Grizzly bear
A grizzly bear, Ursus arctos horribilis, in Denali National Park, Alaska. Trophy hunters routinely pay $14,500 to guides for the chance to bag a grizzly. (Photo: Diliff, Wikimedia Commons)

As long as I can remember, I’ve wondered about the inner lives of animals in the wild. I spent many a Sunday evening sprawled wide-eyed on the living room floor mesmerized by Marlin Perkins’ “Wild Kingdom,” puzzling over the ways species exotic and familiar navigate their world.

The show pioneered the use of documentary footage to explain complex ecological interactions and raise awareness about the threats facing wildlife around the globe. I was barely five when I starting watching it, but the show had a profound effect on my view of the natural world. Far from the peaceable kingdom in my bedtime stories, Perkins gave me an object lesson in Tennyson’s nature red in tooth and claw.

I could never bring myself to watch the inevitable encounters between gazelle and cheetah, lion and wildebeest, Perkins’ avuncular narration doing little to mollify my discomfort. (His lessons in survival of the fittest included starving lions who never mastered the art of the hunt.) Still, I accepted them as the way of the wild, scenarios born of intricate ecological interactions that evolved over a time scale I had yet to grasp.

When a movie billed as an Alaska wilderness adventure came to town, my mother took me as a special treat. To her dismay and my horror, the movie turned out to be a wildlife snuff film, an orgy of caribou, moose and grizzlies being gunned down against a pristine wilderness backdrop. I spent most of it hiding my face in my mom’s shoulder.

You might think the movie’s title, “Alaskan Safari,” would have been a giveaway. But we weren’t big on hunting. For us, “safari” meant travel to exotic places to watch wildlife, not kill it.

Chilkat Valley, Alaska
The Chilkat Valley north of Haines, Alaska, is home to diverse species, including eagles, black and brown bears, wolves, wolverines and salmon. (Photo: Liza Gross)

I thought of that movie on a recent trip to Alaska, my first. Nearly everyone I met in the little town of Haines, a four-and-a-half-hour ferry ride north of Juneau, cited the rugged beauty of the landscape as the main attraction though disdain for rules, regulations and other people seems, for some, to run a close second.

In Haines, many people still make a living or stock their pantries from the resource-rich land. Most smoke, dry and can enough salmon to make it through the winter. Some take a moose during the three-week hunting season, more than enough meat to feed a family of four for a year.

The hunters I talked to pride themselves on their intimate knowledge of the landscape and its inhabitants, and on having the wherewithal to feed themselves from the marine and terrestrial bounty around them. They’re a different breed of hunter from the trophy hunters celebrated in “Alaskan Safari.”

Trophy hunters still travel to Alaska to shell out big bucks to the 539 big game outfitters registered in the state. Hunters pay thousands of dollars for the chance to shoot musk ox, caribou, polar bears (yes, polar bears), black bears, wolves, Dall’s sheep and of course grizzlies, which can command up to $14,500. (By state law, non-residents must hunt with a registered guide.)

Not surprisingly, the history of big game hunting in Alaska features a rogues’ gallery of guides deploying everything short of rocket launchers to guarantee kills. One technique uses low-flying planes to frighten animals into the path of waiting hunters.

As it turns out, that’s exactly what Ron Hayes, the director of “Alaskan Safari,” did to keep his clients happy. A US Fish and Wildlife Service agent called him “probably the most notorious bandit guide that ever lived,” after Hayes was convicted in 1987 for illegally hunting grizzlies by plane. Hayes was forced to forfeit several planes, fined thousands of dollars and served two years in jail. (While in jail, the same FWS officer convinced him to tell other hunters about the negative impacts of poaching in educational videos.)

Hayes now runs a fishing lodge in Alaska. On his Web site, he boasts about taking Jimmy Dean, Cornell Wilde, William Shatner and Lee Majors on hunts. He acknowledges that poaching was neither sporting nor ethical. “If I had to do it over again, I would do it legal,” he says. “But that doesn’t take away the fact that we were good at it.”

In a 2003 paper in the journal Visual Studies, two sociologists reviewed hundreds of photos in 14 popular hunting magazines, looking for themes in the photos of carcasses. They tested the notion in traditional hunting narratives that trophy displays pay tribute to the beauty of nature and wildlife.

“Instead of love and respect for nature and individual animals,” the researchers reported, “we found extreme objectification of animal bodies, with severed deer heads and cut-off antlers representative examples of the contradiction in the love-of-nature hunting stereotype.”

