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Hank Shaw with a wild boar.
Photo by RJ Waldron

When I read the email, I was stunned.

I’d been trying to get the word out for two Texas hunting and cooking schools I’m hosting this year, so I spent a little money to advertise them to those people who have “liked” my Hunter Angler Gardener Cook Facebook page. (Nevermind that Facebook requires me to pay to talk to people who have already expressed an interest in this page, but that’s another story.) I soon got an email back saying the ad was denied. I appealed. And then I got this from Facebook:

Hi Hank,

Thanks for writing in.

Your ad was disapproved because the image being used in the ad shows animal cruelty. Ads like these lead to high negative feedback and are not allowed.

The current post remains published, but isn’t running as an ad. If you’d like to boost your post, you’ll have to recreate it with a policy-compliant image and boost it again.

Have a great day.

Thanks, Allen Facebook Ads Team

The image in question is at the top of this post. Animal cruelty? In whose world? Maybe in that of a vegan’s, or an animal rights activist. But this ad was targeted only to people who follow the HAGC Facebook page, not the general public. And, um, isn’t Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg very publicly killing his own meat? Would a picture of Zuckerberg holding a chicken he’d just killed also be banned, should he choose to want it shown to his 49 million followers? I suspect not.

For the record, I ate pretty much all of this pig (the story of the hunt is here) as I am reasonably certain Zuckerberg ate pretty much all of his chicken. This is an image of the reality of meat-eating, which only qualifies as animal cruelty if you are a member of one of the aforementioned groups.

And then I thought about it a moment.

The shot above is a standard image in the world of wild food. Growing up as an angler in New Jersey, we called it the “hero shot,” and I also see it called the “trophy shot,” largely by people who have a dim view of hunting. But I also see mushroomers show off their baskets in the same sort of shot, and a quick look at any gardening forum will show similar images of grinning gardeners showing off groaning boards loaded with carrots and cabbages and kale.

All of these images touch on a similar primal urge in humans, but more on that in a moment.

“Hero” shots with animals in general and mammals in particular are different. In most traditional cultures, mammals are “us,” where animals like fish are “them.” Remnants of this remain in modern societies. An image of a hunter sitting next to a kill evokes immediate, visceral reactions from non-hunters — enough to slide some into the anti-hunter camp.

Keep in mind the number of active anti-hunters in this nation is small – most Americans are agnostic non-hunters with few opinions on the subject. But there are two opinions the masses do hold, quite firmly, I might add: First, that hunting to feed yourself and your families is a generally good thing; every poll ever done shows strong support for this. But the second opinion is an equally strong opposition to something called “trophy hunting,” which can mean different things to different people. Polls consistently show minimal support for this, over every demographic group.

And in the eyes of non-hunters, an image of me or anyone else, holding a weapon, sitting next to an animal we just killed is unquestionably a trophy shot.

If you talk with non-hunters about what they see when they view an image of a hunter with his (and especially her, as our views toward women hunting are far more slanted than those toward men, but again, that is another story) these are their reactions:

  • It’s someone happy to have killed an animal. “The smiling face juxtaposed with the dead face always creeps me out,” says a friend of mine. “Grinning loons,” says another.
  • That it shows disrespect for that animal.
  • Visual evidence of humankind’s destruction of the natural world.
  • It is the reduction of beauty to possession, a visual statement that “this animal is mine.”
  • Just guys compensating for small dicks.

Many non-hunters instantly project their strong feelings for their pets onto the animal in the picture. Anyone who has lost a pet knows how wrenching it can be, and seeing the dead animal sets them to thinking of pets loved and lost.

Some see it as a look into a private world they’d rather not see. A friend of mine, who is mostly vegetarian, said: “My reaction is to want to look away. It feels too intimate, like a photo of a person on their death bed.” Or, more accurately, someone grinning over someone else on his death bed.

