Keepers of the game

Cabela'sLast Thursday, en route to south Jersey to visit family, we went a little out of our way to visit the new Cabela’s store in Hamburg, PA. Cabela’s is a retailer of outdoors gear, primarily for hunters and fishers. They call themselves an outfitter, but this is no back-of-beyond outfitters store; it’s a monstrosity. Pennsylvania had to outbid several of its neighbors to get it, offering the corporation all kinds of absurd tax breaks and subsidies. You can’t really call it a big box store, because it’s not boxy in shape. Instead, it’s built like an enormous lodge, rising to a point in order to make room for a two-storey-tall, artificial mountain at the center of the store that serves as a diorama for a collection of taxidermy mounts from all over North America. Trophies from other continents — mainly Africa — line the walls. There’s an entire elephant over against one wall, not far from the fish tanks.

The mountain in the store is a rocky crag bearing little resemblance to the long, low ridges we think of as mountains in Pennsylvania. In the photo you can see Kittatinny Ridge behind the bronze sculpture of a heroic frontiersman and an Indian in a canoe. Two hundred and fifty years ago, this mountain was indeed the frontier and the edge of Indian territory, where refugees from ethnic cleansing to the southeast and in surrounding states took temporary shelter. Today, however, Kittatinny Ridge is best known for the world-famous Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, which was started by an amateur ornithologist named Richard Pough who objected to the once-popular sport of shooting hawks and eagles on migration.

In 1929, Pennsylvania’s Game Commission placed a $5 price tag on the goshawk’s head–a grand sum in Depression years. Two years later, while Pough was a recent college graduate living in Philadelphia, he became one of a growing number of conservationists opposed to the widespread movement to eradicate wildlife predators, including predatory birds.

Pough heard of the place locals called “Hawk Mountain” and decided to visit. There he saw gunners stationed, shooting hundreds of passing hawks for sport. He returned to gather the carcasses lying on the forest floor and take photographs. Pough unsuccessfully tried to stop the shooting himself, but his photographs were eventually seen by a national conservation activist–New Yorker Rosalie Edge.

In 1934, Mrs. Edge came to Hawk Mountain and leased 1,400 acres. She installed a warden on the property, a New England bird enthusiast named Maurice Broun, and Maurice’s wife and bird conservation partner, Irma Broun. The shooting stopped immediately and the next year, Mrs. Edge opened the Sanctuary to the public as a place to see the beautiful but persecuted birds of prey. She purchased and deeded the 1,400 acres to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association, incorporated in 1938 as a non-profit organization in Pennsylvania.

The Cabela’s store is a huge tourist draw, as you can tell from the buses out front. There were at least as many schoolchildren there as we saw in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia the next day. Perhaps they were only stopping on the way to a field trip to Hawk Mountain. As you may have gathered by now, Cabela’s doesn’t just sell guns and boots (we were there for the boots), it sells a fantasy. A fantasy based on a romantic, even sentimental idea about nature that goes back close to a thousand years, I would argue, to when the word “forest” still meant “a hunting preserve for the king,” and “wild” was still indistinguishable from “willed” — as in “sovereign, opposed to one’s own will.” In the Middle Ages, the relationship between king and lion was more than symbolic; a ruler proved his kingliness by killing large predators, and substituting himself for them. We all know from Robin Hood the sorts of punishments that were meted out to mere mortals who killed the king’s deer. When Scots-Irish and other oppressed European tribesmen emigrated to places like Pennsylvania, they gloried in their new-found freedom to slaughter game. Every man could be a king! In practical terms, of course, the fur-traders depicted in the Cabela’s sculpture were lowly serfs to an international market, but we’re talking about fantasy, then and now.

bear and moose

I am far from opposed to hunting, as regular readers of this blog will know. I don’t hunt myself, mostly because I don’t think I’d have the patience, but I do like venison, and I love the whole idea of eating wild animals — except for those near the top of the food chain whose populations cannot support much hunting pressure, and which are generally not very good to eat in any case. Bears are kind of an in-between case — they can be carnivores, but in the main they’re scavengers, like us. Eating a bear, to me, would be almost like eating an ape or monkey: uncomfortably close to cannibalism. But I’d probably still try bear meat if someone offered it.

