What is Trophy Hunting?

If there’s one phrase regarding hunting that will turn a non-hunter into an anti-hunter, it’s “trophy hunter.” The disconnect is between what that phrase means to a hunter and what the non-hunter perceives it to mean. Understandably, some hunters also shun the label and refer to themselves as meat hunters. While I appreciate the sentiment, I think we all have to admit we’re trophy hunters. However, almost none of us are what non-hunters perceive a trophy hunter to be.

Dictionary.com gives the following definitions of “trophy” (I have omitted the ones that do not apply to the conversation at hand):

1.     Anything taken in war, hunting, competition, etc., especially when preserved as a memento; spoil, prize, or award.

2.     Anything serving as a token or evidence of victory, valor, skill, etc.

3.     A symbol of success that is used to impress others

4.     Any memento or memorial

The common misconception is the “trophy hunter” only hunts for the trophy, which is assumed to be the antlers of a male animal. One, hunting for just the antlers is against the law in every state. You must take a minimum amount of meat with you – this varies from state-to-state, but for the sake of this conversation, let’s say everything below the neck to the rump excluding organs -- or you can be charged with wanton waste, lose your hunting license, your firearm or bow, as well as face other penalties such as fines and in some cases, jail time. Two, hunting mature males who have proven themselves healthy and been able to pass along their genes for multiple breeding cycles, is good for the herd. Three, the hunter’s definition of “trophy” is often much more nuanced than many would believe.

The illegality of wanton waste speaks for itself, so I am not going to address that here; however, I would like to address the other two points:

Hunting Mature Males Being Good for the Herd – When you think about it, this too is a fairly simple concept. The long-term health of the herd depends on healthy animals breeding with each other. When you shoot a small male or female, it’s hard to tell whether you’re shooting a healthy animal that hasn’t been able to pass on its genes or whether you’re taking an unhealthy animal out of the herd. Antlers are an excellent indication of health and age so shooting a giant buck or bull ensures that he has had ample opportunity to breed and pass along his genes (and if at the end of his life, will not be likely to breed again). I will admit, this isn’t a completely selfless act, this really plays into definitions 2 and 3 because as those males age and survive multiple hunting seasons, they get smarter.  A lot smarter.  So, shooting a huge buck or bull isn’t just about size, it says that you’re a skilled hunter that is able to hunt even the wiliest of animals. It is a representation of skill and, for some, it’s a way to impress others.  You can criticize the desire to impress others if you like, but we all desire to do that in some way, shape or form.

“Trophy” Means Different Things to Different People – To address definitions 1 and 4, a trophy is a memento or memorial, and such, hunting could provide multiple trophies. 

·      Meat – every time you pull meat out of the freezer you’re reliving the hunt. When you share that meat with your loved ones, you’ll often tell a story associated with that animal and that hunt bringing the experience to those eating it and therefore helping connect them to the food that they’re eating.

·      Pictures – every picture you take is a memory of that hunt, a memento of that time.

·      Antlers – yes, if you harvest a male, you can mount the antlers on the wall. Every time you see those antlers you’ll remember: drawing the tag; all those trips to the range working on your shot; spending hours poring over maps; making multiple trips to the area to scout; taking time off of work to go hunt; the cold nights in your tent; the laughs around the campfire with your friends or relatives; the days spent tracking the animal or endless days looking through binoculars seeing nothing; finding the animal and getting into position without being noticed by a very astute animal; the gratitude and relief you felt when the shot was successful; the hard work dressing the animal and hauling it out on your back; and finally, all the meals that animal gave you and how it helped you nourish your family.  In some cases, it might have even more significant meaning, perhaps it was your first hunt, or perhaps it was the last hunt you went on with your grandpa, dad, uncle, brother, friend before they passed away and those memories hold a special place in your heart. Every time you look at those antlers, you remember that time.

“Trophy hunting” is certainly a loaded term. I think we should be careful when using it, but I also think we should accept and acknowledge we are all trophy hunters in our own way. Personally, I just prefer the term “hunter,” which I think most of us do. When we meet other hunters, “trophy” is implied. When we meet a non-hunter, it allows them to ask us if we’re a “trophy hunter,” which then grants us the opportunity to have a conversation with them about it, rather than having them make a snap judgment and walk away and leaving them still unaware of our love of the animal and all the work that goes into a hunt.