Sunday, February 23, 2014

Ruminations on Taxidermy and Hunting Ethics

I had a plan for my next post.  I was going to review Craig Boddington's “Buffalo!” book, or talk about the reasons I dropped hundreds of dollars on custom-fitted Russell safari boots, or describe the safari rifle match that the Phoenix Rod & Gun Club puts on twice a year.  Then one of the members of linked to my blog there today.  They’re a good bunch of people over there, and the signal-to-noise ratio tends to be far better than on a lot of internet forums, so of course some discussion happened.  And the subject quickly turned to taxidermy, honey badgers, and the character of Stanley from Action Figure Therapy (very NSFW, but I find them utterly hilarious). 

In all seriousness, though, I'm somewhat torn on the subject of taxidermy. To me, ethical hunting comes in one of three forms: meat, dangerous game, and pest control. I'll eat the antelope I'll shoot in Africa, and going up against a lion or elephant or buffalo on its home turf at least gives the critter a fighting chance. The badger is none of these, nor do I think he falls under pest control (although I know at least two hunters who found honey badgers raiding the skinning shed and making off with their trophies). There's also my belief that, as a living creature, it deserves a certain level of respect. I would have no issue displaying a completely fake statue of Stanley the Honey Badger, with cigarette, AKM and upraised middle finger, but I think there's something inherently disrespectful about taking a living badger, shooting it, and making it into a joke display piece. Ergo, while I may crack a joke or two about having a real Stanley, I can't see myself actually going through with it.

I've never been a big taxidermy fan in general. I've never mounted any of my whitetails. I have eaten them all and used their antlers for projects, or given them to friends who use them to make knife hilts and coat buttons, and I see that as keeping parts of the animal from going to waste. That said, I can see the value in taxidermy as a reminder of a significant and meaningful event. To see the animal, especially rendered in a realistic pose, is to flash back to the warm memory of the hunt itself, and perhaps recapture some little flash of the adrenaline and majesty. In that sense, when the taxidermy is a tribute to the animal and the chase, rather than a trophy hanging on the wall to brag about one's own prowess, I can honestly appreciate it.  I certainly don't begrudge people who have their prey immortalized in such a manner.

I do plan to have what I shoot on my safari properly taxidermied.  I’d love to have a zebra rug, for instance.  Unless I shoot something that belongs in the SCI record book or takes an inordinate amount of effort and luck to shoot, I will likely do European skull mounts for most of what I take.  I’d rather spend my limited budget on trophy fees than taxidermy.  I also want to have most of the hides tanned for making into gloves, boots, jackets, and if I find something suitably thick-skinned, perhaps a holster, knife sheath, mag pouch, rifle sling, etc.  It’s all part of making the most out of what I take as a hunter. 

In the end, I suppose I agree with Jose Ortega Y Gasset, as he stated in his “Meditations on Hunting”: 

“One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted. If one were to present the sportsman with the death of the animal as a gift he would refuse it. What he is after is having to win it, to conquer the surly brute through his own effort and skill with all the extras that this carries with it: the immersion in the countryside, the healthfulness of the exercise, the distraction from his job.”

 I'd love to hear some feedback on the subject of taxidermy, and what it means to other hunters.


  1. I've mounted my first buck killed only since I moved to GA. A very nice for the north GA mountains 8 point. He was a big bodied deer that took me hours to drag out and reduced me to such fatigue that it got to just pull him one body length, then sit and gasp (we're talking thick brush across a couple ridges). He's in all his glory over the front door. OTOH, while I have no criticism of those who do; I don't desire to hunt the big bears or big cats. All the deer and antelope in the world, you bet. I will repeat; I do not fault those who do; I just don't care too. I don't see much reason to shoot a badger unless he became a problem somewhere.
    Joe C

  2. Well, by your own moral precepts, it may be possible to have your cake and eat it too. For instance, if you kill an animal that was posing a legitimate threat to you and yours, but you had no intention of eating it, you could stuff it without any moral qualms. Or, perhaps, you could only taxidermize (I've no clue if this is a real word, so just go with it) an animal in part and still enjoy the meat. A deer head, for instance.

    I knew a girl in college that had an interest in taxidermy, and most of her subjects were fresh roadkill. She dressed as a necromancer for Halloween once, and made a staff with a deer-skull mounted at the head. She was cool people and her costume was boss.

