Trophy Hunting: Take 2

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

Did it ever occur to you that outdoor recreation in all its iterations could be considered a form of trophy hunting?

Take as an example, bird-watching. To spend a day bird-watching all you probably need to do is throw some snacks and water into a backpack, grab your binoculars, and head into the woods.

However, as researcher David Cole points out in his review of the wilderness experience, it is more likely that you would plan your adventure and set goals. You would probably pack your birder’s guide along with your binoculars and your camera with a zoom lens. You might challenge yourself to spot a new bird. Or identify a new call.

It’s great fun, planning and gathering the paraphernalia, reading the maps, setting goals and anticipating their success. According to Cole, it’s also motivating. It shapes your experience and gives it purpose. Pursuing goals challenges your skills and your creativity and brings much joy. As such, the quality of the experience is greatly enhanced.

So what is the trophy when it’s not a tangible something? What do you bring home?

As a birder, you bring home your story that you share with fellow birders. You bring home an item to post in your birding journal. And, if you’re lucky, you bring home a photograph.  These are your ‘certificates’ that say – in Aldo Leopold’s words – its owner has been somewhere and done something – that he has exercised skill, persistence, or discrimination in the age-old feat of overcoming, outwitting, or reducing-to-possession.

Trophies gained through recreation in the wild can come at a price, however. The loss of a rare living creature. The degradation of objects removed as specimens of interest. The integrity of a meadow when the trophy is mud.

For the recreationist, even in such eco-friendly pursuits as birding, hiking and photography, the price can be the loss of a sense of oneness with the natural world. Feelings of connection could lay dormant, buried under the layers of gadgets and goals and hoped-for triumphs, where nature becomes merely an arena for personal pursuits and pleasure.

So, how can we sustain our awareness of our fundamental kinship with the natural world when our lives are full of demands on our time, when we are by nature innovative, creative and energetic beings?

Through our senses….

  • A horse trainer looks into the eyes of his horses and receives permission to begin his training.
  • A 4-wheel driver gets out of his truck and stands on the shore of a mountain lake and knows he’s where he belongs.
  • A woman reaches out to hug a mountain because that’s what nature makes you do.
  • A hiker gazes into a valley and feels being one with everything
  • We look into the eyes of a pond turtle and we worry for her safety.

Watching. Looking. Paying attention. We take that first step and tumble headlong into the horse trainer’s parallel universe of heightened awareness and consciousness. We achieve instinctive understanding, oneness, and belonging. We are awestruck by the beauty. We exhibit empathy.

Once such seeing is achieved, the challenge is to hold on to the connection; watching more, looking further, paying more attention, going deeper into the gift of sight, perhaps exploiting the depth perception and peripheral vision that give us the ability to take in our entire surroundings.

In her memoir, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard devoted an entire chapter to ‘seeing’.

Unfortunately, nature is very much a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t affair. A fish flashes, then dissolves in the water before my eyes like so much salt; deer apparently ascend bodily into heaven; the brightest oriole fades into leaves. These disappearances stun me into stillness and concentration…..there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied…..When I see this way I see truly.

And what of our other senses? From early childhood we learn that we have five: sight, touch, taste, smell and hearing. And we carry that bit of information into adulthood. We talk about using our senses in the wilderness to slow down and smell the roses, to identify birds by their sounds, to search for wildflowers, and stop and feel the wind.

Sensing in the wild in a connected way, however, is not about achieving serenity or slowing down. It’s not about enjoyment or about collecting.  It’s about increased awareness.

John Muir, in his essay A Wind Storm in the Forest, talks of seeing the winds, which become at times about as visible as flowing water.

For the 4-wheel driver, using his senses in the wild is about survival, kill or be killed.

When I’m out there, my primal instincts kick in so that I can hear a twig crack in one direction and know it came from over there, or I notice something doesn’t fit in, it’s the wrong color, or that something is giving off a particular smell. It’s my sight and hearing, my ability to smell, these all work together the way they were meant to.

