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Hugh Falkus

Hugh Falkus

“The Puritan hates bearbaiting not so much for the pain it gives the bear but the pleasure it gives the spectator” – Macaulay.

I find as I trip through life that my attitude towards a lot of things has changed dramatically. So it is with animals.

I grew up in a pretty ordinary family. My father did a little bit of hunting and some fishing and my grandfather was a very keen bird hunter. I used to accompany the latter when he went bird shooting and had a wonderful time watching his Springer spaniel retrieve the birds. The atmosphere seemed so wholesome.

When I was about 13, my father gave me a .22 rifle. One day on Gambier Island I shot a squirrel. When I saw him lying on on his back, balls up, I remember a feeling of horror and asking myself, “why did you do that?” I hadn’t yet learned because I shot some birds after that, mainly because I thought it was the manly thing to do. It wasn’t long before I felt the same sort of sympathy for a dead robin or dead crow as I did for that squirrel. I simply gave up shooting animals.

I became, however, an almost a lifetime dedicated fisherman. I’ll deal with that a little more in the moment.

When I was in my early 20’s, and an articled law student, my principal, knowing that I was taking a trip to Bella Coola to go fishing, felt pretty certain that I would pass a deer along the way. He loaned me his rifle and got me a permit and asked me to bring him back a deer.

When I look back, this was a considerable undertaking.

What was I going to do with the damn thing if I shot it? I had no experience with cleaning a deer or any of the things that go along with a successful hunt. In any event, driving across the Chilcotin near Kleena Kleane there it was, a lovely buck standing right beside the road. I had become a good shot during the war as an army and navy cadet and this would have posed no problem.

None of the practical difficulties above occurred to me – I simply could not pull the trigger. I must say this somewhat disturbed my companion as we were on our way to Talchako, near Bella Coola, so that he could open a hunting and fishing lodge! He went on to be a hunting and fishing guide for some time and of course witnessed and helped in the shooting of lots of animals including what is to me the sainted grizzly bear.

Back when I was in my early 40’s, my family and I were in Mexico for Christmas. I had never seen one, so I decided it was time to go to the bullfights.

It was an utterly appalling experience and it wasn’t long before I found myself pulling very strongly for the bull. In any event that experience was never to be repeated.

By this time I had become not a person opposed to hunting, but one who could not do it himself.

As I mentioned, I had become a dedicated fisherman. There was very little of that I had not tried and loved. As time went on I refined my tastes so that I was principally a fly fisherman and I acquired the wonderful art of tying my own flies. I cannot tell you how much pleasure I got from this latter part of my hobby.

I traveled all over the world and spend countless happy hours on the the Tauranga Taupo river in New Zealand, up to my armpits in water, fly rod in hand.

As with many fly-tyers, I developed many of my own patterns which proved to be particularly effective. It is said that you may forget the first fish you catch but never the first one you catch on a fly you tied yourself.

Wendy and I met in 1993 and she had fished with her Dad and her brothers. But it wasn’t a big part of her life until we met and of course that changed everything.

I got her into Sage fly rods, Hardy reels, Courtland lines and that sort of thing and we became devotees of the Skagit River near Hope.

Wendy became a very skilled fly fisher. She joined me on my annual trip to New Zealand and we had a marvelous time together on the river.

As time passed, I had become quite queasy about killing fish. It began to bother me greatly but I did not want to give up my hobby. Naturally I felt saved by the notion of “catch and release”. My moral troubles were over and I fished away as if nothing had happened.

The late Hugh Falkus, a marvelous British fisherman and writer, had an article in a fly fishing magazine somewhere in the early 90’s and he claimed that “catch and release” was immoral because it was tormenting an animal. In his view, if one caught a fish and wanted to eat it then well and good, keep it. One could even keep more if they were to be legitimately consumed. Otherwise, once the fish for the “pot” was caught, fishing should cease.

This horrified me because I had such a great respect for Falkus. What he said, unfortunately, also made a hell of a lot of sense.

While I was churning my guts out over this, it turned out that Wendy had become very upset about hooking small fish, especially in the eyes, and either releasing them to die or killing them. This started to seriously erode her enjoyment of fishing.

One particular evening after a fishing session, we confided our concerns to one another.

As it happened, that night, we were having dinner at a fish and game club in Wanganui, in northern New Zealand.

