There was a time – not that long ago – when most people wouldn’t hesitate to describe hunting as a sport. Until the end of WWII, many people who lived in rural areas hunted to feed their families. In even earlier times, hunting for “sport” was done with hounds bred for the purpose of flushing animals from their dens. Hunters, often on horseback, would then chase the prey until caught. Using dogs to aid in hunting predates civilization.
 
The idea of chasing a pack of dogs that is in turn chasing that night’s dinner may sound exhausting. And athletic. And requiring skill. But would we today consider it a sport?
 
Things have changed since WWII, both in terms of how we feed our families and in the way we participate in, and enjoy, sports. Today, our attitudes towards sports have been changed by the inundation of images of men in tight pants, and women in either short shorts or skirts, running up and down fields interacting with balls. Our TV channels are flooded with basketball, football, soccer, golf, and tennis tournaments. As are our video games.
 
At the same time, our perception of hunting has become of a man sitting in a comfortable chair, waiting for an innocent animal to walk by so that he can shoot it before it’s even aware of the danger. Perhaps because of its graphic nature, hunting fails to receive the glorification that other sports get in TV and video games.
 
And so we should ask ourselves, “What makes an activity a sport?” Is it the athleticism required? The learned skills? The physical demands? The competition?
 
Not only does hunting involve all of these things, it can also be argued that it requires more of these things than some other games we call “sports” today.
Popularity of Hunting
In spite of changing attitudes towards hunting, the number of Americans who hunt and engage in other outdoor sports involving wildlife remains high. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, 101.6 million people, or 40% of the population, participated in hunting, fishing, and wildlife-oriented activities in 2016, the latest year statistics are available. 11.5 million of those were specifically hunters, who spent over $26 billion on their sport. One trend in the last decade has been the rise in the number of women who hunt and shoot. This relatively new demographic hasn’t gone unnoticed by the major sporting goods manufacturers and retailers. They all produce or carry lines of clothing, gear, and weapons designed to appeal to women.
 
Hunting appeals to people of all ages, from all backgrounds and from all walks of life, across boundaries of income, race, ethnicity, and gender.
A Contentious Debate
The lines of debate that have been drawn around this contentious issue can be seen at the appropriately named site, Debate.org. All the arguments presented by those who say hunting should not be considered a sport can be summed up in a few main points:
  • Hunting is not a competition between people or teams
  • Hunting is not a physical activity
  • Hunting involves no skill
  • Hunting is just mean
Let’s take a closer look at each of these points.
Hunting as a Competition
It’s true that hunting doesn’t involve a competition between people or teams of people.
 
But who said the competitor has to be human? Because hunting is a competition between a person and an animal – an animal that is, in many ways, super human.
 
Some non-hunters have the idea that hunting and tracking wild animals is easy. They imagine that a hunter simply takes a lounge chair out into the woods, maybe with a radio or a portable TV, opens up a cooler full of snacks and beer, pops open a cold one and waits for Bambi to obligingly hop by.
 
But the reality is very different. All animals have defensive capabilities, either flight, fight, or both. Dangerous game like lions, tigers, and bears (oh my), water buffalo, moose, wild boars, and others can obviously hurt or kill an unfortunate hunter. Usually, they take flight first, but not always. And even something as docile seeming as a deer can be dangerous.
 
Animals such as rabbits, squirrels, and birds of all types, can take immediate and amazingly rapid flight. And often, these animals can see and hear much better than a human. The North American whitetail deer for instance, can smell a hunter a half mile away. Once alerted, or ‘spooked,’ they lift that famous white tail and disappear in seconds.
 
The animals’ superior senses and natural camouflage make hunting them a difficult pursuit. In addition, the hunter is always playing an away game, going into their opponents’ territory. Most of the time a day’s hunt goes unrewarded, and a hunter comes home empty-handed. But the preparation, the chance to get out into the wild, and the hunt itself is the real reward, and the reason why hunters persevere even when unsuccessful.
Hunting as a Physical Activity
A hunter’s day often begins well before dawn, and often starts with a long drive to get to the hunting spot. Depending on what type of hunting they’re doing, they may have to haul a tree stand or a blind way out to a preselected spot in the woods or on the water, often up and down steep hills and gullies. Once set up on a stand, they have to sit virtually motionless for hours on end, fighting cramps as they either stand or sit on an uncomfortable seat. In many states this is done during freezing weather.
 
