Sunday, July 8, 2012

Canned Hunts, Fair Chase, and the Sorites Paradox

In a recent article, “Canned Hunting: Don’t Call It Hunting!” outdoor writer David Petersen discusses the difference between fair chase and canned hunts, and he quotes Orion founder Jim Posewitz approvingly. 

“A fenced shoot,” Posewitz writes, “is just the sale of a fabricated image to people who have neither the skill nor the inclination to obtain the real thing.”

Petersen agrees, and argues, “There is honorable hunting, and there is cowardly captive killing. The motivations and characters defining each are as distinct as day and night.”

Petersen is wrong.  The motivations and character of hunters are NOT as distinct as day and night.  There is no distinct line between canned hunts on the one hand, and fair chase on the other.

The difference between honorable hunting and cowardly hunting does not depend on the presence or absence of a fence.  Ideals of honor and cowardice, however, as well as ideals of fair chase, depend crucially on the hunter, and upon the hunter’s skills and aptitude. 

Fair chase has traditionally been defined relative to the animal—in particular, to the animal’s ability to escape. 

What’s missing in most debates about fair chase is the awareness that we need also to define fair chase relative to the human hunter—and to be specific, to the individual hunter’s ability to hunt. (And here we also know that hunters come in all shapes, sizes, interests, and abilities.)

Furthermore, we must acknowledge that there is a fundamental ambiguity to the very concept of fair chase. This ambiguity involves the philosophical problem of vagueness, a problem that has long been identified by philosophers as the sorites paradox, from the Greek term meaning “heap” or “pile.” 

The paradox is this:  start with a pile of sand, and begin removing the sand, one grain at a time.  At what point does the pile or heap become a “non-heap”?

The thought experiment can also be run in reverse: start with a grain of sand, and add to it another grain of sand. Do you now have a pile of sand?  Of course not.  Now add a third grain.  Is it a heap yet?  Of course not.  Now, continue adding sand, one grain at a time . . .  at what point do you have a heap of sand? 

The upshot is that there is no clear dividing line between having one or two grains of sand (that might constitute the concept dust) and having a pile, or a heap, or even a mountain of sand.  Thus the very concept of heap or pile or mountain is ambiguous.

Baldness is another inherently ambiguous concept (my own baldness, however, is clearly unambiguous). Begin with a full head of hair and remove it one hair at a time. When do you cross the line from having hair to being bald? (For me, it was around the age of 20!) 
Author Jim Tantillo
Trying to define fair chase is exactly like this—like trying to define “baldness” or “pile.”

So what does all this have to do with hunting?

On the one hand, or to be more precise, on one end of the spectrum (and spectrum, a term from physics, is exactly the right term to use) we have hunting practices that are clearly akin to a single grain of sand or to my gloriously bald pate. 
To illustrate the point: imagine a deer chained to a post in a 10’x10’ chain-link enclosed pen, being shot at close range. Clearly this is not fair chase:  the deer has no ability to avoid death, and the hunter needs no ability at such close range either to pursue or to shoot the tethered animal.

Remove the tether.  Now the deer is in a 10 x 10 enclosure, but can move around.  Is this fair chase?  Clearly the hunter is at more of a disadvantage than in the first scenario: the deer may jump at precisely the same moment as he/she squeezes the trigger, and the hunter may wound the animal or possibly even miss entirely.  It may take two shots to bring the animal down, particularly for a poor marksman.

Does this second scenario constitute fair chase?  Clearly not, the animal is still enclosed, and little to no skill is needed on the part of the hunter.

Let us now imagine that we expand the enclosure—how about a full acre?  And while we are at it, let’s add an acre’s worth of brushy vegetation.  The deer has the ability to roam about, but the hunter must still stay out of the fence to shoot the animal.

All the hunter need do in this case, is wait patiently for the deer to come along within view inside the fence, and take a killing shot.

Is this fair chase?  Probably not, although now the lines are getting a little more fuzzy.  How does waiting outside the fence differ from an archer sitting and waiting in a tree stand?  But I’ll leave that question for another essay.

Let’s keep going, trying to get closer to fair chase.  Let’s put a gate in the fence, and allow the hunter to enter and pursue the animal within the one-acre confines of the enclosure.  The animal can still move around and has plenty of early-successional shrubland (let’s go ahead and fill the enclosure with thorny multiflora rose and honeysuckle) in which to hide.

Now it takes the hunter the better part of a morning to locate, stalk, and shoot the deer.  But after several hours of patient stalking, the hunter is successful.

Does this “hunt” now constitute “fair chase”?  Observe that we have come a fair way from shooting the animal that was tethered inside what was essentially a dog pen.  

Most hunters still would not be comfortable labeling the one-acre stalk on a deer--multiflora rose or not--as a fair chase hunt.  And yet notice that some hunters might . . . .  We can imagine hunters with disabilities, for example, who might be content with such a one-acre stalk if confined to a wheel chair. Or a young hunter, just starting out, may appreciate and learn from such an experience.

Note that I am not implying that this necessarily would be a good hunt, for young hunters or hunters with disabilities.  I am simply suggesting that the hunt might provide sufficient challenge to each individual hunter, and each hunter might possibly go home satisfied with their hunting experience. 

Now let’s continue the sorites part of our thought experiment.  Let’s rerun the thought experiment a thousand times, adding one additional acre with each repetition.  First the hunter pursues the deer in a two-acre enclosure, and then in a three-acre enclosure . . . and so on, and so on, and so on.  (And let’s, for the sake of argument, assume there is only a single, individual deer to be pursued—not legions of overpopulated deer as occur in many areas of the country.)

