The Trophies in Trophy Hunting

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

Disclaimer: My impressions about trophy hunters expressed in this post are based on two articles that crossed my path, both on the same day.

One was the story of a young woman who tracked and killed a bighorn sheep. The article appeared in the 2013 Sheep Issue of Eastman’s Hunting Journal, which I randomly picked up from a pile of magazines while I sat and waited to have my hair cut.

The other article, entitled What Kind of Person Trophy Hunts? (It’s Not What You Think) was cited in the online newsletter, Nature’s Tangled Web, Musings October 13, 2017, which I receive through email.

Prior to reading these articles, I had never read anything about trophy hunting and had never thought about it much, either.

However, I have always been aware of the revulsion and the pity, the incredulity and anger I experience whenever I am confronted with a wildlife trophy hanging on a wall.  And the bafflement. What would make someone want to do that?  I wanted to understand what makes a trophy hunter tick.  I wanted the trophy hunter to understand me.

To my surprise, as I leafed through the Eastman magazine, viewing photos of hunters posing with their bighorn ram kills brought on the same intensity of emotion as any trophy animal displayed on a wall. I was saddened to look into their innocent soft eyes. Awed by the massive curved horns adorning their delicately shaped heads.

Considering the implausibility of both articles appearing out of the blue on the same day, and the more improbable idea that I would have actually read them, I felt the decision to write about trophy hunting had already been made for me.

As a result of having read the articles, however, one thing became quite clear; I would never be able to understand – or be understood by – a trophy hunter. We simply do not live in the same universe.

So my disclaimer is this: What follows are my impressions of what makes the trophy hunter tick, as filtered through the framework of my universe. In other words, this is my opinion.


When it comes to connection with nature, the hunt for a trophy is a one-way street. The hunter cannot relate to the animal she has in her sights, except as the object of her quest.

If for one moment she were to look beyond the thrill of the hunt and joined with the animal as a soulmate in nature, she might enter Terry Tempest Williams’ world of shared experience and find herself at the threshold of empathy. She would be in danger of touching on compassion and love for the animal, bringing on the ethical dilemma of killing it.

The trophy hunter in the story I read protected herself from such connection by staying completely focused on the job at hand. Advice, like that which she received from a veteran hunter to Shoot the ram you like. Shoot the ram you want to look at for the rest of your life, inspired her and helped increase her determination.  She stayed invested in the task as a life-altering experience, similar to climbing to the top of El Capitan for the first time or saying I do at the altar.

The trophy hunter is also protected from confronting the reality of what researcher and author Marc Bekoff calls gratuitous killing of sentient beings with rich and deep cognitive and emotional lives and capacities by excluding specific references to the animal’s death.

The article about the ram hunt describes the kill without mentioning that the ram died. He rolled one time into a juniper, not moving a single muscle. Of course he didn’t move a single muscle.  He was dead!

The only reference in the article to the ram’s death was the hunter’s partner congratulating her by shouting YOU DID IT.  HE’S DEAD (the capital letters are not my editing for effect. They appear in the article.)

Some researchers are beginning to look at what motivates trophy hunters to do what they do. One study concludes it’s the joy of earning a ‘certificate’ that shows you’ve done it.  It could be a photograph or, in the case of the hunter in the story I read, breaking the glass ceiling of the hunting world and winning the female state championship.

There is also the status one achieves by overcoming difficulties and solving problems in unique ways. The trophy is that the hunter bore the ‘cost’ of the hunt, and not just financially.

One of the hunter’s triumphs mentioned in the article was that she laid the first human hands upon this incredible animal. Another trophy. Only he was no longer an incredible animal.  He was a hapless victim who stood no chance against the self-directed determination of the advantaged trophy hunter.

So from the point of view of my universe, it seems that the whole enterprise of trophy hunting can be reduced to pleasure. The pleasure of the hunt. The pleasure of the kill. Of the photograph. Of the display and the status. A pursuit that elevates human ingenuity and skill to great heights and that reduces the animal to nothing.

5 thoughts on “The Trophies in Trophy Hunting”

  1. Marcia I have to ask you if you have become vegetarian. If yes, then you at least have internal consistency to your moral position, if not much empathy to those who are not where you are. If you’re still buying hamburger and chicken in the store, then you need to put your money where your mouth is, and stop paying someone else to commodify living beings. I thought a long time about not saying this, but we’ve been friends a long time and I hope we can open our hearts and our minds to one another’s perspectives.

    1. Thank you, Lise, for your comment. You have given me an opportunity to think about something I haven’t thought about in a long time. (By the way, I always enjoy it when you speak from the heart. So don’t hold back.) Frankly, I am not against eating meat. I am against cruelty to animals and the wanton killing of them. I believe that commodification is the name of the game in our culture, and there are many, many areas of life where one is challenged to put our money where our mouths are. I think these are personal issues, and that one person’s choices are not necessarily more valuable than another’s. By the way, are you aware of the literature that’s coming out now about the emotional life of plants? One of these weeks I’m going to write about that aspect of our relationship to nature.

  2. I eat meat and should probably be a vegetarian. I hate the killing of animals. I try to buy grass fed beef and organic meat. I’m sure that doesn’t justify the fact that the animals are still killed. I think that makes me somewhat of a hypocrite. However I agree with Marcia on the trophy hunter issue. These people are not using the meat and are often killing endangered species that are not used for food. They are doing it merely for the thrill of the hunt. I am so saddened by what is going on in the world today and especially the U.S involving guns that I have an aversion to almost anything that has to do with them. My brother was murdered in cold blood at 27 years old. Now some people say that the gun didn’t kill him the person did. But I believe my brother would have had a much better chance in a fistfight than against a gun placed at his head. So I know this is way off the subject but I’m anti gun and join Marcia in my feelings toward trophy hunting.

    1. First of all, Lori, I have known you a long time, and I never knew about your brother. What a heartbreak for you and your family. I don’t think that the anti-gun issue is off the subject of trophy hunting because the weapons that are used and all the paraphernalia that goes along with trophy hunting constitute a very lucrative business, and there is great financial interest in keeping the sport going. That’s a whole other subject. I know you, and I know that you are a socially conscious person who lives according to your strong beliefs of right or wrong. So I can’t accept that you are a hypocrite. I think, like all of us, you have made some choices.

  3. I read the Trophy and the Bobcat while sipping tea. Empathy, the empathetic to nature, is those who feel a part of everything, they are stewards of, friends of, sister and brothers of, the lovers and keepers of life. The other side is those who view the natural world as separate, as a place for ownership, and set themselves higher and entitled to. I have had these thoughts emerge from the beginning of your book and the two blogs I chose to read this morning.

    I believe this connection and empathy are the/a key to our healing (with nature and each other). It is great shift we need to make in this world. And it is happening in pockets. May it move rapidly.

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