Context matters to many, however. I get little or no negative reaction when I do post such photos, which, incidentally, is rare, because my friends know this image merely marks the first step toward a series of wonderful meals. My friends know I do this to feed myself. So once they get past the instant reaction, they understand… sorta.

Photo by Charlie de la Rosa
Photo by Charlie de la Rosa

But put a picture of a hunter over a brown bear, which most hunters don’t actually eat (black bears are different), or African game (especially predators or elephants), or that awful picture of a hunter clutching a dead mountain lion like a toddler clutching her pet kitty, and you will get a second, harder thought – one that rises even in me. Why did you kill that creature? You weren’t even going to eat it!

There are of course reasons, some good ones, for that sort of true trophy hunting and predator control. (And yes, I do know some people like to eat the mountain lions they kill.) But this isn’t the place to elaborate on the conservation benefits of hunting African game, and as someone who never intends to participate in that sort of hunt, I am not the person to debate this with.

As another non-hunting friend noted: “I think most non-hunters can’t distinguish trophy hunters from those who hunt (or fish) for food. I used to associate ‘hero shots’ only with trophy hunters, who in my opinion, have given hunting a bad name for all others who hunt responsibly.”

All of this is a rather long way of saying that even though I don’t agree with Facebook’s assessment of this picture – especially since I limited it to just people who had already “liked” the HAGC Facebook page – I can intellectually understand why someone might consider it an image supporting animal cruelty.

Now, let me explain to non-hunters reading this what is actually happening in these images. To those of us who hunt and fish – and forage, for that matter – these images represent a range of feelings ranging from noble to mundane to political:

  • It’s just what you do. Photos are a natural end to a hunt, and there’s no real thought put into it. This is the first reaction you get when you ask most who grew up with hunting and fishing about these photos. It is part of the process.
  • Memory. Photos memorialize the entire hunt, from the environment to the people to the successful result. They are touchstones of a life spent outdoors, and each one comes to life when the hunter retells the story associated with it, even if that hunter wasn’t present; a faded photo of grandpa wearing flannel with a moose is chance to tell a tale from the past. As one HAGC reader put it: “These photos mark a moment of accomplishment for my son, rather than any heroic attitude. We’ve kept a record of his firsts, from first step to first rabbit, pheasant, and deer. And those are private photos, for our memory books only.”
  • Bragging rights. Look at the size of this buck! And if you think this reason profane, keep in mind that humans have been eager to demonstrate prowess in the procurement of food since at least the start of the Cognitive Revolution, about 70,000 years ago. It’s not the highest of motives, but it’s pure.
  • Honoring the animal, believe it or not. I know for me, I want to remember the individuality of that deer or hog or whatever. The little forked-horn buck I shot this year had a snub-nose face and very dark antlers compared to the young buck I shot in Idaho the year before, or the older buck I shot in California earlier in 2014. Each animal still exists in my mind, and those photographs cement this. It is why so many people gussy up their fallen animals before taking a picture – a feeling not dissimilar to undertakers “fixing” a corpse, so the family can have an open casket funeral. Death is ugly enough: You want the last memory of that person, or animal, to be dignified.

And about that grin.

What outsiders see is someone smiling, or, in video, fist-pumping and hooting. It looks awful. Callous. Borderline evil. Make no mistake, though: We are not happy that this individual animal died. We are happy because we have just succeeded in something that can often involve significant physical, mental and emotional hardship. I know of one guy who spent 21 straight days in a treestand, waiting for a buck to come by. When he finally shot one, you bet he was happy. Sure, he was sorry for that individual deer, but it meant he had climbed his personal mountain – and would have venison in the freezer for himself and his children.

Taking the photos is one thing. I don’t think too many people of all persuasions think that the taking of the image is a problem. It is the sharing of those images that sparks controversy.

So why share?

As one HAGC reader states: “It’s natural for us to want to share with others the things we are proud of. The things we work hard to accomplish. I share my husband’s photos because I am proud of him for taking care of his family, putting meat on the table. I post them on my blog or social media with hopes of inspiring others to live this lifestyle.”