Does killing something inevitably objectify it? A lot of people would say yes, but most American Indians — and a lot of other indigenous peoples around the world — would probably disagree. From what I have seen, some Anglo-American hunters are also capable of killing without disrespecting an animal or treating it as some sort of walking target. And many of the hunters I know here in central Pennsylvania do express admiration for large predators — though that doesn’t necessarily mean they’d want to see the return of wolves and cougars and the competition for game that would ensue. Even coyotes are vilified in some quarters for their occasional predation on white-tailed deer fawns.

Which is not to romanticize indigenous hunters, either: their sacred stories often include something very similar to the Biblical story of the Fall, reflecting, I think, a nearly universal recognition of a tragic aspect to existence. And Indians no less than whites fantasized about a land somewhere over the horizon where all the game animals were plentiful and offered their bodies for food, again and again, with no adverse effect: the tragic vision’s comic, utopian twin. From an ecological perspective, both these visions contain elements of truth.

It is of course no longer legal to shoot hawks and eagles, and most of us have learned to refer to killer whales as orcas, but our culture retains a deep ambivalence toward predators. Animal rights advocates no less than trophy hunters strike me as being guilty of over-sentimentalizing nature. If it is wrong to eat other animals, where does that put the true carnivores? Should we pray for their reincarnation as human beings so they can become as enlightened as we are?

Tyger, tyger

Then there’s science. It may seem hard to believe now, but the “widespread movement to eradicate wildlife predators” mentioned in the quote from the Hawk Mountain website was instigated by professional wildlife managers in the name of science. It was once accepted wisdom that predators had to be eliminated for the betterment of nature. Mother Nature — the condescending term was as popular then as it is today — was like a little old lady, and wildlife managers and foresters were the boy scouts helping her across the street. And while it would be nice to think that we know better now, the ongoing aerial gunning of wolves in Alaska suggests that this mentality is far from extinct.

Can you tell which of the above two pictures was taken in the Academy of Natural Sciences and which was taken in Cabela’s? Does it matter? If a trophy is a kind of fetish, a repository of power and passport to an eternal frontier where the owner can be top predator, what about all those stuffed animals in a natural history museum? They’re there for educational purposes, we’re told, but what exactly can we learn from something we can’t even touch? They might as well be made out of wax or plastic — and why aren’t they?

I’m not saying that killing the odd bird or mammal for a scientific collection is going to push a species over the edge — except that, whoops, that is basically what happened with the ivory-billed woodpecker around the turn of the 20th century. What I’m concerned about here is the message we’re sending with all these lifelike dead animals, whether in a sporting goods megastore or in a museum. Is this how we want kids to think of nature: as a parade of attractive collectibles, with only fake mountains or painted backdrops for habitat? As long as breeding populations of these charismatic critters survive in zoos, or in small, scattered parcels of natural habitat — people might think — isn’t that enough?

waste not

There is another way, of course, and this photo illustrates one of them. Natural history museums may lure kids in with fossils, but I think they can really have an impact on their worldviews with great interactive exhibits like “The Scoop on Poop.” We had two seven-year-olds with us, and they loved it. Even us alleged grown-ups had fun testing our knowledge of poop-related trivia, or finding out how many hours it would take an elephant to eliminate our weight in dung. There were no stuffed elephants in evidence, either, just a pile of very realistic plastic poop.

It wasn’t only the interactive nature of the exhibit that pleased me; I thought the content was very appropriate, too. What better way to instill a sense of wonder in seven-year-olds then by letting them hold a 100 million-year-old fossilized dinosaur butt nugget? And if they manage to absorb the lesson that in nature there is no such thing as “waste” — if they begin to perceive even the seemingly most disgusting or threatening things as necessary and valuable — then in a few more years they might be able to teach all of us a thing or two.

