Why we may never understand the reasons people hunt animals as ‘trophies’

US dentist Walter Palmer caused global outrage this month when he killed Cecil the lion, a local favourite at Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s largest game reserve. Palmer is thought to have paid US$50,000 for killing Cecil, after the lion was lured outside the protection of the park.

But Palmer is not the first such trophy hunter, and he’s unlikely to be the last. In May, Texan hunter Corey Knowlton, who had paid US$350,000 in an auction for a permit, killed an endangered black rhino in Namibia, claiming his “hunt” was: a vital component of Namibia’s effort to save the animal from extinction.

In November 2013, American TV wildlife presenter Melissa Bachman sparked international outrage with a Facebook post:

An incredible day hunting in South Africa! Stalked inside 60-yards on this beautiful male lion … What a hunt!

The public spoke, and Bachman was dropped by the National Geographic Channel from its show Ultimate Survivor Alaska after a petition on Change.org received more than 13,000 signatures in under 24 hours.

Hurting animals

Many people hunt and fish for sustenance, which makes some kind of sense, but why do some people enjoy hunting and killing animals for fun? As it happens, there’s little direct research on why adults enjoy killing animals for “sport”. What we do know is that there’s a link between children hurting animals and violence in adulthood.

Since the 1970s, research has shown that the majority of adults who commit violent crimes have a history of animal cruelty in childhood. Some studies suggest that up to 70% of the most serious and violent offenders in prison have repeated and severe episodes of animal abuse in their history.

Indeed, cruelty to animals, along with bed-wetting past the age of five and fire-starting, are together known as the “homicidal triad”. This potential indication of violence in adulthood was first suggested by forensic psychiatrist John MacDonald in a 1963 article in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

More recent research shows that while some violent offenders do have all three traits in their past, many do not. Other indicators – such as a lack of empathy and disregard for the needs of others – are often more prevalent in violent offenders. But – and it’s a big one – although all three traits may not show up in all children who grow up to be violent adults, cruelty to animals in children can be a significant sign of a very troubled mind.

Serial killers David Berkowitz (also known as Son of Sam), who killed six people; Jeffrey Dahmer, who raped and murdered 17 men and boys; and Albert DeSalvo (also known as The Boston Strangler), who confessed to killing 13 women but was imprisoned for a series of rapes, all stated animal torture as their first acts of violence.

Perhaps hunting large animals is an example of some people’s need to show dominance over others.

Of course, not every child who intentionally and repeatedly hurts animals will go on to become a killer or sex offender. But early intervention and attempts to understand the cause of such behaviour may well be warranted.

But ‘trophy hunting’?

Still, the need to hurt animals that some children feel doesn’t explain why some adults hunt and kill large, and often dangerous, animals that they have no intention of eating. I have searched the psychology literature and, while there’s a lot of conjecture about what it means, the fact that very little research exists to support any assumptions makes reaching an understanding of this behaviour very difficult.

Perhaps hunting large animals is an example of some people’s need to show dominance over others. Research shows increased levels of hostility and a need for power and control are associated with poor attitudes towards animals, among men in particular.

Another paper has linked personality traits of some people who hunt for sport to a different “triad” of behaviours, known ominously as the “dark triad”. This includes narcissism (egotistical admiration of one’s own attributes, and a lack of compassion), Machiavellianism (being deceitful, cunning and manipulative) and psychopathy (lack of remorse or empathy, and prone to impulsive behaviour).

It found that, of the three behavioural traits, psychopathy was most closely associated with intentionally harming animals, as was a composite measure of all three traits – although the relationship was pretty weak.

On the face of it, that does fit with the suffering animals often endure at the hands of hunters – it took Cecil 40 hours to die. Palmer initially wounded him with a crossbow. He finally shot him dead almost two days later, before beheading and skinning him.

But not all hunted animals experience prolonged suffering before dying. And there are myriad reasons why people hunt, so how they (and everyone else) feel about the act itself is likely complex. Some people, for instance, enjoy the thrill of the chase (think about fisherman who catch big fish but then release them), others hunt for food and still others for “trophies”.

The problem is that understanding why people hunt for pleasure would require in-depth psychological assessments of a large number of hunters against evaluative measures for a whole range of personality traits, before we could try to figure out what people are feeling and what their motivations are.

And that means we may never know why hunters are compelled to seek animal trophies for their walls. Indeed, we might be condemned just to watch and wonder about their motive and emotional capacity.

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