She is right to be proud. We are all proud, every one of us, when we successfully bring food home to those we love. It is one of the most hard-wired, primal feelings within us. Non-hunters share this, too. A poor single mother who manages to save enough to buy a proper Christmas dinner for her kids. A gardener who coaxed, with his own hands, a bumper crop of tomatoes or peppers or whatever from the earth. A child who digs her first clam. A sister bringing a little bowl of wild blueberries to a sick sibling, knowing this will make her brother forget about his illness, if only for a while. And yes, a hunter, who has worked hard to bring home a deer that will be the family’s red meat for an entire year. It is all of a piece.

Cave art.

But I am firm in my belief that sharing the “hero shot” to those unreceptive to it is a bad idea.

Far better to show the meal made with that animal than the steps before. Some say that the Cellophane People – my name for meat eaters who do not hunt, but who think that those of us who do are monsters – ought to see the reality of meat eating, for their own good. Maybe so, maybe not. But I can tell you that showing them an image of a hunter sitting next to a dead deer or pig isn’t going to convince a anyone of the justness of omnivorous self-sufficiency.

There is also something more sinister underneath all this. There is the issue of class and culture.

It is a fact that some of the reaction against images of hunting, and especially the “hero shot,” is a reaction against a part of America the viewer disdains. Hunting is still largely a rural pursuit (it is most definitely not a “sport,” but again, that is another discussion) and it largely involves guns. Most Americans live in cities, and to many of them a gun is an object of terror, not a tool. This is the cultural home of the Cellophane People. Show them a person wearing camo, a rifle cradled in one arm, sitting next to a dead deer and they shudder and mutter something about “grinning hillbillies,” or begin a diatribe with liberal use of the term “redneck” sprinkled in.

And don’t think that the “rednecks” don’t notice. As one HAGC reader put it: “There is also what we might call the ‘reactionary aspect.’ We are aware of folks who react negatively to these types of pictures, and we only find that encouraging. It’s our way of saying, ‘We are here. We are proud, and we are not going away.’” “Hero shot” as political statement.

So where then, does that leave us?

Fortunately, the easy answer is also the most sensible. Keep these shots close, where they used to be before the advent of social media. Until Facebook, Twitter and the myriad other ways to chatter amongst ourselves began dominating our lives, we hunters and anglers shared these photos only with those we thought might like to see them. I distinctly remember keeping a picture of a gigantic tuna I caught in 1991 tucked into my wallet, to produce whenever I got to talkin’ fishin’ (the lack of “g’s” in my gerunds is a clear indicator that beer was involved) with another angler. I didn’t whip that pic out to just anyone.

So, going forward, I intend to exercise a bit of discretion. Here’s why: Those of us who hunt are a tiny minority in America, as are, incidentally, those who want to ban hunting. Hunting’s future rests on the opinion of that vast mass of unaligned non-hunters. So long as most Americans are cool with us hunting for food, they will allow it to continue. “Hero” shots – even when showing animals that will be eaten — evoke such a viscerally negative image even from sympathetic non-hunters, let alone the completely unaligned, that their casual display in openly public arenas does active harm to our cause and our future.

You may feel differently, and that is your right. But even if you do, don’t ask me about that tuna photo. It was lost when my wallet was stolen years ago. And yes, I am sad about it to this day. That photo meant a lot to me.

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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37 Comments

  1. Thanks for this article and sharing your thoughts. Personally I’ve never taken a hero shot of any of the deer I’ve taken, but interestingly have with the odd fish. For myself right after I kill an animal taking pictures is far from my mind while the emotions of the hunt ending are processed. I’ve taken many doe pictures during hunts as they provide me with a better memory then seeing a dead animal where it fell. I find many of my none hunting friends that I share my pictures with are surprised at the number of animals that I see and don’t shoot at. I have taken a few pictures of a couple of deer I’ve taken but only after hanging and processing has begun these I only share with people who hunt or who are curious.

