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October 14, 2004

That Dog Don't Hunt - The contrasting cultural attitudes to "hunting" in Britain & America

Posted by Joyce Lee Malcolm

American politicians seek to outdo each other in portraying themselves as keen "hunters"; many British politicians are currently attempting to have "hunting" outlawed. Joyce Lee Malcolm - Professor of History at Bentley College and author of Guns and Violence: The English Experience - argues that this is not predominantly a consequence of "hunting" referring to somewhat different activities. It is the consequence of different cultural images and attitudes towards "hunting" in the UK and USA. Linked to this, are the two countries divergent contemporary attitudes to gun ownership.

Joyce Lee Malcolm will be writing regularly for the Social Affairs Unit.

With the American campaign for president mercifully in its final stages, the National Rifle Association, leader of the powerful gun-lobby, aims to turn voters' attention to the topic of hunting. It has just launched a multi-million dollar campaign featuring a poster on which an elegantly coiffed and beribboned poodle labeled "Kerry" stands poised over the slogan, "That dog don't hunt". Beneath is Kerry's voting record, favouring issues that would harm hunters or promote gun controls. In Britain, where politicians with any ambitions would think carefully before participating in a "blood sport" and the House of Commons stands poised to make hunting with dogs history, you might wonder how this could possibly hurt Kerry. But it can. The contrasting cultural views epitomized by the NRA campaign are well worth examining.

The Hunter
Let's start with our differing stereotypes of the hunter. In Britain he or she is seen as a member of the country set splendidly outfitted, on horseback, surrounded by hounds, trotting off for a day's violent sport. The fact that many hunters are not wealthy, or that hunting helps maintain a natural balance among species has not lessened the antipathy of those who despise hunting either for reasons of class or sympathy for the animal prey. This visceral dislike has, of course, led to the long, emotional, and soon-to-be successful campaign to deny hunters their sport.

The American hunter has a different look. He comes from all walks of life, but is most likely to be working or middle class. Garbed in checked or bright orange shirt, or one of a number of woodland camouflage prints, he drives off with friends, sons and dogs in the family pick-up truck or SUV to a favourite spot, there to lie in wait for deer, pheasant, duck, or sometimes bear. It is a rite of autumn in much of the country, where hunters take to the woods and fields during the official season each state sets for each specific animal. These seasons are carefully regulated to assure preservation of the species. In the Midwestern state of Wisconsin 945,832 hunting licenses were sold in 2001. The $2.4 billion a year taken in annually from hunting licenses across America provides 70 to 80 percent of the conservation revenue for state agencies. And thousands of families dine on venison throughout the winter. In Wisconsin a portion of the 600,000 deer shot in a season are donated to stock food pantries throughout the state.

What is the impact of all this regulated hunting? Rather than decimating the animal population, wild animals in the United States are proliferating. Coyotes roam the Northeast for the first time in modern memory, having reached Cape Cod and densely populated suburbs close to Boston. Foxes and beaver abound. New Hampshire road signs warn drivers to beware of moose, formidable creatures unwilling to yield to a speeding vehicle and quite capable of destroying any that collides with it. Black bear have become a nuisance in New Jersey. Last Spring a bear was spotted on the campus of Princeton University, but went on its way without incident. Wild turkeys, once rare, are plentiful and the vast flocks of Canadian geese who have refused to migrate back to Canada have become a real nuisance in city parks and golf courses. All are protected for at least part of the year. Then there are the deer. Deer have become so numerous New Jersey officials have raised the annual limit per hunter to nine. Some New Jersey residents leery about deer culls to control the herd have experimented with doe contraception, with mixed success.

The Political Impact
This large population of American hunters own firearms. Their vigorous defense of their right to be armed for hunting and for self-defense makes them staunch supporters of the Second Amendment of the American Constitution and a political force. The so-called gun lobby that represents them is effective, not because it has the backing of the firearms industry, an industry with so little financial clout trial lawyers rejected it in their search for a suitably rich target after they had trounced the tobacco industry. The gun lobby is effective because of the large number of American hunters who rightly fear that gun control groups and their political allies mean to disarm them. Kerry's Democrats, and Kerry himself, have tended to support stricter gun controls. They maintained that the Bill of Rights does not protect an individual right to be armed, only a right for members of a state-sponsored militia like the National Guard to have weapons while on active duty. In 2001 when Bush's Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that the Justice Department would, as a matter of policy, treat gun ownership as an individual right democrats denounced the move as promoting an "extreme ideology".

