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Canned Hunting: The Past And Future Of Imperial Cowardice

This is the second installment of a two-part series on canned hunting throughout the history of the imperial world by Sophia Nicolov and Andy Flack, University of Bristol for the Animal History Museum. You can read the first installment here.

Astonishingly, it is possible to take part in a hunt from the comfort of your own armchair. Remote internet hunting aims to offer a "real" hunting experience. For their fee, these "hunters" receive a DVD recording of the session along with the spoils of the hunt. This variant of the canned hunt has so far proved to be a step too far for official hunting organizations such as the Safari Club, while Fox News has reported that the practice has been banned in the states of Virginia and Texas due to concerns about legal, ethical and safety issues.

The overlap of canned hunting with aspects of computer gaming ought to move the debate about canned hunting onto a different level. Given that opposition to canned hunting has so far had little impact it will require more than local legislation to put a stop to it and related, yet no less destructive, activities such as internet hunting. It is unclear whether such high levels of public criticism of canned hunting, as demonstrated by the ostracizing of individuals like Kendall Jones and Axelle Despiegelaere, will eventually be directed towards this form of disconnected hunting, creating creating similar levels of public awareness.

Shot zebra at Texas Hunt Lodge http://www.texashuntlodge.com/zebra_hunt_package....

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 (Fig. 5). 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 (fig. 5), 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 (fig. 3).

Figure 5: ‘The Prince of Wales and the Maharaja of Gwalior with tiger and two leopards c. 1900', http://archive.org/stream/germanstaffoffic00koni#...

The exhibition explores some of the main aspects of our relationships with other animals in the modern world. Hunting has, at its core, been about exploitation, spectacle, and feeling. During the colonial period animals were there to be killed and their bodies transformed into prestigious trophies. Yet, as part of this process, people experienced profound emotions including pride, and some sense of deep connection with the creature they had hunted.

Of course while the hunt was just one of the more spectacular ways in which animals were exploited in the British Empire, the exhibition highlights how the colonial histories of many different animals reflect the attitudes we see in the modern captive hunt. A vast variety of animals, and their products, were exploited in many ways, and "Animals and Empire" provides insight into these complex relationships. While tigers were offered up for the hunt, elephants were being put to work in colonial Burma, and valuable guano was harvested from Peruvian nesting grounds in vast, vast quantities to fuel the rising European thirst for fertilizers.

At the same time we can't forget that these animals, such as the famous elephant Jumbo (Helen Cowie's exhibit), were also being presented to the world in zoos and in literature. This often resulted in feelings of great affection for many of these animals. These examples show just how complex and often contradictory human attitudes were towards animal life in the British Empire, and canned hunting today continues to show that there are not always clear cut motives lying beneath our treatment of animals.

When we look at today's canned hunting activities, many people will question how something like this could take place in a world that is so obviously and increasingly ecologically impoverished. While canned hunting may appear to be a modern phenomenon, its antecedents in fact date way back to the colonial worlds of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Becoming aware of the relationship between humans and other animals during the period of the British Empire, we can gain some insight into the kinds of attitudes towards animals that persist in the world today.

View the "Animals and Empire" exhibition at the Animal History Museum by clicking here: http://animalhistorymuseum.org/exhibitsandevents/...