Delaware Bay

24 Comments


  1. I’ve been to the Cabela’s in Michigan, and it was a positively surreal experience to go from earthy crunchy Ann Arbor to the Mecca of all things macho. I found myself equally fascinated & troubled by their taxidermies; thanks for making the connection between hunting trophy & natural history display.

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  2. Cabela’s is selling a fetish more than a fantasy. Capitalism fetishizes everything, and then it sells the fetishes. That market-driven distillation of all the best-selling parts of nature is on display in Cabela’s. Maybe that’s the best way to get to kids and old people on tour buses–I really couldn’t say. Maybe this goods & services mode of thinking is the best way to plug into their worldview.

    I’m not the first person to wonder how capitalism and a regard for nature mix. What do you think of the Nature Conservancy? I occasionally send them a (small) check, but I also think that the NC practices the terminus of capitalist logic: to save something (aka give it tangible value), you must purchase it. The same idea is in play at Cabela’s: to be in nature, you must buy things. Bonhoeffer said that even grace is costly.

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  3. There is a Cabela’s near here(NW Iowa). Never been.
    The main thing that I have against hunting and fishing is the time that you have to get up to go do it. My friends tell me bear is a little greasy.

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  4. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the whole message, but what exactly is the point of this whole thing? Cabela’s intends to, in essence, sell a product. So what is wrong with wanting to excite the mind with visual and hopefully information on what exactly the “customer” longs for with, at least, an attempt to preserve the outdoor lifestyle and educate the next generation. The average visit to any Cabela’s “megastore” is three hours, granted the stores are very large but they also have huge catalogs and internet sales so why do people stop at the store….As I said before I’m no genius and could be completely misconstruing the whole message being sent here, but just thought I’d make an attempt at clearing any unnecessary scrutiny from what I think to be an amazing store and vision from the outdoors.

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  5. Many outdoorsmen (and women) of Pocahontas County dream of a trip to Cabelas, but I’m not sure. It sounds like a shopping mall (albeit full of cooler stuff than The Gap and Banana Republic). Now, the Cabelas catalog, that’s what my mom and dad would have called “A Wish Book.”

    When I was a kid, what you couldn’t get at Woolworths came from the Montgomery Ward and J.C. Penney’s catalogs. They were magical volumes, full of amazing things: Guitars, autoharps, toys, underwear, winter coats–things you would never have coveted on your own. You’d take your money into the catalog office in town, and in a few days (or a couple of weeks), your package would come from Chicago on the train.

    My first camera, all my winter coats and boots, my Christmas presents, all came from the Wish books. Modern mail order’s catalogs are depauparate by comparison, except for the Cabelas catalog. You’ve got binoculars, GPS systems, long underwear, Lucite toilet seats with fishing lures embedded in them, ammunition, fishing poles, everything a girl dreams about.

    You can even order a furnished cabin. Shopping in a store is mundane, compared to daydreaming with a Wish Book.

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  6. Lorianne – Have we talked about Cabela’s before? Somehow I had an inkling you’d comment on this, not sure why. Anyway, glad you liked. Your point about the machismo is very well taken.

    Fred – I *like* getting up early! It’s the sitting still for hours that I don’t think I could handle.

    Brett – I agree, your language is more exact than mine. Though I do mention fetishes, I guess I stuck with “fantasy” because I thought more people would figure out what I was talking about – though annonymous’s comment has me worried that maybe I failed (about which more anon). The word I think I was missing is commodification.

