Hunting and Science

The use of hounds in hunting excites great passions. Hunting deer is particularly hated by those who are opposed to it and ardently loved by those who support it. If you wept as a child at the death of Bambi’s mother, you know what it is like to be hunted. On the other side, the Hunt supporters have believed sincerely that very little suffering is involved in hunting with hounds. They regard this method of culling red deer not only as necessary for the protection of the environment but also as an entirely natural process. Wolves chase deer, the argument runs, so deer should be adapted to being hunted by hounds. The battles have raged for the best part of a century in terms that have changed not one bit.

In 1997 I submitted to the National Trust my report on a scientific study of the welfare issues involved in the management of red deer on Exmoor and the Quantock Hills. Among other things, I had been asked to examine the evidence for stress induced in red deer by hunting with hounds and to compare this with the stress resulting from other culling methods. The law is stringent about the use of animals in scientific work. Like hunting, scientific research involves great companionship, much skill and the thrill of the chase. However, as attitudes to animals changed, scientists have had to temper their enthusiasms for their work with concerns for the welfare of the animals they use. The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986 stipulates that: “If procedures used in research involve pain or discomfort, the investigator must consider whether the knowledge that may be gained justifies the stress and pain inflicted on the animals.”

Pain is clearly defined in terms of human subjective experience. So, for that matter, are fear, distress and suffering. Nevertheless, those who must obey the existing legislation on animal welfare have to project these unpleasant states into animals. They are required to make the same sort of assessment of another creature’s condition as they do implicitly and routinely when dealing with a fellow human being. In humans each unpleasant state is associated with observable behaviour and with identifiable physiological processes. A profile of these characteristics may be built up and considered when taking any particular case of questionable animal welfare.

Weighing suffering against human benefit is inherently unsatisfactory because they are not measured in the same terms. What can be done is to find an acceptable space in which suffering is kept to a minimum and humans maximise what they can get out of the use of the animals. When I started my investigation of the hunting of deer with hounds, I supposed that here again we should probably finish up with some notion of acceptable space. Hunting undoubtedly gives great pleasure to those who partake in this activity as sport. To many people, witnessing a hunt is to feel part of English history. I had supposed that, if the suffering of the hunted deer were contained, the positive aspects of stag-hunting could be supported. However, the science led my Research Associate, Dr Elizabeth Bradshaw, and me to a very different position.

Science can make contributions to the hunting debate at various levels. The movements of red deer may be monitored by radio-tracking. This method involves fitting a collar on the animal which contains a small transmitter emitting a regular signal which can be detected at some distance by a receiver. Apart from long excursions by the stags before and after the rut in the autumn, red deer on Exmoor spend 95% of their time within about half a mile of the same place. The ancestral habitat of red deer is woodland and, in such habitats, wolves do not chase them for long distances. Instead wolves rely on stealth, short bursts of speed and ambushing to catch the deer. Further, red deer are not equipped with sweat glands, easily over-heating when chased, and their muscle fibre type is not that of an animal adapted for endurance running. Armed with this knowledge, it is startling to discover that the average hunt with hounds last about 3 hours in which time the deer has been run 12 miles. The use of a standard technique in behavioural biology and the gathering together of some well-established facts about red deer suggested already that hunting with hounds is not natural. However, even this did not prepare Dr Bradshaw and myself for the astonishing changes in the physiology of the hunted deer which we discovered from their blood after they had been hunted.

The absolute levels of stress hormones are as high as have ever been found in red deer and do not differ from animals with very serious injuries. The carbohydrate resources for the muscles are totally depleted in animals that have been hunted for long periods. Acidity of the blood, resulting from great exertion, is very high at an early stage in the hunt. At an early stage in the hunt the level of haemoglobin in the plasma jumps to eight times what is found in undisturbed animals and then continues to rise. Much of this is probably due to the break up of the red blood cells. In longer hunts extensive leakage of enzymes from the muscles occurs. In some deer these levels are so high that they are likely to be due to actual damage to the muscles. In short, many of the physiological changes are seriously maladaptive and would not be expected to occur in normal conditions. The pattern of the data is entirely consistent with the view that the hunted animals are extremely frightened, pushing themselves as much as they are able and risking a great deal in their attempts to escape.

If deer are to be culled, the only realistic alternative to hunting red deer with hounds is to shoot them. We compared the suffering resulting from stalking with that produced by hunting with hounds. The critical issue is the frequency of wounding. While just over 11% of red deer are wounded when shot, the majority of these were then quickly killed. A maximum of 5% of shot deer are likely to escape wounded. At the time of assessment, which occurred immediately after death, the physiological effects of wounding by shooting are comparable to those of a long hunt. An important missing dimension is the length of time for which a deer has to endure its suffering. In this context, it should be appreciated that half the hunted deer escape. Some escaping deer may die from the effects of the long chase. Others are likely to experience the consequences of the long stressful chase for days afterwards.

Of the 130 or so red deer killed annually by the Hunts, we believe that all experience an unacceptable level of suffering because of the stresses and strains put on them. At least a further 100 that escape would suffer because of the distance travelled before they escaped. This makes a conservative total of 230 deer a year presenting a serious welfare problem. If the 130 or so animals killed by the Hunts were culled by stalkers instead, then on the basis of the 5% wounding estimate we obtained, less than seven deer would suffer because of their injuries. These are broad calculations but the great reduction in numbers of suffering animals is obvious.

Hunting with hounds can no longer be justified on welfare grounds given the standards applied in other fields such as the transit and slaughter of farm animals, the use of animals in research and so forth. This is the key conclusion of my report to the National Trust. The Trust had to weigh this conclusion against other issues, including their wider responsibilities, considerations about the social and economic benefits of hunting and the problems of conservation. At the time of writing this article, I was uncertain what the Council of the National Trust would decide. The result of a ban on hunting could be an increase in indiscriminate and inexpert shooting which might increase the proportion of deer injured from shooting and also reduce the overall red deer population on the Quantocks. The judgements involved are not easy ones and lie outside the realms of science. Even so, the application of orderly method has led to findings which are likely to change the perception that many people have of hunting.

Before the study was carried out, it was possible to argue that views about suffering in hunted deer were subjective and open to debate. I was convinced that supporters of the Hunts were sincere in their belief that stag-hunting was not cruel. This position is, I believe, no longer tenable. Both those who hunt red deer and those who are concerned more widely with the welfare of these animals will need to take the new evidence into account.


