Shooting animals in the rural South: animal abuse or cultural norm?
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2002:
Shooting animals in the rural South: animal abuse or cultural norm?
by Sue-Ellen Brown, Psy.D.
“Who shot the dog?” I asked.
“I killed him! I shot him right in the face!” the
13-year-old boy boasted, sitting on his 4-wheeler.
“That was cruel!” his 8-year-old female cousin from the
“Well, he ate my cat!” exclaimed the 13-year-old.
For a moment I thought that could be a legitimate
explanation. I felt relieved that the next serial killer was not
living next door. But then, he continued, “Well the cat was dead.
The dog dug him up and ate him.”
I asked what happened to the cat.
“My dad shot him.”
“Why did your dad shoot the cat?” I cautiously asked.
“I don’t know and I don’t worry about it. The cat tried to
eat my bird.”
I tried to clarify the situation by asking, “So, your dad
shot the cat and you shot the dog?”
“Yeah! Well, my dad shot the dog first and wounded him,
and then I shot him and killed him.”
Again, his young cousin objected, and he stated,
“Grandpoppy wanted me to! Poppy wanted me to! The dog was going to
eat his chickens!”
I stood there silent, aware that anything I might say would
be a direct contradiction of what his father and grandfather had
said. His father, who was working near by, began calling him. I
said, “I hope you don’t shoot my dogs.”
He said with a smile, “We wouldn’t shoot your dogs! We know
who they belong to!” and rode off.
I walked away thinking about the implications of what was
said. This was not the typical demented child abusing animals by
himself or with friends. This was a boy engaging in behavior that
was sanctioned and encouraged by his father, grandfather, and
probably many generations before them. Shooting animals appeared to
be a culturally approved activity here in the rural deep South.
I wondered, was this animal abuse or just a cultural norm?
I had accidentally come upon the dismembered leg of the dog
who was shot. Walking through the fields with my dogs, I saw several
large vultures where we usually entered the woods. The dogs happily
chased off the vultures. In the middle of the path lay a brown
animal leg. Although I had often found deer legs in hunting season,
I thought it odd to come upon one in midsummer. Upon closer
inspection, I saw a paw instead of a hoof. I realized it was not a
deer leg at all, but the hind leg of a dog.
Then I recognized it to be the leg of a pretty chow mix I had
seen a few times during the past week–a stray. I couldn’t get close
to the dog, as my own dogs–one of them a local stray I had
rescued–had chased him off. I had hoped he went back home. From
past experience, I knew that there is no humane society serving this
part of Alabama, and also that there is no animal control officer.
I felt shocked and sick. I quickly got all my dogs out of there,
for fear that I might see something worse, such as the head of the
dog, or that my dogs might do something disgusting, such as roll on
the carcass, or come out of the brush with another body part. I
escaped without further incident.
Once home, I pondered the mystery of how this dog died.
And, did I really want to know who killed the dog? I had grown
accustomed to the killing of deer, but a dog was more like a family
When the neighbors killed deer, birds, beavers,
armadillos, or snakes I rationalized that they did it for food, or
to protect their property. J.R., the patriarch in my neighborhood,
which consisted of 150 acres settled by his family since 1838, was
obsessed with shooting crows because they eat the pecans that grow on
the trees he is also girdling in order to kill them so that he can
plant more pine to get a future timber crop. He hangs the dead crows
in the trees to scare off other crows–although they attract
vultures, also among his avian enemies. J.R. also shoots foxes and
stray cats, as they might eat his chickens.
J.R.’s daughter put a personal bounty on woodpeckers to
encourage her son to shoot them, because they were pecking at the
insects who bored into the siding of her house. J.R.’s nephews
shoot quail, doves, and turkeys to eat. They all shoot armadillos
as they allegedly dig huge holes in the ground, which ruin lawns and
might injure cows who might step into them–although cows themselves
dig bigger and deeper holes to roll in as they dust themselves.
Coyotes, beavers, and opossums are common local trophies.
Coyotes, the leading natural predator of beavers, opossums, and
armadillos, are killed because they might eat livestock. Beavers
are killed because they might cause minor flooding. I have not yet
heard a pretext for killing opossums.
It might be easier to dismiss these neighbors of mine if they
were simply ignorant, crude, unfeeling, animal-hating criminals.
Yet this is not the case. J.R. used to breed and show collies and
had a collection of rare birds, such as guinea hens. Until just
recently, he spent most of his time caring for his cows and their
calves. J.R. told me that he quit participating in a local animal
auction because he objected to the rough treatment of the animals by
Also, J.R.’s daughter has told me that her husband would
divorce her if she tried to get rid of his prized Brittany spaniel
bird-dog. Her husband is the same man who shoots stray dogs and
cats. Clearly, these people do not hate all animals.