In her article, Finding My Wilderness Self, hunter Robyn Miglorian describes  how, in the process of learning to hunt for her meat, her senses became sharper and tuned into what she describes as the chorus of life of the wilderness.

The goal was to see before being seen and to hear before being heard. The pursuit of game required a complete mental and sensory recalibration. For the first time in my life, I had to actually tune in to the living, breathing wild. I had to embrace the silence that I feared.

Over time, the silence and stillness gradually morphed from a chore, to a routine, to a way of existing. On a bowhunt for deer this September, six quail waltzed by within ten feet of me as I stood like a statue in the pre-dawn dimness. During a mid-afternoon glassing session [using her binoculars or her scope], I entered into a five-minute staring contest with a hyper-vigilant doe while her two fawns milled about feeding. In these moments I felt like more of an intimate member of the desert wilderness than I ever have before.

For me, becoming a hunter meant quietly embracing the chorus of life in the wilderness – what I had before perceived as uncomfortable silence – and gleaning as much information from it as possible. In doing so, I am developing an integrated sense of belonging in the backcountry and seeing what it means to be human-as-predator. I am finding my wilderness self.

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.

The Empathy/Nature Connection

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

It seems that ‘empathy’ has become a topic of interest lately.

Psychologists. Researchers. Journalists. Teachers. They’re writing about empathy. Plumbing its meaning and touting its values. They promote empathy and use principles of empathy in their programs. Empathy has even found its way into the business world, promising improved employee productivity and increased sales.

Some information about empathy:

1) Basically, empathy is thought of as an innate ability to take another’s perspective; more commonly known as the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and to recognize and respond to what the person is feeling.

2) Advocates for empathy say that without empathy self-interest would prevail.

3) Research has shown that the ability to show empathy is associated with pro-social behavior, behaviors such as obeying rules, conforming to society, and expressing concern for the welfare of others.

4) Research has also shown that pro-social and conservation behaviors are more likely to occur in people who are disposed to connecting empathically with nature.

What about animals?  Do they possess the capacity for empathy? Those who distinguish humans from animals would like us to believe that, no, animals do not exhibit empathy, which is unique to humans.

Evidence does exist, however, to the contrary, and it is possible that empathy is genetically encoded in animals as well as in humans.

Many stories have been written – and I’m convinced that each of you could come up with stories of your own – about animals engaged in what appears to be empathic behavior. An elephant guarding a lost, helpless hiker. A humpback whale sweeping a seal being hunted by a killer whale onto its back.

I once watched one of my cats try to rescue a very perturbed kitten who had gotten stranded on my roof. His strategy was to show her how to jump from the roof to an adjacent tree and climb down. He did it three or four times before giving up, as the kitten would have none of it.

The cat’s sense of ‘responsibility’ went just so far. With humans, however, it’s unlikely that we would give up that easily. We would try other methods.  Maybe that’s one thing that does separate us from the animals. Our vast intellectual ability and our resourcefulness would compel us to test out various solutions.  Maybe that’s when empathy actually crosses over to another human trait: determination. Stubbornness?

If you do accept the premise that empathy is a shared experience between humans and all of nature, it seems to require acceptance of the implications of an empathic relationship with nature.

  • The recognition of our interdependence
  • The necessity of a mental shift from domination to joint membership
  • The acknowledgement of the citizenship of all creatures, including humans, in the natural world
  • The sense of responsibility to protect the land and all its parts

Furthermore, an empathic relationship with the land involves ethical duty that imposes restraints on us, forces us to pull in the reins on our personal desires. We would have to come to consider nature worthy of our ‘sacrifice.’ In essence it would become incumbent upon us to value behaviors geared to arriving at a state of harmony between us and all of nature, behaviors that would bind us to the care of the land.

Empathy towards nature may start with looking, really looking. A conscious, mindful looking that Rachel Corbett, in her book The Invention of Empathy (2016), refers to as the wondrous voyage from the surface of a thing to its heart wherein perception leads to emotional connection…..

