Letters Among Friends: Understanding Our Canine Hunting Relationships, Part 2

This is Part 2 of an exchange of letters between two good friends of mine (see Part 1 here). Jon Gattozzi lives in Ontario, is a fish and wildlife technician, works with Ontario Parks, and is a hunter, angler, and trapper. Eric Lede is a great friend of mine from Australia. He has worked with communities in Arctic Canada, Papua New Guinea, and Australia. Both have a wealth of insightful perspectives that interweave with one another in thought-provoking ways and an inspiring desire for meaningful discourse.

Eric and Jon,

I want to dig a little deeper into the question of where our ethics come from and where we anchor our notions of what is right. I am also fascinated by how we conceptualize the relationship between what is right and what is natural – does one equal or at least logically connect to the other?

The questions we have been wrestling with here make me think of the environmentalist and author Paul Shepard. In his life’s ultimate work, Coming Home to the Pleistocene, Shepard discusses our roots as a Pleistocene species. He poignantly argues that reconnecting to our Pleistocene forebears is to more fully realize our humanity.

In the context of this discussion, Shepard’s ideas have me considering what our 14,000-year-old minds can contribute to a deeper and more meaningful understanding of what Eric refers to as the scientific study of modern ethics.

focus photography of a ignited firewood

I think there is a connection between René Descartes and Shepard’s ideas that gives some insight into the overarching question about the role of animals in human hunting. By the way, Descartes’s 1649 work Passions of the Soul was the product of six years of letters between himself and the Princess of Bohemia.

One of Descartes’s most famous ideas was his mind-body dualism. The Cartesian duality between humans and animals established a way of thinking that enables a corresponding idea about a duality between domestic and wild, which is really the foundation for the questions we’re dealing with here. We have domesticated certain species, therefore, removing them from their identity as wild. Right or wrong, this is currently how our conservation institutions function.

However, as Eric pointed out, it may not be appropriate to look for ethical answers in a modern body of thought that seems, in some ways, to lag behind our Ice Age sensibilities. In Coming Home to the Pleistocene, Shepard cautions that “we are so imbued with the virtues of civility – the high moral ground of ethics and social community – that all we hold dear seems threatened by any suggestion of an atavistic regression to our natural selves”.

I should add some nuance to one point I made. I mentioned that just because something is old or traditional doesn’t necessarily make it right. At the same time, Shepard reminds us that neither does being old make something irrelevant to our modern context. My point was that given the history of our own species’ expansion and ecological destruction, we have a distinct ethical obligation to consider how we deal with the issue of domestication. However, this was not to suggest that modern schools of thought in ethics are necessarily more advanced than Pleistocene concepts of human-animal relationships. It may be that we draw those ethical principles from a variety of places, including the corner of the cave, to develop modern management approaches.

I’m inspired by Shepard’s idea that refocusing on our Pleistocene past could actually be a return to what it means to be more fully human. Shepard tells us that when we “grasp fully that the best expressions of our humanity were not invented by civilization but by cultures that preceded it, that the natural world is not only a set of constraints but of contexts within which we can more fully realize our dreams, we will be on the way to a long-overdue reconciliation between opposites that are of our own making”.

Since the Pleistocene, we have increasingly removed a sense of wildness from certain animal species alongside deliberate domestication of our own species. Perhaps our starting point to begin to identify how we can approach conservation in a landscape that defies a simple wild-domestic duality should focus on reclaiming a foundation of relationships.

Maybe what we learn from Pleistocene human-animal interactions is a deeper understanding of the very concept of relationships. What do our Pleistocene ancestors teach us about relationships? How can a Pleistocene approach to relationships inform conservation in a time when our interactions with wildlife are at times mediated by domestication?

In the end, I don’t think we should let go of the relationship between humans and dogs in the hunting woods. There are some important questions to consider in our management of this relationship; it probably won’t be the same across all habitats and species. For instance, I find myself uneasy about using dogs to hunt bears and mountain lions, where the dogs are often used to corner the animal (Teddy Roosevelt’s experience hunting bears in this exact way led to the concept of fair chase).

