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Golden retriever hunting dog with sandhill crane in his mouth


One of the human activities that kills the most nonhuman animals is hunting. There are no statistics on how many animals are killed by hunters. However, we know that in the US alone more than 13 million people aged 16 and over are registered hunters.1 If each hunter killed only one animal per year, the kill count would be in the tens of millions; as it is, hunters kill many animals every year, so the actual number of deaths worldwide may be in the hundreds of millions, if not billions.2

Some criticize hunting for the fact that there are hundreds of human victims (either killed or injured) of hunting worldwide every year. Some of these victims are hunters themselves, while others are simply passers by. However, if we reject speciesism or simply take into account the interests of nonhuman animals, we don’t need any of those reasons to oppose hunting. We just need to point out that this practice harms nonhuman animals in many different ways.

Whether hunters try to justify their killing by citing human deaths caused by wild animals, by making conservationist claims, by claiming that it’s acceptable to hunt as long as the animals’ bodies are eaten, or simply because of the pleasure it brings them, the fact remains that hunting is morally unacceptable if we consider the interests of nonhuman animals. Hunted animals endure fear and pain, and then are deprived of their lives. Understanding the injustices of speciesism and the interests of nonhuman animals makes it clear that human pleasure cannot justify nonhuman animals’ pain.


Different ways of hunting

There is a range of animals who are killed by hunting. Hunters kill virtually all kinds of large animals in what is called “big-game hunting.” Victims include animals such as elephants, bears, rhinoceroses, and lions. There are other forms of “trophy hunting” that target small birds and mammals. Today hunters usually kill animals with rifles, though in some countries it has been a tradition to hunt certain animals with dogs who not only help catch but also kill the prey. In other cases, the victims are hunted with bows and arrows, or even spears.

Hunters kill animals in the countryside close to where they live, or travel to where there are other, different animals. In other cases, hunters go to private lands and pay the owners to hunt on their property. On some ranches, animals are kept for hunters who pay to kill them. This is known as a captive hunt or a “canned hunt.” Animals kept in private holdings are sometimes bought from specialist dealers, though in many cases they are purchased from circuses when the animals are old and unable to perform, or from zoos or other shows with animals. These animals, who are often tame and accustomed to being around humans, can be killed very easily.

Hunting also happens on safaris. These hunts are expensive; customers may hunt for several days, during which they are accompanied by professional hunters as well as guides and porters. The targets of safari hunts are rare and exotic animals.

In 2005, a controversy arose when a web-based company announced it was providing an online hunting service, which would allow customers to kill animals through the use of webcams and remote-controlled weaponry. This way of killing animals, dubbed “internet hunting,” remains legal in some areas despite extensive criticism.3

Some forms of hunting are considered traditional because the communities in which they are carried out have been hunting animals for a long time, even if the methods used to capture and kill the animals are no longer traditional (as in the case of the North American Makah people hunting whales with motor boats and rifles). Animals, whether killed through traditional or modern means, suffer and die either way.

While some forms of hunting take place legally, others do not. Those who hunt illegally are called “poachers.” They may do it for fun or for economic reasons. In some countries including the US, poachers may kill as many animals as legal hunters do. Poachers are often derided by hunters who kill animals legally. However, it makes no difference whether the death and suffering of animals is legal or not. If we fully consider the interests of nonhuman animals, we should oppose all forms of killing, both legal and illegal. Both cause the same harms, and in this respect are identical.


Conservationism and hunting

One attempt to justify hunting is that hunters do to animals what animals do to each other. Against this, it might be pointed out that nonhuman predators cannot reflect on their actions, while human hunters can. But the main point is that it’s true that in the wild there’s much suffering for natural reasons, but our response to this shouldn’t be to increase that suffering, but, rather, to reduce it whenever possible. The fact that animals are already being harmed in certain ways is not a reason or a justification to do more harm. Instead, we should try to help animals.