    The Nature Conservancy? Well, they do do a lot of good work – and I have some problems with some of the compromises they’ve made, destroying some lands in order to save them. But in general, I’m afraid the conservancy/land trust model is one of the best tools in the conservation tool kit right now. That may mean buying up the development rights, for example, rather than buying the land outright. But quite often private lands can be managed better than public lands, depending on the managing agency. Currently Forest Service and BLM lands are managed almost as fiefdoms for the extractive industries, with taxpayers underwriting road construction etc. A huge giveaway. A bottom-line mentality would actually represent an improvement in the way our public lands are managed right now!

    annonymous – Thanks for the comment. Contrary opinions are always welcome here, and I’d encourage you to adopt a distinctive handle if you comment again so people will be able to identify all your comments as originating from a single person.

    As I just said to Brett, I’m sorry if my language wasn’t as clear as it could’ve been. I guess what I was trying to do with this essay was explore some of our cultural heritage as it relates to (among other things) the hunting mystique — and let’s face it, nobody plays to that mystique on quite the grand scale that Cabela’s does. I wasn’t really attacking Cabela’s per se: if I’d wanted to do that, I would’ve said something about how it’s driving smaller, locally owned or operated stores and sportsmen’s shows out of business. I would’ve dwelt a bit more on its Disneyland approach to nature, which I object to because it undersells true wilderness, which includes things like longhorn beetles, banana slugs and jack-in-the-pulpit.

    I suspect we agree on the importance of preserving a connection to the outdoors. I think it has to be more than just a lifestyle, though, and maybe that’s something that bothers me about “selling a product,” as you put it. Though I don’t mind buying boots or other stuff from Cabela’s, I am a little concerned that it and other stores like it (Dick’s, Gander Mountain, etc.) are sending the message that you need special gear to get out in the woods. And the message that getting out in the woods is mainly a guy thing. I’m enough of an idealist to feel that everybody should — actually, must — practice getting lost in the wilderness once in a while.

    By the way, I see that your ISP is, um, Cabela’s. What exactly is your relationship to the store?

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  7. Rebecca – Yeah, thanks for mentioning that. It’s quite a catalogue, and I’m sure that’s played an enormous role in the success of Cabela’s megastores. As you suggest, looking at such catalogues has been a part of the rural American experience for well over a century now — especially in places with long winters. It doesn’t seem that long ago that Sears finally did away with its catalogue. I suppose all that stuff’s online now – except for the one third of all Americans who don’t use computers. And probably a much higher percentage among rural folks.

    For me, as a kid, it was seed catalogues. Guerney’s catalogue was the best – all those little pictures of fancy of impossible-looking vegetables! They were based in South Dakota, so I think they understood what a catalogue means. But I did get one of those Sears catalogue autoharps for Christmas one year.

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  8. Getting lost once in awhile is something is that is so important and so strange for many people. In the wilderness or in a city. Helps you come alive. I once a asked a teacher of mine to explain loss and gain to me. He said only when you lose will you gain. If you lose everything you gain everything.

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  9. Fred – Thanks for that exegesis. I mean, that’s the way this strikes me: as an exegesis on all my favorite parts of the Bible (and the Daoist classics too).

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  10. I wanted to mention to you that Gurney’s catalog use to be published in Yankton , SD which is about 60 miles northwest of here. My old French teacher use to work there as a copywriter for the seed catalog.

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  11. Far out! (I guess I misspelled “Gurney,” didn’t I?) I tend to think of Iowa as “midwest”‘ and South Dakota as “far west,” so it’s always a bit of a shock to realize that they adjoin.

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  12. We really are located near where farms end and ranches begin. In the Dakotas the people often speak of themselves as being from west river or east river. That is a description of which side of the Missouri River that they live on.

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  13. In Missouri the Bass Pro Shops are the cultural-ecological equivalents of Cabela. Same faux-museum atmosphere, theme-parks of palatable and safe wildness. With little if any connection with the local landscape, these mall-like establishments promote myths of Western wilderness, an outdoor Land of Cockaigne.

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  14. Land of Cockaigne, exactly! Or I guess the American West version would be Big Rock Candy Mountain.