  2. Hank, you’re giving in to political correctness. Someone else is dictating the public discourse. If they are going to do this, then, as you point out, they should ban photos of gardeners holding up a bunch of freshly harvested carrots, pulled from the ground. I’m certain there are factions that view the killing of plants negatively (Jains?). These blokes at Facebook are trying to create a “safe place” where people can go without being offended. Respectfully, I disagree with you.

  3. So Hank, do you want o dive into Facebook here and now? For guys like you and me, who make our living in an industry that Facebook is openly prejudiced against, do you think there is something we should do in protest?

  4. I was already a fan of this page for the amount of thought put into what to do with game (i.e. actual recipes and advice beyond smothering it in barbecue sauce or making it into sausage.

    Now though, I’m speechless that the author has taken the time to intellectually comprehend the other point of view and present it fairly. What breath of fresh air in an overly polarized world. We need more of this—respectful open debate.

  5. Greetings from Australia!

    Thanks, Hank, for dealing with a loaded issue in a sincere and thought provoking way… I, (one among many thousands, I’m sure), am glad of your move towards more content like this and speaking your mind as you need.

    We’ll always be amazed at the recipes, of course, but to be asked to reevaluate our relationship with our food and the sustainability of entire ways of life due to the impact of our sharing ‘hero shots’ is the sort of depth and clarity of thought this world needs more of.

    The thought that enough voters hating hunter’s selfies could get what my family does to feed themselves banned was a sobering one!!

    Please keep it up, and show me where the donate button is…

    Kind regards,
    Zennan

    PS: Acorns are starting to ripen up down here and you’ve got me excited about trying something new this winter… Love it! Also, bought a batch of black walnuts not too long ago, and they’re awesome. Again, thanks to yourself and your work, I’d never have known without it

  6. I’ve never been able to bring my self to get a facebook account ever since I learned about Facebook banning pictures of mothers breastfeeding their babies. Feeding a baby is not pornography and, just like a hunter can be proud of the success of his hunt and want to share it, a mother can be proud of nursing her baby and want to share that. facebook apparently doesn’t see it that way. If breastfeeding is pornographic/obscene, does that make baby bottles a sex toy? Absurd isn’t it?

  7. I don’t hunt, but I admire those who do. I think of it as the old fashioned way to feed your family. The trophy shot doesn’t bother me at all, and I like seeing the hunter together with the animal he or she will eat. I think most people waste more food in their kitchens than hunters do from their kill. People tend to appreciate what they’ve worked for.

  8. I have to agree with you. I hunt and am open about it with friends who hunt and those who don’t; who eat meat and who abstain. I am not ashamed of it. As such, I don’t feel the need to justify to anyone what I do or show my prowess off. The shots I tend to share on social media are ones like a picture showing how beautiful the woods can be at sunrise or, as you said, of meals I made from the animals I’ve killed. Frankly, for me, the biggest moment of pride comes when I am consuming that animal, when I can meditate upon how it lived its fullest, most natural life possible before moving on to provide sustenance for me and my family. Each bite of that meal is a memory of the hunt and all the validation I need.

    The reality of eating meat is dead animals. However, throwing that reality in people’s faces isn’t going to cause some switch to flip and have them suddenly eat meat or hunt. I have friends who eat meat and refuse to hunt and know they could never do their own dirty work, so to speak. That’s OK. I don’t need to shame them, I don’t need to convince a vegetarian to try bacon. All I ask from anyone is the freedom to live my life as I choose just as I want them to be free to live theirs according to their principles. Similarly although I am a very pro-life person, I abhor protesters who use graphic imagery to try to move people. It just does more harm to your cause than good. Trying to deliberately offend and get a rise out of people is never going to be the path to mutual understanding and logical discourse.

