Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Serial Killers Among Us?

An idealistic tour guide recently posted a diatribe to an e-mail discussion group for tour guides, in which she basically accused me of being a serial killer of wild animals. Her outrage was based on the taxidermy specimens of wild animals that are displayed at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, and especially due to what she referred to as the "meat feasts of exotic African antelopes" that we do (i.e. our educational fundraising banquets in which we serve various exotic species, albeit not exotic African antelopes). She also raged against the museum videos of "captive wild animals", in which I teach about Biblical zoology while interacting with lions, leopards, and so on.

This reminded me of a story that you may have read about last week. A woman from Kentucky went to Africa on a big-game hunting trip, and killed a large black giraffe. When she posted pictures of herself posing with the trophy, there was outrage. One celebrity called her a “disgusting, vile, amoral, heartless, selfish murderer.”

What would be the Rabbinic perspective on this? And what would be the perspective of wildlife conservationists?

Let's begin with the latter. Obviously, the idea of taking joy in killing animals is repulsive to anyone who cares about animal life. And poaching is a tremendous threat to wild animals. It's right up there with another huge threat - habitat loss. Appallingly, my children may never see a wild rhinoceros, because in a few years there probably won't be any left!

Both of those problems - poaching and habitat loss - require tremendous resources to solve. Yet one of the most effective ways to do that is via carefully managed big-game hunting. Wealthy Americans pay vast sums to be able to legally hunt big game. This money funds the acquisition, and protection, of areas of land that are set aside for wildlife, in which only certain non-endangered animals are allowed to be hunted. As contradictory as it may sound, big-game hunting can, under certain circumstances, actually be good for wild animals. And while certain species of giraffes are endangered, the black giraffe was from a non-endangered species. So while I am personally nauseated by the picture above, I recognize that, in the interests of wildlife conservation, such things should ironically not be opposed.

The Rabbinic perspective on this would be slightly different. The various rabbinic authorities who addressed sport hunting did not do so from a broader perspective of wildlife management - indeed, they probably believed (as was normative until recently) that it was impossible for any species to become extinct. Instead, they addressed this question from the perspective of the moral propriety of the person doing the hunting, and they universally condemned it. In the Gemara, for example, we find the following:
Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai expounded: “Happy is the man who does not go…” – this refers to one who does not go to the theaters and circuses of heathens. “And in the path of sinners does not stand” – this refers to the one who does not participate in their hunts. (Avodah Zarah 18b)
On the other hand, the Gemara in Sanhedrin 95a does refer to King David going hunting, and there is no criticism of him. Still, normative rabbinic opinion over the centuries was definitely to condemn sport hunting. Here are but two examples; others are discussed in my book Man & Beast:
"How can a man from Israel actively kill an animal for no need other than to fulfill his desire to spend his time hunting? We do not find that people [in the Torah] are hunters except with Nimrod and Esau. This is not the way of descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…" (Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, Shailos U’Teshuvos Noda B’Yehudah, Mehadurah Tinyana, Yoreh De’ah 10)
"…It is certain that those who shoot arrows after birds and beasts for no purpose at all other than to learn archery, and kill animals for no reason, are destined to stand in judgment for it; for it is not the way of Israel, the holy congregation, to commit evil to any creature for no reason." (Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kaidanover, Kav HaYashar 83)

Thus, with regard to modern, licensed big-game hunting today, we have something of a quandary. On the one hand, it is strongly frowned upon as an act of cruelty. On the other hand, due to the peculiarities of the modern world, it can actually be beneficial to wildlife. And the curious fact is that many modern hunters are people who are much more in touch with wildlife and caring of it than many armchair animal-lovers who rage against these hunters.

The rational approach would therefore seem to be something like the following: On a personal level, it is inappropriate for a person to enjoy hunting. But on a societal level, it should not be opposed.

Alas, many people are not rational. Regardless of how many conservationists will say that licensed big-game hunting should not be stopped, many people will insist that it's unthinkable under any circumstances to kill wild animals. This is just one of several cases I have observed in which people purportedly acting out of love for animals act in a way that is not actually in the best interests of animals, and actually go against the views of professional wildlife conservationists. (The situation with feral dogs in Israel is another such example; the conservation authorities want to kill them, due to the catastrophic destruction that they wreak, but they are unable to do so due to so-called animal lovers.)

Yet aside from being irrational, and not acting in the best interests of animals, what is taking place is often a form of speciesism - discrimination against certain species in favor of others. A few years ago, when there was enormous outrage over the hunting of Cecil the lion, I pointed out how a video on YouTube of Palestinians stoning a truly endangered striped hyena to death provoked no outrage at all. Majestic lions and graceful giraffes have supporters - mangy hyenas do not. (And, of course, rich white hunters make good villains, whereas poor Palestinians do not - which also explains a lot of the  recent selective rage over the treatment of immigrants.)