    As a craft, taxidermy is very precise. I can respect the time and skill needed to be good at it. And I can think of many situations in which taxidermy could be performed without sacrificing the ethics of the hunt. Sadly, the taxidermy business relies heavily on trophy hunting and the trophy hunting culture, and those I do not find morally defensible. And there in lies the rub: even if one is personally ethical and only stuffs a kill for good reason, that person is in the position of perhaps abetting and perpetuating a practice they find morally reprehensible. I guess it is a tough call. I understand why you'd be conflicted.

    Plus, and this is just a personal feeling, but I think a lot of stuffed kills look creepy as hell. So yea.

  3. I'm with you. I have one "big" kill, a greater kudu in Kitwe. it was 57" along the curl- but not a wide spread.

    I was not able to get the horns back home, but if I am ever back in Zambia you can be sure that I will visit them.

    I have a Reedbuck hide that hangs over my desk. I would not keep a zebra hide in my house, if the hide smells like the animal. but I would like a lechwe hide or a Tsesebe hide.

    if I had a BIG house with a BIG gun/billiards/smoking/sporting den, I woiuld like to have a couple nice mounts, but I'd rather have the pictures of the hunt, and yes, spend the money on the hunts themselves.

    1. That's a gorgeous kudu.

      I think part of my reticence to taxidermy is the lack of space in my home. I'd love to have a man-cave and have a few choice mementos there, but I think the key is 'choice'.

      Honestly, going to the SCI show a few weeks back showed me what can be done with taxidermy, given skill and space (and money). There were some beautiful examples of animals immortalized in lifelike poses, and I found them much more appealing than a simple deer head mounted on a plaque in the basement. I suppose the novelty also has an effect: to me, there's nothing extraordinary about going out after a whitetail. I either see one or I don't, and if I see one, I shoot it and that's that. After twenty years of it, the mystery is mostly gone, and I'm just happy to be out in the woods with a rifle, smelling fresh air. I wouldn't miss deer season for the world (the only two seasons I've missed in the last twenty years were occasioned by my marriage and the birth of my son), but I also have never shot anything I felt justified taxidermy.

      Africa, on the other hand, may well be that justification; a memoir of a truly unique experience.

  4. I certainly don't have any moral issues on taxidermy (professional or otherwise) of legally acquired animals. Certainly, I think there's good taste and bad taste, but I try to be very careful about conflating the two, or publicly judging the latter.

    I've had a couple of purely personal trophies professionally taxidermed (if that's [a|the right] word), and do skull mounts of whatever else is feasible. In part, that's because I appreciate the reminder of the hunt (and am terrible at remembering to take pictures), but also because I like decorating in skins & skulls. My wife and son, happily, also appreciate that sort of thing.

    I hope to go on Safari some day, and if I do, I'll certainly mount, professionally or not, anything and everything I can. And that's with no illusions about my chances of getting a "record book" trophy. They all are, in my book.

    In general, as long as the game is taken legally and fairly (ie, not drugged or penned before being shot), I don't feel like there's a moral issue with what happens after the kill.

  5. OK no rush and all but how about Boddington's book now? ;) Joe C

    1. Heh, ask and ye shall receive. I'll try to put something up tonight.

  6. In addition to the reasons you mentioned (Meat, Dangerous Game and Pest Control) I would add the one that justifies and supports most of the hunting and wild game in Africa: Conservation.

    You will not be eating a substantial amount of the meat from the game you shoot in Africa as it is almost impossible to ship meat home, and a typical safari will put several hundred to several thousand pounds of meet on the ground. The meat you shoot WILL be eaten, but not by you. It will go to the hunting camps, to local tribes, and to stores as "Bush-meat."

    The Dangerous Game you will be hunting does not need to be harvested because it is dangerous to you. If left alone, Cape Buffalo, Ele, Hippo, Lion, etc. will have little interaction with you. If you have an interaction requiring you to kill DG for self defense in africa, it is highly likely that YOU STARTED IT.

    If there is a problem animal in an inhabited area, you will find that the local people are pretty good at sorting it out for themselves. A few Ele destroying a maize field one night will result in a sack of grain laced with rat poison the next night, and then no more problem for the farmer.

    Pest animals are few and far between in those parts of Africa with Leopard, Wild dogs, Hyena and Lion populations. Very few invasive species can survive and thrive in areas with those apex predators.