    I’m also with you on the lack of desire to go big game hunting in Africa or whatnot. The United States has a wonderful variety of game species to hunt and consume and, having only come into hunting as an adult, I haven’t even gotten to go do things like duck hunting yet(bucket list!) so there’s no reason to travel so far afield for exotic species. Furthermore, I’m not even terribly interested in harvesting a buck with some Boone and Crockett rack on it as I’d rather have the tender meat of a doe or younger buck. With few exceptions (groundhogs being one for me), I don’t believe in killing anything I wouldn’t be willing to eat. However, I also allow that this is a personal and private decision for each hunter to make.

    I do thank you for the HAGC community on FB though and for it being a place where such triumphs, and the visceral realities they entail, can be shared.

    Can’t wait to meet you on your book tour in Pittsburgh!

  9. Hank, I really appreciated this article. It articulated and resonated with many of the same thoughts and feelings I have when I see these types of photographs of others and of myself.

    When I saw your initial post advertising the hog hunt school, I had mixed feelings about the image, but was not upset about it because I understand that you hunt to eat, and that you have great respect for the animals you kill. Yet somehow I have always been uneasy with the documented image of a hunter and his quarry.

    I have struggled with the mixed feelings you expressed over wanting to document the end of a successful hunt with a photograph to remember the experience later, and wanting to show respect the animal by not representing it as a trophy. I have taken these photographs too and struggled internally with what they mean. Acknowledgement of this manifests our respect for these animals, and is evidence that we do not take their killing lightly.

    I have a photograph of the first deer I killed (a young doe, not a fawn, but certainly a yearling) that a friend’s father took of me. He wanted to document my first deer and I obliged without thinking about it a great deal at the time. After all, it was my first deer and I had worked hard to get it. When he gave me the photograph in a small frame I was shocked and uncomfortable seeing myself in that ‘hero pose’ even though I was fully aware of what had happened in spite of how proud I was of that first deer. To this day, I remain hesitant to share that image with anyone other than my closest hunting friends.

    It has been seven years since I shot and killed that young doe. The photo resides in a drawer in my basement with other hunting gear and when I come across it I still have those same feelings about whether or not taking that photograph was the right thing to do. I don’t regret taking the life of that young doe. She fed my family and was a ‘first’ in my hunting life.

    My cousin and I hunt together frequently and still take pictures with our quarry occasionally to preserve memories our time spent together and of successful hunts. We are not trophy hunters. We eat what we kill, and are not overly impressed with ourselves. We hunt to have stronger bond with the food we eat and the natural world we immerse ourselves in. Still, those images give me an uneasy feeling.

    The other side of those photographs that I always do is label every cut of meat that goes into the freezer with the date, location, defining features (.i.e five point buck, spike buck, doe, etc.). I do this when butchering and sealing meat for storage, so the connection to the animal and experience of the hunt is never lost. I make a point of letting people know what they are eating, including when and how it was taken. It is my way of honoring the animal and is a counter to the images we take. I never want the animal that gave it’s life to become anonymous which is exactly what happens in the industrialized meat farming industry. I do the same with ground meat as well. I do not mix the meat of different animals for this same reason.

    A great part of what we do as hunters, is the pursuit of an honest relationship with the food we eat and share to sustain our friends and families. Recognizing the difference between preserving memories and acknowledging respect for our quarry is evidence of how seriously we take the killing we do.

    I wanted to write this to show that you are not alone in your thoughts on this and to offer support of your choices. I think FBook was wrong in this instance of censorship based on the information at hand. People who ‘like’ you are signing up for the content. At the same time I respect your sensitivity to the larger issue and our ’cause’ as hunters.

    All the Best,

    Will

  10. Nic Neufeld, When you said “relatives in LA” I thought to myself, “There are people in Louisiana that don’t eat squirrels?!?” Then I realized you meant Los Angeles and it all made a LOT more sense to me!

  11. Very nice piece. Living in Rural Iowa my entire life hunting/fishing are just part of the culture. Kids get guns and are let loose at ages that would frighten some adults in this country. However most of those children I would trust with a 22 rifle more than said horrified adult.

