Jack Scanlon - January 2011


Hunting Ethics
Dr. Jack Scanlon


Biologically, humans are predators. Check out those sharp incisor teeth and close set, focused eyes. We eat meat. Humans used to hunt for subsistence. Now hunters are civilized for the most part. Hunting has become either ritualized sport (skeet, trap, sporting clays) or a recreation under strict government regulations (game laws). Similar to all other important human activities, hunting mandates a set of self imposed guidelines. These are labelled ethics and govern appropriate behavior in the field. Without laws and ethics, hunting would become chaos.
A recent discussion on an Internet waterfowling forum about shooting ducks on the water got me thinking about duck hunting ethics; how they develop and evolve. All sorts of literature discusses hunting ethics in general. Particularly prolific are treatises discussing big game hunting, the “slob” hunter who treats the environment and his prey with disdain or about conflicts over anti hunting sentiment in general. Fewer articles deal specifically with waterfowling ethics.
Moral controversies among duck hunters have swirled around shooting ducks on the water, taking very long shots (“sky busting”) which may cripple birds, “blind limit” vs. individual hunter limits, proper distances from other hunters, shooting legal but non edible fowl (eat what you kill), using electronic devices and land owner vs. public riparian rights. Such discourse most often explores the author’s own views about what constitutes ethical waterfowl hunting rather than exploring any underlying basic moral, ethical, philosophical or spiritual principles. Two basic considerations however are specifically and recurringly mentioned. One is “respect” for birds, embodied in conserving/managing the resource. The other is employing “fair chase” or “sportsmanship” during the hunt.
The phrase “fair chase” means pursuing an animal without taking “unfair” advantage before killing it cleanly. But what criteria establish excessive or unfair advantage for the hunter is never clearly defined. One governing principle, when baiting or using tollers are condemned, seems to be not to exceed the bag limit, rather than any “fair chase” violation. It is also clear that some recently changed resource management regulations (e.g. use of unplugged gun, electronic calling, late shooting hours) are seen as unethical by some. Right now it is quite legal to harvest snow and resident population Canada geese under certain circumstances in some areas.
Legal and ethical are often not the same. However, most would agree that the ethical hunter obeys relevant game laws. When laws change, do ethics as well? The history of modern duck hunting reveals considerable overlap between the two controlling factors of law and ethics.
Modern shotguns and loads, cell phones, GPS, boats, motors and the like are clearly not considered unfair chase in most minds, and may enhance safety. Being on the right spot where birds have been roosting or feeding (without benefit of baiting or crop manipulation) gives the hunter a very big advantage. But is this unfair? Not on anyone’s ethics “no-no” list I could find, including my own.
What about hunting over unharvested crops in a flooded impoundment? Many local farms use this method to guarantee bag limits. Hunters kill both pen raised and wild birds using this technique. Shooting wild waterfowl over released pen raised birds pushes the live decoy issue in both a legal and ethical sense. Some suggest no real difference exists between having released mallards around and setting out tethered ducks, the “traditional” toller stool.
Is releasing pen raised ducks fair chase? Is this a matter of ethics or envy? Consideration of what constitutes fair chase also has class or wealth envy features. It takes a lot of money (disposable income) to own land on which to flood crops then purchase and release mallards. Class or income envy is a recurrent possibility when considering what might be ethical waterfowl hunting. This may have historical precedent and some traditional or cultural issues as well.
Early non-commercial duck hunters in America were well-to-do folks from the “gentlemanly” or “leisure” class. They leased or owned waterfront tracts for hunting pleasure, and employed locals as guides and caretakers.
Market gunners were less well off. Most were working class people trying to make a living harvesting the bounty of nature. They fished and crabbed in warmer weather, oystered and hunted fowl during the fall and winter.
Class distinctions were obvious and well defined. Economics and/or status in life appeared to play a significant role then, and perhaps still does, regarding “moral” behavior when hunting ducks and geese.
In late 19th and early 20th centuries, conflicts between market gunners, sportsmen and conservationists led the way to federal and state laws which banned commercial waterfowl harvesting. It was believed that continued avaricious over-harvest would lead to a duck population crash similar to the fate of the formerly ubiquitous passenger pigeon. This migratory species became extinct early in the 20th century from over hunting.
These same regulations made illegal previously-used techniques to increase harvest and thus income by now outlawed gunners. These included baiting, live decoys, unplugged repeating shotguns and night shooting at resting flocks using very large or multiple barrel guns. Many recreational hunters in those days decried such practices as unethical or used the more specific phrase, “unsportsmanlike.” This term is still used to describe the conduct of an unethical hunter. They decried such perceived ethical abuse as “disrespect” for the game under pursuit.
Innovative hunting techniques have frequently triggered debates about waterfowling ethics. For example, the use of electric motion decoys. Do they unfairly help modern waterfowlers? Do they lessen the work needed to seduce wild birds to the gun? Is the novice hunter made more efficient using Robo Duck? And does all this make such devices unethical in the minds of seasoned hunters?
Another ethical construct here might be that hard work is necessary to become an ethical hunter. To be lazy is to be immoral, as some cultures and religions teach. A novice hunter must pay “dues” or “sweat equity” in experience and toil before achieving ethical approbation. Skill in duck calling, shooting and decoy placement, learning the effects of wind, tide and location, become less necessary when Robo is put out, say a few “purists.”
Waterfowl hunting catalogs offer an astounding array of whirling, flapping, swimming, water spouting gizmos for sale. There are rotating wing things, erratically dipping ducks, armadas of propeller driven plastic waterfowl, flocks of butt spraying mallards which can be deployed to fool wary birds. Is this fair chase? Are they ethical to use? Does duck killing become too easy when they are deployed?
