When Cecil the lion was lured out of his sanctuary in Zimbabwe, a train of events started that ended in his beheading and an American trophy hunter going underground.

Dentist Walter J. Palmer's capped teeth smile may well be all over his promotional material, but the recent turn of events have left him with nothing to brag about, and his sparkling career may well be ruined. This incident, tragic though it is, provides an opportunity to bring up the debate about hunting. Why do we hunt? Is it a 'sport'? Is it necessary to protect the environment? Are there any alternatives?

As Ricky Gervais has noted, if hunting was a sport the animal would have a gun too. Hunting is an activity of stealth, cunning, and patience, not particularly skilful, and definitely not heroic. Hunters lurk in shadows, creep up on their prey, use decoys and lures. Many of them are incapable of making a clean shot, and leave animals to die a slow and painful death.

Trophy hunters like the dentist who pride themselves on their technique may use a bow and arrow to destroy the animal, a particularly cruel method which rarely kills outright. Watching these hunters - including more women than you would imagine - carefully hiding the animal's wounds and posing over the lifeless body is a sad and sorry sight. If the trophy was won in Africa, as the majority are, the chances are that a 'canned hunt' has produced the prize, using animals who are more trusting of humans and who have been lured, or even drugged, to make them easier to kill.

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New Zealand's relationship with the great outdoors and its reputation for beautiful alpine scenery means that many trophy hunting opportunities exist here too, and a number of companies host overseas visitors to come and kill large deer. The Department of Conservation supports hunting in general to safeguard our natural heritage but while DOC and hunters may dress it up in conservation-speak all they like, hunting, all hunting, is animal cruelty, plain and simple.

Statistics for NZ are hard to come by, but based on overseas data hundreds of thousands of hunted animals a year, including waterfowl in duck shooting season, are not killed outright but left to die a painful, lingering death in our forests and waterways.

Hunting destroys families, and disrupts nature's patterns. It causes fear and stress to the animals that compromise their immune systems, making it harder for them to thrive. The fact is that we do not need to kill animals to control populations. If we leave nature to her own devices things will tend to balance out. For example, natural predators help maintain a balance by killing the sickest and weakest individuals.

Where population control is necessary there are such methods as sterilisation programmes and the collection of newly laid eggs that have had success overseas could be tried.

A psychologist could have a field day with what underlies the motivation of hunters, especially trophy hunters: narcissism, arrested emotional development, suppressed anger, a desire for domination and greed to possess to name just a few. Lack of empathy also comes to mind, and while, ironically, some hunters speak of the sorrow they feel after they have taken down an animal, others have a heart that is too cold to mourn the heart they have caused to stop.

It is true that Nature is ruthless, but we can choose not to be. Animals value their own lives, and they don't want to die. Hunting, any form of hunting, is both unnecessary and cruel.

Sandra Kyle is a Waikato-based teacher and writer. She is a coordinator for Save Animals from Exploitation (SAFE).
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