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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:
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.
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.
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.