“Oh gross! Did you see how that guy had the head of some deer he killed mounted right next to his dinner table? That is so weird. It’s… like… cult-ish or something. You’d have to be pretty sick to want to look at the face of some animal you killed all day (shudder).”
I was in the backwoods of West Virginia with a group of privileged students from a San Francisco Bay Area university. We were in West Virginia on a ‘service’ trip1 and were walking through a valley visiting homes and asking if residents had any chores we could help out with. Most people said ‘no’ rather quickly — having outsiders mull around was understandably of little interest to them. However, one of the men, who apparently lived alone, invited us in. He didn’t have any chores but he did want to chat.
This guy, like many others in West Virginia, was a hunter. He had a number of deer heads mounted on his wall and was happy to talk about hunting. Of the group of twelve students, I was the only one who had any connection to the activity: my dad and I had twice tagged along with my uncles and grandfather who more regularly hunt. So I ended up spearheading the chat about hunting. It was a fine, if unremarkable conversation.
Yet as soon as we were out of the cabin and out of earshot, members of the group voiced their disapproval. Their disdain was not about hunting, though. Everyone was fine with hunting for food. The mounted heads on the wall were another story. As illustrated by the quote above, some even felt quite intensely negative about the mounted heads. Hunting was fine, but parading about or glorifying the kill — acts the heads were taken to symbolize — wasn’t.
While I didn’t feel as strongly as some of my compatriots about the issue, I too thought it was a bit weird — a bit uncouth — to have kill photos and mounted heads on the wall. Why the need to display the kill? Wasn’t eating the meat enough? Isn’t a bit savage to keep reminders death so close at hand? Isn’t it sort of disrespectful to the animal? If I ever hunted and ever successfully killed anything, I told myself, I certainly wouldn’t do that.
And for the first couple of years of our hunting endeavors, Robyn and I still held these opinions. None of the jackrabbits we killed had even a single photo taken of them. We saved no mementos from those kills. We decided that if we were to kill a deer, we might snap a picture or two of it for our personal memory, but we certainly wouldn’t hold up the antlers. We also would certainly not save parts of the dead animal for display on our mantel. It just wasn’t a proper thing for compassionate hunters to do — to take glory in the kill.
Yet, over time our thinking on the issue has evolved. We’ve now decided to take photos of our kills and to even mount parts of their dead bodies in our living room. What changed?
It’s pretty simple, really. We just applied one of our core hunting ethics — make as much use as possible of the animals we kill — more rigorously. You see, we have from the beginning desired to eat everything possible off of the animals we hunt, to consume all that we can and not let any nutritive value of the animal be lost. This is the primary reason that I hunt. However, the animals we kill aren’t just an assemblage of macro and micro-nutrients. They are also beautiful. There is great value to be had in preserving this beauty by not letting the animal’s hide go to waste.2 There is also value to preserving the complex emotions surrounding the kill in a photograph. Seeing a photo of the event much more powerfully elicits emotive memories… memories of sadness at the kill, exultation at success, and of the exhaustion of the hunt.
If we disallow kill photos and mounted heads, we disallow preserving an important aesthetic value of the animals we harvest. We disallow making full use of our kill.
Still, though, there might be a handful of seemingly reasonable objections to kill photos and mounted heads.
For example one might question: ‘Isn’t doing so disrespectful of the animal? I’m a pretty handsome guy/gal (or so I’d like to think) and I certainly don’t want my head mounted on a wall when I die. Why is it OK to do this to a deer?’
This question highlights a common logical fallacy often seen in arguments opposed to hunting: the tendency to anthropomorphize animals, making inappropriate ethical parallels as a result. Deer lack the developed prefrontal cortex to be able to have such a forward thinking concern as what will happen to their body after death. Only humans seem to be capable of worrying about this. As a result, that you might prospectively evaluate having your head mounted on a wall to be disrespectful to your wishes does not imply that doing so would be disrespectful to a deer.
There are other responses I could make to this question (like your inability to care about where your head is mounted after your death, given that you’ll be dead and all…) but I’ll leave it at that for now.
A second question might be: ‘How can you see beauty in the preserved body of a dead animal? Isn’t that still sort of sick?’
For many years of my life, even when I found hunter-killed mounts off-putting, I enjoyed the beauty of animal mounts I would see in natural history museums or in park ranger offices. This distinction seems to be fairly common: an animal mounted in a museum is beautiful, majestic even. But a hunter-killed animal mounted in their own home isn’t kosher. Recognizing now that many animals mounted in museums were actually killed by hunters and donated or were roadkill whose meat otherwise went to waste, I can’t help but see the hypocrisy in my previous position. I supported mounting animals in museums for me to learn about the creatures and enjoy their beauty but was against hunters mounting their harvest for their own aesthetic enjoyment. It was the preservation of the personal kill that was the real issue I was put off by.
But I shouldn’t have been put off by this. After all, I wasn’t put off by someone eating an animal that they personally killed — in fact doing exactly that was why I wanted to become a hunter. Along those lines, if I was enjoying the beauty of a museum mount that someone else had killed, wouldn’t it be all the more valuable to enjoy the beauty of an animal that I had killed? My stance on the issue was clearly inconsistent with my stated values.
If you think that it is ‘sick’ to display a preserved animal in a museum for its aesthetic value, then you can apply consistent logic and find a hunter doing so also ‘sick’. However, few people find such museum pieces off-putting.
Finally one might ask: ‘Doesn’t posting kill photos on the web invite people’s scorn of hunting and hunters more broadly? Shouldn’t we avoid it for that reason?’
It’s a fact: kill photos and images of mounted heads stir up all sorts of negativity towards hunting around the web. However, I think that the points I lay out above leave those who would argue against preserving the kill via photos or mounts with a stance resting on shaky logical foundations. I also believe in the importance of educating the public about the reasons for why kill photos and mounted heads should be preferred. I was once on the other side of this debate and wish I had come across these logical points earlier in life. I wish that I had taken more effort to preserve the beauty and memory of the jackrabbits I killed earlier in my hunting career. Had I not been misguided in my thinking about preserving the kill, I would still have those items to enjoy and share today, enshrining and making use of the beauty of those jacks.
So should hunters share the photos of their kill on social media? Sure, just try to make them not too gory — gore is something that takes some getting used to, even for hunters. And try to treat the event with the respect it deserves. How the photo is taken can convey much about your level of respect for your kill (see here for a great discussion of this topic). If you get any flak for sharing respectful photos of your kill or for mounting heads on the wall, feel free to link your critics to this post. I’ll happily engage in considerate discussion in the comments.
The other day, when I ate the amazing backstrap that Robyn cooked from her recent deer, the photos from the kill and the deer’s antlers on the mantel both instilled how local, how personal, and how emotional consumption of meat can be. I plan to preserve many though surely not all of my kills via photos and taxidermy to allow the memories of the animals and their beauty to live on.
- Looking back on the trip now, I guess it could more accurately be called a ‘cultural tourism’ trip where we helped a few people with some stuff. Spring break in the boonies. Nowadays, I’m a bit conflicted about such trips. ↩
- My primary reason for hunting is to procure meat for my table. While I think it is important to make use of the other parts of the animal I won’t directly consume, these parts are of secondary importance to me. Making use of the hide or antlers of an animal is optional, personal consumption of the meat is not. This preference leads me to support hunting aimed at putting meat in the freezer, but not to support hunting aimed primarily at garnering a hide or set of antlers. If I am not personally going to consume the animal, then I won’t kill it. I don’t see myself ‘trophy’ hunting for this reason. ↩