Guest opinion: Hunting, violence, and child molestation

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 1994:

by Dr. Emmanuel Bernstein, psychologist
Adirondack Counseling, Saranac Lake, New York
The March 1994 issue of ANIMAL PEOPLE pre-
sented New York state hunting participation and crime statis-
tics that clearly show an association between incidence of
hunting and child molestation. This is especially impressive
since the statistics were presented in a manner that took into
account the possible influence of population density––and the
apparent influence of hunting proved stronger.
As ANIMAL PEOPLE noted, University of New
Hampshire director of family research Dr. Murray Strauss in
1987 found the number of hunting licenses sold to be a major
indicator of regions “culturally disposed toward violence.”
He also found that the states most culturally disposed toward
violence were the states with the highest rates of teen homi-

ANIMAL PEOPLE suggested that the association
between hunting and child molestation reflects “dominion-
ism,” an attitude Yale researcher Stephen Kellert found to be
from half again to twice as strong in hunters as in the general
public. The linkage between a desire for dominion and a ten-
dency to be violent is confirmed by much other research. For
example, Richard E. Nisbett in the April 1993 issue of
American Psychologist made a case for what I interpret to be
dominionism as an important motivation for violent crime in
the U.S. South, where the murder rate is 23% higher than for
the U.S. as a whole, the rape rate is 10% higher, and the rate
of hunting participation is 5% higher. Specifically, Nisbett
found a linkage among violent crime in the South, a strong
sense of territoriality, and a high value placed upon “defend-
ing honor.” Nisbett also found that Southerners believe in
spanking their children more than residents of other parts of
the country, which might also reflect a greater preoccupation
with demonstrating dominance. Nisbett’s findings parallel
those of Temple Grandin in studies of livestock handling
done in 1978 and 1980, which discovered there was more
rough handling of livestock in the Southern states.
Dr. Neil Jacobson and colleagues similarly found
dominionistic behavior in a controlled study of severe spouse-
batterers and their partners. This was the first study to direct-
ly measure emotional expression at the physiological level in
domestic abusers. Jacobson compared the batterers with
equally maritally distressed non-battering couples, and pre-
sented the findings at the October 9, 1993 general session of
the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.
This research startled social scientists and mental health pro-
fessionals who previously believed anger was a major factor
preceding severe beatings. Instead, Jacobson et al found that
battering “is a pattern of psychological and social
control…The fear of being hurt is used to subjugate and
exploit.” The most severe batterers (12 of the 57 studied) had
a drop in heart rate during the course of their arguments:
instead of becoming more emotional, they became less so.
Their partners did nothing to initiate violence, and then there
was not a thing they could do to stop it. This documented the
“disconnection between physiology and behavior.”
To me, such findings underscore the recurring
observation that people who commit violent crimes tend to be
less empathic with both children and animals.
My beliefs come not only from study of psychologi-
cal literature and my continuing research into the causes of
violence, but also from my experience in growing up in the
Adirondack mountains with hunters who sometimes were
close friends, and from my training and work as a psy-
chotherapist. I have treated dozens of violent people, includ-
ing child molesters and hunters, over the past 25 years. I
have become increasingly convinced that violence breeds vio-
lence; and that where there is obvious violence, there is more
hidden violence.
Most social workers these days know that if they see
cruelty or violence toward a family pet, there is violence else-
where within the family. The FBI has known for years that
childhood cruelty toward animals is one of the best predictors
of a person later becoming violent toward humans. For
instance, Dr. Harvey Cleckley in 1976 studied criminals
through in-depth interviews and found that most of the psy-
chopathic offenders he studied became criminals after escap-
ing correction for transgressions in childhood. When early
crimes, such as killing or harming animals, were not correct-
ed with serious consequences, the level of violence escalated.
To date, no one has investigated a possible relation-
ship between an early initiation into hunting and family vio-
The importance of empathy
How would you go about training a child to become
a violent adult? One way children are taught is with animals.
Show and tell the child that animals’ feelings do not count. Do
not correct inconsiderate behavior toward animals. Tell chil-
dren that certain groups of living beings––both animals and
other humans––make good targets. Explain that certain ani-
mals and humans do not deserve respect because they are
“lower” than we are. State that these certain animals and peo-
ple exist for our use, and/or that we would be better off with-
out them. In short, depersonalize. This will enable the child
to harm others in good conscience.
This is how military training teaches people to kill.
This is how society teaches children to accept eating meat.
And this is how children are taught to hunt.
Psychotherapists understand that teaching empathy
is a central part of helping violent families find peace.
Michael Murphy, in the July/August 1990 issue of F a m i l y
Therapy News interpreted child abuse or victimization as a
basic violation of the implicit empathic contract between par-
ent and child. The abusive parent places the child in a situa-
tion where the victim must meet the abuser’s needs. He
arrived at a profound truth: “power without empathy is vic
timization.” Without empathy, both child and adult learn to
detach, to be cold, to be heartless.
Families who have little empathy for animals gener-
ally have little empathy for each other, as well. Likewise,