This article was written before the outcome of my report to the National Trust was known. The day after the report was published, the National Trust banned the hunting of red deer with hounds on their land. I was vilified by those who supported the hunting of mammals with dogs and the Stag-hunting organizations commissioned a second study by Professor Roger Harris and colleagues, hoping that this group would disprove what we had discovered. However, they obtained exactly the same physiological results as we had obtained. While they made no claim to study the welfare aspects of hunting, they concluded incorrectly that the deer ceased to run when they had exhausted their stores of carbohydrate. Later still, Professor Harris and I collaborated on a report for a Government Inquiry into the hunting of mammals with dogs. This Inquiry led eventually to an Act of Parliament that introduced radical curbs on the hunting of mammals with dogs in England and Wales.

Sir Patrick Bateson is a Fellow of the Royal Society, Emeritus Professor of Ethology (Animal Behaviour) at the University of Cambridge, and former Provost of King’s College, Cambridge. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Times Higher Education on 11 April 1997 and is used here with permission.

16 comments to Hunting and Science

  • I applaud “On the Human” for including animal ethics in its purview, and I applaud Sir Patrick Bateson for his concern about the well-being of nonhuman animals and for his very practical accomplishments in that arena. (And I do mean “arena” since bringing about real change in the world is itself a sporting event. Given the rules of play established by the laws of the land, public opinion, scientific research, etc., one team vies for the right to keep hunting with dogs while the other team strives to stop them. I’m glad “my” team won this time.) My subsequent remarks will be mainly critical, however, for I find the very terms of the current discussion to be – as discussions of animal ethics often are – bizarre.

    Let me just mention what is perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the present forum only to put it aside: that the welfare of 230 deer are at stake, when something on the order of 50 billion land animals and an untold number of marine animals are killed for human consumption every year – and frequently after a miserable life that is mercifully brief. I say I will put this aside because I happen to believe that the life of every individual animal is significant, and so if the lives (and deaths?) of 230 deer can be improved, I’m all for it. I would as an aside, however, ask the editors of the forum to keep such “larger” facts in mind when deciding on future discussion topics.

    But even the discussion of the 230 deer strikes me as bizarre because, if I understand correctly, the question at issue is not whether hunting them is ethical but whether hunting them with dogs is ethical. Apparently what the essay refers to as “stalking” is the only alternative being considered – killing the deer by shooting them rather than (figuratively and literally) hounding them to death.

    I gather, then, that an underlying assumption of the discussion is that, one way or another, the deer must be (in the word of the essay) “culled.” I wish more had been said on this topic of culling because there are issues there too, no doubt. Since I myself am a stranger to the culture of hunting, not to mention hunting in the English countryside, I am only left to wonder whether, say, deer in these settings do not always simply “overpopulate” “naturally,” but might sometimes actually be stocked … for the express purpose of being stalked. If so, then, it seems to me, that presents a very different ethical picture of culling them.

    This brings me to my final and most general point, which is about the express meta-topic of the current forum, namely the relation of science to ethics. It occurs to me that science, while of course of great use in resolving countless problems, may perform a counterproductive function on some occasions. What I have in mind in particular is that its invocation could artificially restrict discussion to only the one aspect of a problem that happens to be conducive to scientific research but may not be the crucial ethical aspect.

    Thus in the present forum: Perhaps the science that has been adduced to settle the question of the ethics of hunting with dogs serves also, however inadvertently, to divert attention from the ethics of hunting itself. Recall again the matter of hounding versus stalking: this makes it seem that the issue is analogous to that of “cruel and unusual punishment.” In the U.S. at the moment, there is debate about whether lethal injection is a cruel and unusual form of execution; but that seems to presume that capital punishment in itself is not “cruel and unusual.” Just so, by putting the focus on the form of “culling,” killing for sport seems to be given a free pass, when in fact it may be the key issue.

    Yet, again, by framing the discussion as about the role of science in ethics, one (such as myself) may be accused of “changing the subject” by questioning the topic that has been put before us to consider. I trust, however, that I shall be tolerated in a forum such as this, where the discussion is, while disciplined, extremely wide-ranging.

    Thank you.

  • Joshua Lucas

    Sir Patrick Bateson claims that the main support for hound hunting is the idea that it is natural. The idea that substantiates hound hunts should not be the idea that it is natural; rather, it should be the idea that it causes less suffering if a deer were to escape. However, this line of reasoning ultimately reverts back to the question what can deer most quickly recover from, a gunshot wound or a prolonged hunt?

    Sir Patrick Bateson identifies four examples of how deer are affected by the prolonged nature of hound hunts. He states that deer easily over heat after being chased for prolonged periods of time due to their lacking of sweat glands. However, the lack of sweat glands does not denote the presence of over heating. The hounds that hunt the deer do not use sweat glands for thermoregulation, but the dogs do not suffer long term from elevated body temperature, if it is at all present. If other animals do not use sweat glands for thermoregulation then it must be asserted that sweat glands are not needed for thermoregulation; thus deer may have a way of thermoregulating and preventing over heating. Bateson then asserts that the muscle fiber of deer is not adapted for endurance running. This may cause pain in the short term but there would be no long-term damage from this. It is the nature of muscles, when broken to rebuild themselves quickly. Once the muscle has healed any pain that the animal is suffering subsides. Professor Bateson then claims that the absolute levels of stress hormones do not differ from animals with serious injuries. If these animals were to escape I assume these stress levels would subside and therefore not affect the deer indefinitely. His conclusion is that hunted animals are extremely frightened when trying to escape. I agree with this notion, but would argue again that it is nothing unnatural for a deer to be frightened. A deer uses the stress evoked by the fear response to propel its attempt to escape; if it escapes it needs neither anymore, and, thus, both subside. While I agree with Sir Patrick Bateson that there is suffering found in deer, during and shortly after a hunt, the suffering is not prolonged enough to dignify the alternative, having stalking as the only means of culling deer. Also, the nature of the sources of suffering that he outlines are either quelled biologically or through the absence of being hunted; therefore, once a deer escapes there is not lasting injury.