In other cases, it’s argued that hunting is necessary to regulate animal populations in the wild. This claim is based on the idea that nonhuman animals matter only as units or elements of the environment.4 It assumes a conservationist viewpoint that values the conservation of ecosystems as more important than individual sentient beings. What this stance fails to recognize is that animals can suffer, while ecosystems can’t. This standard conservationist position is endorsed by the WWF, the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, the National Audubon Society, the Wilderness Society, the Wildlife Legislative Fund of America, the North American Wildlife Foundation, and many other conservationist organizations. There are also many environmentalist organizations that reject certain forms of hunting, but will nevertheless defend others because they are traditional, or are considered necessary to “control” certain animal populations. Examples of such organizations include Greenpeace and a number of Green Parties from different countries.

Such views are speciesist, that is to say, they are biased against animals, since it’s not the attitude that is maintained generally with regards to human beings. Humans are never killed in order to preserve an ecosystem. Ecosystems are insentient: they cannot feel pain, and are important only insofar as they make the lives of feeling creatures better or worse. Nonhuman animals are feeling creatures. Moral precedence should be given to animals over ecosystems, just as it is given to humans. This is why hunting to conserve a particular ecosystem configuration is not a legitimate reason to kill animals.

Due to the way population dynamics work, killing animals in order to regulate population size is problematic, if not contradictory. According to the predation-prey interactions studied by the Lotka-Volterra equations,5 when a certain population of animals is reduced in this way, that reduction can only be temporary because the prey population will increase rapidly as soon as the predation is reduced or eliminated as long as there are adequate resources. This means that the population of animals is never really driven to lower numbers in a stable way. In fact, the only way to guarantee that the population rate will not continue to increase back to the original rate is to decimate it beyond the level at which it can survive. Hunters are aware of this, and they claim that killings must be carried out regularly and on a permanent basis, like “cutting the grass.” Under the label of “wildlife management” programs, different environmental agencies actually promote the breeding of certain animals, so they can profit from hunters who will pay to kill them.

In some cases, animals are introduced to new environments for the express purpose of being hunted. Animals who are moved from certain areas to others frequently transmit diseases to other animal populations. Animals from foreign habitats can carry illnesses and immunities that local animals do not have. An example of this is chronic wasting disease (a serious neurological condition) in North America which spread to local deer and elk when captive-bred deer and elk were moved to different zones. Not only can both old and new populations suffer from new illnesses, but the animals who were moved are also vulnerable to mass extermination if they are later declared a foreign and invasive species.

Some animals, such as rodents, foxes, and boars are hunted and killed because they are considered to be “vermin” or “pests.” Their designation as “vermin” is subjective: they are called this simply because their interests (often vital interests) conflict with human interests, which may be rather trivial.6


How animals are harmed due to hunting

Animals killed by hunters are deprived of their lives, and therefore of any possible future enjoyment. In addition to losing their lives, the victims of hunting suffer from fear and stress during the chase, and those who survive are often injured. Sometimes the victims are parents with dependent offspring, and their children are doomed to die as well, slowly, of starvation


Animal suffering during the hunt

Hunted animals such as deers suffer extreme stress and are forced to experience conditions which are far outside their normal limits. When chased, deers run for their lives to the point of exhaustion.7 They do this out of fear, which increases as they realize they aren’t able to escape. They suffer psychological terrors the whole time until they die.

The fear of death is horrible. Most of us will accept this as common sense. However, we needn’t rely only on received wisdom and intuition. This is something that has been scientifically assessed as well. Scientists have identified indicators of stress in animals and have used them to examine the stress levels experienced by ungulates living in the wild.

One such indicator is the level of stress hormones such as cortisol.8 Hunted animals have been found to have cortisol concentrations that indicate great physiological and psychological stress. In one study, cortisol levels of hunted deers were at levels higher than any that had ever before been observed in deers, even after strenuous exercise. Such levels are extremely hard to explain if we don’t conclude that they are due to a very high level of psychological stress.9 Other indicators include muscle damage, damage to red blood cells, and depletion of the glycogen that converts to glucose needed for powering muscles.10

There is a consensus among scientists that deers are likely to suffer very significantly during the final stages of the hunt as the deers are repeatedly subjected to periods of extreme physical effort and their muscles begin to fail. In addition, the high body temperature of tested deers is consistent with high levels of stress, as deer physiology is not well adapted to long periods of exertion, but rather to short bursts of running.9

These observations provide evidence that deers are experiencing psychological as well as physical stress. During a hunt, deers have no choice whether or not to continue; they are forced to run beyond their normal capacity until they no longer can. Deers are driven by the fear of capture and death. Something similar happens to other animals, such as elks, mooses, and other herbivores who are chased by hunters.