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I think that by better understanding our earliest relationship with animals through 14,000 years of close interaction with dogs, we might gain some insight into how we can approach modern relationships with both wild and domestic animals that require management. If we ought to retain some elements of our Pleistocene way of life, and more, to look to them as instructive of modern ethics, I think our relationship with dogs is a good place to begin.


Paul and Jon,

I liked what Paul raised in terms of how our ancestral cultures have shaped who we are today and how it is within these contexts that we are both constrained and elevated. It is within this notion that two seemingly distance concepts meet: urbanization and ecological economics – I’ll come back to the intersection among concepts later. 

But first, I think we have overlooked an important dimension of the relationship between humans and canids. While we share many unique characteristics that bring us together (verbal and non-verbal communication, social characteristics, a plethora of others), we have one outstanding factor that we share that we kind of shouldn’t: we are both apex predators.

To understand why this is important, we need to look at how humans treat other apex predators that we interact with. Overall, populations of apex predators around the world are declining and this is collapsing global ecosystems. This isn’t a new phenomenon: when Homo sapiens encountered Neanderthals – our closest cousins and fellow apex predators – only one walked out the other side. The mode of filtering which species prevailed is irrelevant; the ultimate outcome was that there was only room for one. 

A curious exception to this rule echoes from the ancestors of Jon, Charlie-girl, and Gus: the weavers of a mutually beneficial relationship that precipitated the co-habitation of two apex predators under one roof 14,000 years later.

And it is within these echoes that urbanization and ecological economics coalesce.

Firstly, urbanization. Sharing the warmth of a fire, the 14,000-year-old ancestors of Jon, Charlie-girl, and Gus had yet to invent urbanization. Indeed, even the earliest precursor to urbanization – the invention of agriculture – was still about 3,000 years away in the Fertile Crescent. Fast forward to today, 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas and the UN projects this number to inflate to 68% by 2050. In combination with this increased intensity of urbanisation, a projected additional 2.5 billion people sharing this rock will surely have deleterious consequences – indeed, it already has. This hardly leaves enough room for humans, let alone another apex predator.

Secondly, ecological economics. In simple terms, ecological economics assigns a socially constructed financial value onto the environment and their associated ‘assets’ and ‘services’. Ultimately, this allows us to factor in the fate of ecosystems – or lack thereof – into economic-based decision making. Albeit contentiously perverse, this has helped to justify conservation programs for endangered species

brown wolf

So, what sits at the nexus of rapidly growing urbanization, which is leaving less room for other apex predators, and the use of ecological economics to justify the conservation of dogs, another apex predator?

Well, rather anticlimactically, nothing. And this is absolutely extraordinary.

Here is my point: clearly, we don’t employ ecological economics to justify conservation programs for dogs – there is no need. Indeed, there are approximately 900 million domesticated dogs in the world – a number far removed from any endangered list; the wild brethren of domesticated dogs, in contrast, aren’t going so well

So, while we are left discussing whether or not it is ethical to continue our mutually beneficial relationships with canids, I can’t help thinking of the alternative future where the ancestors of Jon, Charlie-girl, and Gus were never able to negotiate a mutually beneficial relationship among them. If the wild canids of that alternative future remained wild alongside today’s other wild canids, would they find themselves on the same endangered and extinct lists as today’s dwindling apex predators? Even if they were lucky enough to elude such lists so far, would they continue to elude in light of future rapid urbanization, population growth, and changing climatic conditions?

READ  Letters Among Friends: Understanding Our Canine Hunting Relationships, Part 1

Within this crude frame, Jon, I must ask: have we given Charlie-girl and Gus a hall-pass from the inevitability of human-induced deletion? Does the provision of this hall-pass exonerate us from our ethical obligations to revise our relationship in a modern context?


To Eric and Paul,

Some time has passed and, admittedly, I’ve had to review our conversation. Another two seasons have come and we have now entered one of my favourites…hunting season.