    The alternative I identified is the scenario where a deer escapes after being wounded as a result of poor shooting. Poor shooting effects all of those who stalk deer; even if trained snipers are used to cull deer there is not complete certainty in a kill shot due to human error. The pain that results from poor shooting is likely to be long-term and may eventually kill the deer after a prolonged period of time and suffering. Whether the numbers that Sir Patrick Bateson are to be taken into consideration, that this occurs (5%) of the time, or the numbers that Dr. Wise finds (26%) it denotes that there is still a prolonged period of time where an animal is suffering as a result of this method. In contrast hound hunting allows for one of two options: the deer is caught and killed, or the deer escapes, experiences short-term suffering, and recovery.

    The Wise article, which is a response to Bateson’s 1996 article, on the same issue, can be found here:

  • William Kornahrens

    Professor Bateson presents an interesting, though controversial, argument against the hunting of deer in favor of stalking. I wish to point out some potential flaws.

    Bateson’s rhetoric talking about Disney films and the “death of Bambi” is nonsense. Disney films have never been accurate in the portrayal of real-life situations, treating animals as if they were human children (hence why these films are so popular with this particular audience). And even if it were accurate, Bambi was killed by being shot, not by being hunted with hounds.

    First, Bateson establishes a criterion for determining the amount of suffering inflicted on deer, a method based on direct observation and analysis of physiological processes that occur during the hunt. However, the analysis that was done by Bateson is open to much debate, which was touched on by Josh Lucas earlier. I take issue with the inference of fear and anxiety based on the composition of the deer’s blood or the deterioration of muscle tissue. In particular, the results of hormone levels (such as that of cortisol) in the blood have been largely misinterpreted by Bateson, as many other critics have argued. Cortisol is a hormone that does not conclusively prove terror. It is a hormone released in the body when it becomes excited, which can easily be attributed to pleasure or exhilaration as much as it can be to terror. Furthermore, even if this hormone was a major indicator of stress, it would be more relevant to determine how long these high levels are present and whether this “fight or flight response” may actually allow the deer to cope with suffering as it does in humans. Perhaps the release of hormones such as adrenaline is just a physiological mechanism used by the deer to regulate nutrients and blood flow so that the deer’s body is more able to escape. Either way, the presence of these hormones is very inconclusive of the deer’s emotional and psychological state. Furthermore, it has been shown that the effects of terror and “dangerous” levels of these hormones is only felt if the deer is exposed to a situation where stress is intense, prolonged, and unavoidable.

    In fact, there has been no evidence to suggest that deer are capable of anticipating their deaths, and they may in fact believe that they will escape once a hunt has begun due to their initial ability to outrun the hounds. And despite the claim that these hunts last 3 hours or twelve miles, hunting is not usually a continuous event. Sometimes a deer is able to gain enough of a lead on the hounds so that it tries to hide or leave fake trails. It is not a continuous run, and previous studies have shown that glycogen stores in the muscles are depleted most quickly in the final stage of the hunt. Once glycogen is depleted, it is unlikely the deer will escape, and death will be immediate.

    There is no evidence offered for the broad claim that deer which escape hound hunts will suffer for a considerable amount of time after they escape. In fact, how are we so sure that this damage is not comparable to the extent of the muscle “damage” and “overheating” experienced when humans exercise? I feel like the argument is very much reliant on the use of words with a negative connotation without any real supporting evidence behind them. It has been established that deer rely more on panting for thermoregulation than sweating. Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that, like humans and other animals, the muscle strain due to intense exercise is permanent and damaging after the hunt. In fact, it has been noted that deer return to their customary feeding locations within hours of their supposedly life-threatening stress.

    As for the alternative proposed by Bateson, I believe that the numbers of deer that suffer gunshot wounds are debatable, and the reported numbers depend much on who you ask. Even so, it is not hard to believe that the number of deer suffering from gun shots is dependent on the skill level and experience of the stalker. Other methods, such as using a hired professional sniper to cull these deer, have been left unstated and unexplored. Why must we allow inaccurate stalkers to shoot these deer when we are supposedly so focused on maximizing our benefit while minimizing the suffering of deer? If the welfare of deer is truly part of our primary concern, we would want expert shooters to cull these deer to nearly eliminate all suffering before death. It is unclear to me if the sole use of expert shooters is what Bateson means to imply when he says that stalkers have such good accuracy.

    The majority of my information comes from this comprehensive report by Richard North:

    Additional information came from a draft by Patrick Bateson and Roger Harris:

  • Becky Hothersall

    I remember first hearing Patrick Bateson speak about deer hunting when I was an undergraduate at the University of Glasgow and he presented one of our annual Christmas guest lectures. At that time his findings on physiological responses were fairly recent and I remember being struck by his obvious passion for the subject and how it seemed to have been fuelled by his research, rather than vice versa. The responses so far to the reiteration of his viewpoint on, over a decade later, attest to the strength of feeling on both sides of the debate that ensued and that has not yet been resolved.

    Much of the controversy seems to arise from the interpretation of physiological data. Deer clearly undergo massive physiological changes following hunting with hounds but whether these changes denote stress that constitutes a serious welfare issue is less clear. Stress can be a difficult concept to define. It tends to have negative connotations and we usually think of it as something to be avoided. But stress as a scientific term encompasses any stimuli that cause the body to respond in order to maintain a relatively constant internal state. This can include the mundane (eg fluctuations in temperature) and even the pleasurable (eg excitement) as well as the unpleasant, and stress may only be a welfare issue if the body’s homeostatic mechanisms are unable to respond appropriately to return the system to normal. Even then, how do we define an appropriate time-frame? We might wish to say that a stressful experience is acceptable if it has no long-term consequences, but the sequalae of hunting are largely unknown. In farm animals, evidence is emerging that even fairly short-term stress can increase susceptibility to infection or disease – do we know whether deer might suffer similarly after being hunted? Maternal anxiety and stress during pregnancy can have both physiological and psychological effects on offspring in humans and stress in pregnancy can even alter the likelihood of having male or female offspring in some bird species. What might be the effects of the (winter) hunting season for hinds on the next generation?

    Another difficulty is that, as William Kornahens states, physiological responses tend not to be specific to welfare-compromising stress. To get at the subjective experiences of stress, welfare science has traditionally invited animals to ‘do the talking’ by providing them with choices and recording their responses. By offering two alternative environments, or by imposing a cost on attaining a reward or on avoiding something unpleasant, animals’ needs and preferences can be ascertained and used to inform husbandry practices. Recently, work at the University of Bristol has begun to compare physiological measures with animals’ choices. Determining which of the former change when animals have got what they ‘say’ they want is good progress in identifying objective measures of good and poor welfare.