The tour-guide accusing me of being "no friend of animals" exhibited a similar lack of knowledge/rational evaluation about the taxidermied animals on display at the Biblical Museum of Natural History. No animals were killed for the museum - they are all animals which lived long and happy lives in zoos, and which we acquired upon their expiry of illness or old age. Her objection to the videos of me with "captive wild animals" was likewise misplaced. These are not animals that were plundered from the wild. They were all filmed in private licensed facilities in Africa which hand-raise orphaned animals, and in which the animals are extremely well cared for, and even lead better lives than those in the wild.

Yet what was most striking was the specieism that this tour guide displayed. I happen to know that she is not a vegetarian. So she is perfectly fine with killing and eating cows and chickens, but not with killing and eating deer and buffalo. Why the difference? The deer and buffalo were not poached from the wild - they were captive-farmed for meat production. Why would it be wrong to kill deer and buffalo, but not cows and chickens? It's just specieism.

But it's even more hypocritical than that. The deer and buffalo and exotic birds that we serve at our banquets lived, and died, in far more comfortable circumstances than the factory-farmed cows and chickens that this tour-guide consumes! As discussed in an earlier post, commercially farmed chickens lead absolutely terrible lives. That's something that we really need to address, not the occasional, licensed killing of non-endangered wild animals which are raised under comfortable conditions.

Before signing off, this seems like a good opportunity to announce this year's special educational banquet - which will take place, for the first time, in New Jersey, as well as in Israel! To be notified of more details, write to

Prediction: Many comments on this post will be from people who did not read it carefully.


  1. Deer hunting (for the white-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus, is very common in the United States; in parts of the country schools even close on the first day of hunting season. Over most of its range it is not only not endangered but has become so overpopulated as to have become a pest and a menace to transportation. (In November 1995, in the little town of Pomfret, Connecticut, my car had a close encounter with a deer on the night after the first day of hunting season; I survived, the deer didn't, and the car sustained thousands of dollars in damage. When I called the police to report the incident they said that it was the fourth deer/vehicle incident in that town that night!) Most of the deer that are taken by hunters are eaten and in many cities there are arrangements for hunter to give venison meat to soup kitchens and homeless shelters.

    1. To be honest, if I were ever to go OTD, hunting deer would be the first thing I would do. They cause of $9 billion of damages each year, including striking automobiles and causing grave injury or death. I see them as repulsive as a home maker sees ants in her kitchen.

  2. We find hunting for food in the Gemara, in Chullin: Raba examined [the head of] an arrow for R. Jonah b. Tahlifa, and the latter slaughtered with it a
    bird in its flight

  3. Very well said! (Both here and in the post you linked about Cecil the lion.) There are clearly many people attempting to compensate for the lack of spiritual purpose in their own "disgusting, amoral and selfish" lives by purporting to be animal lovers, when in reality they are only trying to make themselves feel better.

    By the way, do you have a source for your claim that various rabbinic authorities probably believed that it was impossible for any species to become extinct, are are you just assuming that they subscribed to a medieval christian notion about the perfection and immutability of Gods order of creation? In fact, normative judaism has it that olam hazeh in it's entirety is intrinsically imperfect, and that it is decidedly subject to significant ramifications from the actions of man, whether for good or for bad.

    1. "do you have a source for your claim that various rabbinic authorities probably believed that it was impossible for any species to become extinct"

      The explicit statements of Rambam, Ramban, Sefer HaChinnuch and others, discussed in my book The Challenge Of Creation.

    2. "The explicit statements of Rambam, Ramban, Sefer HaChinnuch and others, discussed in my book The Challenge Of Creation"

      I don't have your book to hand. If it's not too much trouble, please could you post chapter and verse on all or any of these. I am genuinely interested in looking them up.

    3. I do. Guide 2:28, Chinuch 291 and Ramba”n Bereishis 1:12.

      Of the three the last seems to most directly contradict extinction (I am basing this in my reading from Challenge. I have not looked at any of the three inside).

    4. Thanks Yoni2.

      And David, I do actually own a copy, but there happens to be several thousand miles between it and me (and I must admit it has been several years since I last perused it).

    5. Beraishis Rabba, 11:3 -

      רבי לוי בשם ריב"ח אמר כל יום שיש בו חסרון כתיב בו ברכה ואינו חסר כלום בחמישי נבראו עופות ודגים ובני אדם שוחטין עופות ואוכלים וצדים דגים ואוכלין וכתיב בו ברכה ואינו חסר כלום בששי נברא אדם ובהמה ובני אדם שוחטין בהמה ואוכלין ובני אדם מתים וכתיב בו ברכה ואינו חסר כלום

      A clear statement from Chazal (and BR is an early Midrash) that despite human consumption, all these creatures still survive. Note that only birds and fish are mentioned, not wild animals, of which indeed many species have gone extinct.