Each incident of animal-killing eroded my fantasy of living
in a natural paradise. When I moved to this remote rural part of
Alabama two years ago, I happily left behind my hustling, hectic,
stressful former life as a clinical psychologist in the suburbs of
Philadelphia. My new home is situated on 100 acres of hay fields,
pine forest, and an old pecan orchard. On daily walks with my
beloved five dogs, I mingle with box turtles, deer, snakes,
armadillos, hummingbirds, wild turkeys, rabbits, opossums, and
often hear coyotes howling their eerie songs at night.
I am filled with gratitude when I witness spectacular sunsets
in what I have come to think of as my own private nature reserve. I
can watch my dogs romp and play without concern about the local
police chasing me across the park with threats of citations. I had
finally arrived in heaven–or so I thought, until the killing began.
Culturally, I was not a total stranger to the South. From
early childhood until I was in graduate school, my grandparents had
a farm near Nashville. I used to love to visit them, as I have
always been a great lover of animals and nature.
Yet some things about life in the rural South have been new
to me. At times, I have felt like a visiting anthropologist in a
new culture. Examples include when I rode a horse through the woods
on a field trial for hunting dogs, took a handgun class, drove a
tractor hauling 160 bales of hay, and learned to make a pecan pie.
People around me often comment on how well I have adjusted to my new
But I have not been able to adjust to the local habit of
Within days of my arrival here, the neighbors took me out to
see a pond. When we reached the pond, I noticed that the men had
guns. When I asked why, they explained that they were going to try
to shoot the recently arrived beavers. They said the beavers were a
threat to the pond, created by an artificial dam, and that beavers
could dig a hole through the dam–a rather un-beaver-like act, if it
ever actually happened. I was relieved when the beavers were not to
On the way home, the trucks taking us suddenly stopped and
a few of the males jumped out and ran into the brush with guns: they
had spotted an armadillo. Luckily for me, as well as the
armadillo, they did not find it.
Animals are my passion in life. I moved to Alabama to study
and teach about the human/animal bond at a major veterinary school.
I naively thought, when I came, that most people had come to
realize the inherent value of animals and nature.
I was shocked, puzzled, and disturbed about the difference
in human perceptions of animals and nature that I discovered here in
the rural South, which I previously would have found almost
Even more disturbing was the thought that I was becoming
similar to my new neighbors. I directed the killing of a
rattlesnake near my home during my first year here. The snake was
coiled, rattling and ready to strike one of my dogs inside my fenced
yard. A call to my 20-something-year-old neighbor brought him over
exclaiming, “I love to kill things!” and recounting all his other
recent kills. He gleefully shot the snake. I felt sick, but I had
heard many first-hand accounts of small dogs killed by rattlesnakes.
Is this apparent war with the wildlife necessary? I have
considered that maybe killing and eating wildlife is a more basic and
honest version of meat-eating than eating factory-farmed animals
raised far away and killed by others. And I can empathize to some
extent with killing wildlife to protect one’s own animals and even
property. I moved here with the notion of respecting all other forms
of life. But I have changed somewhat. I draw the line at biting
insects, such as fire ants, fleas and ticks, all very abundant
here. A few recent fire ant bites have convinced me. Also, I do
not seem to be able to live peacefully with rattlesnakes if they come
through the fence and threaten my dogs–even if the threat begins
with the dogs approaching them.
But where does one draw the line? It all seems quite arbitary.
I began to search for answers. Someone suggested I read Yale
University professor Stephen Kellert’s research on American views of
wildlife. I was delighted to find that he had validated my
perceptions and had tried to explain some of them. When Kellert
compared regional attitudes, he found that, “The South was
characterized by the least interest and concern for animals, and the
most utilitarian orientation.”
Farmers, the elderly, and Southern respondents had the
highest scores on the utilitarian scale. In contrast, people like
myself–single, female, with graduate school education, and from
urban areas–had the least utilitarian attitudes.
Rural residents consistently favor “utilization,
subordination, and control of nature,” Kellert wrote. “They
endorse peoples’ right to exploit and master nature. Urban or
suburban residents support “nonconsumptive use and protection of
Kellert explained that many rural people have a deep affinity
for the land and for animals, but tend to see these resources from
the perspective of their utility, and with a familiarity that often
takes their future welfare for granted. Urban people tend to be
contrastingly romantic and simplistic in their view of nature,
according to Kellert. They tend to see nature as a “pristine
wilderness” that is spoiled by human interaction. They may often
view mastering wild and/or living “resources” as “contemptible or
“American society appears increasingly divided by the
contrasting environmental values of urban and rural residents,”
Kellert wrote. Kellert helped me come to a better understanding of
the people around me. But I continued to feel disturbed by each new
assault on animals and nature. For example, two boys on 4-wheelers
rode around with rifles, shooting birds to see who could kill the
most in 15 minutes. This seemed to go beyond just holding a
utilitarian view toward wildlife. Something about it seemed morally
or spiritually wrong.
