While many of these exotic species are obtained at auction, canned hunting organizations are breeding animals such as lions purely for the artificial hunt. Surplus animals from these breeding programs feed into the larger exotic animal trade where they often end up in zoos, circuses and in the hands of private individuals, who also supply this trade through their own breeding programs. In very much the same way as in the African game reserves, animals command very high prices and often this form of hunting is a reflection of the wealth and status of those involved.
What experience do these people think they are having when they go on canned hunting trips? Is it about an enactment of some kind of natural "right" for humans to exploit the rest of the natural world and to subdue the wildest of wild things? Is it some kind of nostalgia for bygone colonial traditions? Or do some of these hunters genuinely believe the clever marketing campaigns promoting hunting as a conservation tool? Whatever experience they have had, at the end they leave with their trophy, whether it is a pair of antelope horns or a lion's head, feeling they have had a genuine animal encounter in one of the world's "wild" places.
These ways of relating to wild things aren't new; they've been with us for years and they have significant roots in an imperial world where animals were global commodities to be taken from the land and exchanged. The Animal History Museum's online exhibition, "Animals and Empire," gives a fascinating insight into the relationships between these kinds of creatures and the people who interacted with them in the colonial world. Julie Hughes' piece, "Indian Princes and Royal Tigers', explores the way in which Indian maharajas organized tiger hunts as a matter of status and to demonstrate the extent of their dominion over their kingdoms. Once the native wild animals had been shot out, the princes resorted to very much the same kinds of techniques used in today's canned hunting by hand rearing, creating special enclosures, and purchasing animals to populate the hunting "arena."
In the days of Empire, up until World War II, the maharajas, particularly when wanting to demonstrate to their colonial master that they had some level of autonomy, were obliged to organize tiger hunts, even if it was through artificial means (see the image below). The king's royalty and power was tied up with the perceived majesty of the tiger and the hunt was a symbol of the prince's power and dominance over his land. Although some of the outward aspects of 21st century canned hunting resemble what the maharajas were reduced to doing to maintain their tiger hunts during the era of empire, the deeply symbolic, almost magical, relationship between the hunter and their prey is missing.
So, what is the relationship between today's canned hunters and their sport? Although these canned hunts are little known beyond certain wealthy circles in the U.S., there are many similarities in the ways the animals are perceived and used today and the values placed on their heads during the colonial period when animals of Empire were valued for their roles in commercial activities like the wild animal trade, in entertainment, and as symbols of a savage world. But that is where the similarities end. These animals are no longer symbols of imperial majesty, their deaths no longer a part of imperial rule.
While contemporary canned hunters pose proudly with their kill, echoing colonial hunters and maharajas and their carefully choreographed photographs (see the image below), these images have a somewhat different significance because the image in colonial times was a record of the whole activity leading to the killing of the creatures. The activities leading up to these photographs are different. In canned hunting the importance is placed on the acquisition of a trophy, and not on the whole ritual that was at the centre of the imperial hunt.