      (Aiii, the dodo was a bird? Kasha.)

  4. would there be a difference between what is appropriate for Noahides and for Israelites?

  5. "The situation with feral dogs in Israel is another such example..."
    are you certain that these dogs are feral? my impression is that the primary species (most are probably not purebred) is the Canaanite dog which supposedly hasn't been domesticated in at least several thousand years. these are by and large wild dogs, not feral dogs.
    your point still stands that for the benefit of everyone, large numbers of their overpopulation need to be culled.

  6. I am sending you my deepest condolences on your children's inability to see wild rhinoceroses. It must be really distressing to you that your children be deprived of such a vital part of their humanity. They will be a completely different species to you, homo sapiens who have not clapped eyes on the wild rhinoceros. Their suffering will be indescribable and I suggest you start saving for their therapy bills already. You should also have a large chocolate chocolate chip cornetto as a consolation prize. Perhaps matched with crackers and marmite and washed down with Irn-Bru.

    On the plus side, England is crushing the world cup, so I guess the future is not entirely gloomy

    1. Adam from ManchesterJuly 9, 2018 at 10:22 PM

      Stupid comment. Apart from the England bit.

    2. I know. They should be drinking shandy.

  7. Everyone reading this has lived his whole life without ever seeing a dodo or a wooly mammoth, and, somehow, we all seem to carry on. In the highly unlikely event that the same fate awaits the Rhino, I suspect the plucky human race will somehow manage.

  8. There's another important point about the giraffe that was the impetus for this article. It was reported in several stories that this was an older (18-year-old) bull that was no longer fertile - but had killed two younger, fertile, bulls that it viewed as challenging its herd supremacy. The local game wardens therefore wanted this specific bull culled - and having this woman pay for the privilege was a way to raise funds while accomplishing a necessary task. Of course, ignorant people had to comment without knowing the background facts...

  9. Joe Rogan on Woman Who Killed Giraffe.

    Even MORE morally complicated. . .

  10. On this topic, I recommend this podcast.

  11. The fact that people pay to be allowed to hunt big game, and the money is then used to protect endangered species, does not make big game hunting an objectively moral act, and does not mean that big game hunting is actually directly beneficial to wildlife.
    If people were paying to kill humans, and the money was then being used for a good cause, would that justify the killing of humans?

    1. " does not make big game hunting an objectively moral act"

      "and does not mean that big game hunting is actually directly beneficial to wildlife."

    2. Dear Leiby,

      "If people were paying to kill humans, and the money was then being used for a good cause, would that justify the killing of humans?"

      This is a text book example of a reductio ad absurdum argument, and is a logical fallacy. Your contention assumes that there is no moral difference between killing an non-human animal and killing a person. This is the same fallacy that Rav Slifkin is criticizing in his post.

      To be clear: Is it your contention that the slaughter of a non-human animal - for whatever reason - is morally equivalent as killing a person? They are equal crimes?

      Let me engage in my own reductio ad absurdum reasoning. By your logic, since Human and Non-Human animals have the same moral value, there should be no difference in eating beef or man. Cannibalism is on par with being a omnivore/carnivore (without making in moral judgement on eating meat).

      The problem with slogans is that more often than not the reveal the shallow thinking behind the slogan.

  12. "Appallingly, my children may never see a wild rhinoceros, because in a few years there probably won't be any left!"

    Have no fear,stem cell engineering is,here:

  13. It makes no difference what one thinks of hunting as a pastime - one man's hobby is another man's bordeom. Man has dominion over animals, as the Bible says, and that includes use of animals for pleasure, such as horseback riding. That right is tempered only by the injunction against cruelty to animals. So the only relevant inquiry is whether hunting is inherently cruel. Is it?

    I don't think so. Men have hunted both fish and big game for sport for thousands of years, and even today no one speaks against sport fishing. One simply cannot say all these hunters were all cruel people. That means hunting *cannot* be inherently cruel, it is only a matter of opinion. And there is no agreement on the subject at all, with opinions on the subject all over the map, and often influenced by a muddled mixture of PR campaigns and lack of perspective. So in short, as is usually the case, people should use their common sense and decide for themselves.

  14. "This money (from wealthy hunters) funds the acquisition, and protection, of areas of land that are set aside for wildlife, in which only certain non-endangered animals are allowed to be hunted."
    -- Just making sure we should not be adding the word "ostensibly" before the word "funds." I'm concerned about corruption.


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