THE SHOOTING FIELD --- from "Dominion" by Matthew Scully.
It all depends on your budget," says Johnny Vivier. "Everyone's got a budget. You want an elephant, we can get you one. You want lion or buffalo, that's easy. We had a guy who came up here and bought two rhino at $35,000 a rhino. Didn't even ask the price. He just said 'I'll take two rhino.' Look, we're not salesmen. We're professional hunters. You tell us what you want."
Johnny owns and operates Johnny Vivier Safaris, one of eleven hundred hunting, guide, and outfitter concessions here in January 1999 for the twenty seventh annual convention of Safari Club International (SCI), the world's largest gathering of the trade. We're standing at his booth in the Reno-Sparks convention center in Nevada. South Africans in their mid-thirties, he and wife Bev have been in the business thirteen years. Bev works another prospective customer, one of five or six thousand Safari Club members milling around the 370,000-square-foot facility, as I tell Johnny thanks but no rhino for me, not in the budget, let me take a brochure and think it over. "Elephant, then. We've got some fine ones. Big tuskers. Eighty inches." The big tuskers run at $10,500 apiece.
Over at Trophy Adventures, an outfitter based in Washington State, rhino are going for a song. Not just plain old rhino, either, but "Gold Medallion Rhino." I am craning over the shoulders of two other conventioneers looking at the trophy pictures. Proprietor Skip Clemens assumes we're all together: 'That's the best deal in the room you're looking at. You guys got your rhino yet? They just included it in this year's Big Five, you know. You get that and you got your Grand Slam. You shoot 'em at close range. And the thing is, they don't go right down. They get up. And now they're pissed."
Africa over the last few decades has witnessed a mysterious disappearance of rhinos. Market forces have responded with the "Rhino Dart Hunt." You can still hunt them for keeps in Zimbabwe for $23,000 and up. Skip's got a "Big Five Special" there: rhino, elephant, leopard, lion, and buffalo. Here in this particular South African game park, you don't get to keep your rhino— just really piss 'em off. You sedate the rhino from a jeep, hit fifth gear, hover a bit, then during his unscheduled nap rush up for some posing, measuring, and high fives. "It counts," says Skip. "You get just as many Gold Medal points." The cost of this excursion is $6,500.
A crowd has formed around the booth of Qwatali Productions, where the proprietor has just flipped With Deadly Intent into the VCR. Qwatali is a mail order sportsmen's video company out of Delaware, Ohio, competing here with some five or six rivals with total annual sales in the millions. With Deadly Intent is from "The Classics" series, a big-tusker trilogy including Elephant Trails and Double-Barreled Zambezi Adventure. Following professional hunter Johan Calitz, says the dust jacket, "You're right there to see four dramatic brain shots. See how the searing .500 Nitro Express stops a raging bull's charge at 10 steps."
The video begins with Johan and company whispering to each other in the jeep. Through an opening in the trees, some 75 yards away, we see the elephants. The herd is agitated. Two females are bookending a calf. The bull turns to face us. He charges and then stops, flapping his ears. He trumpets again and again, as the crowd thickens at Qwatali. The standoff lasts 20 seconds or so. Johan has seen this before and doesn't move an inch. Then the action starts, Johan wildly narrating the whole thing for us, something like "Here he comes! Now! Now! I got him! He's still coming!" He seems to hesitate, almost stopping, just before the first shot. The second one staggers him yet he keeps coming. Johan has his back to the jeep when he takes the third and fourth brain shots. The last drops the elephant in a scene of dust and mayhem and jubilation and little calf trumpets from the herd in the background.
This costs $29.95, or you can get The Classics set for $89.95.