But there has been serious political fallout from this Democrat party policy. Whereas any British politician who suggests loosening up the restrictions on handguns, even modestly, is instantly branded as promoting "vigilantism" and threatened with loss of office, Democrats keen to increase gun controls came to grief at the polls. In 1994 Republicans gained control of Congress by insisting their opponents meant to enact new restrictions on firearms possession, including national registration. In the last presidential race Al Gore made gun control a centerpiece of his campaign. Gore lost support in state after state, including his home state of Tennessee and President Bill Clinton's home state of Arkansas, as Democratic voters turned against their party's nominee. Had he won either state he would now be president.

And so this campaign season the Democrat party platform and its candidates have quietly endorsed John Ashcroft's "extreme ideology" and support the individual right to be armed. John Kerry happily brandishes a rifle and boasts to country crowds that he is a long-time hunter and will protect their rights. Hence the National Rifle Association poster, "That dog don't hunt", with its reminder of Kerrys voting record.

Lessons - If Any
Do these curious American differences have any lessons for the bitterly-divided British proponents and opponents of hunting? First, the energy directed at hunting with dogs as a target for class hatred is misdirected. It is a sport enjoyed in Britain as well as America by all sorts of people. Secondly, if carefully regulated, hunting does not destroy a species. On the contrary it can actually preserve and protect both endangered animals and more common wild creatures. Hunters cherish natural habitats and the revenues from hunting can be used to maintain them. In 1949 when the first two private member's bills to ban or restrict hunting failed to win support in Parliament, the then Labour government appointed a committee to investigate all forms hunting. That committee concluded:

Fox hunting makes a very important contribution to the control of foxes, and involves less cruelty than most other methods of controlling them. It should therefore be allowed to continue.
That assessment is still true. Wild animals can be protected without banning an ancient and useful sport. There is still time for a compromise that can preserve both.

Joyce Lee Malcolm is Professor of History at Bentley College and author of Guns and Violence: The English Experience.

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Excellent analysis. A couple of points to add:

Not only are restrictions on firearms vote-losers for US politicians, especially Democrats, the opposite is also true - politicians who support sensible and regulated expansion of firearms rights - eg concealed-carry laws and the sunset of the ridiculous 'assault-weapons ban' - enjoy solid vote gains as a result.

Having lived in both places, I don't think that Britons sometimes grasp the scope of wild-game herds in the US. In my own state of Michigan, the white-tail deer population is at an all-time high, despite a yearly harvest upwards of a half-a-million animals in all classes. At this time of the year (approaching the rut), deer may be seen at all times of the day in all parts of the state, and they are a positive menace to traffic, with 60,000 reported collisions and upwards of 50 fatalities a year as a result of car-deer collisions - this in a state of some 15 million residents.

Regarding coyotes in the North-Eastern US - they never left, they've always been there. They only appear to be more numerous as suburbs move further and further into the country and these highly-adaptable animals find and exploit new food sources - and are thus more often observed. It's axiomatic that coyotes are seldom displaced, they almost always adapt to new circumstances - as anyone who as ever hunted them will attest.



Posted by: llamas at October 15, 2004 03:43 PM

By the way...
It's "That dog won't hunt" not "That dog don't hunt". There is a difference.

Posted by: Sam Boogliodemus at October 15, 2004 04:25 PM

No, the poster (linked in the article) says 'That dog don't hunt'. That's a 'correct' (ie, current, normal, accepted, widely-understood) US colloquialism, especially in the southern states, where this poster campaign is concentrated right now.

Two nations, common language . . . .



Posted by: llamas at October 15, 2004 04:54 PM

If you look at the link to the NRA campaign on this article it clearly shows the poster as "That dog don't hunt".

Posted by: James at October 15, 2004 04:57 PM

That subtle inference in the Kerry camp that guns for hunting are OK belies the step down the slippery slope - once guns are only permitted for sport, a single firearms related death is too many for simple sport and pleasure's sake. Take them away!

It's the hunting and self-defense connection noted in Dr. Malcolm's article that is the strong bond in America. I'll choose to hunt or not says the average American gun-owner, but my gun is also there should I need to defend my life and loved ones.

Sustenance, sport and self-defense were the reasons for owning guns in the early days, and remain reasons today.

MaverickNH (NH, where the state motto remains "Live free or die")

Posted by: MaverickNH at October 16, 2004 11:21 PM

Hunting is not only ancient and important part of the countryside mangaement it also has religious foundations, is it right to allow muslims to slaughter lamb and not honour the rites of the followers of the wild hunt (hunting with dogs on horseback) their fun too?

Posted by: simon at June 26, 2008 12:52 PM
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