Navigating Social Norms and Animal Welfare in Hunted Animals

Pierre-Yves Daoust

Humans hold a wide diversity of values and beliefs stemming from different paths taken over millennia by different cultures across the planet. Such cultural and social perspectives particular to a region or a community of people need to be considered and incorporated in any meaningful discussion of our long history of association, close or distant, with animals and Nature. Respect for animals, people, and the environment or community in which they live is, therefore, a tenet of this chapter. People are part of an ecosystem, and their different views must be considered if that ecosystem is to be preserved or improved in a sustainable manner. In many situations, not all components of the ecosystem can be fully accommodated, and compromise is required to achieve an optimal balance.

Concern by individuals or communities for the welfare of animals goes back centuries, but animal welfare as is understood in a Euro-American context has become a major topic of discussion and scientific study for only the past few decades, starting with emphasis on laboratory and domestic animals (Walker et al., 2014). Studies on animal welfare were eventually extended to wild animals but focused mainly on captive (zoo) animals and on techniques such as chemical immobilization, trap and release, and radio-tagging used for wildlife management (Walker et al., 2014; JWD Editorial Board, 2016). Relatively little w'ork has addressed animal welfare as it relates to consumptive use of free-living wildlife, such as sport hunting, commercial hunting, trapping, and subsistence hunting by Indigenous people and others. Yet, the number of animals taken for these various purposes runs into the millions in North America alone. For example, it has been estimated that 10-11 million waterfowl annually in North America (Hicklin and Barrow, 2004) and 2.8 million white-tailed deer in 2016-2017 in the United States (Webb, 2018) were taken through sport hunting. What values are guiding, or should guide, these consumptive users to ensure respectful treatment of the harvested birds and mammals in the course of their activities?

Some studies have estimated the proportion of animals (mammals and birds) wounded but not retrieved during sport hunting. This proportion varied roughly between 10% and 48%, depending on the species hunted, the location where the animals were hunted, the tools used, and the hunters’ skill (Nixon et al., 2001; Hicklin and Barrow, 2004; Gregory, 2005). Some of these studies proposed Codes of Practice for hunters involved in particular hunts, with the aim “to support sportsmanship and acceptable animal welfare practices” (Gregory, 2005). Whereas improvement in hunters’ attitude towards animals through education remains the key to decreasing the suffering of hunted animals, the high proportion of “struck and lost” animals in sport hunting may be a sufficient argument for many to disapprove of such activity when it is done simply for recreation. However, where can a line be drawn between wealthy hunters from urban areas and those in remote communities who only have to step outside their home to hunt and who use their quarry to supplement their dining table? The Wild Harvest Initiative® is an example of an effort to assess the economic, social, and ecologic significance of hunting and angling to modern society. Moreover, the ethics of eating wild meat that has been “produced” locally should be weighed against that of eating meat from livestock that may have been transported for long distances to the slaughter house, with the associated severe stress imposed on the animals. To hunt successfully, experienced hunters need to have a thorough knowledge of the life history of the target animals and the environment in which they live. With such knowledge can come an appreciation of the animals and their environment, and most of these hunters often turn out to be strong custodians of Nature.

There are few instances of hunts of wild animals for commercial purposes (apart from fisheries), some of which have been tied to culling as a management tool for wild populations (Lewis et al., 1997; Urquhart and McKendrick, 2003). The Canadian commercial seal hunt, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, is by far the most widely known commercial harvest of wild animals, based on the large number of seals that used to be taken annually during the industry’s peak harvest years. Trapping of fur-bearing wildlife represents another important commercial activity involving wild animals. Hunting of several species of wild animals by Indigenous people for their own subsistence continues to be of fundamental importance. Wildlife thus remains a vital resource for some segments of the human population. Communities and their people who live far from urban centres, such as many First Nations and most Inuit in Canada, have depended for many generations, if not millennia, on resources from the land and the sea. This has shaped their approach to these resources and concurrently their social and cultural norms, and these are bound to differ from those of other demographic groups that have been removed for some generations from their food sources. Economically, some of these hunting activities undertaken for commercial purposes may represent one of the very few local sources of income in places that are often affected by a chronic lack of employment opportunities.

