Of all the horrors mankind visits on the animals of this fair planet, none causes such anguish to the animal welfare activist's bosom as the practice known as "canned hunting." This leads to some perplexity due to the fact that there is little consensus as to what exactly constitutes "canned hunting."
The term "canned hunting" was coined in 1997 by a BBC current affairs program, "The Cook Report," during an expose of a sleazy operation by one Sandy McDonald who bamboozled a wealthy client to "hunt" a drugged lion. McDonald was caught, fatally for his business, bragging on air that this was standard operating procedure for his outfit and that they've pulled off this despicable stunt on many a different occasion.
"The Cook Report"'s notion of "canned hunting" clearly involved the callous execution of tranquilized lions or at least lions hemmed into a claustrophobic space and lured by food into the hunter's sights. From that humble, narrow definition the term "canned lion" has inflated itself in the public mind as referring to all hunting of captive-bred lions and is spreading its stain to include the very breeding of these lions.
The South African Predator Association (SAPA) differentiates sharply between "canned hunting" and the hunting of captive-bred lions (ranch lions) according to a strict set of rules and specifications. SAPA works with an accreditation system for the game farms on which lions are hunted according to accepted norms and standards of the fair chase principle.
The description "canned hunting" has experienced a new growth spurt with the release of the shrill pseudo-documentary video "Blood Lions: Bred for the Bullet," which shoddily conflates "canned hunting" with the completely ethical hunting of captive-bred lions, also known as ranch lions. The reception of the video was electrified by a bolt of good luck in being released mere days after celebrity lion Cecil was killed by American dentist Walter Palmer. It touched off an avalanche of public support in which the true meaning of "canned hunting" became even more smudged.
The world over, animal activists are stoking their fury with their particular understanding of "canned hunting." Globally, in major urban centres, they are marching against "canned hunting," yet their concept of the practice has undoubtedly strayed from its original intent as coined by "The Cook Report."
Cued by "Blood Lions"' subtitle, "Bred for the Bullet," these welfare activists have much more in mind than the luring or drugging of domesticated lions in a curtailed hunting area. Their bottom-line understanding of the expression "canned hunting" involves any lion bred in captivity. In fact the extreme fringe of the movement surely has the hunting of any lion, wild or captive-bred, in mind when they scream during protests about "canned hunting," and in activist circles the radical very rapidly becomes mainstream.
Currently, in the activist mind, the word "canned" when conjoined with "hunting," refers exclusively to the hunting of lions. But the animal welfare extremist has a voracious appetite for a cause, and this desire won't be satiated with the demise of the ranch lion. So it is a sure bet that once they've conquered the captive-bred lion industry, they will cast a restless eye on which segment of the hunting industry to slap the dreaded appellation of "canned hunting." Canned-hunted buffalo, anyone? Canned-hunted sable antelope, roan antelope, cheetah..? Ultimately their ire will not be focused by the modifier "canned" anymore and their activism will be directed against hunting, just hunting.
If ever a burning straw man has been used to ignite a campaign it is the entire mal-appropriated concept of canned hunting. A few avaricious scoundrels apart, no-one is in favoured of "canned hunting." No lion breeder will defend it and very few are in fact guilty of the sort of "canned hunting" described by "The Cook Report."
There seems to be a huge disconnect between the definitions of "canned hunting" as espoused by the animal welfare activists and lion breeders in opposite corners of a ring in which the fighting is getting remarkably vicious. Tiny as it is, there is yet some common ground between these two differing factions. They all agree that "canned hunting" is the slaying of a drugged or overly-domesticated lion or a lion lured by food to the killing zone in a featureless, cramped enclosure. Certainly an organisation like SAPA, vilified in willy-nilly fashion by the Blood Lions activists, works very hard to give their lions a good life and an easy exit which still adheres to the best hunting practices.
Central to the controversy are the twin questions regarding the size of the hunting area and when a lion is wild enough to be hunted. The only credible solution to these vexing problems is a set of specifications to identify a righteously hunted lion. Currently, in hunting circles, a hunting area of 1,000 hectares is considered as the smallest patch of real estate on which a lion should be hunted. Fixing a release period, i.e. the length of time in which the lion should be left to its own devices in the hunting area before it is considered to be something other than a canned animal, is proving more contentious. Currently this period is regulated by the respective provinces and stretches from four days in the Northwest to 90 days in the Free State.
SAPA maintains that the breeding of lions in captivity has a crucial role in the preservation of everybody's most admired big cat. It would be an affront to posterity if this valuable resource is closed down by uninformed social activists chanting the catch-phrase "canned hunting," using it as a blunt instrument with which to bludgeon an entire industry to death.