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France's Hunting Dilemma
Why is public opinion on hunting so paradoxical?
Hunting is perhaps one of the oldest ancestral practices in human history, with some evidence tracing its appearance back 1.7 million years, and it has played a critical role in hunter-gatherer societies. Even in more recent times, some indigenous populations, such as the Inuit, subsisted entirely on fishing and hunting. Nowadays, the practice of hunting is less essential to prosperity and has therefore become less common for most developed countries – although in some cases hunters can represent a non-negligible portion of the population (up to 7% for Ireland). In Europe, France is the country with the highest number of active hunters (about one million), which is at the same time the second most popular hobby after soccer. Despite the fact that the practice of hunting is decreasing over time, the unpopularity of hunting continues to grow, particularly with regard to safety and cruelty to animals. These concerns are strangely not reflected in the statistics when 90% of the victims of hunting accidents are hunters themselves (including 8 deaths in 2022), while only 5% of the French declare themselves to be vegetarians. Moreover, the practice of hunting is frequently portrayed as a bloodthirsty pastime, but this perspective is too simplistic and misleading since the overwhelming majority of hunters subsist on their game and regard the slaughter of animals as a means rather than an end. Nevertheless, half of the French condemn hunting as a recreational activity.
First and foremost, it's important to understand how the hostility against hunting has grown in Western societies. Until recently, the slaughter of animals in the streets was commonplace; in England during the 19th century, historic streets like The Shambles were described as “open-air slaughterhouses” where butchers killed and dressed animals in front of the crowds. Later, the advent of the Industrial Revolution led to social reforms that addressed concerns about the hygiene of such practices, and as a result, the duty of slaughtering animals was displaced to isolated places outside of cities. The construction of abattoirs had the consequence of hiding the violence against animals from pedestrian areas and further distanced the population from the relationship between animals and meat. In our time, a typical person raised in Western societies who has no ties to farmers or hunters will most likely never experience the slaughter of an animal. This shift has created societies where the vast majority of the population is disconnected from the processes involved in the production of meat, which has translated into a significant increase in sensitivity on this matter. Finally, the emergence of social media has brought some light on questionable slaughtering and hunting practices to a mainstream audience, exacerbating a sense of outrage through the exposure of unfamiliar forms of animal suffering, which has played a decisive role in the construction of a narrative in which these forms of violence are deemed unjustified.
However, when it comes to animal suffering, it's worth distinguishing between the different categories in which animals suffer in radically different terms: wild animals, farm animals, and domestic animals. Wild animals undoubtedly benefit from the highest degree of freedom and usually die as a result of natural predators, disease, or human activity. Farm animals experience extremely constrained mobility and are usually assigned to a death row at birth. Domestic animals are generally considered to receive privileged treatment, enjoying an abundance of food, free health care, and even birthday celebrations, and in most cases will die from natural death. This view is shared by the vast majority of people, who usually don't consider farm animals to be having the time of their lives and agree with the view that domestic animals live in decently fair conditions. It's important to note that companion animals also endure various forms of suffering that are commonly considered morally acceptable: they are restricted in their autonomy by spending most of their lives in confined spaces, they endure the burdens associated with forced sterilization, and in some cases, they suffer from injuries caused by genetic abnormalities resulting from selective breeding designed to select for certain traits deemed aesthetically good but detrimental to their health.
In contrast to wild animals, domesticated and farmed animals have become accustomed to living under artificial conditions, but their circumstances may appear less attractive from a human perspective. This perception can be emphasized by considering a hypothetical trilemma if one envisions an afterlife as an animal and has to choose between a life in a one-square-meter enclosure, a life confined to a home as a pet, and a life in the wild. Chances are you'd probably choose the third option since freedom is generally preferable to determinism. If the opposite were true, ending up in prison would be a preferable scenario for many of us – admittedly, in rare situations, this may be true. Of course, this thought experiment is unrealistic because we tend to project human characteristics onto animals, such as the ability to conceptualize future outcomes, in addition to our limited understanding of how animals experience happiness, and also because of the fetishization of the natural world, namely natural bias: a tendency to perceive the natural world as inherently better than a world altered by humans, despite no strong evidence supporting this theory. The point here is not to draw a comparison, but rather to put into perspective how morality about animal conditions has been fallaciously constructed through an anthropomorphic lens, leading to an ambivalent perception of the animal kingdom. On the one hand, there are domestic animals, which are considered and treated as an extension of the family nucleus despite the oppressive conditions imposed on them, and on the other hand, there are wild animals, which are constantly subjected to hostile treatment by the natural world, which we regard as romanticized. Consequently, the way humans perceive animal conditions is predicated on a projection of human goodness rather than a realistic interpretation of animal welfare.
The tendency to humanize domestic animals and fantasize about the natural world, while at the same time alienating the prevailing violence in the animal world, has contributed to a dissonant worldview that has nourished a sense of resentment in the face of the paradoxical relationship established between humans and animals. Consequently, this has driven many people to vivid emotional reactions and irrational judgments. The prejudice against the hunting of animals is commonly justified on the grounds of unnecessary suffering, but the premise of this argument crumbles if hunting remains primarily motivated by subsistence, thus reducing the suffering caused by intensive farming, which is undoubtedly quantitatively much worse. Similarly, the accusations depicting the gratification of killing animals as an incriminating act are logically inconsistent with the pleasure of eating meat. As I pointed out in the beginning, anti-hunting sentiments rarely coincide with patterns of behavior that significantly reduce animal suffering, such as veganism or vegetarianism. And, perversely, most of the people who condemn hunting turn out to be more impactful by relying on industrial farming – which is unmistakably darker. The list of inconsistencies could go on, but I assume that my point has been made. Finally, there are legitimate reasons to view hunting as a fundamentally cruel tradition, and despite the lack of objectively better alternatives for omnivorous diets, the democratization of less harmful alternatives, such as cost-effective lab-grown meat, could undermine the legitimacy of hunting in the future.
Credits: I'm not very handy with citations, especially since none of my statements have been quoted elsewhere. However, I would like to acknowledge Charles Stépanoff (an anthropologist), whose work has been a great inspiration to me.