Other smaller animals suffer just as much when hunted. Even carnivores can also be extremely stressed during a hunt. Research on trapped foxes showed pronounced physiological stress responses which increase with proximity of humans.7

Many hunters, including fox hunters, say they are fond of dogs. This is paradoxical, since foxes are genetically similar to dogs. We have reason to assume that both species have a similar ability to experience pain and suffering.

Foxes can also be chased until they are exhausted, and may be wounded several times before they die.7 Wounding (as opposing to killing) rates can be as high as 48% when using a rifle, and 60% when using a shotgun. Even skilled marksman often miss their targets.11

Moreover, foxes also suffer significantly when they are hunted with dogs. The practice is legally forbidden in the UK, but is sometimes done there anyway. It is not banned in other places.

When chased by hounds, a fox may attempt to escape underground. A terrier is often sent down the hole to hold the fox at bay while hunters dig out the fox. The fox, unable to escape, will experience high levels of fear which increase over time.12

While imprisoned belowground, fights may break out between the foxes and their captors. Foxes killed by hounds suffer profound trauma inflicted by multiple dog bites.13 This activity of setting dogs on foxes has become a sport in its own right and is similar to dog fighting. It is not very consistent to reject dog fighting yet accept fox hunting.

Suffering is not exclusive to foxes, of course. Other predators, such as minks (which are also traditionally hunted in several countries), can suffer significantly when they are hunted.14

Smaller animals such as rabbits and hares are hunted around the world. In some countries, there are certain traditional ways of hunting them. In English speaking countries, there are two types of hare coursing: informal or “walk up” coursing, and formal or organized coursing. In walk up coursing, dogs are set on whatever hare appears in front of them, whereas in organized coursing hares are driven into a coursing arena.

Although the death or injury of the hare is not the main aim of coursing, it regularly occurs nonetheless. Hares can sustain chest, neck, and abdominal injuries from which they may die slowly. Coursing clubs often have a “picker up” who break the necks of injured hares.

The injuries these animals can suffer include broken ribs and limbs, perforated abdomens, and internal hemorrhaging of various organs. In one study it was determined that of a group of hares that were injured, just under half (43%) did not die until the person who picked them up broke their necks. About 50% of the hares likely died from injuries sustained during the event, or after being picked up. Only one hare was definitely killed by the dogs.13

There have been various figures for hare deaths during coursing events, in which dogs chase hares who are released in front of them. One report states that deaths can be as high as 48%, even when dogs are muzzled.15

Work by the Irish Hare Initiative studied the impact of capture myopathy (a usually fatal condition that includes heart failure, restriction of blood flow to parts of the body, and liver failure) in hares following coursing events, and found that the condition arises as a result of severe stress and fear from being chased, handled, transported, or captured, all of which are extremely stressful experiences for a wild hare.16

During a coursing event, immediately after her release, a hare will pause, not because she is “waiting for the dogs,” as suggested by coursers, but because the hare is not expecting to be pursued. From the time the hare is captured to be used in the coursing to the time of her release, her normal escape routes are not available. This is an unusual situation for a hare to be in,15 and likely especially stressful. In addition, like deers, hares are evolutionarily adapted to sprint at high speeds for short periods of time to escape predators. During the coursing event, they have to run for a long time, which causes them prolonged stress.17 However, even if such a stressful situation were in fact normal for a hare, it would not be justifiable to reproduce such a situation intentionally.


