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Monday
Jul132009

Hunting Trophies versus Belts

In light of recent comments from readers (see below), my next few posts will try to get to the heart of why particular pieces of taxidermy are more offensive to some than other uses of animal.  Hunting trophies seem a good place to start.  Let's call this one: Hunting Trophies versus Belts: Which is more ethically icky?

When most people people think of taxidermy, especially those who dislike the practice, they think of hunters' trophies: severed heads of animals killed for sport, attached to wooden plaques, and mounted on the wall over the fireplace.

Why do trophies elicit such strong emotion, even in meat-eaters? Disgust is understandable from vegetarians, animal-rights activists, and any community who believes that there is no excuse to kill an animal.  But for meat-eaters, jello-eaters, and anyone who owns leather shoes, belts, or bags the reaction is less straightforward. What is the difference? A steak, a belt, a trophy. In all cases an animal has been killed and refashioned.  And yet a clear distinction exists in contemporary opinion: trophies are worse, ethically speaking. Why? 

It could be argued that trophies are more appreciative of animals than leather belts since trophy heads strive to capture some semblance of the beast. Belts, which are nothing but strips of cured, tanned, dyed skin, don't look anything like an animal. The animal has been reduced to a bit of utilitarian material, easily discardable, completely disassociated from the animal it once was.  And in this sense, trophies potentially highlight a hypocrisy: if you eat meat or wear leather,what makes trophies so additionally abhorrent?

But this isn't the way debates usually go about the moral merits of belts versus trophies. The reason? It is the particular way the animal died that offends, not the product that is made afterwards. Leather belts are typically made from the hide of cows that have been raised specifically for their utilitarian benefits to humans (meat and leather), which is to say, leather belts are the products of cold, anonymous killing. The death is planned from birth and conducted in a sterile space with machinery invented precisely for the purpose. Trophies, on the other hand, are the products of passionate, hot blooded killing. Someone has specifically sought out the opportunity of killing an animal, and the trophy head is a remembrance of that experience. Belts are not remembrances of anything: not of the cow, not of person (or machine) that killed the cow, not really even of the belt manufacturer. Belts erase everything about the cow, its life, and its death. Trophies bring it all into focus.

Then again, a degree of respect is always due to the dead. Parading or desecrating dead bodies is as morally reprehensible as violating the living.  That is, just because we may eat an animal, does not mean we want to see its death memorialised.  And this begins to get us closer to the heart of contemporary dislike for trophies. It is not so much death that offends but the blurring of animal with a personal human significance. The animal's death is bound up with a personal narrative of triumph: the two are inseparable. Trophies exist because they embody a significant personal narrative. The animal is remembered because it put up a battle, a worthy chase, but ultimately fell to the hunter’s weaponry, skill, and violent desire.  Such passionate desire makes many urban dwellers queasy. And any memorialisation of the outcome of this desire is necessarily even more queasy-making.

But still, if you eat meat or wear leather, an animal has also died.  Does it matter how it died?  Or who did the killing?  You tell me. 

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