This was a favourite place of ours and tonight was no different than any other.

We sat out on the deck having a beer when one of the sports fishing vessels came in and the crew strung up three of their catch – two Marlin and a Shark.

As we sat there, sipping a brew, and comprehending this this scene it suddenly occurred to us that these beautiful animals should still be in the ocean. Yet there they were, strong up by their tails, blood streaming down their side, shouting the question “why?”

Wendy and and I gave up fishing.

It was a gut wrenching moment and in my case meant giving up vises, many tools, and God only knows how much crap like bits of wool, tinsel, hooks and that sort of thing.

It also meant giving up my fishing books and I must confess that I cheated by keeping the “classics” like Roderick Haig Brown first editions.

I badly miss fishing. I confess to you that I have often thought of taking it up again.

Because of health, however, I must now make a virtue of necessity – I couldn’t fish again if I wanted to.

This long, tiresome self examination exercise brought other animal issues into focus.

When I was in politics I represented a constituency where cattle ranching was a big industry. Could I now watch the castration of young males? Could I go to a branding party and get merrily drunk with all my friends? Of more importance, I suppose, since for the farmer these were industrial necessities, could I now go to a rodeo where the bull’s balls are bound up to make him angry as hell and the more interesting to ride?

What about such festivities as the Calgary Stampede? I found during the recent one, when watching on television, I had a sense of revulsion. I also had the feeling that I was watching a lot of male machoism for no other reason that it all made men feel good, stronger and superior.

I started to take a much different view of things like zoos and aquariums.

Not just as a kid, but later in life, I much enjoyed places like the San Diego Zoo where the animals were, we were told, in natural conditions. I have been to many major zoos in the world and at the time enjoyed them very much.

It was the polar bear in Stanley Park that did it.

There was that old bugger, so far from home and his natural habitat, so sad, and so lonely. He tugged at my heartstrings such that I couldn’t see any difference between him and the Monkey House or the Otter Pool. It was all so cruel and one-sided.

This, of course, led to the aquarium and the presence of mammals. Somehow a killer whale in a pool didn’t look the same anymore. Nor did a porpoise or a seal.

I listened to the arguments about the education value of these poor animals trapped in a small pool and  how, somehow, kids would not learn anything about the animal kingdom unless these monstrosities continued. Where I would have, not so long ago I suppose, had some sympathy for that argument I found that it was nonsense now.

I found that I had developed an entirely new ethic. Animals in the forests, whether rare or not, took on a sacred nature for me. Where I once laughed when people said that if a logger saw a spotted owl, he should shoot it.

The question this raises internally, is have I simply got old and spineless or has there been a real change in ethical approach that I should think about?

If there has been this change, is it a good change just because I say so?

I certainly know that I’m not alone in these feelings and that they have become far more common amongst the public around the world. That doesn’t necessarily make it right, of course, but it does make me feel better.

I would be interested in knowing what readers think of about this. I assume that most of you have given this issue some thought during your life whether you or not you fish or not or perhaps hunt or have family that indulges in so-called outdoor sports.

I realize, too, that there is the elements of Macaulay on bear baiting in this.

Am I opposed to, say shooting deer, not so much because of the pain to deer but to the pleasure it gives the hunter? Do I resent this what I see as machoism that seems to accompany the carrying of deadly weapons into the forest along with knives to clean the dead deer or bear?

Is there some sort of halfway house here?

Is it okay, for example, to shoot a deer for the pot while not okay to shoot a grizzly bear to put its head up on the rec room wall?

For me it has had this practical problem. Two of my great historical heroes, Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt, were enthusiastic hunters, especially the latter.

Is this sort of like having one’s faith in one’s father destroyed later in life because of reading one of his diaries? Do I now question my own judgment in having heroes that did things of which I now disapprove? Is it hypocritical for me to continue to have heroes that did things that I don’t think they should have done?

I have, in fact, answers to those questions personally. I would, however, be very interested in what others think.

