Last 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.
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?
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?
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.