Hunting for other kinds of game requires the use of dogs to find and flush the prey. And keeping up with a hunting dog is a trial all its own.
 
If their hunt there is successful, they have to haul their animal back out of the woods, along with all their gear. When hunting big game, this in itself can be challenging.
 
And then there’s preseason scouting, which can involve many days hiking through the forest, using their knowledge and skill to look for signs of game activity and for good sites to hunt from.
 
Hunting is often a strenuous activity, and requires physical robustness and endurance. When looked at against other sports in terms of physical challenge, it stacks up favorably well. Games such as hockey, American football, or association football clearly require more in terms of both speed and stamina. But when we compare the effort that hunting requires against a game such as golf? Bowling? Or even baseball? Hunting might be a different kind of activity, but that it requires just as much effort as some other “sports” is unquestionable.
Hunting Involves Many Skills
Hunting involves many skills, both mental and physical. Mentally, a hunter has to have a good understanding of the characteristics and habits of the game they’re hunting. They have to have a knowledge of the terrain and how it will affect the movements of the game. A working knowledge of meteorological conditions is also necessary, and how those conditions will affect the behavior of the prey. It takes years of experience to become reliably proficient at these skills.
 
And then there are the weapons used, including:
  • Rifles and shotguns – Mastery of both of these weapons requires practice to use them accurately, and then experience actually using them under the stress and uncertainty of field conditions.
  • Handguns – Using a handgun for hunting has become quite popular over the last two decades, and takes even more practice and skill than a rifle or shotgun.
  • Bows – The most difficult to master hunting tool of them all, it can take years to become a consistently successful bow hunter. While these weapons have been around for centuries, their use is now fairly rare. Bow hunting is especially challenging, as even target shooting is difficult to master with a bow.
  • Crossbows – Cousins to the bows, crossbows have been gaining in popularity in recent years. Historically very heavy and cumbersome, they now can weigh as little as 5.5 pounds. They’re much easier to shoot accurately than a traditional bow. And because of their design, they’ve made bow hunting accessible to people with certain disabilities, who may want the challenge of bow hunting, but for reasons of their disability can’t shoot traditional bows.
Hunting: Is It Mean, or a Necessary Way to Manage Populations?
Hunting has been a vital means of survival since the beginning of time. Today’s hunters don’t just carry on a tradition of putting food on their table; many also donate their catch to food banks.
 
With modern weapons and regulations, hunting is both more humane and more clean than in the past. Higher caliber weapons means greater accuracy, meaning animals are less likely to suffer.
 
Moreover, our culture has created a gap in the food chain that hunting helps to fill. Over the centuries, as we “civilized” the land, we killed off most of its apex predators. Wolves, bears, big cats, crocodilians – everywhere we have found them, we have killed them for fear they might attack us or our livestock. But this has created a void. It isn’t that we made things safer; we’ve only caused populations of other animals, sometimes equally dangerous, to explode.
 
In many states, coyote populations have grown dangerously high. They kill livestock, household pets, and have even been known to attack humans. Feral hogs – introduced to the Americas from Europe – have been a serious pest in the southern states, causing damage to crops and eating so much of the native fauna that other animals starve. In Africa, baboons are causing similar problems. And invasive rabbits in Australia not only eat the food of native species, but can also overtake their burrows.
 
Hunting is perhaps the best means we have left to control these populations, when their natural predators either don’t exist or have been removed. Hunting is not only not mean, but it’s also absolutely necessary to the health of wildlife populations.
 
Wildlife conservation programs worldwide also benefit from hunters. A large percentage of the billions spent on hunting gear and licenses supports conservation programs.
 
Those who think hunting isn’t a sport should tag along with a friend who is a hunter and see for themselves what it’s all about. They might just find a new passion, and they’ll be welcomed into the club.