During my short stay in Haines, I learned how the Tlingits—who call themselves the People of the Tides—view the wildlife they’ve lived with for thousands of years. Like other indigenous people, they believe that all the animals (and the rivers, rocks and plants) have spirits just like us. They wear symbols of the animals to make their spirits feel more concrete.

The bear holds a special place in Tlingit mythology. Considered a close human relative, the bear symbolizes the connection between animals and humans.

Until recently, researchers knew very little about the inner lives of bears. But two preliminary studies published since August showed that captive black bears can “count”—recognize the number of dots in an image—and learn concepts, suggesting the average bear is indeed pretty smart. Study author Jennifer Vonk, a comparative psychologist at Oakland University in Michigan, told National Geographic News that bears have been neglected by cognitive scientists but “may show abilities similar to species more like humans.”

So bears are, as the Tlingit believe, a lot like us. Bears, however, hunt only to survive. They eat what they kill. That’s the way of nature.

Trophy hunters — people who kill for entertainment, or to gratify their egos — are a whole different breed.

Trophy Hunting: For the Love of Blood and Money 28 December,2012Liza Gross

  • marja

    trophy hunters are among the garbage, the debris of human race, murderers without a conscience and a human heart kindness and respect for the lives of others to. They should be eradicated from the earth forever.

  • You should educate yourself on wildlife management and how hunting is a tool used by wildlife biologists, federal wildlife and state wildlife agencies. Its not matter of ‘kill em boys’ hunting is strictly regulated. It’s also illegal to waste the meat of game animals. The percentage that hunters spend to go hunting accounts for tens of millions to wildlife agencies who use it for everything from wildlife management to habitat. Without that $$ from hunters where is that money going to come from? More taxes maybe?
    I know killing animals makes some sad and I agree shooting an animal for just its antlers is wrong. But ‘trophy’ hunters who use the meat as per law are just providing quality meat for people to eat. Understanding wildlife management requires and education on the subject. Many universities offer courses in that. However basing ones opinion on emotions is not logical or beneficial to wildlife or their habitat. I have watched large predators kill, including mountain lions, grizzlies, black bears, wolves, lynx, coyotes, mink, marten etc. And the savage death of their prey still shocks me after decades of watching it. Even as a hunter I hate to see any animal suffer. So please don’t sterotype hunters. We actually respect wildlife and all life a great deal and we put our $$$ where our mouth is. People who shoot just for a rack with no regard for the meat is a poacher/ slob hunters/ criminal. And if I see that I will turn them in to the Alaska state Troopers!

    • J Pez

      B. S. on the propaganda and the power play with $$. The facts are widely known that ecotourism could be more lucrative but it is being sabotaged by the sick climate of fear and violence. Who claims the high road morally while saying money justifies the suffering and killing of animals (in front of their families usually, we know they have feelings). So by that logic prostitution is the same as love? It’s ching-ching-ching!$!$!! It’s all good then!!

      Great article, and the logic of people who get turned on by killing animals then rationalize it are no better than child molesters, it’s like listening to the same thing except the final climax is death.

      So tired of the endless rationalizations, bragging with smirks, then respect for wildlife? Sick!!! You stereotype yourselves, your moral compass is obvious to the normal,..

    • Steve

      Same old hunter lies and deception. You “respect” wildlife,” so you shoot it…for FUN. It’s completely psychopathic! Hunting is a way for violent people to get away with murder. What serial killers do to people hunters do to animals. You don’t know what hunting is if you don’t know it’s murder. You “hate to see any animal suffer” but you cause it, over and over. You are sick and sickening.

    • Nate T

      Well said. I nearly stopped reading when she assured us that people pay to shoot Polar Bears in Alaska – which of course they don’t and haven’t since the 1970’s. There is no “fun” in taking a life for any hunter I have met in my life. There is awe, at times, at the experience of finding the animal you have searched for and the harvest does provide a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in knowing that you have connected in deeper way – if only for a short time – than most will ever know to the wild world that we once depended on for nearly everything.


Liza Gross

Liza Gross, an award-winning independent journalist and senior editor at the biomedical journal PLOS Biology, writes mostly about conservation and public and environmental health. She was a 2013 recipient of the NYU Reporting Award, a 2013 Dennis Hunt Health Journalism fellow and a 2015 USC Data Journalism fellow.

Read her previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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