5 Responses to “If something moves, you shoot”

  1. Brad Atchison says:

    This paradigm shift in your values was paralleled by the Albertan author and photographic guide, Andy Russell. He started as a “big game hunter” in the Canadian Rockies and suddenly realized how cruel this activity was. In middle age, he stopped hunting and became a wilderness photographic guide. His son, Charlie, went to UBC, graduated in biology, and became a famous bear biologist (working with the huge bears in the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula).
    I also subscribe to these values of “look but don’t hurt”. I was raised with guns, as a rite of passage. However, I never went through a phase where I wanted to shoot living things. Plinking, alone, was fun.
    I do understand the importance of hunting and fishing in very special and isolated circumstances, where the food and other parts of the animal are required as the mainstay for their diet (e.g., the Inuit). However, those folks better know what the regenerative capacity is of each species he/she hunts and what their population numbers and population trends are. If not known, the precautionary principle applies.
    Bateman refers to “modern humans”, and particularly children, in our society as suffering from a “wilderness deficit”. Until they spend more time outdoors (and way from their mobile devices, power generators and fully-equipped campers!), learning to relax and appreciate the subleties and interlinked intricacies of natural ecosystems, we are doomed to keep repeating our environmental mistakes. Killing for a trophy head is barbaric and childish. Even catch-and-release apparently kills most of the fish caught within two weeks, because of permanent damage done to their air bladders.
    Quite frankly, on a moral level, humans have no more right to their ecological niche than any other species does to its niche. Oh, the arrogance and ignorance of humans to celebrate those things (like unbridled consumption), which are not life-enhancing over the long-term and are harmful to the planet.
    “Leave No Trace” and a celebration of a “Wilderness Ethic” will be the only chance we have to reverse our present course in harming the planet. Just look at the continued development up the North Shore Mountains. How does this make sense when the Lower Mainland already has congested traffic, worsening air quality, unaffordable housing for the unhealthy, etc.?

  2. When you are young and stupid killing something makes you feel masculine.
    The older the you get , the more it just makes you look like a fool.
    And as you get to value your own life more, you value the lives of animals more as well. ( Maybe not fishes – I have fished a lot too. But fishing is not so much hunting as randomly throwing a hook at the water and hoping you snag something. And I always ate my fish )
    I have a chubby suburbanite friend with a really stupid earing who goes off and shoots one eyes gimpy bears with a scope. There is essentially no possibility of him missing the bear with a scope and a high powered rifle. But he blathers on about the thrill of the hunt, the skill, and a bunch of other crap.
    Over lunch I once suggested that I cut his stupid earing off – just to show him I am serious – and then give him a knife and a half hour head start, and I could chase him through the jungle with a knife of my own, and circumcise him when I caught him.
    He chickened out. But every time I see that stupid earing …..

  3. mariner says:

    Like you Rafe, I was an ardent fisherman from the tender age of about six or so. I grew up in London and went fishing with my father when he had the time to. He drove a London bus (big red double deckers) for a living and his hours were pretty long and we needed the extra money he earned working overtime.
    Anyway, through my father I was introduced to fresh water fishing in the UK and spent many hours and days alongside the water. I also spent some time salt water fishing overseas and when I arrived in Canada, spent some time fishing Lake Huron, Lake Ontario and later rivers in BC.
    I must have around ten different rod and reel sets and not one of those have been touched in fifteen years. I just don’t see the need to fish if I can pay to purchase instead.
    Hunting has never interested me. When I was young (around 20) I remember shooting a Kangaroo rat in Queensland, Australia and when shot, the rat gave out a horrible scream – I only wounded it and had to shoot again to kill it. That sound has stayed with me for 50 years or so. I don’t own a gun, don’t have a licence for one – yet I live on 150 treed acres midway between Quesnel and Prince George, where it is common to have deer, bear moose etc. walk past the front of the house.
    Killing for the sake of killing does not appeal to me at all – same for my wife. If we can afford to buy food we purchase. If we were destitute and didn’t have money to buy, we would then hunt to eat.

    I guess with age comes some insight into why we do the things we do. On occasion I muse over some of the not so good things I have done over the years and wish I could go back and change what happened.

    I am sure many people feel the same way as they head off into their twilight years.


  4. Mike says:

    A) I suppose I have no problem with hunting for the pot. Not sure I could do it, but in principle, Ok. I am repulsed by the post-kill photo-ops though.
    B) Admire your heroes’ actions (or some of them) and less the person.

  5. […] fly-fisherman whose preferred practice was catch and release until he decided even that was cruel, Mair was an outspoken advocate for the environment, especially for salmonids […]

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