One should always be careful when one invokes "popularity" or "public opinion" as if it were a gold standard of morality, logical coherence or factual accuracy. But scientifically-conducted polls can be illuminating.
It is with this in mind that I offer this on the attitudes of Americans towards gun owner rights and hunting, which is an excerpt from a recently published and comprehensive Zogby poll. This is excerpted from the excerpt (whew!):
The highly respected research firm Zogby International has conducted the first installment of its 2004 Zogby Values Poll, surveying 1,200 voters nationwide on issues that included firearms and hunting issues. Working with the Tower Center for Political Studies at Southern Methodist University and the O`Leary Report, Zogby`s questions interestingly examine differences in thinking between people living in the states that voted for George Bush in 2000 (Red states) and Al Gore (Blue states). . . . . .
Voters were also asked about hunting: "Which of the follow statements comes closer to your opinion? Statement A: Killing wild animals for food or sport is an American tradition and an essential part of wildlife management. Statement B: Hunting is a cruel sport and should be outlawed." Statement A was chosesn by of 92% of gun owners and 73% of non-gun owners.
The survey also addressed wildlife overpopulation, asking: "Some states in America are being overrun with growing populations of deer, bear, or wolves. When this happens, which of the following do you feel is the best option to take? 1) The state should lengthen hunting seasons; 2) Non-lethal methods of control should be used; 3) People should learn to live with wildlife."
Lengthening hunting seasons was the overwhelming response, chosen by 61% of the voters, while only 18% said use non-lethal methods, and 16% opted for coexistence.
The excerpt contains additional data on the attitude of our citizenry towards gun ownership and gun laws, if you're interested in that. (I, for one, was surprised at how clear-cut and how bipartisan attitudes seem to be.)
In looking at these numbers, I'm interested that even 72% of non-gun owners (vs 92% of owners) believe that hunting is a useful wildlife management tool, but when it comes to the more specific question, viz, of controlling overpopulation in states plagued with too many deer, bear or wolves - the number of people favoring hunting drops to 61%, with 34% of respondents favoring non-lethal means of population control.
Frankly, I consider 61% to be a remarkably high figure. Others might look at the 34% and argue otherwise.
Why do I think as I do? First, many urbanites have unlimited access to television and its often romanticized portrayal of animals, but limited first hand experience with wild animal overpopulation and its effects on people, their property and wildlife habitat. For these people, I think it's easier to agree to the concept that "killing is necessary to control wildlife populations" than it is to accept the decision to cull animals in a specific instance. Concepts tend to be vague and remote, but the decision to implement a plan to cull animals of specific species is much more immediate and concrete, and this is especially the case when one is not familiar with the full scope of the problems caused by overpopulation.
So - when the question narrows to killing deer, bears or wolves, I'm guessing that many (especially urbanites) think of the animals - subconsciously or not - according to a romantic fantasy: deer as Bambi, wolves as noble and bears as playful, all leaving us humans to our business as long as we leave them to theirs.
Given this, when the decision must be made as to whether or not animals are to be culled, people have to confront consequences and if our view of animals is based on a sentimental fantasy, and it is no wonder that their initial reaction would be to question whether the killing really is necessary now. Under these coneditions, I can understand a certain reluctance.
So - I guess I view the numbers this way: even with large numbers of our population increasingly out of contact with wild animals and their habitat, and given the fantasy ideal of animals fed to us by the popular media, 61% of us would still support increasing the length of hunting seasons to control overpopulation. That's pretty remarkable, in my opinion.
Yet - I don't believe that these numbers (61% for lethal vs 34% for non-lethal population control) are firm. A question of still finer focus could be asked. Suppose (the scientific equivalent of) this question were asked:
If you knew that overpopulation of deer, wolf or bear presented a clear threat to a) decimate a local ecosystem; b) cause widespread malnutrition, disease and death within the animal population itself; and c) human health and well being, would you favor 1) increasing hunting seasons; 2) learning to live with the problem; or 3) trying to control the population through non-lethal means?
I suspect that if this question (or its scientific equivalent) were asked, you'd find that far greater than 61% of those polled would favor increasing hunting, and far fewer than 34% of respondents would favor efforts at non-lethal population control.
Hat tip to Rich Young.