As a child, I had an instinctive fascination with animals. I had all of our encyclopedias dog-eared to the animal entries, and I could name most of the world’s major mammals by my early teens. As a young adult, one of the most memorable periods of my life was a four-month stint at Isle Royale National Park, a 210-square-mile archipelago in Lake Superior that was a home to moose, wolves, and foxes. As with almost all other U.S. national parks, sport hunting was strictly forbidden there, and you could actually get a glimpse of the animals because they were not particularly skittish. That experience solidified my view that humans had a place in nature, but it was to be a respectful and unobtrusive one.
Values toward wildlife are shifting.
But culture is a powerful influence—and we live in a diverse nation. When young people are taught to hunt by parents or grandparents, that’s an influence that’s hard to resist. Hunting is a rite of male passage in some families, and even some communities, and there’s pressure to conform. And once people accustom themselves to the idea, they then develop a belief system to support that behavior.
I was reminded of this in reading a recent story in The New York Times about efforts in West Virginia to reverse the trend of kids not taking up hunting. One hunting advocate featured in the story said that when he was a kid he and his classmates would leave their rifles in the principal’s office so they could hunt squirrels and groundhogs just after the last bell rang.
The story focused on the efforts by industry and the state to pull kids back to the sport of hunting, because so many kids are interested in other recreational activities. The West Virginia legislature approved a bill to allow hunting education in schools—a controversial program even in a major hunting state given the rash of school shootings nationwide and the fear of guns in the hands of emotionally troubled young people. Even the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a newspaper in one of the biggest hunting states in the country with readership that crosses into West Virginia, said in an editorial, "If a social custom is in decline—an expression of free choice—then arguably it should be left to decline. The real loser here is the educational process, which surely has better things to do than teach hunting."
The hunting lobby and its allies in arms and ammunitions manufacturing are concerned about a future loss in profits, but it’s a bit of a culture war they are fighting, too. They value hunting, and they think that kids should have experiences similar to their own. There’s an ideological hue to their campaign—an attempt to validate their own upbringing and favored recreational pastimes. As such, the industry is pouring enormous resources into a nationwide campaign to eliminate minimum hunting ages for children.
HSUS programs teach respect for wildlife.
At The HSUS, we’ve always preferred that kids take a walking stick or field glasses into the woods rather than a weapon. For years, we’ve taught students how to respect their wild neighbors through materials like KIND News in K-6 classrooms, coloring books, and study and activity guides for middle- and high-school students. Last year, we took efforts to engage youth in helping animals a step further when we started our Mission: Humane program.
In the Shoot to Save Wildlife project, kids and teens head outdoors holding HSUS cameras to capture images of wildlife they encounter—from a pigeon on the ledge of an apartment building to geese grazing on a school campus. The photos are then used on flyers and posters as part of student-led public awareness campaigns about living peacefully with these animals. In all Mission: Humane projects, students are active in community service as they learn academics tied to National Education Standards.
At the end of the day, the hunting industry is going to have a tough time bucking the trend, despite its handsome investments and zeal. We are seeing the growth of animal protection, the increasing popularity of Animal Planet and other forms of popular entertainment that promote respect for animals and nature, and an expanded set of experiences that kids can tap into in a global communications era. This new social complexity will tempt the imagination of young people and make hunting seem a rather archaic pursuit, even in those communities where it has been such a strong tradition.