SKINS AND BONES
These booths, manned by more than three thousand guides and outfitters serving the 13,554 naked apes attending the convention, run in eighteen rows, each about sixty yards long. Stuffed deer, caribou, zebra, wildebeest, elk, eland, dik dik, kudu, and impala are everywhere, some displayed in prone positions as if caught or being devoured by the stuffed leopards, hyenas, and cougars. Stuffed rabbits and fawns are stuffed into the mouths of stuffed wolves. A stuffed baboon at the Boskoppie Game Reserve & Lodge sports a ranger hat and little "Game Warden" uniform complete with badge. A lifeless moose is fighting off two lifeless wolves, little blood-painted bits of its limbs already in their jaws. An elephant head hangs from the rafters over row 12, "Elephant Walk.'' An aisle over are perched two stuffed specimens of haliaetus leucocephalus: the American bald eagle. At the center of the hall towers a giant grizzly, "Stalker of the North," his mighty claws extended forward as if sleepwalking.
These are just the full-sized trophies, and in three days I only got as far as row 14. There are unnumbered heads, tails, teeth, paws, skins, bones, horns, tusks, and sets of antlers. At the Skins and Bones boutique, a Houston firm specializing in curios and trinkets, a giraffe-skin day planner goes for $189, a zebra-skin purse for $149, impala-skin gun cases for $249, giraffe rugs for a few hundred, golf bags crafted of silver and finest Cape buffalo hide for a grand and up.
Thousands of birds are placed anywhere and everywhere like little household knickknacks one hardly knows what to do with—on counters to greet customers, as centerpieces on the roundtables where deals are struck and checks cut, as doorstops, bookends, paperweights. If all the stuffed ducks, geese, pheasants, and doves suddenly sprang back to life, feathers would fill the convention hall as if some mass pillow fight had broken out.
A few of the grizzly's arctic kin have joined us from the northland wild. Congress in 1998 lifted a ban on the import of polar bear trophies from Canada. This is one of several legislative victories Safari Club is celebrating here. These bears—one identified as Canadian—wasted no time in coming to Reno to mark the occasion. "Yes, it is legal to import Polar Bear into the United States from Canada," says Ameri-cana Expeditions, Inc. "All our Polar Bear hunts occur in the areas where you can take your Polar Bear home after acquiring your import permit from U.S. Fish & Wildlife."
Your bruin costs $20,000. Down at D&H Safaris they've got a "polar bear special"—$12,000. In both cases you pay up front, and the money, in the standard proviso of guides and outfitters, is "nonrefundable in cases of animals wounded or lost." Adventures Northwest, a Canadian outfitter, will do it for $ 19,500—satisfaction guaranteed. Borne onward by a dog team, guided by local Inuit tribesmen, you'll track that bear down for as long as it takes. "Extra hunting days can be arranged 'on the spot.'" If you're on a tight schedule, Adventures Northwest will charter a two-seat Piper Supercub plane to and from the Inuit village—in the shorthand of Safari Club, a "same-day airborne."
Bow hunters are welcome, too, says the brochure. While bows are less reliable in arctic conditions, this presents few problems as "it is extremely unlikely that a wounded polar bear would ever be lost, but it could happen if there was open water nearly and the wounded bear succeeded in getting to it and swimming away." That's when the dog pack comes in handy: "When the bear is in sight and it looks as if it might escape into open water or rough ice, the dogs are cut loose so that they can bring the bear to bay. The hunter and his guide have to follow quickly."1 Very quickly, or you will be taking home one sorry-looking trophy. The frenzied hounds want a piece of the action too.
Ameri-cana is cutting-edge, on the newly legalized polar bear front and in the growing field of big-game archery. There are sixty or so firms here specializing in bows. A seminar on the subject covered the finer points of effecting maximum internal hemorrhaging. ("Remember," explained archer Gary McDonald, "we don't kill an animal with shock; we kill it with bleeding.") "Imagine," beckons Ameri-cana's brochure, "hunting in an area that has been archery-only for the last 12 years and the professional hunters are all avid bow hunters and know what it takes to provide a quality archery hunt." They are talking about African big game. Not only are you going to get your Big Five— by God you're gonna take em with a bow. Here, too, no fear of wounds, escapes, and losses. It is a private, secluded, fenced-in archer's paradise.