I had Charlie-Girl out on her first two birds the other day. Ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus). One of my favourite wild meals. It’s not a taste that is overwhelming but more a peaceful and nostalgic hunt that I appreciate and I can go home with something I am proud of. I shot the first bird while it was walking about 30 feet away, through a young, thick stand of spruce. Apprehensive but with confidence I unclipped Charlie’s lead and gave her the “hunt” signal. Like a bat out of hell she rushed the woods, in the direction I’d shot. Being her first bird I could tell that she was a little bit confused, at first. She would glance up at me, looking for more direction. I’d “cast” her in the direction of the still-flapping-with-nerves bird and she’d push back a little further. After the second or third time she spotted it. She latched on, gave it a shake and excitedly made her way back to me to “release” on command.

This was one of my proudest moments with her.

With the #6 upland shot from my 20 gauge I had taken the head clean off. This is best. Most humane and it leaves no lead in the bird to pick through as I butcher it (nothing like crunching a shotgun pellet while trying to enjoy a meal. It has been shown to cause cancer in California, ya know). All the time I can remember thinking back to the ancient and genetically ingrained motivations behind her act. A meal for her. Something she so willingly expends valuable energy upon, to bring and hand over to me. I just thought of the first wolf I’d killed. I would have never expected to compare my Labrador to a wolf. But imagine if I tried taking a meal from its mouth.

My next favourite season is coming. Trapping season. With that I find myself reminiscing about old trapping stories. I remember that wolf. The first I’d ever shot. I walked the two kilometres across the snow-covered farm field, through a narrow path I’d beaten down over the season. The crows were silent, which was unusual; usually they would be cawing over my bait pile. It was colder and darker than the usual days on the trapline. Maybe I only remember it that way to subconsciously dramatize an event that was so existential for me. When I arrived at the first trap, I saw her. She was a large, dark, golden-eyed female wolf. Grey and brown. Grizzled fur. She was spectacular. The thought of releasing her from the MB650 (leghold trap) that she was held in crossed my mind. I swallowed the thought and walked to a spot about 15 feet from behind her right shoulder. 

I stared at her for a moment. She was more calm than I’d seen in any of the northern nightmares I’d had when I was younger. She looked me in the eyes, briefly, and looked away. She seemed to stare off, almost accepting that she had lost the battle. I later learned that avoiding eye contact is a mechanism used by canids to show their discomfort in a situation. I expect eye contact from my domestic hunting companion; I wanted more of it from a wild creature. I was searching for human contact with the animal. Communication through the eyes, out of respect and a sign that someone is giving you their attention. I realize that this is one way we have domesticated our companions. We have manifested an anthropomorphic adaptation amongst our dogs, and we have come to expect this from them.

These observations in my life have brought me to the belief that without human interaction our domesticated canids would not “go the way of the dodo” but their purpose and individuality amongst various breeds would. So would disappear generations of unique and specific abilities that have been bred into each dog breed to suit human needs.

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I have never been a person to believe, or justify the belief, that humans are the apex predator. I like to believe in a system where all things are tangled in a web, ever crossing one another’s path, more than a pyramid. There is opportunity for every creature, and life and death is less of a “win-lose” relationship and more of the mutual dependence between all living things. There cannot be life without death. With regards to the morality of using our breeds to give us advantages while hunting or expecting more anthropomorphic responses from our individual hunting partners, I believe that it is merited. Humans did not evolve the biological abilities to kill with merely the tools of our extremities. We are not fast enough to catch or strong enough to overpower prey. What we have evolved is the ability to be inventive with the way that we hunt and kill. We have also engineered ways to reduce loss while hunting. 

I do agree that, in some way, due to our need to strive for more efficient methods of food production throughout history we have given our canid partners somewhat of a hall pass. The morality may be flawed, due to the fact that the relationship started as something more pure and has developed into something that we continue to hang on to out of a sense of tradition. However, I still believe that it is still beneficial to both parties. 

If we suggest that canines have received a historic hall pass, I believe that the same could be said for any species that reaches the brink of extinction and is recovered through human interference. Often, efforts at species recovery are temporary and unfortunately suffer from the ebbs and flows of social and political trends because, I believe, we often fail to recognize value and mutual benefit with other species unless we are directly affected by their decline.