At what point does the enclosure become large enough that we cross a line between canned hunting and fair chase?

Perhaps never, for some hunters.  For them, hunting inside a fence is always unethical.  But for others, trying to pursue a single deer in a 1,000-acre enclosure, or a 5,000-acre enclosure, or a 20,000-acre enclosure, would be challenging and fair regardless of the proximity of the fence. 

So now let’s just remove the fence.  And imagine the same, solitary, single deer roaming about unrestricted over a 20,000-acre, or 50,000-acre, fenceless area.  Would this hunt now constitute fair chase?

I’m pretty sure if you plunked down a hard-core deer hunter, and took away his tree stand, and made him stalk a single deer over 50,000 acres (that’s 78.125 square miles!), he or she would most likely call that a fair chase hunt.

While I myself might never hunt a captive animal in a high fence setting, unlike David Petersen I am not about to tell someone else that they should not do so.  As long as a hunter conscientiously strives for a clean, quick, one-shot kill, and does so safely while respecting the law, then that hunter acts ethically and morally.

The difference between canned hunting and fair chase is like the difference between a grain of sand and a pile of sand.  When viewed on each end of the hunting spectrum, fair chase and canned hunting are clearly different.  But there is no distinct line, no clearly unambiguous boundary, to be drawn between fair chase and canned hunts, or between honorable hunters and cowards.

Jim Tantillo is the Executive Director of Orion, The Hunters’ Institute. He has M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from Cornell University, where he currently also teaches ethics and environmental philosophy in the Department of Natural Resources.

A grouse hunting purist, Jim will generally argue until he is blue in the face that the One, True, Correct Way to Hunt Grouse is with a 16 gauge Parker double gun over the staunch point of a well-trained English setter.  In the spirit of political toleration, however, he also argues until he is equally blue in the face that his retriever- and spaniel-owning friends be permitted to hunt grouse legally as they see fit, despite their aesthetically misguided preferences for flushing dogs or 12 gauge autoloaders!


  1. "As long as a hunter conscientiously strives for a clean, quick, one-shot kill, and does so safely while respecting the law, then that hunter acts ethically and morally." I would add to this list - as full a utilization of the animal as possible (assuming this is not a cull or depredation activity).
    I would also add that it is our duty as experienced hunters to help and encourage less skilled hunters/new hunters to add "more grains of sand" to their pile to help move them thru the gray area (or worse) and into the clearly ethical hunting realm.

  2. The writers raise vital points that beg for discussion and vigorous debate. Petersen is more aggressive and monochromatic; Tantillo for flexible and places the issues in the larger political - sporting context. Tantillo reminds us that our sense of morality has costs and the costs may be greater than the injustice of the particular immoral act. If one wants to step into the putrid pit of humanity's immorality, the canned hunting is rather small potatoes. For me, questions immediately arise: Who is our audience in terms of addressing these issues? What political and economic price will be paid by seeking to remedy this hunting format that is persuasively argued as unethical? Let us assume that canned hunting is unethical. I think it is. So what? I do not mean to trivialize but rather inquire, what are the costs, what are the remedies, who cares and how can taking a moral position advance hunting generally? For it is hunting that is really under attack and the canned hunting programs add ferocity to the attacks on hunting. I admire Tammy Sapp, Jim, Dave and Eric for raising these issues.

  3. I would be curious to know if the purist's (perhaps Petersen)definition of fair chase means I should not hunt near the ocean or a cliff or a steep sided box canyon? Or are "natural fences" okay?

    What is the line that is being drawn here?

    In my early forties I learned I could pull the trigger at something alive at a game farm. The fact that I took some of my first steps in hunting at this place in no way diminishes the sacrifice of the tasty bird to me.

    I will always be grateful to the friends who helped me with this eye opening adventure.


  4. Eric, I couldn't agree more. As each of us takes the role of mentor, we should absolutely use that opportunity to advance our ideals of sporting ethics. That's what a mentor does. We're not just teaching the new hunter to shoot or track.

    The catch here, though, is while I would advance my own ethic which includes hunting from treestands under certain conditions, or even hunting high-fenced properties... someone else might advance a more "purist" perspective where the only "right" way is to burn boot leather in the wilderness. My houndsman friends will teach the new hunter to leverage the canine attributes to find, bay, and kill their game.

    To be sure, there are shared ethics... the clean kill, adherence to the law, a general sense of conservation and responsibility... but the differences grow exponentially from there, based on a multitude of rationale, motivations, and traditions.

    As far as the ethics of the high-fence hunt, I believe it's worthwhile to continue the discussion. However, I also believe that a large number of the opponents speak from a position of ignorance of the practice which can be as variable as any other aspect of hunting (large ranches vs small, semi-domesticated animals vs wild stock, etc.). There are a lot of preconceptions that could be easily challenged by simple experience.

    I could go on (and I have, elsewhere), but the biggest thing about this whole discussion that really irks me is that folks like Petersen, and even Posewitz, take it upon themselves to try to define another individual's experience based on their own values. That's simply wrong.

  5. It's not canned hunting. It's field slaughter. The problem isn't in the notion of shooting an animal in a fence, it's the hunting label. The people who have a problem with "canned hunting" do so because they can't grasp that it's not hunting.

    We will always have people willing to participate in this killing just as we will always have people willing to kill 200 cattle a day at one of our factory farms. Similarly we will always have people who are fine shooting bears out of trees.

  6. Bravo Jim Tantillo. In the strict sense, when is hunting an animal ever fair? We have many advantages they do not have.

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