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Hunting and mental health

5/31/2006

The Washington Times reports that Earle D. Hightower, chairman of the 27-member Institute for Public Safety — a group concerned with issues such as traffic and air pollution in Rockville, Md. — recently sent out 600 cards to property owners in Garrett County stating that 40 percent of hunters are drug addicts, drunks or mentally unstable.

Mr. Hightower, 82, who says he is a former hunter and World War II veteran, was quoted as saying, "My personal opinion is that anybody who goes out and shoots helpless animals has a psychiatric problem."

These are the days of fact-checking. As a psychologist, I'd like to report back on my fact-checking.

Because I am an adjunct faculty member at a professional graduate school of psychology, I was able to conduct a search of the ProQuest Psychology search engine that indexes more than 400 journals in the fields of anthropology, psychology and psychiatry.

It found 258 articles that use the word "hunting." I checked them all. None report on any studies of hunting and mental illness.

I've spoken with the Research Department of the American Psychological Association. They agree that they are not aware of any studies to support Mr. Hightower's claim that hunters are prone to mental illness. In fact, the opposite seems true.

Many of the best-respected behavioral scientists of our times, including Sigmund Freud, William James, Carl Jung, Erich Fromm, Marie-Louise von Franz and Karl Menninger, have written that hunting is a natural, healthy part of human nature.

Hunting is a very basic instinct programmed into the master computer of our species for survival purposes that has been elevated by ethics to become a "sport," which enables us to express our basic biological identity, "The Id," guided social ethics, religious teachings and laws.

Erich Fromm, one of the most widely-respected behavioral scientists of the 20th century, summed up these opinions in his widely-acclaimed study of the causes and prevention of violence, "The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness":

In the act of hunting, a man becomes, however briefly, part of nature again. He returns to the natural state, becomes one with the animal, and is freed from the burden of his existential split: to be part of nature and to transcend it by virtue of his consciousness. In stalking the animal he and the animal become equals, even though man eventually shows his superiority by use of his weapons.

Fromm goes on to point out that the motivation of the modern ethical sport hunter is pleasure fused with compassion. He also states that this contrasts sharply with the motivation of the sadist, who might torture and kill pets or other small animals, which is revenge.

In short, hunting and pet torture, are as unalike as sexual intercourse in a loving relationship and rape.

"Predatory aggression," as Fromm calls hunting, is a positive form of aggression, like sport and play, the expression of which is good for mind, body and spirit.

Melvin Konner in his award-winning book "The Tangled Wing," based on a seven-year study of the biological origins of human behavior supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, the Emory University professor of psychiatry and anthropology states, "… There is little or no evidence, physiological or behavioral, to suggest that predatory aggression has much in common with intraspecies aggression."

This may help explain why hunters are among the most ardent conservationists. Non-hunting environmentalist groups often survive on crises, real or fabricated, which fuel fund-raising. Hunting groups put their money into habitat, resulting often in more results, not more hot air.

When University of Nebraska-Omaha criminologist Chris Eskridge compared hunting license sales with violent crime rates on a county-by-county basis throughout the United States, he found a significant inverse correlation: As hunting license sales go up, violent crime goes down.

Eskridge concluded that hunting serves as an outlet for stress and tension that otherwise could contribute to violent behavior.

Eskridge's research is consistent with other research that finds that owners of sporting firearms tend to learn shooting skills from parents and family, have fewer accidents, have lower rates of violence and use their firearms for sport shooting more often than protective owners.

Indeed, research suggests that, contrary to what some anti-gun and anti-hunting activists claim, when people enjoy more sport shooting it may contribute to more peace, social stability and conservation action in a community.

Award-winning Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck has probably reviewed more studies on the psychological makeup of weapons users than anyone else has.

His research finds that, "gun owners are not, as a group, psychologically abnormal, nor are they more racist, sexist, or pro-violent than non-owners are."

A study of high
school students in Rochester, New York
, by Lizotte and and Sheppard, found
that kids who owned and used legal guns (which means with parental
supervision), had lower rates of crime, drug use and delinquency than kids
who had no guns, or those who had acquired them illegally.

A number of studies find that as many as 65 percent to 75 percent of hunters are motivated to hunt each year because of psychological connections with nature that are unique to hunting. Hunting, they feel, helps relieve stress, which improves mental health.

There is a popular misconception that many hunters drink to excess and engage in reckless behavior. A recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey found that 82 percent of those surveyed believed that "a lot" of hunters broke hunting laws or practiced unsafe behavior, such as drinking to excess and firing guns recklessly.

The research that I have seen finds that less than 3 percent of all citations by game wardens involve intoxication and drug use, but that is beside the point.

The false negative image of hunters as reckless slobs is created by media bias that reports only on poachers and accidents, coupled with rumors purposefully spread by animal rights activists who openly admit they lie to stigmatize hunters.

Mr. Hightower is correct that a percentage of the population does suffer from mental illness. According to a recent study conducted by Robert Kessler of the Harvard Medical School, 26.4 percent of the US population suffers from anxiety disorders and depression. This is the highest rate in 14 countries that Kessler studied.

Generally speaking, anxiety disorders are most prevalent in crowded urban areas, where coincidentally hunting license sales are lower.

In contrast to Mr. Hightower, health professionals Eaton, Shostak and Konner (a psychiatrist), write in their outstanding health and fitness book, "The Paleolithic Prescription," that devaluing hunting traditions can weaken healthy social standards and even contribute to juvenile delinquency, which is a form of mental disease. They write:

Our ' hunting instinct' has gone awry in 'civilized' society, where the thrill of the chase and the kill are no longer part of our experience and there are no clear avenues of expression except, perhaps to our peril, in the streets and subways of today's urban jungles.

Apparently Mr. Hightower has admitted that he cannot substantiate his 40 percent statistic. He also might want to reconsider his claims about hunting safety.

Thanks to Hunter Education classes, which are now required in all 50 states, it is now statistically safer to be in the woods during hunting season than to drive to the woods. And, according to the National Safety Council, hunting is far safer than baseball, tennis, golf and even ping-pong.

Writing in Time magazine's Nov. 30, 1998, edition in a special feature story on school shootings and after extensive interviews with school psychologists and forensic experts, Lance Morrow concludes that "teachers and counselors report that kids who are taught to hunt responsibly are generally more mature and better-mannered — and saner — adolescents in the wilds of modern American culture."

Mr. Hightower is entitled to his opinions, but clearly they are not rooted in science. If he's looking for nut cases in the woods, he might be better off studying squirrels.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click here to purchase a copy.

To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.

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