Dominion over the animals

There were a number of years when we would gather with two or three other families and head to the Black Hills of South Dakota for a weekend. We stayed in a lodge with a huge rock fireplace in the living room. With walls of log in the midst of the forest, the only thing to break the silence was call of the elk during mating season and the laughter that emanated from the lodge itself, filled with people and young children.

One day I found myself in that living room sitting in a chair just apart from the large sofa that held three little girls. We were all facing the fireplace. I don’t recall if there might have been a fire in it. The structure itself was enough to leave us all enrapt. Part and parcel of the massive stone structure was the head of a wild creature which had been mounted there, probably many years before and, perhaps, even when the lodge was first built. It’s certainly not unusual to see such mounts in western living rooms where hunters display their trophies after carefully preserving the meat to serve at game meals throughout the year.

As the girls’ eyes met those of the creature hanging from the fireplace, they wondered what kind of animal it might be.

Without a thought, I assumed the voice of the animal.

“I’m an elk,” he said.

The girls didn’t even look over at me. They just decided to engage this talking elk in conversation.

“Mr. Elk, what’s your name?”

I wanted an “e” name to go with “elk,” but under pressure there was only one answer I could quickly produce.

“Eugene,” the elk replied.

“How do you like it up there, Eugene?” the girls continued.

“Pretty well. I have a good view from up here,” Eugene the Elk replied. “Sometimes people build big fires in the fireplace and don’t open the damper far enough. That’s why I’m a little black around my neck.” They did have to ask what a damper was, but I stepped into explain that.

“But how did you get up there?” They returned to their conversation with Eugene.

Now that was a good question.

Eugene began to spin a tale.

“Well, I was running down the hill and I got to running so fast that I couldn’t stop and I just came right through the chimney. I’ve been here ever since.”

The girls pondered that one for awhile. And I thought, well, it’s better than telling them he’d been shot, gutted, and put up there as a trophy. At least it was a better story for little girls.

They were intrigued. The conversation continued for several minutes and I felt like I was in the middle of a children’s book. As I recall, the girls eventually stopped their chattering and dozed off. But later, after they awakened, they were quite happy to tell everyone else around about Eugene who was an elk and how he came to be there. Now as adults, at least two of those girls have told me they remember that conversation with Eugene and how they really believed the elk was talking with them. Ah, the imaginations of children. I like to go there.

The fact is that seeing the elk head hanging on that fireplace didn’t bother me. I didn’t have to inquire about its history. I knew that it was a rule of the West to never kill a big game animal without making use of its meat. No, it hasn’t always been that way. There are plenty of instances in recorded history when the white man slaughtered buffalo for the sheer sport of it, leaving the carcasses to rot and the Indians to mourn the loss of not only food supply but hides for warmth.

I’ve heard of big game hunters in the West who shoot for sport. I have always assumed, with few exceptions, they have honored the code to preserve the meat before hauling the carefully cleaned carcass off to the taxidermist. On one of our trips through western Wyoming, we came upon a museum of sorts that held a lot of big game trophies mounted to the walls. We toured because the AAA guidebook recommended it, but it wasn’t something that held my attention. And we smiled as we descended a staircase and saw a hand-scrawled sign that said, “If you don’t like what you’re seeing, then you don’t know what you’re looking at.”

Some years later we were in Paris and at the mercy of our travel guides who were arranging for lavish dinners in wonderful Parisian locales. Now, to their credit, I do recall that there was a bit of a warning on the itinerary that one of the evening meals would be held in a location with trophy mounted animals. I didn’t think a thing about it. Certainly it was nothing I hadn’t seen before.

But it was. It was sickening. I didn’t like what I was seeing and I knew for certain what I was “looking at.” Our guide through the private men’s club for the evening took us from room to room pointing out this exotic animal and that, none of which had been harvested for the food. These were simply big game hunters. Men with lots of money and outfitted with high-powered long-range hunting rifles, and, in fewer cases, bows and arrows. Preserving the meat of the animal they killed was not a priority or even a thought. What was important was bringing those perfectly preserved carcasses back to their club to display how well their testosterone had kicked in. These were beautiful animals which had been snatched from their habitat after being killed by human predators.

I couldn’t eat. My conscience wouldn’t allow it. We quietly slipped out to the street hoping to get a cab but discovered that cabbies in Paris won’t stop unless a phone call has been made for an appointment. We had to wait for several hours before the group was through eating and drinking (lots of drinking) and tired enough to call it a night.

I am not naïve. I know these kinds of collections exist the world over, including in these United States. Some are composed of animals who have died a natural death and whose bodies have been preserved. Most are not.

Cecil, Zimbabwe's protected lion (Internet photo)

Cecil, Zimbabwe’s protected lion (Internet photo)

I tell this story, of course, because of the news this week of a Minnesota dentist who allegedly bagged in Zimbabwe a beloved lion named Cecil. There are various iterations of the story, but the fact remains that Cecil was a protected animal who lived in a preserve. He was wearing a tracking collar. This same dentist pled guilty in 2008 to lying about where he shot and killed a black bear in Wisconsin. At that time he paid a $3,000 fine and was put on a year’s probation. With the high cost of hunting equipment and considering he could afford a safari in Africa, $3,000 must not have meant much to him.

I am no shrinking violet when it comes to killing animals for food and then preserving the unused remains for mounts. I understand that hunting seasons on various species of animals exist for the purpose of not just sport, but of controlling populations and diseases that can arise among them. Hunting is an important sport. It has its place in God’s charge to humans to care for the animals, both wild and domestic.

Dominion over the animals as cited in Genesis means we are to take care of them. Hunting for sport without regard to the law, to the food source, and whether an animal is a food source at all for anyone other than other non-human prey is another subject entirely. It’s an abuse of what God intends. It is simply heartless.


God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. – Genesis 1:28-31

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