Down at Tanzania Safaris they're talking about the art of "cat baiting." There are competing schools of thought. A hunter at Nolte Safaris, dismissing conventional wisdom, asks why bother killing an impala for bait when "dog food" will do the trick. At Tallgrass Safaris of Tanzania they actually describe baiting techniques in the brochure: "Baiting for the big cats is one of the most exciting parts of a good safari. The haunch of a buffalo or zebra hung in a tree at the proper height will almost always produce a lion."
At New Zealand Wildlife Safaris they're discussing the challenge of hunting sheep by helicopter. Climb aboard the chopper with Kulu Hunting Company of Magadan, Russia, and you can shoot at brown bear ($11,000) and rare snow sheep ($14,900). Another service here will transport the creatures themselves by helicopter. They are bought from other ranches or from circuses and zoos and airlifted into game parks to be shot.
Norzaim Bush Tracks of Zimbabwe is designing a package to meet the needs of a client wondering what his chances might be of taking big game with a pistol: "Well, pistol shooting is illegal—but we could make a plan. Like, if it's in a competition, we could make it happen, for one day maybe in certain areas."
At Jeff Neal, Inc., of Tulsa, Oklahoma, a female customer worries that elephant hunting might be too dangerous. "You can just put a bag of peanuts out the window," a guide explains. "Actually, you can shoot from the car if you want to." With Atcheson's Hunting you can hunt an elephant "from horseback or even from the backs of trained elephants!" These trained elephants are the calves orphaned and captured in previous hunts. Atcheson's employs Namibian hunting guides, gifted, their brochure says, with "a Teutonic flair for organization," as witness the construction of fences and a "rancher-developed water supply" that brings the game into range without fail.
At Berlin Game Ranch Safaris the Teutonic touch is evident in a full color picture of a slain giraffe. The creature lies on his stomach and folded legs, the neck forming an arch off to the side, providing an elbow rest for the posing hunter, a woman. The dangers she braved are best captured in the brochure of Borton's Overseas, offering purely photographic safaris at a place called Rothschild Manor: "Kenya's Rothschild giraffe were moved to the grounds and now, years later, offspring still remain as the focus of the manor. Don't be surprised if a giraffe pokes its head in for breakfast!"
Nimrod Safaris of Namibia invites you to its private 60,000-acre spread in the Kalahari "with game fencing for those who do not mind ranch hunting." Plenty of "the big stuff" here, including giraffe at $1,850, which you can take by rifle or bow: "Everything Is Lined Up: All We Need Is You."
Now showing at Alaska's Glacier Guides, Inc., Silent Stalkers, of the North, filmed from behind two men whispering just before dispatching a grizzly bear, who is seen alone in a grassy field munching on something, then running away at the first shot, then doing a complete flip on the momentum of his gallop when the third shot brings him down.
In the Reno Sparks lunchroom, eight or nine hundred people are settling in for drinks on the house while perusing the day's offerings. The bar is open and the afternoon auction has begun.
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and now it's time to buy some diamonds!"
Our emcee for the first evening's banquet is a professional announcer whose cheerful voice and manner recall Bob Eubanks of Dating Game fame. As he opens the diamond sale, the Grand Ballroom of the Reno Hilton goes dark and spotlights follow a dozen sparkly sirens, showgirls on loan from the hotel cabaret, performing some sort of willowy swan dance as they disperse into the crowd bearing treasures. "Diamonds are Forever" is playing in the background. A banner over the stage declares "Take Charge"—this year's convention slogan. Next year's theme is "Thundering into the Millennium."
The girls, beckoned here and there for a sale, slowly reunite on the stage, joining the stuffed lion and buffalo. Gazing across the ballroom from 23 feet up is a stuffed giraffe on sentry duty to the left of the stage. He has journeyed here from someone's private collection. The beauty of it, Safari Club's Dave Coldwell explains to me, is that "old Joe Schmo sitting over there at his table can point up and say to his friends, 'Hey, that's my giraffe.'"
