08/03/2015 10:06 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Hunting and the Darker Side of Being Human

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By now I'm sure you've read about Cecil the lion ad nauseam. You've read about the sketchy and pathetic methods used to "hunt" Cecil. You've read about the celebrities raising hell on Twitter. You've read about the psycho fringe that claim the feeding of Walter James Palmer to a pride of lions as the only just punishment for the crime. You may be outraged. You may be supportive of Palmer (though I've yet to run across more than a subtle nod for support). You may be indifferent. You may have thought to yourself: "Why all the fuss? It's just a lion."

Let me clarify the reason for this essay right up front: Palmer's lion killing was not hunting. But the death of Cecil brought hunting into acute focus for many folks that rarely give more than a passing thought to hunters or hunting until someone with gun or bow pulls a bonehead move instigated by questionable motives. And now hunting, in all its bloody and earthy mystery, is reexamined as proper modern human behavior in the court of public opinion.

"Hunter" is part of the definition of "human." Squeamish as some may be to admit this fact, there is no getting around it. The squeamishness comes from a disconnect with reality and the natural world that even with our haughty attitudes and fancy gizmos we are still a part of. Our metabolism is fueled by oxygen obtained through respiration and nutrients obtained through digestion. Protein is a powerhouse of a nutrient, and meat is packed with protein. Our ancestors first taste of animal protein probably came after capturing and eating smaller vertebrates and invertebrates. As we evolved and our taste for meat grew, scavenging the leftovers of big carnivores was added to the menu. Scavenging a big cat kill without getting you or your buddies killed required planning, and was the likely beginning of a complex social structure. Our brains, now infused with copious amounts of protein and fat laden animal meat began to grow and strategies to obtain that meat required development of an elaborate mind. Predatory animals with strong social bonds -- wolves, the dolphin family (orcas, porpoises, dolphins) and even chimpanzees, creatures we count among the most intelligent on Earth -- have followed the same blueprint. There's something about the combination of eating meat and teamwork that seems to coincide with clever intelligence. But we, with our human capacity for empathy and denial of our place in the web of life, often don't want to credit the beastly origins of who we are.

Even before we were Homo sapiens we were hunters . We were an anomaly -- omnivores evolved into incredible predators. Our gift for abstract thought overcame physical shortfalls and led to our placement as the ultimate predators. Only recently, in the last 10,000 years or so, have the majority of us laid down the bow and atlatl in favor of a garden hoe or a job wholly unrelated to the direct obtainment of food. But we're still hunters at heart. We still thrill at the sight of wildlife and the color of blood excites and triggers hunger. Hunting for food is an entirely natural urge, but how does trophy hunting -- a hunt for dangerous game or the largest representative of a species -- figure into the picture?

It's easy to think trophy hunting is an ego-driven and now money-driven enterprise, and it's damn hard to argue otherwise. Trophy hunting's roots could run back to the purely utilitarian thought that bigger animals carry more meat. Male ungulates (hoofed mammals) are bigger on average than females so mature males should be the largest representatives of the herd and therefore carry more meat on their bones. This dovetails nicely with a basic understanding of human ego. Big horns, antlers or teeth usually mean a big body and more meat for the tribe. Providing more food for the tribe means higher status. And who doesn't want higher status? We haven't changed much over the last 10,000 years. This video of a traditional hunt for kudu antelope by the San people of the Kalahari Desert explains that the male kudu was chosen as a target because the weight of his horns would tire him more quickly. Large body mass would also more easily lead to exhaustion. So trophy hunting within the context of primitive styles of hunting could be a utilitarian and pragmatic decision.

That still leaves us scratching our heads and making excuses about why someone would spend $50K to shoot a lion, but you can follow the path from where we were to where we are. Granted, justification for shooting a top carnivore and one you have no intentions of eating requires some tricky ethical gymnastics, but that's a discussion for another day. The big debate is that, in the eyes of many, hunting and especially trophy hunting has lost its tangible practicality in the modern world. However, that's not true. And in North America, hunting for meat and hunting for trophies are not mutually exclusive. All the trophy hunters I know revel in a freezer full of meat, sometimes carnivore meat, just like I do.

Lion hunting's effect on conservation in Africa can be and should be questioned. But conservation in North America can be tied to hunter efforts and hunter's money. Indirect and in some cases direct commodification of animals, though deeply offensive to my soul, has saved more wild places and wild things in North America than all the tree-hugging greenie efforts combined. And I say this as a tree-hugging greenie hunter with not an ounce of trophy hunting ambition left in me.This coming autumn, as I sit in the woods waiting on a tender young buck or doe to walk within arrow range, I've got to consider Palmer's jackass behavior as a byproduct of the machine that allows me to participate in an ancient ritual with a reasonable expectation of putting meat on my plate the old-fashioned way.

I'm looking for better mechanics to support conservation and the environment. I'd like to see a shift toward realization that wildlife and hunting hold an intrinsic and priceless value beyond our imaginary economic systems. But for now that's a pipe dream. As habitat and species fall to the power of greed and progress, I still see a dollar sign as savior of the wild. The payoff of conservation must be higher than exploitation. And atrocities like the killing of a collared lion in Zimbabwe may be collateral damage so long as high bid wins.

The value of wildlife and wilderness transcends money. The hunt transcends human ego. There is a beautiful primal sanctity, a revolution of the circle, in taking prey so that I may live. If you don't hunt I don't expect you to understand, and in this deepest heart of who I am there is more in common with the coyote than with non-hunting humans. But understand that the actions of Walter Palmer were not hunting. It's a distortion of hunting. Like so many other pure and natural characteristics of Homo Sapiens, it's been twisted and perverted by the darker side of being human.