Empathy override begins early with gigging, plinking

Hunting season starts with a bang…and ends with a long, relieved sigh such as we breathed one-half hour after sunset on Sunday. Animal advocates–probably pretty much everywhere, but definitely here in Montana–hunker down, grit our teeth, avoid favorite hikes in the wilds, avoid the newspaper, and count down the days until the elk and deer–and this year, wolf–slaughter ends.

October 18th & 19th, the two days prior to the deer and elk season opener, were designated Youth Hunting Days (deer hunting only for kids 12 to 15, though some aged 11 can participate depending on birth date) and coincide with the state’s no-school teachers’ professional development days. Kids 12 to 17 purchasing their first hunting license don’t actually have to raid their piggy banks–the license is given to them, a gift from the state, perhaps in a bid to cultivate youth ambassadors for hunting’s declining numbers. (See another discussion of youth hunting at the animal law blog Animal Blawg.)

Conventional wisdom maintains that small kids feel a natural bond with animals, but some research (link is broken) indicates that empathy for animals increases starting in 2nd grade and ethical concerns starting in 8th grade. Do children ever have to be encouraged, cajoled, shamed, pressured, or even forced to engage in blood sport by avid hunter parents? Said one successful first-time child hunter in our local newspaper: “I was kind of nervous at first because I never killed something before.” (Was he reflecting on the gravity of taking a life? Did he empathize with his future victim?) But afterward? “It was pretty cool.” Two years from now, the article continued, it will be his little sister’s turn to “see if she can match her brother’s first day.” The pressure’s on.

Speaking of pressure–as in peer pressure–a summary of a recent Hunting Heritage Trust study, “Understanding the Impact of Peer Influence on Youth Participation in Hunting and Target Shooting,” reveals attitudes of kids aged 8 to 17 on target shooting as opposed to hunting (and harming) live prey. Download the executive summary for some fascinating reading–and insight. Peer pressure is apparently another weapon in the arsenal when it comes to recruiting new hunters. Excerpt:

Yes, gratuitous killing for sport and trophy tends to make me, um, standoffish, too. The text goes on to assert that “the role and involvement of youth ambassadors is crucial to this aspect of the social acceptance of hunting.” In a South Carolina focus group, for example, several kids “who were initially somewhat opposed to hunting later deferred to a fellow group member with actual hunting experience.” Of course, mere deference to an outspoken peer in a group setting doesn’t equate to agreement or acceptance. And while their hunting peer assured them that hunters “attempt to minimize the suffering of animals at all times while hunting,” it’s telling to note that “(t)he most common reason that youth hold a negative opinion of hunting is their distaste in causing pain to animals.” Imagine that…empathy.

Empathy — more complex than we thought?

According to one researcher (Zero Degrees of Empathy), empathy is an umbrella concept–not only cognitive knowledge about what another is feeling and the appropriate emotional response to it, but also based–in part, anyhow–on our genes, exposure to early (fetal) hormones, and gender. And while we might naturally display more empathy for those closer to us genetically (family, tribe) or culturally, “(s)tories and perspective-taking play a critical role in the development of moral reasoning” (source). In other words, empathy is learned despite propensities toward or away from it.

Says Nicole Forsyth of RedRover (formerly United Animal Nations), “In order to feel empathy, a person must…be able to take the perspective of another and share another’s emotional state. …By the age of eight, most children have the ability to take the perspective of others and anticipate others’ reactions based on unique perspectives, so this is a great age to work on their empathy development” (“Why Empathy is the Key to a Kinder Society“).

But here’s the rub: you can’t empathize with things, and in our society (domestic “pets” excepted), kids learn that animals are commodities–those unfortunate ones stuffed into factory farms who turn up on our plates; those wild ones who are natural resources for harvesting as fur, food, and trophies; and those charismatic ones who exist to entertain us at zoos, marine parks, and circuses. Humans who learn to empathize with these animals have overcome a great deal of speciesist conditioning that denies animals their sentience. That’s a tall order for a little kid who isn’t taught that animals want, basically, what we want: life, and the freedom to pursue their interests.

The trick, it seems, to creating a child hunter unburdened by empathy or even simple compassion for animals, is to start early. Here’s #5 of 12 tips from How to hunt with a kid:

Is this the key to creating kids enthusiastic about killing? Start before their personalities are fully developed, while they’re still into imitating and pleasing mom and dad, and before compassion for animals has taken root and empathy has developed (or, if nascent, can still be overridden). Teach them about “respect” and “fair chase” by shining a bright light into a frog’s eyes, thus dazing and blinding him so he can be easily speared, or by blasting an unsuspecting squirrel to Kingdom Come. Plinking–heck, that hardly sounds like killing at all. As for “blowing a box of shells on doves,” adults can model empathy-free but courteous behavior by telling the dead quarry, “Thank you for participating in our sport, Mr. Dove,” as does one video poster. Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up.

This is not to say that kids lacking empathy for animals will have none for their own kind. It does seem likely, though, that where disregard for animals’ lives is concerned, peer pressure later in life is somewhat iffier than early childhood gigging and plinking (and neck-wringing). An early override of empathy’s roots increases the likelihood that a child’s compassion footprint will not expand as he or she grows up.

Comment on this post at animal law blog Animal Blawg.