    Professor Bateson argues that pain, suffering and distress are necessarily defined in terms of subjective human experience, but that we can use a combination of behavioural and physiological responses – such as are seen in humans in these states – to attribute subjective experiences like fear or stress to animals. Here too, progress is being made in exploring more directly the extent to which human and other species’ pain, hunger and other subjective states are comparable. This involves a range of techniques such as examining brain wave patterns or designing cognitive tasks that we know require the use of certain brain regions in equivalent human experiences. These bring us closer to knowing whether other species’ experiences can be thought of as ‘like’ ours. So far, there is little evidence that non-primate mammals are able to imagine their future. As Korhahens notes, this may indeed mean deer are not “capable of anticipating their deaths” but his suggestion that they may “believe they will escape” would also have to be dismissed. Not being able to worry about and ruminate on possible future dangers might confer a welfare benefit, but equally, a lack of understanding that a stressful experience will ever end might make that situation immeasurably more unpleasant.

    This last point is pertinent because it emphasises the need for caution when we only know part of the story, and the subjective experience of animals is a story with a lot of chapters still to unfold. I am lucky because I work with food animals: the sheer scale of the industry, and the ensuing ethical conundrums about how we treat animals, makes it defensible to spend time and money working on the fundamentals of behaviour and cognition. Hopefully the knowledge we gain in doing so will benefit not only these species and industries but eventually wild species like deer. In the meantime opinions must continue to be formed, and legislation laid down, on the basis of the existing evidence – even if it is only one chapter in the book.

  • Carrie Packwood Freeman

    I agree with Joel’s posting that the issue here is mainly ethical not scientific. But I was interested to see how scientific inquiry can be used to aid the evidence provided in the ethical decision-making process, but it is not a value neutral process, clearly. I think our aim in these discussions should be about increasing the respect we have for our fellow animals and re-considering our place in the natural world. In a broad sense, if we apply similar ethical principles in our treatment of other animals as we apply in our treatment of fellow human-animals, we can practice moral consistency. In this case, the ethical principle is to avoid causing unnecessary harm (or minimizing harm or only causing harm when it is justified b/c someone is blameworthy and may merit it).

    Humans causing harm to the deer seems largely unnecessary. Where populations are larger than can be sustained by their habitat, there should be forest/land management practices that restore ecological order and balance with natural predators (preferably nonhuman) and allow them adequate living space. We also need to examine the human populations from an ecological standpoint as far as how we are part of the problem for “wildlife.” If we don’t advocate culling of overpopulated and ecologically-damaging humans (and I don’t), then why should we apply these kind of fatal solutions to other animals whose existence may cause a problem.

    I know that human ethical principles may vary from the ethical principles that guide other social animals, and more broadly the ethical principle of moderation that often guides natural systems, and that we can’t expect other animals to put human’s ethical principles into practice in the “wild,” but OUR principles should guide how WE humans treat everyone — each other and our fellow animals. It could be simple if we started exhibiting moral consistency. … ethically it could be somewhat simple, but practically I realize it would call for major behavioral and institutional changes from humanity (not just in hunting but with our excessive and widespread practice of eating other animals in cases where life-sustaining, plant-based foods are available). If we just tried to avoid causing unnecessary harm and live more moderately (and less excessively) then that would go a long way to solving many of the world’s most pressing social and environmental issues.

  • Christine Nicol

    Is it, as Joel Marks remarks, bizarre to consider the science and ethics of hunting small numbers of deer, when billions of animals used for food production suffer brief and miserable lives? A forum on farm animal welfare would be eminently feasible, as it is certainly not a topic in danger of being ignored, and concrete polices are being developed at an accelerating rate. Millions of laying hens will benefit from bans on conventional battery cages being introduced in Europe from 2012, in California from 2015 and, I predict, in other countries soon after. At the other end of the scale, we could debate the ban on jump (hurdle/steeplechase) racing announced this week in South Australia, following the deaths of (just) 20 horses in two years. Each raises its own scientific and ethical questions, affects different numbers of animals, and shines light on humans’ wider relationships with other species. But it seems to me that deer hunting provides fodder for a debate as good as any other.

    In the forum so far, the scientific and ethical parts of the discussion seem a little tangled. The question of whether it is better to hunt deer with dogs or to stalk them with expert snipers is not simply scientific. To consider it fully we need an ethical framework, perhaps a set of (utilitarian) kitchen scales. Points in favour of hunting with dogs add lead weights to one pan, while points in favour of stalking add lead lead weights to the other. The evidence provided by Professor Bateson has brought us closer to agreeing the size of the weight representing stress experienced by the deer. Importantly, we see it should be heavier than we had previously guessed. We have not reached a full consensus, because some have argued that stress hormones measure only the arousal provoked by an experience, and not its valence (whether it is experienced as positive or negative). But valence is easy to detect in this situation – the deer do everything possible to avoid the hunters on this and future occasions. Unlike pleasurable stressful events (such a mating) they do not seek out future encounters. We also lack consensus on the longer-term effects on the deer that survive, as these were not directly studied. However, studies of traumatic hunting methods on other wild animal populations suggest profound, long-term increases in fearfulness, with animals entering a hyper-vigilant state where they allocate less time to feeding and social care for prolonged periods of time. These effects cannot be detected by casual observations of a seeming return to ‘normal’ feeding patterns. My instinct is that likely long-term effects would further increase the size of the lead weight representing deer stress.

    It is even more challenging to agree on the weights that could represent other pertinent arguments, as there are no data to help us gauge the amount of short-term pleasure or long-term health benefits that people obtain from upholding traditional countryside pursuits, or from cantering through English woodland. Conversely, what do we know about the anguish of those people who empathise most strongly with the deer? Science might be able to contribute to obtaining such relevant information for this, and other, ethical debates but this is rarely mentioned.

    None of us can access the subjective experience of the deer, but the physiological profiles of hunted animals presented by Professor Bateson, together with the efforts made by the deer to avoid future encounters, suggest this experience is profoundly negative. Ultimately, there is doubt, but the benefit of that doubt must be given to the deer, because the consequences of being wrong are so profound. And the suffering of the deer cannot be discounted because they are deer. Their behavioural and cognitive differences may mean that they suffer from different things, or at different thresholds, from us, but they can suffer. And just as pound of feathers is not lighter than a pound of lead (as I, as a small girl, once tried to argue), so a pound of deer suffering requires the same consideration as a pound of human suffering. Professor Bateson’s work has tipped a finely-balanced argument in favour of the deer.