When the diamond dance is over, the nightly auction will begin. There is a day auction, running from noon to six, and an evening auction from ten to midnight. Up for grabs are wild animals from around the world donated by owners and lessors of the reserves and game parks in which those animals live, along with jewelry, nature paintings, and other donated goods. Earlier this evening we heard from Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge—a Republican, as most Safari Club members seem to be—and before his speech some tunes from the Oak Ridge Boys. Only about sixteen hundred people are here tonight. The big events are tomorrow night's speech by retired general H. Norman Schwarzkopf and Saturday's keynote address from former American president George Bush.
Ridge, a Medal of Valor-winning infantry sergeant in Vietnam, is here to accept Safari Club's "Governor of the Year" award. He seems to represent the larger of two categories of hunter. There are the ones who can afford the faraway expeditions year after year, carting home rhino, elephants, giraffes, and—the must-have item of late—Argali ram from remotest China at $26,000 per rack. Not many of these hunting high rollers live in rural Pennsylvania, nor do they fit easily into any of the usual sociological slots.
And then there are the hunters that Duane Allen of the Oak Ridge Boys probably had in mind when he thanked "all you fine folks at Safari Club" before going to "American Made." No $20,000 brooches, $90,000 rifles, or $35,000 rhinos for them. They just want a deer or two every season, maybe an elk or a bear too. Their fathers and grandfathers hunted, they're teaching the kids to hunt, hunting's fun, a part of life, and that's just the way it is. Most of them would probably look with contempt on someone shooting game, for example, from a helicopter.
The divisions aren't always so clear, though, at least not here. At Safari Club it seems to be a difference in cash flow. I chatted at my banquet table with a retired pipe fitter from Idaho named Wilbur. He once played minor league ball with Stan Musial and was incredulous about the recent auction of Mark McGwire's seventieth-home run ball for $3 million. "The guy's got more money than sense." I agreed. But then, in the next breath, here's old Wilbur himself talking about his life's ambition to bring home the Big Five, which is going to run him a hundred grand at least unless he wins tonight's "Hunt of a Lifetime" raffle offering a Big Five safari ("varmints included")—the proceeds, at $250 a ticket, going to Safari Club's PAC. They had sold 740 tickets when I inquired about it.
"I was in Africa last year," Wilbur tells me, "and they kept trying to get me to take a giraffe. But I wouldn't do it. The Big Five—that's what I'm after. Just never been interested in giraffe myself. Where's the challenge in it? I guess some people want 'em for rugs, but it's too easy. But hey, if that's what they want. It's all in what a person wants."
He seemed like a nice guy, and joked that his wife had spent the afternoon in the convention hall "putting me in the poorhouse." The men here are in no position to gripe, however. The average Safari Club member owns eleven rifles, six shotguns, five handguns, and a bow. He spends $14,000 a year on hunting, compared to $1,500 for the average American hunter, for an annual half a billion dollars spent by the entire membership. Two-thirds hunt more than twenty-six days a year, and a quarter of them more than fifty days, typically in fenced ranches and game parks. Half of them, like Wilbur, have hunted in Africa at least once. Over 50 percent of members report an annual income exceeding $100,000, as against 6 percent of hunters nationwide.2
Probably what unites all hunters here from all classes and backgrounds is Wilbur's conviction that it all comes down to what a person wants. You want a deer, that's fine, and if it's giraffe or elephant a man wants, and he's got the money, why then that's fine too. The important thing is not to let a lot of outsiders start laying restrictions on things. Then you're fiddling with basic rights, above all the constitutional right to firearms, as the National Rifle Association is here to remind us at its booth. Nothing unites like a common enemy, and they've all got one here: Give an inch to the enviros and Bambi lovers, all those urban types who know little about firearms and even less about wildlife, and it won't end there. It won't end with elephants or giraffes or the Big Five or wolves in Arizona or bison near Yellowstone. Before long it'll be deer. If anyone in this convention hall feels uneasy about any display, they keep it to themselves. Here, the mildest qualm or fugitive doubt is heresy. Let them take away our helicopters and next it'll be our guns.