    What suspports the wildlife and the natural environments in Africa is the fact that modern conservation efforts have monetized the wilderness and those animals that live there to provide for sustainable habitat. A problem elephant herd destroying a farmer's crop of Maize is no problem to the farmer in Zimbabwe. He submits a claim to the CAMPFIRE representative in that area, and they write him a check for the value of his crop, which he can use to buy grain to feed his livestock or can keep in place of the money he'd have made selling the crop. The $20,000 or so that a hunter spends for the trophy fee for an Elephant is split up by the government and CAMPFIRE, and is used to fund these incidents.

    CAMPFIRE funds generated by foreign hunters are also used to provide armed poaching patrols, which are the only way to keep native populations from wiping out ALL game in every area shared by humans. The program also provides for distribution of the game meat taken by the safari hunting operations to the inhabitants, thereby reducing the pressure on them to poach.

    Your CONSERVATION Dollars (or Marks, or Yen, or whatever), are what provides for game and wilderness in Africa. When you shoot a Badger, you can keep the hide if you want, or not. If not, someone there will use it or it will be left with the gut pile and wll be consumed by scavengers. The carcas might be eaten by camp staff, or villagers, or might be used as Leopard bait. The money you pay for the trophy fee is the part that is important.

    You will not likely eat an Ele if you bag one (although we did have Ele for a few days after one of our party tagged one), but we ate a few lbs and kept some hair and the tusks. THOUSANDS of lbs of meat was sent to local villages, hundreds of lbs went to the safari operator for staff, etc. And $22,000 went not to the safari operator, the PH, or the guides or trackers, but to CAMPFIRE, to build schools, clinics, pay for crop damage, anti-poaching patrols, etc. THAT is what benefited the economy, the wildlife and the species.

    So mount what you want, or don't. We european mounted all of our trophies, or just kept the skulls (on the baboons and warthog). The hides went to market.

    The real reason you are hunting there (from their perspective) is to provide bushmeat and $, and is justified on that basis alone. Have no qualms about what you do with the trophies.


    1. That was eloquent, and I agree fully. I should elaborate on my 'dangerous game' justification. I don't mean it only in self defense, but I feel that hunting something that is fully capable of killing you in return is a valid test. To do it correctly, on the proper terms of fair chase, is something I can enthusiastically support, especially when it directly benefits conservation of not just that species, but all game animals in the vicinity.

  7. I will add to the above: The number of game tags available in an area are set by professional wildlife managers with an eye for sustainability. They will survey the game (I believe annually) and set aside a quota for the concession manager (or this will be done by a landowner for ranch hunting). If there aren't enough warthog in an area, they will cut back on the warthog limit and maybe add a couple to the leopard limit (because it's probably leopards that are keeping the warthog population down). They will set aside a certian amount of each species for foreign hunting, local hunting, animal control, and even some for education and research. In Zimbabwe, we were told that the animals on quota HAD to be taken in each area, so it was not uncommon for the operator to have to harvest several animals at the end of the season to fill out the quota. If they have to cull them at the end of the year, they don't get foreign dollars for them, so it's better for the game and the operator if YOU shoot them.

    If you have to shoot a DG animal in self defense, it may come from a diferent part of the Quota, and you may or may not have to pay for trophy fees. In our area at the time, we were told that if we were forced to shoot an Ele off license, we would be charged a PAC fee (Problem Animal Control) if it was determined to be a shooting done in defense of life. The PAC fee was a smaller amount than a full trophy fee, but we were not entitled to ANY part of the animal, and wouldn't be able to, for example, take hide or tusks, but would still have to pay several thousand. If the game scout with us determined that the shooting was not justified, then we would be forced to pay for a full trophy fee (if the concession still had Ele on quota) or be charged with poaching (if they didn't). Part of the risk involved in hunting in Africa, and this is handled differently in different parts of the Continent.

    Our PH joked that we shoud stay well clear of Ele herds, unless we could shoot and write a check at the same time. One hunter we know hunted an area in SA with Rhino on it, and was told under no circumstances would he be justified if he shot one. His reply was that he had no intention of shooting their Rhino, but that he refused to die with a loaded heavy rifle in his hands. The operator told him if that happened, he might prefer death to the bill he'd receive!