  • Sir Patrick Bateson is to be commended for presenting a model of clear and careful argument. I am going to pick up on one strand that might have gone unnoticed.

    Why contrast the manner of death of a deer hunted by dogs with one hunted by wolves? It suggests the cases are morally equivalent, and should be differentiated only by way of the amount of suffering they occasion. Sir Patrick claims that wolves inflict less suffering: ‘The ancestral habitat of red deer is woodland and, in such habitats, wolves do not chase them for long distances. Instead wolves rely on stealth, short bursts of speed and ambushing to catch the deer.’

    Even if correct, this is irrelevant. When a wolf kills a deer, it is doing nothing morally wrong – irrespective of the suffering it inflicts on the deer. If it inflicted more suffering than dogs, it would still be doing nothing morally wrong. We need to distinguish necessary from unnecessary suffering. The wolf does nothing wrong because (among other things) the suffering it inflicts is necessary for its survival.

    If humans inflict necessary suffering in this sense, that is not wrong. Most of the suffering we inflict, however, is not necessary. What is wrong is the inflicting, by a creature who understands the difference between necessary and unnecessary suffering, of unnecessary suffering. If deer need to be culled (I’m not sure this is true but accept it for the sake of argument), and if that can be done in two ways, one of which involves more suffering than the other, then, all things being equal, it is morally repugnant for us to choose the method that involves more suffering.

    Some people think of morality in terms of the elimination of suffering (conversely, increase of happiness). This is a utilitarian idea. I prefer to think of morality in terms of the elimination of activities that are morally wrong or questionable with ones that are neither of these.

    Therefore, I suggest we reintroduce the keystone predator species – the ones we eradicated because they were inconvenient. What they do is not wrong. Therefore, in re-introducing them we do nothing wrong. We thereby regulate deer numbers and, with suitable additional action on our part, facilitate the transition of the habitat back to ancestral form.

    Of course, it probably won’t happen – not in a sustained way. We humans will do pretty much anything to avoid being inconvenienced. It’s a story as old as we are. We won’t share, and because of our selfishness we find ourselves up to our ears in morally questionable activities.

  • Patrick Bateson

    I am grateful to those who responded to my old essay (even to those who found fault with it). Several distinct issues were entangled within it and I appreciate the efforts of those who struggled with the tangle.

    I fully accept Joel Marks’ point that the fate of a small number of deer seems utterly trivial compared with the massive mistreatment of sentient animals all around the world. The brief for my study was not, of course, to deal with the global matter. I was asked whether the hunting of red deer with hounds raised serious welfare issues. I shall return to the scientific side of the study shortly, but suffice to say that the ethical concerns raised by hunting with hounds do remain an interesting topic for discussion. Scale is not central. The murder of an individual is trivial compared with the civilian casualties of war. Nevertheless, no one is going to suggest that the wholesale inhumanity towards fellow humans implies that the police should not investigate a suspicious death. A quite different ethical problem is raised by the question of whether or not killing animal should be lumped with causing suffering to an animal. Those who generalize the concept of human rights to animals would claim that killing an animal is as bad as being cruel to it. I do not agree with them.

    I was disappointed by the hostile response of Joshua Lucas and his reliance on the opinions of Wise. Public reactions to my report were sharply divided and those who did not like the conclusions used every weapon they could find, not all to disparage the research but also to discredit me. One of Wise’s tactics was to produce alternative explanations to those that I had used. Anybody who has lived in an academic community will be familiar with the sleight of hand. “I can think of a different interpretation to yours, therefore you are wrong.” If a different explanation is produced for every line of evidence, as was the case with Wise, then not only is the logic wrong, but the whole critical stance is ramshackle.

    The study conducted by Elizabeth Bradshaw and myself was followed by another study commissioned by the pro-staghunting organizations and led by Roger Harris. In addition to repeating many of the physiological measurements that we had made and obtaining remarkably similar results, they measured the body temperature of the deer soon after they had been killed by the hunts. Some of the deer were hotter than the upper limit of the clinical thermometer (above 42°C). Deer are big-bodied animals poorly adapted for endurance running and they quickly over-heat. Those involved in both studies agreed that the hunted deer consumed their carbohydrate reserves in the chases by hounds and were forced to switch to a reliance on fats in order to power their muscles. Behaviourally the change is obvious when this happens. The tired deer do not hold their heads so high, they run more slowly and they have difficulty in jumping fences. Even my critics agreed that a welfare problem arose if hunting continued after this happened, but they argued that the deer was always caught and promptly killed when it was in this state. I was able to test this because we had a number of cases where the deer was observed in a tired state and we could calculate the time between the observation and subsequent death. The lapse in time was never immediate and could be more than two hours.

    As for Joseph Lucas’ image of the lucky, carefree deer that escape from a hunt, Lucas is obviously unfamiliar with the phenomenon of myopathy, well known in red deer, whereby an animal that has been severely stressed dies shortly afterwards. Nor is at a pretty thought that a deer exhausted by a chase having to recover on a cold winter’s night.

    William Kornahrens clearly missed the irony in my reference to Bambi when I contrasted those who wept in the Walt Disney film with those who love hunting with hounds. I was interested in the polarity of views that generated so much passion on both sides. Those who “know” what it is like to be a deer castigate the hunters. For my part, I subsequently felt the virulence of those who regard the red coats and the baying of hounds as part of an English tradition that should be protected at all costs.

    After the hostility of Lucas and Kornahrens, I was grateful to Becky Hotherstall for returning to the matter of animal welfare. In the 12 years since I wrote the essay under consideration the techniques of assessment of improved enormously. I continue to like a combination of approaches each of which invites a different subset of interpretations. The ambiguity when using one approach can then be greatly reduced by using another.