Harms to the animals who manage to escape

Sometimes hunters spend hours tracking their victims before they find them. This happens particularly often with bow hunters. Often they are unable to find the escaped animals, who then die slow deaths in agony. Estimations of the number of animals retrieved by hunters using bows have concluded that between 28% and 50% of the wounded animals are never found.18

Animals who escape are not free from suffering. Increased levels of hormones, indicative of muscle damage and psychological stress, are similar in escaped deers and caught deers.19

Furthermore, many animals who escape from hunters die for other reasons. They can injure themselves by falling down while trying to avoid obstacles as they flee in panic. They may also run into suburban areas or roads where they are killed by cars or other humans.

When injured animals manage to escape, they will have to live with the pain from injuries they received, which is often chronic. Those who eventually die from their injuries may spend the rest of their lives in agony.

It can take weeks for an injured animal to die. Many of these animals don’t die from their injuries directly but perish as a result of their inability to carry out normal activities. Many simply starve because their injuries prevent them from finding food.

Finally, as in the case of animals who fear predators, animals who have been in contact with hunters try to avoid humans as much as possible. Because they fear being hunted, they will not risk eating in places where they are more visible, and as a result they may suffer from malnutrition. In ecology, this is called the “ecology of fear,” and it happens when possible prey animals are scared of predators. It can happen with human predators, too.20


The dogs used for hunting

Other animals that can suffer due to hunting are the dogs used in this activity. They are commonly bred and separated from their mothers to be sold when they are very young. When they are no longer useful enough they may be sold, abandoned or killed, sometimes by hanging from a tree. Sometimes dogs lost while hunting in the wild (where their chances of surviving may be limited) are not retrieved.

In addition, they often suffer from harsh weather conditions. They suffer from excessive cold and heat when they are transported to places where they will hunt. The hunt can also be risky for them. Chased animals may fight back. For instance, in fox hunting, dogs can suffer horrific injuries if a fight breaks out. Sometimes they are mistaken for the target of the hunt, and are shot.

Further readings

Baker, R. (1985) The American hunting myth, New York: Vantage Press.

Bulliet, R. W. (2005) Hunters, herders, and hamburgers: The past and future of human-animal relationships, New York: Columbia University Press.

Cohn, P. (ed.) (1999) Ethics and wildlife, Lewiston: Edwin Mellen.

Curnutt, J. (1996) “How to argue for and against sport hunting”, Journal of Social Philosophy, 27, pp. 65-89.

Dahles, H. (1993) “Game killing and killing games: An anthropologist looking at hunting in a modern society”, Society and Animals, 1, pp. 169-189.

Dizard, J. (1994) Going wild: Hunting, animal rights, and the contested meaning of nature, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Eliason, S. L. (2003) “Illegal hunting and angling: The neutralization of wildlife law violations”, Society and Animals, 11, pp. 225-243.

Gunn, A. S. (2001) “Environmental ethics and trophy hunting”, Ethics and the Environment,6, pp. 68-95.

Kemmerer, L. (2004) “Hunting tradition: Treaties, law, and subsistence killing”, Animal Liberation Philosophy and Policy Journal, 2, pp. 1-20.

National Shooting Sports Foundation (2009) What they say about hunting, Englewood: American Humane Association [accessed on 26 February 2016].

Richter, A. R. & Labisky, R. F. (1985) “Reproductive dynamics among disjunct white-tailed deer herds in Florida”, The Journal of Wildlife Management, 49 (4), pp. 964-971.

Swan, J. A. (1995) In defense of hunting, New York: HarperCollins.

Thomas, R. H. (1983) The politics of hunting, Aldershot: Gower.

Wade, M. (1990) “Animal liberation, ecocentrism and the morality of sport hunting”, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 17, pp. 15-27.

1 U. S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service & U. S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau (2002) 2001 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, [Washington]: U. S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service [accessed on 26 February 2013].

2 It has been estimated that in the USA up to 200 million animals are hunted every year, though that figure could be higher. See In Defense of Animals (2015) “Hunting – “the murderous business”, [accessed on 16 April 2015].

3 Seward, Z. M. (2007) “Internet hunting has got to stop – if it ever starts”, The Wall Street Journal, August 10 [accessed on 12 April 2013].