societies which have little empathy for animals generally have
little empathy for either individual people or other societies.
Grandin’s studies of the attitudes of slaughterhouse workers
throughout the past decade have demonstrated that societies
which treat people humanely also tend to treat animals more
humanely, even within the necessarily violent context of
slaughter. Grandin reported that the most humane attitudes
were to be found in the Netherlands and Sweden, which have
some of the lowest rates of violent crime in the world, and
some of the most progressive animal protection laws. She
found the most cruelty (among nations she studied) in
Mexico. I would wager that if we could gather statistics on
violence toward people in certain parts of Latin America,
including statistics on child molestation, we would find far
more in those regions whose festivals include ritual animal
torture, such as chasing and beating a donkey or goat to
death. It is significant that such practices as bullfighting,
scapegoating, and animal sacrifice have all been introduced
to Mexican society as trappings of violent conquest: as sym-
bols of dominion.
Why they hunt
Hunters hunt for many reasons. Some hunt for
food. But hunting is not an efficient and cost-effective way to
get food any more, if it ever was. Emotional and psychologi-
cal motivations are more important. A major factor that influ-
ences a child to become a hunter is a memory of good times
experienced with a parent, relative, or friend while hunting
together. If the experience was warm and exciting, reinforc-
ing the child’s sense of acceptance, the child may seek to
recapture the essence of it for many years. Having a hunter as
a respected or loved role model can be a powerful dynamic;
long after reaching adulthood, many hunters still hunt essen-
tially in search of paternal or surrogate paternal approval.
Similarly, hunters often hunt to reinforce their sense of
belonging to a group: their buddies. Some hunt to feel the
sense of strength and power they derive from handling or
using a gun. Those who become particularly proficient may
hunt to exhibit their ability to kill––a transferred demonstra-
tion of dominance—or more abstractly, to shoot a moving
target, mastery of which requires considerable detachment,
and becomes an exercise in shutting off one’s emotions,
especially empathy and vulnerability.
Hunting, especially killing, gives some individuals
a sense of control––of dominion––even over life and death.
And all of these motivations may connect with an effort to
prove one’s masculinity. Merritt Clifton, author of the ANI-
MAL PEOPLE study, described two famous examples from
one prominent family in his 1990 article “Killing the
Female.” Ernest Hemingway’s mother forced him to wear
dresses until he entered school. Years of ardent pursuit of
macho adventure never killed his sense of humiliation.
Hemingway’s son Gregory “at age 11 won the World Live
Pigeon Shooting Championship. At 19 he was arrested for
transvestitism. Trying to regain respect, he next slaughtered
18 elephants on a single African safari.”
A hunter may be motivated by the pleasure of
watching another being react to control. This can include
sadistic enjoyment derived from watching another person or
animal suffer, as pursued by serial rapists and murderers.
There is another kind of hunter who has empathy
toward animals and who loves to spend time outdoors amid
the flora and fauna. This kind of hunter always has a strong
part of himself that does not want to harm or kill. Although
this kind of hunter may kill sometimes, he cares about the
victim’s suffering and could give up hunting. These hunters
are usually kind and empathic toward humans and those ani-
mals not considered prey. Such hunters appreciate the beauty
of the forest and genuinely support conservation. I know one
such “hunter” who became the camp cook when killing
became distasteful to him. I know others who eventually
became courageous enough to give up hunting, at risk of
ridicule from certain of their hunting friends. Frequently they
do give up hunting, almost always after reaching middle age
and achieving relatively secure social status. Meanwhile,
studies show that as many as 20% of hunters don’t discharge
their weapons each hunting season––and often their stated
reason is not that they haven’t seen their quarry.
One man I knew hunted and jacked deer regularly,
but one day found himself feeding a deer in an area near his
house. He enjoyed her beauty and companionship, and
named her Florence. When another hunter shot Florence, he
was enraged, literally ready to kill the murderer.
The film The Deerhunter reaches epiphany when a
highly skilled hunter returns from the Vietnam War, looks a
magnificent stag in the eye, and cannot shoot. This is how
my friend Jacques Ely quit hunting, after years as a famous
Adirondack Guide. He told me the story one day as we hunt-
ed mushrooms and identified birds through binoculars. We
decided that picking mushrooms required more courage than
hunting because an error in identification could kill us.
The other kind of hunter is the one who enjoys the
stalking, killing, and feeling of power that the gun gives
him. He responds to the distress of prey with little or no
empathy. This hunter also tends to be detached from at least
some other humans. He may shoot at whatever moves, or
take pleasure in gutting his kills. Gaining a feeling of domi-
nance and power is the most important part of his hunting
experience. He may place great importance in obtaining tro-
phies, both to demonstrate his dominance to others and to
assist him in reliving his moments of triumph.
Child molestation, like hunting, is a form of per-
sonal expression. After decades of work with child molesters,
wife-beaters, husband-beaters, child-abusers, rapists, and
murderers, I have become more and more convinced that
there are connections between a hunter’s violence toward ani-
mals and violence toward humans. I have also come to real-
ize that there is a particularly strong association between the
non-empathic hunter’s personality and those who are violent
toward humans. When a person sees the suffering of another
being as entertainment, do not trust that person with your
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