A curious angle here. This touchiness about the sport has lately led many hunters to search for higher ground, to ultimate meanings and spiritual self-justification. The result is a mix of feel-good moral relativism, infomercial type self-empowerment, and half-baked mysticism resembling the sort of "deep ecology" literature they scoff at. For sale here, and later to be recommended to us by General Schwarzkopf, is a 1995 book, In Defense of Hunting, by James A. Swan. "A truly spiritual person," writes Swan, "does not judge others if they are following an honest path of the heart, and among those paths of the spirit there is that of the hunter."
"And what about the poor animals?" the critics of hunting scream. Anyone can declare an animal to be special, even sacred. But a thing can become truly sacred only if a person knows in his or her heart that the object or creature can somehow serve as a conduit to a realm of existence that transcends the temporal. If hunting can be a path to spirit, unhindered by guilt, then nature has a way of making sure that hunters feel compassion.3
Like, wow, is that deep or what? Things are "sacred" only when the hunter in his heart has made them so. The wanting of something confers validity. The creature becomes a "conduit" to the transcendent. Guilt now becomes a hindrance to compassion, which is achieved in the very act of killing, and so on further up into holy realms unattainable, one assumes, to the non-hunter. I kill, therefore I am. Elsewhere Mr. Swan informs us that to abstain from venison "is to deny our nature" and biochemistry:
I am like the cougar; I need to eat meat. I once tried a vegetarian diet for nearly a year; the East Indian holy man I was studying with at the time told me to stop, because it was running against my nature and making me ill. He was right. I was having trouble sleeping and felt weak. Within a week after returning to my [venison] diet, my symptoms were nearly gone.4
So hunting is not only a path to the sacred—it is a health imperative. Mr. Swan also describes hunting, during three hundred pages of scattershot self-justification, as an outlet for repressed anger, "a spiritual act of love," "a great teacher of love," a grim conservation duty, "an obsession," a test of manhood, a source of "self-esteem," a patriotic obligation, a "numinous" experience, "a path to self-actualization," a family unifier, a quest for enlightenment, a form of therapy, "a primal energy" force, an inhibitor to aging, an antidote to urban "alienation," a factor in keeping down violent crime—etc. "Like his predecessors," Mr. Swan explains,
the modern hunter hunts for meaning, to express himself as a member of the human race…. The experience of hunting is so special, so different from most other aspects of life today, and so filled with what Jung called "the numinous," that hunting really must ultimately be seen as a spiritual practice by those who sincerely follow the spirit of the hunt. When you participate in someone's home and he offers you a wild game meal, know that you are participating in a sacrament.5
I knew that "venison" and "veneration" come from a common root, but this is still an awful lot of baggage to lay on one deer. It is the sort of ecodeep think that Schwarzkopf, Wilbur, and probably Swan himself would recognize as incoherent drivel were they to encounter it as a defense of any other practice. Indeed, a booklet by one Tom DeWeese given to us at the Safari Club prayer breakfast warns against "The Pagan Roots of Environmentalism," tracing everything from the United Nations to the Endangered Species Act to "New Age religions that include deep ecology, eco-feminism and the worship of Gaia—Mother Earth."6 The New Age conspiracy may be worse than Mr. DeWeese imagines: It has come to Reno, where guns offer not just sport and sustenance but spiritual affirmation; where "conservation" has replaced good works; where the Big Five has become a kind of Trinity, and racks, horns, and tusks are the holy relics.
The typical American hunter, in any case, never goes to Africa—or to Reno or Las Vegas, for that matter, to shell out hundreds of dollars for a Safari Club convention. Pennsylvania, says Governor Ridge, "issued over a million hunting and fishing licenses last year, contributing $2 billion to the Pennsylvania economy." We must safeguard that right and "pass on that tradition to future generations." This is a sacred right and solemn conservation duty, for here and the world over "what we're really doing with our license fees is building those animals a better home." Hunting, "as Theodore Roosevelt said, 'is one more chance to be a boy.' We live in a complicated age, full of pressures and demands, and there are few things more enriching and peaceful than being with friends in the glory of God's creation. Let us have the youth and strength to pursue our great adventures and to 'be like boys again.'" He leaves us with reflections on the joy of seeing his children picking up their first bows, and a touching story of helping to rescue an orphaned bear cub, though just how the cub was orphaned we never learn.