When I was a kid, touching the soft hair of a mounted deer head in someone’s house or, better yet, on the wall of some diner on a family road trip, always felt strange. I knew this head was not a living thing—the black and lifeless eyes shining at me instead of looking, the coldness of what used to be an energy-filled being, the hard flesh with no tendons or muscles beneath it. I knew all this, but I still wanted to touch. My relatives are all hunters. Growing up, I tried to convince myself that what they did for fun was acceptable because they used all the parts of the killed animal—ate the meat, sold the pelt and oh yeah, saved the head to mount as a trophy on the wall. The need to conquer and impose one’s identity, or at least one’s life practices and ego costumed as power, is nothing new. Historically and currently, we see it every day: Afghanistan, Steubenville and even seemingly inconsequential sportsmanship—that is, the invading, hunting, killing and personal commodification of non-human animals.
Hunting for sport is a popular pastime in southern Louisiana; it is not a thing that most of us question, although some acknowledge the uselessness of hunting in 2013. Hunting and fishing in south Louisiana is a way of life. Enjoying eating the fruits and vegetables of gardens I have tended and grown, I understand the comfort and pride of knowing from where one’s food has come. Of course, this understanding assumes that the hunters with which I share compassion are the ones who are killing to eat. Whereas some (maybe many) hunters have their kills stuffed and mounted, most gardeners don’t dry their tomato stems and nail them to the wall. Considering the number of plants I have crucified in my garden, I know that gardening is no easy feat for some of us, making it just as much of an art as some would claim hunting is. But to make a trophy out of what I have given so much time and love? The thought itself bewilders me.
Merriam-Webster defines the word trophy as “something gained or given in victory or conquest especially when preserved or mounted as a memorial… a game animal or fish suitable for mounting as a trophy.” Perplexing, and possibly appalling to some, is the existence of these definitions only separated by a few lines: trophy refers to both a thing and an animal, suggesting that an animal is considered a thing by most, hence the universal English definition.
Many argue that the natural food chain is reason enough to devalue animals who belong to what is commonly accepted as a lower form. In those people’s minds, separating animals by capacity, with humans at the tippy top, affirms their comfort with many things that are arguably violent: eating mass-produced meat and killing for sport are two of them. But focusing on what makes us different, or more aptly, what makes them different from us, only leads to a break in the fluidity of function and connection. Repeatedly, we have seen how the favoring of differences accompanied by superiority and privilege has led to unfixable resentment and hatred, not to mention stunted evolution within the human species. What makes nonhuman animals any different, or any less worthy of the same respect of which we should all be deserving?
Maybe taxidermied trophies are more about a reminder of the experience; however, is siphoning another’s life force so negligible a task? Seems pretty humanistic, egotistical and unevolved to me. If it is human nature to always look for someone to bow down to us and highlight our individual importance, then we should stop trying to set ourselves apart. Through the lens of capitalist competitiveness, self worth is defined on the basis of comparison and superiority. By looking at that deer head mounted on the wall, hunters can remind themselves that the power is in their hands, but if that trophy is merely a sublimation of power, then what a waste of a life.