North American Wildlife and Natural Resource Conference. Washington, D.C. Wildlife Management Institute, Washington, D.C. 639pp.

Seng, Phil T., David J. Case, Michael Conover, Daniel J. Decker, Jody Enck, S. Nicole Frey, Mary Aeiss Stange, Bob Staton, Richard Stedman, Christine Thomas and David Thorne. 2001. Contributions of Hunting to North American Society and Culture. In Transactions of the Sixty-sixth North American Wildlife and Natural Resource Conference (Rahm and McCabe, eds. 2001).

Southwick, Rob, Mario Teisl and Melinda Gable. 2001. Economics: How It Can Assist Hunting and Wildlife Management. In Transactions of the Sixty-sixth North American Wildlife and Natural Resource Conference (Rahm and McCabe, eds. 2001).

Swan, James A. 1995. In Defense of Hunting. HarperCollins Publishers. 290 pp.

USDI. 1996. U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. 1996 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation.. 176 pp.

Williams, Steve, Wayne MacCallum, Chris L. Madson and Rob Manes. Contribution of Hunting to Wildlife Agencies' Conservation Mission. 2001. In Transactions of the Sixty-sixth North American Wildlife and Natural Resource Conference (Rahm and McCabe, eds. 2001).