Several states, including Pennsylvania and California, have declared any sort of motorized decoys illegal. Maryland has not yet said no. So their local use is a matter for personal ethics and, of course, pocketbook. Several hundred dollars can be spent on such devices, raising the income status conflict again. Even more simple mechanized devices, such as decoys on a pull string, wind kites or wind driven wing spinners, can be used most everywhere. Is it ethical to use them?
What exactly is a “hunting ethic” and how are they developed for personal use? Almost all adults evolve a behavioral compass based on experience, moral upbringing and formal education, as well as through acquired cultural values. Mentors and friends in the field also shape waterfowling judgments. This expands the innate sense of right and wrong, i.e., conscience or super ego.
Each of us possesses a unique set of individual values plus widely varying life experiences which forms our very personal code of conduct. We carry these principles every day, although most of us don’t regularly reflect on them. We bring this same package of opinions and values to the duck blind. As we add outdoor memories, perspectives may change as well.
Practicing ethical behavior is a plastic, growing process. The sum of experiences in the field and elsewhere determines how, and more importantly, why we act when we hunt. Each of us wants to do what is “right” and avoid doing what is “wrong” using an ever-evolving moral GPS to guide our path.
Considerable criticism was generated on an internet forum recently after I expressed the view that it was not ethical for me to hunt waterfowl without a trained retriever available. I fully recognize that many folks don’t use an experienced dog. These hunters believe that a human can find and fetch almost any duck or goose shot when they hunt. Their choice is to hunt dogless.
I personally don’t feel they are bad, unethical or poor hunters to do this. They have had different hunting experiences and do not think about things the way I do. Neither of us is wrong, just different. But I will not duck or goose hunt without a dog available. Differing guiding philosophies are called descriptive ethics, carry no attached value judgment and obviously vary among people of good moral intent.
But friction between opposing ethics does raise an interesting point. Specifically, whether one has any responsibility to influence others to adopt your philosophy. That is, when, if ever, should personal guiding moral principles become a more general policy? When do laws and personal ethics become inseparable?
Hunters tend, as a group, to treasure personal freedom. They intensely dislike other people, especially the government, telling them how to conduct private activities. In general, hunters hold conservative social viewpoints. So, when I stated a personal ethic, it was translated by some into a put-down of those who didn’t use a dog. This, of course, was incorrect since I was stating a personal imperative, not arguing for others to adopt mine.
Most shot waterfowl are found by people who hunt without a dog. And occasionally, birds may be lost even when using an excellent retriever. The guiding ethical goal for me is to recover each shot bird and minimize suffering to any animal. In my personal experience, year in and out, more birds will be lost when a trained retriever is not always available.
As an interesting aside, it would, in my view, be quite ethical to allow incoming birds to land on the water before shooting them if a dog was not available. Such a high percentage kill shot would almost guarantee no lost birds. Yet many think shooting a duck on the water is unethical. Thus, a moral dilemma might arise in this circumstance. And if one says anything which is legal is also ethical, they are allowing the government to establish personal values for the hunt. There can be many confounders determining which ethical values fit one’s own choices.
To further confuse practical application of an ethic, such as always hunt with a retriever, there may be influences from less abstract factors. These include economics, or income envy, as noted above, since fully trained dogs are expensive to buy and maintain. Further, the knowledge and experience required to train and maintain a good dog is a considerable time commitment, making a finished retriever out of reach for many.
However, at my age, reflecting on many past waterfowling experiences and deciding the optimal philosophical basis for me to approach waterfowling, using a skilled retriever is simply most ethical. This is a personal conviction under which I hunt. Interestingly, Canada’s Northern Territories Hunting Guide lists using a “well trained dog” under its Ethical Hunting category. So my view is not unique.
Why do I feel qualified to talk about ethics anyway? Well, my career path in medicine led into an ethically robust arena. As a newborn specialist, I dealt with an endless variety of moral dilemmas and ethical issues. End of life decisions, quality of life determinations, insurance coverage and care options, whether to resuscitate, even euthanasia considerations were recurrent themes in my professional work.
I took courses which explored medical ethics throughout training and during 30 years of practice and read extensively about these topics. I served on our hospital’s ethics committee, as well as on the human research advisory board at the university for which I was professor. I have also been through life situations which called for hard choices based on ethical principles. Having spent 7 decades on this earth I accumulated many personal experiences in the “try to do what is right” arena.
Ethical decisions in waterfowl hunting may interact with safety concerns. But acting safely is really common sense about self preservation, not driven by some abstract moral or philosophical imperative. Don’t point a gun at anything you don’t want to shoot or wear a life jacket in a boat when it is windy and cold are not ethical conundrums. They are simply wise choices based on survival.
Nor is an aesthetic preference necessarily a matter of ethics. To use only wooden or cork decoys, large bore double shotguns or always row or sail a boat to reach the blind may be important personal values. Traditional hunting techniques are not based on any moral guiding philosophy of which I am aware. No, these would be personal tastes, although each might be considered “fairer chase” than higher tech stuff by some.
So, we are back to the dilemma posed in the first paragraph. That is, after agreeing to follow all legal requirements based on conservation science, who decides what is the basis of fair chase in waterfowling? I would argue that this again is a matter for personal reflection. If the choice involves a moral challenge then it becomes an ethical issue for you. Perhaps the best test for such a choice is the use of your own conscience. If doing or not doing something feels correct or comfortable, then it is ethical. If the practice makes you feel uncomfortable or guilty, it may not be. You need to think about it using your inner moral compass as guidance.

I would like to thank Butch Chambers, Mike Galante, Larry Hindman and Jerry Serrie for reviewing various drafts of this article. Their input was quite helpful, although views expressed and all errors are those of the author.