The Game We Play

The “sport” in hunting isn’t about a ball game, it’s about being a conservationist

By Rob Breeding

I realized the other day it was time I reclaim the phrase: sport hunting.

So you know, I’m reclaiming it from myself. A while back I got caught up in the semantics of the label. Sport hunting suggested something frivolous. And calling prey “game,” what was that all about?

Such are the hazards of being a college professor. It’s our job to overanalyze, and I overanalyzed sport hunting to mean something other than what it really means. Hunters aren’t suggesting hunting is some kind of game, but context is everything. And in this context it means something different than the Yankees and Sox squaring off at Fenway.

In the context of hunting, sport means something different than the one non-hunters associate with the word. In this I’m stealing a little bit from outdoor writer Ron Spomer, whose Facebook post on the topic got my gears whirling about this semantic reclamation project a few days ago.

Spomer promised a more in-depth treatment of the subject at a later date. While we wait, here’s my take.

Sport, as it is commonly understood, is a competitive activity in which sides compete, usually for the entertainment of others. That pretty much describes the battle between the Yankees and Sox, but not a bowhunter pursuing elk.

In hunting, at least in the grisly business of the kill, there’s no real entertainment value. You’ll see plenty of kill shots in hunting television programs, but most of those are more cringe-inducing than they are entertaining.

A lot of it is in how death is handled. I’m usually fine with the way kill shots are presented in quality hunting programs such as Steven Rinella’s “MeatEater.” Unfortunately, for every “MeatEater,” there’s probably a dozen programs such as the one that pretty much turned me off outdoor television for good. In it, a hunter waited in a blind set up next to a watering trough, and then shot a pronghorn buck as it came in to drink.

It wasn’t just that the guy set up on what was essentially liquid bait. That’s a separate ethical discussion. It just seemed such an empty exercise. Pronghorn capture my fancy more than any other big game animal, largely because the species is so uniquely an animal of place. When I hunt antelope I want to connect to place, a place that’s flat, wide open and reeking of sagebrush.  And I surely don’t want to be sitting on my butt peering through a slit in a camouflage tent. I want to be devoured by the pronghorn’s big open.

I see little entertainment value in hunting. “MeatEater” is really more educational anyway, but there’s another inescapable difference. Both the Yankees and the Sox choose to compete. Choice is a luxury denied the elk, however.

I’m reclaiming sport hunting nonetheless, thanks in part to Spomer’s inspiration. He reminded me what sport really means when we’re talking about hunting. Actually, he reminded me what’s even more important: what we don’t mean.

We don’t mean “market” hunting, the bygone practice of killing unlimited wildlife for the purpose of bringing game to the market or restaurant for purchase. We don’t mean unsustainable hunting, the kind that drove the passenger pigeon to extinction. We don’t mean hunting by any tactic no matter how unfair. Sport hunters place restrictions on themselves, rules we observe even when it means we are less likely to succeed.

And the rules and regulations of sport hunting are guided — always — by science-based management. When game populations tumble, we reduce or eliminate our kills until the population recovers.

What I realized after reading Spomer’s post is that I have been using “fair-chase” hunting as a synonym for “sport” hunting all along.

It’s just that the “sport” in hunting isn’t about a ball game, it’s about being a conservationist.

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