    Without serious natural predators, deer eventually suffer from starvation if they are not culled by humans. Mark Rowlands semi-humorously suggested that wolves ought to be reintroduced to do the job for us. Some people have seriously proposed this in Scotland but have been furiously opposed by the sheep farmers. In lieu of natural predators, the most effective way of killing a deer is to shoot it. I was unimpressed by most of the ways of assessing how much wounding from shooting occurred and, worse, by the bogus ways of combining unweighted averages. I tried various ways of improving on the assessments and they all seemed to suggest that the professional stalkers were good at their job and took very seriously their responsibility to ensure that deer were not allowed to escape with a wound.

    The method of killing a deer, however. is surely irrelevant to the broader ethical issue raised by hunting with hounds. Those who follow the hunts enjoy themselves. If it is known that the hunted animal is likely to suffer, is this practice morally different from the baiting of bulls or any other deliberate act of cruelty? I completely agree with Christine Nicol that science can and does play a role in the ethical stance taken by the public. In the case of hunting deer with hounds, some people argued that the deer enjoyed the experience. The deer were “playing” with the hounds. The evidence from the combined studies of behaviour, physiology and ecology argued against strongly against such a view. The ethical question is then clearly posed. Should a human cause suffering in a sentient animal because the process gives him or her pleasure?

  • I’ve enjoyed this discussion and appreciate the way folks here are using science to illuminate ethical issues. My views on the ethical treatment of animals have been greatly influenced by a paper I read years ago by Patrick Bateson about the science of pain in animals.

    I appreciate Mark Rowland’s perspective on this debate, but want to pick at one of his claims. If we restore predators and they do the killing of deer, then although we do not kill them directly, we are still in part responsible for their deaths.

    The larger issue I’d like to see this discussion address is the suggestion that we control deer populations (when they need to be controlled) by the use of contraceptives. This is a way of respecting individual deer who are living, preventing the suffering of and the need to kill future deer, and protecting the habitat as well.

    I would like to hear from the scientists about how feasible a solution to the problem this is and from the ethicists, whether or not they think this is the correct solution. I believe this suggestion will push the discussion toward environmentalists’ concerns about the integrity of natural systems–a topic I think needs to be brought into the discussion.

  • Lori Marino

    For centuries human thought has been influenced by a hierarchical view of nature that promotes the inferiority of nonhuman animals and sets humans categorically apart from them. This philosophy, known as scala naturae, was originally articulated by Aristotle in the third century BC and provided fodder for more recent Cartesian notions of separation between humans and other animals. For most of history the science of animal behavior and comparative psychology were encumbered by these archaic notions, employing language denying a mental life to members of other species and scientific protocols that leave little room for other animals to demonstrate complex capacities.

    But decades of scientific research has yet to reveal a single attribute of the human brain that sets it apart qualitatively from the rest of the animal kingdom. Moreover, there is an ongoing influx of findings on cognitive abilities in other animals showing that so-called uniquely human capacities are dimensional and distributed across many species. So all of the recent data converges on the fact that other animals are also sentient beings. This doesn’t mean we are all identical but rather – comparable. The problem is that we refuse to reject the old hierarchical notion and remain mired in obsolete arguments about the presence of emotional distress, suffering and awareness in members of other species.

    I appreciate the fact that Sir Patrick Bateson brings empirical study to bear on the issue at hand and also the importance of scientific data for guiding our interactions and treatment of other animals, including other humans. That is why, in light of what we now know about other animals, it seems somewhat nonsensical to continue the incessant argumentation over which particular physiological trait or mode of killing is better or worse. The fact is that if we accept what current evidence is telling us about the mental life of other animals we should not find any discussion of killing tolerable. I hope that we can adopt a more progressive view of other animals given that we now have abundant evidence for psychological continuity between humans and other animals. Such a philosophy requires abandonment of the ancient scala naturae philosophy that allows us to objectify other animals as biological units to be “managed” or “culled” in favor of the more scientifically-valid view of other animals as fellow beings who share an interest in the life they lead – even if that life is a bit different than ours. Honest acceptance of the current evidence would make it unthinkable to suggest killing them or interfering with their lives. The new evidence demands that we take a moral stance towards beings that happen to be of another species and, at the same time, provides the knowledge needed to maintain a respectful relationship with them on their terms.

  • A simple formula for thinking about moral issues is this:

    The Relevant Empirical / Scientific Facts
    Moral Principles
    What We Should Do.

    I would have liked to have heard more from advocates of hunting deer with dogs to better understand their assessment of the relevant facts and the relevant moral principles so we might better understand the argument for their view.

    Mr. Bateson reports that “Hunt supporters have believed sincerely that very little suffering is involved in hunting with hounds.” Sincere belief is not necessarily true belief or belief supported by strong evidence, so what is the evidence in favor of the pro-hunting perspective? Is the pro-hunting view that there is strong evidence that hunting causes few and/or minor harms to deer? Or is it the claim that there is not strong evidence that hunting harms deer, i.e., that cases like Bateson’s are weak?

    Mr. Kornahrens’s response might suggest the latter. His response, however, made me wonder what, on his view, would amount to strong evidence that deer are harmed by being hunted: what is his criterion for assessing such matters? What biological and behavioral evidence (scientific evidence) could show that deer are harmed or not harmed (a moral category)? This was not explained; perhaps he would?

    Mr. Kornahrens notes that it’s unlikely that deer anticipate their own deaths. This is a scientific claim, but is of moral interest — and supports deer hunting — only when combined with a principle like this: if a being does does not antipate his or her own death, then it’s permissible to kill that being. But surely this principle is false, and we see this clearly when we think about the many human beings who do not, and cannot, anticipate their own deaths. So why does Mr. Kornahrens discuss this aspect of deer psychology, since this seems to be an unsound argument for hunting.

    Mr. Bateson also reports that hunt supporters think of deer hunting as an “entirely natural process.” But do they think that all “natural processes” are morally right? While there are many definitions of “natural,” it’s hard to see how any of them mean or entail “morally right”: e.g., selfishness and violent responses are surely sometimes “natural,” but selfishness and violence are surely sometimes wrong. So this argument for hunting is also unsound since it relies on the false principle that if an action is “natural” then it is morally permissible.

    Finally, Mr. Bateson reports hunt supporters as arguing that, “Wolves chase deer, the argument runs, so deer should be adapted to being hunted by hounds,” and hunting deer is not wrong. Does this argument suggest that we should act like wolves? Or that if wolves, or animals in general, act a certain way, then it is morally OK for us to act that way? Again, that seems to be a generally false moral principle that if an animal acts in a certain way, then it morally permissible to act in that way also*. Counterexamples to this principle are easy to find.