The Canadian commercial seal hunt exemplifies well the dichotomy between distant communities and urbanized regions. Its history goes back a few centuries, when Europeans settlers in Newfoundland and on the Magdalen Islands. Quebec, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, relied on abundant populations of harp seals that came down from the Arctic in late winter to early spring to give birth and mate. Originally hunted for their oil as fuel, the purpose of the hunt changed with time to include the pelt (primarily from young animals) and, currently, oil as a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids and meat for human consumption. In recent years, a hunt for grey seals off the Magdalen Islands has also been developed. At the outset, neither the seal hunt nor the trapping for fur considered animal welfare as an important element. In the seal hunt, animals needed to be killed quickly to be skinned promptly and correctly, but improper practices were apparently common prior to the mid-1960s, when government regulations to prevent such practices came into effect (Malouf, 1986). The welfare of trapped animals was also of little concern, based on the poor design of restraining traps that were then used. Pressure from animal rights groups, starting in the 1960s in relation to the seal hunt, challenged wildlife users to reconsider their harvesting methods. In the past 40 years, objective studies targeting elements of animal welfare have aimed to improve practices during commercial harvest of wildlife (AIHTS, 1997; Daoust and Caraguel, 2012; NAMMCO. 2009). For both the sealing and the trapping industries, the message became clear that if commercial users intend to develop a socially acceptable industry, they need to adopt and consistently adhere to methods meeting scientifically and legally appropriate standards of animal welfare, such as very short, preferably immediate, time to death and very low proportion of animals struck and lost. Ultimately, such practices also benefit the resource users since they often result in products of better quality from a commercial standpoint. Through mandatory training programs for sealers and trappers prior to the acquisition of their licence, the issue of animal welfare is now at least part of their conversation. Information to these user groups, based on objective research and delivered in a respectful manner, is again key to improving, if needed, their attitude towards animals, but this must be supported by appropriate legislation and enforcement.

The views of North American Indigenous people (such as Inuit, First Nations, and Metis within the territorial borders of Canada) regarding animal welfare have also been explored, not as an isolated concept, however, but rather as an integral part of an elaborate system of human-animal relationships (see, for example, Nadasdy, 2005; Watts, 2013; Robinson, 2014). It is not the intent of this author, a Euro-American white male, to pretend to fully understand, let alone explain, norms and belief systems that have evolved for millennia. It is instead incumbent on him to give voice as much as possible to Indigenous scholars, hunters, and elders who have reflected on human-animal relationships. Inuit and First Nations peoples have for millennia been primarily, if not totally, dependent on animal resources for their survival, and many, particularly those living in northern regions, continue to depend on these resources in one form or another. Because of this, they have developed a very strong relationship with their natural environment, which still exists today. Just as there is a diversity of perspectives on animal welfare among Euro-Americans, there also exist different views of animals among Indigenous peoples. Generalization is therefore not possible, but there appears to be much common ground among various Indigenous nations about their views of the natural world.

At the onset, North American Indigenous peoples were “neither ecologists nor conservationists but hunters” (Laugrand and Oosten, 2015; Nadasdy, 2005), and amongst many of them hunting continues to define their relationships with animals. The concept of animal welfare as is understood by Euro-Americans is not approached in the same way. The Euro-American perception of the natural world has been greatly influenced by Judeo-Christian teachings, in which humans are made to be distinct from Nature, supposedly having “dominion” over it (Freeman, 1999; Watts, 2013; Karetak and Tester, 2017). This distinction between people and Nature (and its resources) has followed into secular society and, interestingly, has resulted in two opposite attitudes: one utilitarian, in which “anything that is not human is defined as an object to be used for the benefit of human beings” (Karetak and Tester, 2017). and the other ecocentric, in which “the value of nature is inherent rather than contingent on its use by humans” (Nadasdy, 2005). Indigenous perspectives on Nature and animals, informed by their own, equally valid “complex set of beliefs about the proper relationship between humans and their spiritually powerful animal benefactors” (Nadasdy, 2005), do not subscribe to either of these views. Instead, “habitats and ecosystems are better understood as societies ... [in which n]on-human beings are active members”; these societies do not involve interactions among human beings only, and humans are not put at the centre (Watts, 2013; Karetak and Tesser, 2017; Todd, 2018). “Not only animals, but also plants, rocks, water, and geographic locations can have an identity, personality, and spirit ... everything on Earth is connected” (Robinson, 2014). Under the Nunavut Wildlife Act, one of the guiding principles of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit [“the way of knowing that encompasses the past, present, and future of Inuit experiences and values, principles, skills, and beliefs that have evolved over time” (Sudlovenick, 2019)] affirms that "People are stewards of the environment and must treat all of nature holistically and with respect, because humans, wildlife and habitat are inter-connected” (Nunavut, 2012). In this context, so-called subsistence hunting becomes much more than simply collecting food from the environment. It is a means of sustaining and enhancing social and cultural relationships and promoting shared responsibilities for the well-being of a community of people (Freeman. 2018; Wenzel, 1995).