One day someone handed me a quote by Albert Schweitzer, a
Nobel Peace Prize-winning philosopher, physician, theologian, and
musician, who died at 90 in 1965.
“Until he extends the circle of compassion to all living
things, man will not himself find peace,” Schweitzer had written.
I researched Schweitzer to see what else he said. I learned
that after Schweitzer left Europe to build the Schweitzer Hospital at
Lam-barene, Gabon, in equatorial Africa, he too felt thrown into
an unknown culture, and felt obliged to grapple with the moral
issues inherent in human-and-animal relationships.
Out of these struggles, Schweitzer articulated his
“Reverence for Life” creed. He concluded that all life forms, from
micro-organisms to humans possess the same will to live. Animals
should only be killed, Schweitzer felt, under what he called “The
law of necessity.”
“Whenever I injure any kind of life,” Schweitzer explained,
“I must be quite certain that I never go beyond the unavoidable, not
even in apparently insignificant things. The farmer who has mowed
down a thousand flowers in his meadow in order to feed his cows must
be careful on his way home not to strike the head off a single flower
by the side of the road in idle amusement, for he thereby infringes
the law of life.”
Schweitzer also wrote that, “Torture and killing can never
become a noble and satisfying sport to us: let no one disturb us
with talk about ‘noble sport.'”
Contemplating the complexity of deciding what to do about
animals who may pose a serious threat to human interests,
Schweitzer observed that, “To the man who is truly ethical, all
life is sacred, including that which from the human point of view
seems lower in the scale. He makes distinctions only as each case
comes before him and under the pressure of necessity, as, for
example, when it falls to him to decide which of two lives he must
sacrifice to preserve the other. But all through this series of
decisions he is conscious of acting on subjective grounds and
arbitrarily, and knows that he bears the responsibility for the life
which is sacrificed.”
Schweitzer declared that, “The thinking man must oppose all
cruel customs no matter how deeply rooted in tradition and surrounded
by a halo.”
Concluded Schweitzer, “Very little of the great cruelty
shown by men can really be attributed to cruel instinct. Most of it
comes from thoughtlessness or inherited habit. The roots of cruelty
are not so much strong as widespread. But the time must come when
inhumanity protected by custom and thoughtlessness will succumb
before humanity championed by thought. Let us work that this time
Schweitzer clarified some of my confusion about the
human-animal relationships of the new culture I landed in.
I may not agree with the killing that I continually witness
here, but I am more able to empathize with my neighbors’ point of
view. Killing animals that threaten their domestic animals may seem
necessary to them, as they may be unaware of the nonlethal and
However, a bird-killing contest is clearly not necessary,
and is an example of a cruel custom.
At times, I feel as if the moral of this story is that I
shouldn’t be living here. I might be more at peace living among
people with similar values. Yet turning my back on cruelty toward
creatures that I love does not seem right either.
The view of animals as lower life forms to be used for human
purposes is not limited to the American South. Indeed, I could
have found it within an hour’s drive east or north of my former home
in Philadelphia, in puppy-mill and pigeon-shoot country. The
utilitarian view can be found in many variations just about anywhere
in the world.
If Schweitzer was correct when he said that “Until he extends
the circle of compassion to all living things, man will not himself
find peace,” how can we work effectively to make our world more
Can beliefs and values concerning animals be changed through
education or psychology? Compassion requires empathy toward other
life forms. Can empathy be taught? And what can be done about
cultural or religious beliefs that support a distinction between
humans and animals? I do not have the answers to these questions.
But if I continue to live here, I will be driven to seek them.
Free, Ann Cottrell (Ed.). (1988). Animals, Nature and
Albert Schweitzer. Washington, D.C.: The Flying Fox Press.
Joy, Charles R. (Ed.). (1950). The Animal World of Albert
Schweitzer: Jungle insights into reverence for life. Hopewell, NJ:
The Ecco Press.
Kellert, Steven R. (1996). The value of life: biological
diversity and human society. Washington D.C.: Island Press.
Kellert, Steven R. (1989). Perceptions of Animals in
America. In, R.J. Hoage, (Ed.) Washington D.C.: Smithsonian