A kayaker achieves instinctive understanding with a loon. A trainer bonds with his horses. We peer into the eyes of a pond turtle and tumble headlong into Terry Tempest Williams’ threshold of shared existence.

Once such seeing is achieved, the challenge is to hold on to the connection; watching more, looking further, paying more attention, going deeper into the gift of sight, exploiting the depth perception and peripheral vision that might give us the ability to take in our entire surroundings, to transcend self-interest and to build bonds.


This is what happened….Bobcat and Rainbow

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

This is what happened……

The setting is the dining hall at the Yosemite Majestic Hotel – when it was still called The Ahwahnee. This is a stunning, cavernous space, famous for its Native American décor, its elegance, and its restrained atmosphere. Coupled with good table manners and well-behaved children is an air of formal relaxation that buzzes with conversation.

One gray winter’s day, at lunchtime, a bobcat ambled along a path just outside the dining hall.

Photo courtesy of

All at once, as if a tweet of the bobcat’s presence had shot around the room, dozens of diners dashed from their seats – some dragging kids behind – and raced to the windows in order to get a view of the bobcat passing by.


Oohing and aahing, they crowded around and pointed excitedly out the windows, over the heads of the folks dining at the window-side tables, unmindful of their rude behavior. Those with children pushed in closer to get a better view.

When the bobcat disappeared behind a tree and was lost from sight, everyone returned to their places and the dining hall returned to its refined state.

This is what happened too……

A Seder is in progress. Twenty people are seated at eight tables arranged in a large square. They are reading and discussing, answering the question, why is this night different from all other nights. They sample ritual foods that evoke the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of freedom. To honor the rebirth that comes with the springtime celebration of Passover, the Seder leader reads lines from an anonymous poem:

The rains are over and gone,

the winter is past;

everything is created with beauty; go

in peace rain.

The reader pauses, and at that very instant, outside, in a sky that had threatened  rain all evening, the sun breaks through and the room lights up. Two rainbows appear along the horizon, two arcs of stranded color, one poised above the other, fainter, colors reversed – red to violet – the two held together in perfect harmony.

Photo courtesy of Gay Abarbanell


All decorum breaks down. Squeals of delight. Oohs and aahs. Cell phones and cameras appear. Some in the group dash outside, unperturbed by the sprinkling of rain that has finally begun to fall.   Some stand by the windows gazing silently. Finally, when the rainbows have faded, and the sky has darkened, and all are reassembled around the seder table, a hush washes over the room and hovers for a moment, creating a mood of collective awe.

What is that all about?

A bobcat walks up a path. A double rainbow appears in the sky. And a breakdown in decorum and a departure from valued traditions follows. Why?

Many things could account for this: novelty, rarity, predisposition to nature, a highpoint of a vacation.

But there are factors related to these two situations that might allow for a different explanation; not only the abandonment of good behavior, but the spontaneity and authenticity exhibited by the players in both of these stories. These were natural events, unrelated and disparate. Yet the response in both groups, in addition to being unplanned and uncensored, were identical.

Is it possible that these experiences had tapped into something deep-seated in the observers, something innate in their relationship to nature? Something primal?

Edward O. Wilson, the author of Biofilia (1984) might say that these people exhibited their instinctive bond with all life and their deep-seated urge to affiliate with life and life processes.

Author Bill Bryson, in his book, In a Sunburned Country, describes just such a feeling at his initial view of Ayers Rock, a.k.a. Uluru, a sandstone outcropping measuring 5.8 miles around and rising to an altitude of 1,142 feet in an otherwise flat desert area in the Australian Outback.

The thing about Ayers Rock is that by the time you finally get there you are already a little sick of it…..Even when you are a thousand miles from it, you can’t go a day in Australia without seeing it four or five or six times – on postcards, on travel agents’ posters, on the cover of souvenir picture books – and as you get nearer the rock the frequency of exposure increases….and then you see it, and you are instantly transfixed…..Somewhere in the deep sediment of your being some long-dormant fragment of primordial memory, some little severed tail of DNA, has twitched or stirred. It is a motion much too faint to be understood or interpreted, but somehow you feel certain that this large, brooding hypnotic presence has an importance to you at the species level – perhaps even at a sort of tadpole level – and that in some way your visit here is more than happenstance. I’m not saying that this is so. I’m just saying this is how you feel…..

One comes across many authors, both contemporary and from the past, who, like Bryson, have articulated similar feelings about their connection to nature. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and philosopher stated in his memoirs, I felt close to nature, the earth, the sun, the moon, the weather, all living creatures…. Trees he saw as mysterious, direct embodiments of the incomprehensible meaning of life.

Oddly, once you open up to the idea of a human kinship with nature it becomes apparent that many people feel a sense of oneness with nature, each in a personal, unique way.

Speaking with individuals who claim to have experienced their connection with nature is like taking a trip into a world apart, yet it feels somehow familiar.

A kayaker who rescued a loon that had become entangled in a fishing line, said he believed the loon felt calm during the whole procedure because, when we looked into each other’s eyes, we communicated and connected. There was an instinctive understanding between us.

A lifelong backpacker remarked that he has had many momentary experiences of feeling completely whole and connected. I could be sitting on a rock looking into the San Joaquin River gorge and I suddenly become conscious of being one with everything.

A member of the Fresno 4-Wheel-Drive Club likes to explore in the wilderness. I am taken aback, she said. My breath just stops at the beauty and cleanliness of Nature. It’s so there. I reach out and hug the mountain. It’s what Nature makes you want to do.

A horse trainer said that when he is in nature it’s as though there’s an additional dimension, as if I enter a parallel universe where there’s balance and beauty of design and purpose, where I exist in a state of heightened awareness and consciousness.

When he trains a horse, before beginning, he establishes a connection with the animal. I might touch them in places where horses touch each other, he said. We might even breathe on each other. And then I wait. I wait and allow. He waits until the horse signals that he is ready. His eyes will open up, get bigger, but also deeper, as if I could dive into them. That’s when I know we’re really seeing each other, really connecting.

Three wildflower seekers come across a Pacific Pond turtle:

Driving along in the back country we pass a turtle crossing the road. The driver, ordinarily a calm, controlled person, screeches to a halt, dashes from the car, which sits in the middle of the road, and picks up the turtle. We dash out of the car after him and the three of us gather around. We are naturalists and have an intelligent conversation about the turtle. It looks like a Pacific Pond turtle. What a find. It’s native to California. We hold it. Turn it over and investigate its underbelly. Its flatness tells us that she’s a female. We flip her back to upright. Her head and legs are retracted into her shell.  She is looking at us from inside. Her deep black eyes seem to pulsate. It’s as if she were demanding. Pay attention! And something happens. We obey. We finally look at her.  Really look at her. And we connect and, in that moment we become concerned for her. We soothe her.  Don’t be afraid. We’re not going to hurt you. Where are you going?  We’re certain she’s listening, understands what we’re saying.  Her head ventures out a bit. We’re excited. Look! She’s come out.  She likes us. Her legs fly out, as if she wants to run away, and her head slides back into her shell.  She’s had enough of us. We place her in the grass on one side of the road, but then we wonder, which way was she going? How do we know where a turtle wants to go? We choose one side of the road and set her down.  Be safe, one of us says, in a final moment of connection, and we stand and watch her inch her way along the grass.

In her book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams wrote, To hold an animal, to look into its eyes and have it look back at you; to try to calm its terrified heart; … to open the door to empathy and cross a new threshold of shared existence.

Next week we’ll take a look at empathy. In the meantime, see if you have the opportunity to hold an animal and look into its eyes, or to view a forest devastated by fire, or to watch a hawk circle in the sky in search of something to eat. Is Tempest Williams correct?  Can we tap into empathic connection with the animal? The forest?  The hawk?