In many Indigenous views of the world, “all living things contain spirits” (Watts, 2013; Freeman, 1990; Karetak and Tester, 2017), yet humans’ survival depends on killing animals. The attitude of Indigenous peoples towards animals can therefore be best described as a mixture of kinship, awe, and pragmatism (Robinson, 2014). The concept of respect and gratitude that derives from this dependence on animals “is far more complex and culturally dependent than most Euro-North American are aware” (Nadasdy, 2005). For example, it seems to have been a common belief among a number of Indigenous peoples that the animals offer themselves to the hunters (Freeman, 1999; Robinson, 2014). In a sense, one may view this as a form of humility and respect in contrast to the hunter boasting that they outsmarted their prey (Freeman, 1999). If the animal offers itself, this must come with obligations

James Simonee. from Pond Inlet, Nunavut, Canada, watches a ringed seal’s breathing hole in Eclipse Sound, May 2016. (Photo credit

FIGURE 17.1 James Simonee. from Pond Inlet, Nunavut, Canada, watches a ringed seal’s breathing hole in Eclipse Sound, May 2016. (Photo credit: P-Y Daoust.)

on the hunter’s part, and these take the form of respect for, and appropriate conduct towards. Nature and the animals; otherwise, animal spirits will be offended, and animals will not return. Respect can be shown in several ways. One that is of importance from the Euro-American perspective of animal welfare is to kill the animals quickly and thus minimize their suffering (Nunavut, 2012; Freeman, 1999). This, however, must consider the pragmatic nature of hunting in a harsh northern environment and the Indigenous hunters’ own perspective. A ptarmigan may be killed instantly with one shot of a rifle or a shotgun. By comparison, one of the few' methods available for Inuit to hunt ringed seals concealed under the ice in w inter and spring requires the use of a gaff or a harpoon to catch the animal when it surfaces at a breathing hole (Figure 17.1), a technique w'hich w'ould likely be seen as inappropriate by many Euro-Americans. The bowhead whale hunt by Canadian Inuit and Alaskan Inupiat may also be considered problematic in the Euro-American context. These whales cannot be killed with even the most powerful rifles. Instead, one or two grenades are needed, and possibly lances that target the unique blood supply to the brain of these animals, which derives from intercostal muscles (Marshall, 2002); the latter method had been used ancestrally for more than 1,000 years presumably because of its relative efficiency. Even so, immediate death is not guaranteed, and time to death may be prolonged (NAMMCO, 2015). Yet, the social and cultural importance of this hunt needs to be taken into account: “The reintroduction of w'hale hunts can not only be seen as an empowerment of Inuit but also a means of valorizing hunting and sharing practices as core elements of Inuit traditions” (Laugrand and Oosten, 2015). This does not diminish the value of promoting improvements in hunting methods that may decrease the time to death for the whales because, beyond the issue of animal welfare, this benefits the hunters’ safety in a type of hunt that can be very dangerous. By comparison, it is interesting that, in some Indigenous cultures, fish are deeply important and respected animals (Todd, 2018), whereas they are the group of vertebrates least studied by Euro-American scholars from an animal welfare perspective (Walker et ah, 2014).

Respect by Indigenous hunters for the animals as prey can manifest itself in several other ways besides aiming for a rapid death. These include minimizing disturbance to the animal populations that are hunted; restricting the number of animals that are killed to only those that are required for the needs of the hunters, their family, and their community; reducing to a minimum the number of animals struck and lost by developing hunting skills; limiting food wastage (although “waste” may have different meanings in different cultures); and using proper manners of disposing of parts of the carcasses (although the methods used may vary among Indigenous groups) (Freeman, 1999; Robinson, 2014). Humans are also responsible “to provide the conditions necessary for animals to thrive” (Robinson, 2014), which recognizes the importance of a healthy ecosystem for wild animals to live in. This very much aligns with the Euro-American concept of environmentalism, but it also has direct relevance to animal welfare (Paquet and Darimont, 2010). Overall. “[t]he rules governing the hunt, and indeed many of the rules governing interpersonal behaviour, are inherently conservationist by nature” (Freeman, 1990; Nadasdy, 2005).

It is not assumed that these various forms of respect for wild animals and Nature are followed universally by all Indigenous peoples, since there are various degrees of contemporary adherence to the ancestral culture, just as there are among Euro-Americans with regard to Judeo-Christian teachings. Ultimately, many Euro-Americans and many Indigenous scholars, hunters, and elders will likely agree that “[i]t is only in our relationship with the non-human [animals] that we become fully human” (Robinson, 2014).


The comments on Indigenous perspectives about animals and their well-being in this chapter benefited greatly from discussions and interactions with Solomon Awa, Gabrielle Daoust, Milton Freeman, Yoanis Menge, Noel Milliea. Megan Sheremata, James Simonee, and Greg Thompson.


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