4 Johnson, E. (1981) “Animal liberation versus the land ethic”, Environmental Ethics, 3, pp. 265-273. Crisp, R. (1998) “Animal liberation is not an environmental ethic: A Response to Dale Jamieson”, Environmental Values, 7, pp. 476-478. Shelton, J.-A. (2004) “Killing animals that don’t fit in: Moral dimensions of habitat restoration”, Between the Species, 13 (4) [accessed on 30 January 2013].

5 Lotka, A. J. (1920) “Analytical note on certain rhythmic relations in organic systems”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 6, pp. 410-415. Volterra, V. (1931) “Variations and fluctuations of the number of individuals in animal species living together”, in Chapman, R. N. (ed.) Animal ecology: With special reference to insects, New York: McGraw-Hill. See for instance this Predator-prey model or this model of Predation-prey equations.

6 Young, S. M. (2006) “On the status of vermin”, Between the Species, 13 (6) [accessed on 14 January 2016].

7 Bateson, P. & Bradshaw, E. L. (1997) “Physiological effects of hunting red deer (Cervus elaphus)”, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 264 (1389), pp. 1707-1714.

8 Mentaberre, G.; López-Olvera, J. R.; Casas-Díaz, E.; Bach-Raich, E.; Marco, I. & Lavín, S. (2010) “Use of haloperidol and azaperone for stress control in roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) captured by means of drive-nets”, Research in Veterinary Science, 88, pp. 531-535.

9 White, P. J.; Kreeger, T. J.; Seal, U. S. & Tester, J. R. (1991) “Pathological responses of red foxes to capture in box traps”, Journal of Wildlife Management, 55 (1), pp. 75-80.

10 Rochlitz, I. & Broom, D. M. (2008) An update of ‘The review on the welfare of deer, foxes, mink and hares subjected to hunting by humans’, London: International Fund for Animal Welfare.

11 Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management (2010) “Management of the rural and urban fox”, [accessed on 30 April 2013].

12 Broom, D. M. (1991) “Animal welfare: concepts and measurement”, Journal of Animal Science, 69, pp. 4167-4175. Rochlitz, I. & Broom, D. M. (2008) An update of ‘The review on the welfare of deer, foxes, mink and hares subjected to hunting by humans’, op. cit.

13 Committee of Inquiry into Hunting with Dogs in England and Wales (2000) The Final Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Hunting with Dogs in England and Wales, Norwich: TSO [accessed on 16 April 2013].

14 Hartup, B. K.; Kolias, G. V.; Jacobsen, M. C.; Valentine, B. A. & Kimber, K. R. (1999) “Exertional myopathy in translocated river otters in New York”, Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 35, pp. 542-547.

15 Rendle, M. (2006) “The impact of enclosed hare coursing on Irish hares”, [accessed on 18 June 2013].

16 Rendle, M. & Irish Hare Initiative (2006) “Stress and capture myopathy in hares”, [accessed on 18 June 2013].

17 Reid, N.; McDonald, R. A. & Montgomery, W. I (2007) “Factors associated with hare mortality during coursing”, Animal Welfare, 16, pp. 427-434.

18 Ditchkoff, S. S.; Welch, E. R., Jr.; Lochmiller, R. L.; Masters, R. E.; Starry, W. R. & Dinkines, W. C. (1998) “Wounding rates of white-tailed deer with traditional archery equipment”, Proceedings of the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies,  52, pp. 244-248. Pedersen, M. A., Berry, S. M. & Bossart, J. C. (2008) “Wounding rates of white-tailed deer with modern archery equipment”, Proceedings of the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, 62, pp. 31-34.

19 Bradshaw, E. L. & Bateson, P. (2000) “Welfare implications of culling red deer (Cervus elaphus)”, Animal Welfare, 9, pp. 3-24.

20 Horta, O. (2010) “The ethics of the ecology of fear against the nonspeciesist paradigm: A shift in the aims of intervention in nature”, Between the Species, 13 (10), pp. 163-187 [accessed on 5 March 2013].

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