    It is all perspective and how one is raised. Being able to hunt is a rite of passage for many people in this country, being trust enough to hunt solo is the pinnacle of that for a child. Some people have trouble understanding hunting and its heritage and culture. Those are certainly the same people who want to do away with something they do not fully understand. Their apprehension towards guns, hunting, and pictures of dead animals is something they should, in all honesty, butt out of until they realize what is taking place in the picture. If someone is so horrified or offended by a photograph of something they do not fully understand they need to mind their own business. I think the internet has created a new wave of nosy people, they see a photo and instantly voice their displeasure. These were formerly the people around town who would just bitch when you hung a deer in your yard or you didn’t rake the leaves.

    Whatever happened to someone having enough class to walk away from something that offended them without making a scene/comment? Seems like it is a trait that has gone the way of the Dodo (given the chance, I’d probably eat one too).

  12. I tend to FB post the incredible pictures of a sunrise in a duck blind or the looming thunder storm building over a field of golden grain instead of the birds in the game bag. The kill is a private moment that honors the game and can be shared and savored by the few individuals close enough to me and with common interests. However, it is the weather, the sounds and color palettes and living things that will capture the hearts and minds of my extended FB friends who do not fully embrace my passions. In this way, my hope is the non-hunters will appreciate the need to continue the outdoor heritage because it is embraced by someone they know and respect. Sometimes it is better to enjoy the sausage than to watch it being made. Thanks for the great post Hank!

  13. “You may feel differently, and that is your right. But even if you do, don’t ask me about that tuna photo. It was lost when my wallet was stolen years ago. And yes, I am sad about it to this day. That photo meant a lot to me.”

    Uh, huh, SURRRREEEE…The big photo that got away! 😛

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read on the subject in a long time. I grew up mostly a city boy in Northern California, but did do the annual family camping trip. My dad and I would fish, but nobody in my family was a hunter. I remember a couple very good summers of catching our limits of big trout, laying them out and snapping a picture. That picture is what’s etched in my mind and help me remember the rest of the time we had paddling the canoe, hiking 5 miles to a backcountry lake, making our way up rivers, getting stuck in lighntning storms, all the ancillary activities that create the image everyone sees.

    As a hunter now, I do take pictures of my kills. I’m very proud of the work I put into each one and thankful for the bounty that feeds us. I have put a lot of effort into learning how to hunt and have found it’s not as easy as walking into the woods with a gun and shooting the first thing you see. I unfortunately come out empty handed more often than not, but each experience teaches me something new, not only about hunting, but about myself, the land and it’s occupants.

    The entire experience is what I’m after. The “trophy shot” is just a keepsake to invoke that memory on that occasion when everything came together.

  14. This was a very encouraging piece. When my husband and I moved to our house, we were financially strapped, and decided to take up urban chickens and rabbits as well as gardening to supplement our meager food budget. Taking the “Grow food not lawn” idea in an omnivorous direction. And my in laws literally called us sick, and suggested that anyone not living on a farm who killed animals for food was using it as an excuse for cruelty. After all, there were grocery stores in our neighborhood, right?
    We quickly learned to keep the subject close to the vest. No amount of arguing, no breakdown of health benefits, comparison of animals quality of life, or the fact that we wanted to eat meat from time to time on a beans and rice budget, swayed them.
    There was a time in our history when it was accepted for women to stretch the budget by raising a few animals. My grandparents all knew how to get that chicken from yard to pot. But now, especially as a woman, there is a stigma that my doing the same makes me at best unfeminine or cold, and at worse a psycho.
    But there is something very satisfying knowing that my chicken had a good life, lived a couple of years (instead of weeks) and ended humanely. And that when I eat it with my husband and son, I know exactly what I’m giving them, and how it was handled. And as a wife and mother,I think it’s a very feminine role for me to take.