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  15. It would, I hazard to guess, be easier to get lost in the aisles of a Cabela’s “store” than to get lost in the Northeast woods. Even if one wanted to. To “find” oneself, just listen for highway noise. Now I did get (sorta) lost once while hiking a peak in the Green Mountains of Vermont. But the sense of being lost was only momentary, replaced by the direction indicated by a trail marker. I visited the Pennsylvania Cabela’s store not long after it opened. At that time, the Schuylkill County commissioners were still “sponsoring” public bus service to this tourist destination. The bus service, though, didn’t work out in the long run. The interest just wasn’t there. Shoppers, it seems, would much rather drive themselves to this destination.

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  16. Y0u have to go off-trail to get lost in the Pennsylvania woods. and it helps if it’s foggy. And at night. And if you’re hard of hearing.

    I can’t believe anyone ever thought that bus service to a Cabela’s would pay off. The rugged individualists who shop there would of course all own their own trucks or SUVs.

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  17. There is a Cabelas north of Dallas that is just like that. I recently went there to see their fishing docks on an artificial lake they have built next to the store where they have fishing classes. I was going to install a dock on our property and the builder suggested theirs as an example of one way to build it.

    I was amazed. The dioramas in the center were much better than the ones at the local natural history museums. Lots of animals that I had never seen before. And I bet more kids see them than ever visit the museums.

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  18. Pretty seductive, wasn’t it? It sounds as if you had pretty good service — and I have to admit, we got excellent help in the boot department, too (my mother has arthritic feet, and not too many companies make hiking boots for women in any case). This is contrast with smaller big box stores such as Lowe’s or Best Buy, where few of the employees have a clue about anything, IMO.

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  19. Hi! I’m refered here by Bev today. I’ve never been to a Cabela’s, but REI or GI Joes(which just dropped the “GI” to just be” Joes”, in order to be more pc–ugh) would come close, but not much, way out here in Or-ee-gone. I do get Cabelas catalog, and dream of stuff just like Rebecca wrote. But I will say that everything I’ve bought from them (their brand)–raingear, backpack, boots–has worn like nails and was a reasonable price for the great quality and handy design. I certainly agree that you dont’ need a lot of stuff to get out into the woods, BUT quality and good design in the things you do have goes a long way, and you ain’t gonna get that at Wal-Mart.

    About the kids stopping in the school buses. It is probably free for the kids to walk in and see the animals, which someone said were better than the local museum(which is not free, or at least most museums have admission). So their stopping is maybe more a statement about the budget of the school district than their choice of field trip destinations(Cabelas versus museum).
    And even the idea of a field trip is becoming an endangered species, too. I don’t think most kids are thinking about how “fake” the trophy display is, they’re just wowed to stand next to a tiger, maybe touch it(I certainly would sneak a stroke)–they would imagine it alive, and it maybe wanting to bite their arm off…and how that would feel, or maybe they’re imagining they are that strong animal, running fast or crunching prey. Perhaps that circles back to the fetish image…in any case that imagining is a good thing, which may be difficult with glass or bars or concrete moats between the bear and the child.

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  20. Hi, Celeste! I’m glad to hear you say that about Cabela’s products, because I’m wearing their boots now. I hope they last longer that the year or so that hiking boots usually last for me. Couldn’t agree more about Wal-Mart – shopping there is often penny-wise, pound-foolish.

    I suppose you’re right about school field trips. I do think they were probably en route to Hawk Mountain, though. No, I don’t think they’re thinking about how fake the mounts were. That’s what bothers me: the focus on the critter divorced from consideration of the habitat. But it has its good side too, as a spur to the imagination – no doubt.

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  21. nebraska has three cabelas. in kearney sidney and la vista

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  22. Solid information, many thanks to the writer. It is unexplainable to me now, but in general, the usefulness and significance is overwhelming. Very much thanks again and goodluck!

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