There are approximately 12.5 million hunters in the United States, representing 5 percent of the country’s population (USDI 2006a, 65). There are more hunters than downhill skiers, horseback riders, or backpackers. There are more hunters than cross-country skiers and snowmobilers combined (Cordell et al. 1995). In fact, hunting is more popular in the United States than in any other “developed” nation (Heberlein, Ericsson, and Wollscheid 2002). There is, however, one critical difference between hunting and virtually all other outdoor recreational activities: in the eyes of many Americans hunters are moral suspects.
In organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Fund for Animals, the depravity of hunters is a ubiquitous topic of discussion. Whether drawing on well-worn stereotypes of Joe Six-Pack (the archetypal “slob hunter”), or mounting philosophical assaults taken from the pages of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, members of these groups commonly portray hunters as morally corrupt, insensitive to “nature,” infected with a wanton desire to kill—indeed, quite possibly murderers (Singer 1990). As the sociologist Jan Dizard notes, “Allegations of bad character abound in the literature critical of hunting” (2001, 16).
Suspicion about hunting, however, is not confined to the ranks of highprofile animal rights organizations. Numerous questions circulate in everyday discourse that concern not only the morality of hunters, but also the effect of hunting on society at large. Does hunting lead to aggression against humans? Is hunting an expression of hypermasculine domination? Do people hunt for the joy of killing? Does gun ownership cause violence?6 Do the efforts of the National Rifle Association to keep gun ownership legal actually put illegal guns into the hands of those who would commit violent crimes? Is hunting a necessary, or effective, wildlife management strategy in the twenty-first century? These kinds of questions, as well as the growing influence of environmentalism and animal protectionism, have generated a considerable amount of ambivalence among the nonhunting 94 percent of America.
I recall a woman who was originally from a large city, but was then living in rural Vermont raising organic mushrooms, exclaiming something along the lines of “How can you stand to be around those people?” Apparently she assumed that my graduate advisors had forced me to travel to Vermont and study hunters, since clearly nobody who could mix a good martini and was so highly educated would actually choose such a miserable fate. She was also disgusted that women hunt, as if it were the ultimate desecration of female nature. It is easy to understand why Dizard predicts that “hunting will edge nearer and nearer the center of our ‘culture wars’” (2001, 23).
The ways these questions are dealt with in environmental and political circles will have important consequences for many sectors of American society. One could argue that the most far-reaching effects, however, will be felt among rural white Americans.7 It is well documented that hunting plays a prominent, sometimes even celebrated, role in rural life and is important in the development of community solidarity and rural identity (see Fitchen 1991; Marks 1991; Nelson 1997; Nemich 1996; Muth and Jamison 2000). Regrettably, the meanings and importance of hunting to many rural individuals, families, and communities is often unappreciated by the majority of Americans who live urban lives and have little personal association with rural hunters.