To conclude and return to the overarching question:

The beginning of the relationship between canids and humans was pure and simple. We must have taken more in-depth looks at the importance of our relationship over time, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation today, and the relationship wouldn’t still thrive as it does. I think the question should be less about the morals of using an animal we have developed as a companion species over tens of thousands of years. Instead, the question should be how we can take a proactive step forward in making sure that the relationships that we have in the natural world, that aren’t as personally beneficial can be cared for before we have to prevent their extinction. 

In that light, maybe our relationship with our hunting dogs is the staple evidence of our capacity as a human race to work systematically for the success of a species. Is it not also evidence that what we gain from utilizing a dog (being able to collect our game more efficiently) shows our intentions to limit loss and reduce waste? 

With that, should we not ask, instead, how we can limit ecological loss on a broader scale instead of the ethics  around our relationship with one of our most domesticated and loyal species? Let’s find the importance of all species without the need for human-like interaction. Let us not strive for the symbol of communication, eye-contact, that we presume to be a course of respect but instead understand the significance and importance of all species and the roles they play in the world’s ecosystems. Let us limit ourselves in the amount of respect we ask of the environment and instead show our full respect to the natural course of all things.

Sorry to always leave you with a question.

All my best,

One Comment on “Letters Among Friends: Understanding Our Canine Hunting Relationships, Part 2

  1. Hello Guys

    Excuse my intrusion, but I spent many years in the bush andI have spent fifty years pondering these questions.

    First ethics.
    Nature doesn’t take prisoners. In nature, you either survive or not. Nature is actually a huge and silent war. Even the flowers fight each other for light and water. This is where we evolved.
    To protect ourselves from the brutality of nature, we used caves (and I will use the term as shorthand for every other type of physical and social construction that served the same purpose).

    Outside, in nature, there are no rules. You either survive long enough to reproduce or you disappear. Caves were our protection. Inside the cave, we nurtured our kind. There had to be rules, the rules of human nurture. Simply put, they are “Sharing and fair exchange without violence”.

    Our cave has evolved. Today, it is an intellectual cave of amazing complexity. We call it civilisation. Civilisation is the human cave, designed to nurture us. The rules of the cave have evolved, too. They are now our complex morals and ethics. We use them as a standard to measure what is right or wrong, good or evil, and so on. But they are still the indoor rules of civilisation, the human cave. Outside, in nature, there are still no rules.

    The male principle (statistically more men) evolved to go out of the cave and compete objectively (without human emotion) in nature in order to obtain resources under the brutal conditions of nature. Objectivity turns a living creature into a “thing”, a resource, so it can be harvested or killed. Those resources were brought back to the cave where the female principle (statistically more women, pinned at home by biology) used the resources to subjectively (with human emotion) nurture us and reproduce. Like a little machine, resources go in one side and offspring emerge from the other. Its the source of the the caveman jokes and upsets feminists a lot, although it shouldn’t because the two principles are opposite, equal and complementary, like two halves of a wheel. We are undoubtedly an alpha predator because our technology makes us so. They are, in fact, two sides of the human mind.

    In nature, there are no rules, no good or bad, no right or wrong. That is why a cat can kill a mouse but it is not wrong or evil. Wrong and evil are human rules from inside the cave. When a hunter goes hunting, he leaves civilisation and “goes out” into nature in order to compete where there are no rules. Hunting is uncivilised. That’s the point. That is why hunting is so exhilarating. It is man fulfilling his evolutionary destiny, and a huge rush. And when the hunt is over, the hunter returns “indoors” into civilisation once more.

    In order to improve food supply and reduce the physical danger, we domesticated plants and animals, exploiting the natural features of both. Dogs were no doubt the same, selectively bred for different purposes like hunting and guarding. It was simply human engineering at work.

    Feelings and sentience.
    There is a continuum of sentience from complexity in humans and “higher” mammals, all the way down to perhaps nothing in an amoeba. Where you draw the line at prey, or where you draw the anthropomorphic line at affection depends on whether you are hunter or not.

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