    These are a few quick reactions to the discussion above: there is much interesting to comment on. Again, a careful case in favor of hunting, made on the basis a careful investigation and assessment of the scientific facts and a critical evaluation of moral principles for their plausibility, would surely be appreciated here.

  • William Kornahrens

    First of all, I would like to preface my response by stating that I did not intend to be “hostile” towards Professor Bateson, or any other person who believes similar views to his. On the contrary, I agree with his conclusion that hound hunting is less desirable than the other possible forms of hunting, particularly stalking. However, I am fundamentally opposed to the reasoning he provides using the evidence that he collected, mainly because his evidence alone cannot conclusively prove that deer suffer. I find it ironic that he states that his interpretation of his results is the only valid one because other interpretations are opposed to it.

    I am grateful to Nathan Nobis for focusing on the key issues of this debate. I’ve never really thought about what criteria I would use to evaluate whether a piece of biological/behavioral evidence would be enough to conclude suffering. I am left to conclude that, for myself, scientific evidence may not ever be enough to conclusively prove beyond doubt that the deer is suffering. An exception might be if we were able to somehow determine whether the biochemical activity in the deer’s brain is the same as when humans experience psychological stress that we generally consider as suffering. If we were able to isolate this experience to certain activities in the human brain and compare it to the brain activity of deer hunted by hounds, then we could say with some certainty that the deer is experiencing something close to what a human does when he or she suffers. In my view, the comparison of mental processes would be more sound since any physical process (with the exception of brain chemistry) can easily be refuted by saying “Deer wouldn’t feel pain like humans would if muscles were damaged, temperature was elevated, or cortisol levels increased.” And rightly so, for we cannot claim that a deer would feel pain because we do not have the experience of being a deer. And it is hard to argue that deer would experience everything exactly like humans, except if brain activity during these stimuli is the same. But even then, I think such evidence might not be conclusive since it assumes brain chemistry is the same across sentient species.

    As for discussing that deer do not anticipate their deaths, I did not make that comment to discuss whether or not hunting should be banned altogether. It was my understanding from Bateson’s entry that we were discussing whether hound hunting in particular should be banned given that there is a need to cull these deer and that there are other alternatives with the potential to avoid causing fear in deer due to being chased by hounds specifically. In this context, I made that comment to argue that there is no conclusive piece of evidence that deer are fearing for their lives as Bateson dramatically proposes.

    However, despite my reservations about the conclusions that Bateson has made, I believe that he has brought up sufficient cause for concern about whether deer are suffering. Since stalking by a professional sniper seems to be a quicker death for a deer, it seems reasonable to think that the amount of suffering would be lessened if not eliminated.

  • Sir Patrick Bateson argues with admirable clarity against the moral acceptability of hunting deer with hounds. It is, one might say, a matter of moral consistency:”Hunting with hounds can no longer be justified on welfare grounds,” he writes,”given the standards applied in other fields such as the transit and slaughter of farm animals, the use of animals in research and so forth.”

    Some there are who will find this mode of argument question-begging at best. If we should not be slaughtering farm animals or using other animals in research (if, that is, acting in these ways is morally wrong), then it is difficult to see how we can appeal to their treatment in these contexts as a satisfactory basis for determining the morality of interacting with them in other ways, including hunting deer with hounds. Granted, Sir Patrick was not asked to explore these matters in detail; granted as well there is no consensus on these matters at this point in time. That said, Sir Patrick glosses over issues one wishes he would have explored, at least to some extent, when he says he hopes “to find an acceptable space in which suffering [caused to animals] is kept to a minimum and humans maximize what they can get out of the use of the animals.” After all, whether humans should be trying to “maximize what [we] can get out of the use of animals” is not a question that can or should be ignored.

  • Adam Shriver

    I’ve really appreciated the thoughtful blending of science and ethics that has gone on in the discussion above. And, as someone who has utilitarian leanings (that is, I think that as Christine Nicol puts it, we should base our decisions on weighing the good vs. the bad consequences that will be produced), I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by the fact that most people seem to also be arguing from a roughly utilitarian perspective. I’ll start by making a few remarks that I hope are relevant to these utilitarian considerations, but then shift for the sake of discussion to a distinctly non-utilitarian objection that surprisingly has not been raised yet.

    There has been a lot of progress in recent years in understanding the neuroscience of pain and suffering. Interestingly, there are two distinct pain pathways in humans, a sensory pathway that accounts for our ability to localize and discriminate pain, and an affective pathway that determines how unpleasant we find the pain. This leads to the strange occurrence that in cases where the affective pain pathway is damaged or inhibited people will say that they feel pain but no longer find it unpleasant. Thus, there is a sense in which pain and suffering can be pulled apart.

    However, mammals all appear to have the same brain regions that underlie *both* the affective and the sensory dimensions of pain in humans, and thus I think there is strong reason to believe that at the very least most mammals suffer from pain in a way very similar to human beings. Furthermore, recent research has gotten much more precise about the particular types of neurotransmitters and receptors that are involved in pain and suffering, and I think this suggests that we likely will be able to find much more direct ways of measuring suffering from brain tissue in the future. For example, an elevated level of extracellular regulated kinases (ERKs) has been found in key brain regions associated with negative affect (such as the amygdala and the anterior cinglate cortex) in situations where animals have been exposed to noxious stimulation or have learned to avoid aversive stimuli. I don’t think we yet know enough about the brain chemistry to feel confident using such measures to test for suffering, but it looks like we are getting very close to a point where we may be able to have access to more direct measures of suffering than testing stress hormone levels.

    That being said, I find Sir Patrick Bateson’s interpretations of these high levels of stress hormones to be convincing. We know that increases in such hormones are correlated with terror, and I think Sir Patrick Bateson and Christine Nicol have put forward very strong reasons for doubting that the increase in these hormones is due to pleasure or exhilaration. If being hunted is at all an unpleasant experience (and I think everyone above has agreed that it is), then being pushed to the absolute physical limits of that experience for an extended period of time is very likely to be extremely aversive. Thus, even if the measure is not perfectly direct, it still provides a strong case for the idea that the deer are suffering greatly.

