Book Review: The Shotgun Conservationist
By: Jan Dizard
Brant MacDuff, an anti-hunter in his youth who has become what Tovar Cerulli has
described as an “adult onset hunter,” has written a book intended to bolster the reputation of hunters as conservationists. MacDuff goes beyond the fact that hunters underwrite the costs of maintaining the management of wildlife, both game and non-game species, and the wild lands they depend upon. Hunters, whether or not they know it, also are instrumental in keeping the ecological systems that sustain biodiversity more or less stable. The large scale destruction
of wild lands and the inevitable decline of large predators produces irruptions of species, both plants and animals. Left unchecked, they degrade landscapes and reduce biodiversity. In the face of this disruption of nature, hunting, MacDuff argues, plays an important ecological role. And, as far as the non-hunters are concerned, hunters pay to do it. If there weren’t hunters, the general public would have to foot the bill to manage wildlife. Indeed, one of the common things that hunters like to say is that they become a part of nature, an actor in nature’s drama, not a spectator.
But MacDuff is not really writing for hunters. The book is directed at adults who may be
considering becoming a hunter but harbor reservations about killing wild animals. It was always so. Even in hunter-gather societies, hunters developed elaborate rituals and myths to ease their guilt, to pay homage to their prey, to thank them for the gift of their life rather than the theft of that life force. MacDuff confronts these reservations directly and makes a compelling case for killing animals—as long as it is done within legitimate game laws and with a commitment to the ethics of fair chase, including, crucially for McDuff, eating what you kill.
McDuff’s book is, at one level, a deeply personal account of moving from an animal
lover to a hunter. MacDuff’s account is partly a coming of age narrative, a story of self-
discovery played out by dealing with the several objections to hunting MacDuff had as a child and which are the stuff of those who criticize hunting. McDuff’s coming of age has some interesting twists and turns that makes the account intriguing: it starts with an early fascination with taxidermy and a brief attempt to be a vegetarian. Then came a stint working in a butcher shop that featured meat from animals raised on local farms, not from industrial scale feed lots. McDuff realizes that not only was this more ethical, the meat also tastes better and is healthier, for both the animals and for us. Loving animals and loving to eat them set the stage for rethinking the objection to hunting. If you eat meat, as most of us do at some point in our life, you are the indirect author of a killing. Isn’t it okay to sometimes directly kill something you intend to eat? Isn’t hunting a more honest relationship to what we eat? Working in the butcher shop drew MacDuff to consider the next logical step: hunting a wild animal.
There are clearly defined steps one has to take to become a hunter. MacDuff describes
them in an engaging way: the hunter education course that must be passed in order to become licensed to hunt; finding someone who becomes a mentor, a guide who can convey the local knowledge and the myriad details of how time of year (early season vs. late season), habitat, and weather interact to affect the behavior of game animals. And then there’s the selection of a weapon that is appropriate to the animal sought—all kinds of rifles, shotguns, and bows, each with qualities that are suited to the varying characteristics of the game and the habitat they are likely to be found in. Experienced hunters will smile in recognition of the many conversations they have had with their fellow hunters over which caliber, gauge, type of bow is best for deer, or geese, or rabbits.
MacDuff takes on more controversial matters, notably trophy hunting. In surveys of
public attitudes toward hunting, trophy hunting lands solidly at the bottom, in low double
digits, of approval. Even among hunters, there is ambivalence about trophy hunting. MacDuff makes a good case for the legitimacy of trophy hunting. Hunters intent on trophy hunting, particularly of exotic animals access to which is generally limited and highly regulated, comes with a hefty price tag and much of the revenue goes to organizations like the Wild Sheep Foundation. In many African nations, the revenue from trophy hunters is the major source of funding for wildlife management. Indeed, wildlife in African nations who permit trophy hunting are doing far better than in countries that have forbidden hunting.
MacDuff has written a lively and robust defense of hunting. It deserves a wide reading.
Anti-hunters will not be swayed and the book is not likely to convince a young boy or girl who is not from a hunting family to try hunting, but The Shotgun Conservationist might prod 20-30 something men and women to seriously consider hunting.