    So, it seems to me that the “negatives” side of the scale has a lot of weight on it; what about the “positives?” Not being from a hunting background, I can’t say that I understand
    what the pleasure is that people derive from it. I am particularity far removed from the type of hunting described here. However, I personally have a hard time seeing why such pleasure could not be replaced by some other equally pleasurable or challenging or natural or whatever type of experience. If such experiences can be replaced, why not replace them with something that does not cause large amounts of suffering? But even if such experiences couldn’t be replaced, it seems to me that suffering should be given far more weight in ethical considerations than enjoyment. That is, in general, I don’t think it’s justified to cause a great amount of suffering in one sentient being for the sake of great pleasure in a number of of others. So I don’t see the benefits in this case as being able to outweigh the costs.

    While we’re on the topic of utilitarian considerations, I think philosopher Gary Varner has had some interesting things to say about hunting. First, Varner has suggested the possibility that while sentience is sufficient for a certain kind of moral considerability (for example, sufficient for us to say that we should not cause unnecessary suffering), an awareness of the past or present might provide additional moral significance. In particular, humans’ awareness of the past and future along with corresponding future-oriented desires and life plans might support a claim that there is something wrong with painlessly killing a human being but not with painlessly killing an animal that lives “merely” in the present. Thus, if we think that deer live mostly in the present, this might support the view that relying on professional sharpshooters is a vastly preferable option.

    Finally, I wanted to mention an argument that I don’t agree with but which I thought would be motivating a lot of the opposition to Sir Patrick Bateson. Many people believe that human beings have certain rights that act as trump cards against utilitarian arguments. That is, if you have a right to not be treated a certain way, then no particular outcome of a cost/benefit analysis would provide moral justification for someone treating you that way. Quite a few people hold, for a variety of reasons, that human beings but not other creatures are endowed with such rights. And if you thought that humans have rights (such as the right to live one’s life with minimal interference from others) but deer do not have rights, then it seems like you could argue that all of this cost/benefit analysis is really irrelevant to the moral situation. On this line of reasoning, interfering with people’s right to hunt is an unfair intrusion into their personal business, and whether or not the deer suffers is largely irrelevant. I don’t find such an argument compelling, but I’d be interested to hear what Sir Patrick Bateson and others think about it.

  • Patrick Bateson

    This is my second response to the commentaries on my essay. I am grateful to Carrie Packwood Freeman, Ned Hettinger, Lori Marino, Nathan Nobis, Tom Regan and Adam Shriver for their remarks and pleased that they have very largely focused on the ethical issues. Ned Hettinger does, however, ask about the control of deer populations by means of contraception. This has been much discussed and, as far as I know, the issue still revolves round practicality. Can enough animals be given contraceptives to make a difference and when doses have been given successfully, can the deer be re-dosed on a regular basis? We are dealing with wild animals here and they are expert at hiding. People also worry about somebody shooting a dosed animal and eating it.

    Nathan Nobis wonders about the ethical position of those who support the hunting of deer with hounds. Apart from the reasons that I gave in my original essay, some of the supporters simply denied that they had anything to worry about. The more thoughtful ones placed high value on the maintenance of tradition and of the field-craft involved in the hunting process. They maintained that the practice generated a healthy herd of deer and many mentioned the economic benefits to the local community. If hunting involved any suffering to the deer, it paled into insignificance compared with all the perceived advantages of the human activity. Theirs was a form of utilitarian argument that recurs frequently in such debates as Adam Shriver notes. I didn’t encounter the type of argument that he mentioned at the end of his commentary, namely that humans have the right to do whatever they like to an animal and this right trumps all other considerations. I am sure that it exists in some cultures, but I am with him in finding it neither compelling nor attractive.

    I was delighted that Tom Regan joined in the discussion. He is one of the most articulate and thoughtful philosophers writing about the way humans treat animals. He rightly points out that in my essay I did not go into how humans might justify maximizing the benefit that we derive from animals. It is a matter that I have discussed at length elsewhere, however, because the need to do so is particularly great for somebody like myself who uses animals in research and yet has a great love for them. I wrote about these issues most recently in “Advances in the Study of Behaviour” Volume 35 (200Y5), pp 211-233. I do believe that a clear and strong ethical case can be made for research on animals, but how is that to be reconciled with what is done to the animals. Here I believe the argument is not utilitarian. It is more to do with resolving the seeming conflict between incompatible activities. Everybody would probably agree that if no suffering is involved then a scientific program should proceed if it can be justified on other grounds. Similarly most would agree that if the program is worthless and suffering is likely then it should not proceed. But what about the cases where the program is likely to generate real benefits for understanding and for medicine, but might cause some suffering? Some consensus might be achieved and this then leads to guidance being given to the scientist. All sorts of other issues come into play, like what animals are we talking about? How do we define sentience? Would as much weight be given to an earthworm as to a dog? And does not a human need sometimes trump an animal need? In the famous thought dilemma of the over-laden life boat, even Tom Regan would, I believe, throw overboard a dog in preference to his own child.

    The moral tensions are not easily resolved in the abstract since the position that a person adopts will be swayed by the choices they are offered. For instance, on academic appointment committees Candidate A may be preferred to Candidate B because his research is more extensive, Candidate B may be preferred to Candidate C because her work shows more promise, but Candidate C may perform most impressively at interview and be appointed by the committee, with seeming amnesia of what went before. The committee focuses unduly on the personality characteristics of the candidates because the vividness of their recent face-to-face experience dominates the context for making a decision. The human weakness can be met in part by ensuring that the different dimensions on which the final choice depends are made independently and only then are brought together for the overall decision.

    In his book “Man and the Natural World” Keith Thomas described how the moral concerns of those who had preached and pamphleteered against cruelty to animals had remained remarkably constant in England from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. He summarised their views as follows:

    “Man, it was said, was fully entitled to domesticate animals and to kill them for food and clothing. But he was not to tyrannize or to cause unnecessary suffering. Domestic animals should be allowed food and rest and their deaths should be as painless as possible. Wild animals could be killed if they were needed for food or thought to be harmful. But, although game could be shot and vermin hunted, it was wrong to kill for mere pleasure.”

    I felt that this expressed the views that many people, including myself, hold about hunting with hounds.

    Patrick Bateson

  • Gary Comstock

    Thank you, Professor Bateson, for provoking and guiding this important conversation. Dialog ends here, at least at this venue. We encourage interested readers to take it up anew in our Facebook group. To find us, log onto your Facebook account and proceed to: