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Fall 1994, Volume 11.3



Cheryll Glotfelty

Hunting the Wild: Primitivists and Ecofeminists Up in Arms

Cheryll Flotfelty (Ph.D., Cornell University) is Assistant Professor of Literature and the Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno. She is co-founder and current president of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, and co-founder and associate editor of
ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment.


My first husband and I were married at the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Interpretive Center. When the wedding photographs were developed, we were astonished to discover that above our makeshift altar had been a nature display, labeled in big block letters "Predator and Prey."

The focus of this essay is hunting, an activity that propels thousands of Americans into the wilderness each year and that compels thousands of other unarmed wilderness users to run for cover until the hunting season comes to an end. The nuptial anecdote recounted above is meant to suggest that we use the word "hunting" metaphorically to refer to predatory behavior between the sexes, as well as literally to denote the act of stalking an animal with the intent to kill it. These two meanings of hunting often intertwine, so that, on the one hand, descriptions of an animal hunt are fraught with sexual language, and, on the other, accounts of male-female interactions draw from the lexicon of the pursuit of game. As we shall see, this double meaning of hunting inflects the debate about it, a debate in which both parties claim to value wildness even as they disagree on appropriate responses to the wild without and on seemly manifestations of the wild within.

If we turn now to literal hunting, that is, hunting to kill, we encounter two fundamental questions that are perennially asked of the activity: The first concerns motives—why do people hunt? The second concerns morals, namely, is hunting right or wrong? Reams of articles and even entire books have been written to ponder these questions, yet still the questions persist. Contemporary ecofeminist thought suggests two additional questions to consider: Is hunting a form of domination of nature? And, what role does gender play in both hunting and critiques of hunting? My purpose here is not to answer these questions once and for all, but to juxtapose two opposed camps in the debate, camps I'll refer to as the primitivists and the ecofeminists. Of the many positions on hunting, I have isolated these two for closer scrutiny because they are among the most vocal and because they have become polarized along gender lines.1 I must note that this paper does not consider the environmental impact of hunting; rather, it focuses on the psychological, philosophical, and symbolic dimensions of the activity. In order to convey the feel of each position, I will preface each by presenting two passages that epitomize that position.

Let us begin with the primitivists. The first passage comes from Jack London's The Call of the Wild (1903). The novel is about a dog named Buck, who, after having enjoyed a life of ease in sunny California, is sold to be used as a sled dog in Alaska, where he becomes ever more wild. In the end, he deserts mankind entirely to become leader of a wolf pack in the Northern wilderness. In the following passage in which Buck leads a dog pack in pursuit of a snowshoe hare, we see London expostulating on the instinct to hunt:

All that stirring of old instincts which at stated periods drives men out from the sounding cities to forest and plain to kill things by chemically propelled leaden pellets, the blood lust, the joy to kill—all this was Buck's, only it was infinitely more intimate. He was ranging at the head of the pack, running the wild thing down, the living meat, to kill with his own teeth and wash his muzzle to the eyes in warm blood. There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise…. This ecstasy,…came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time. (76-77)

The second passage representing primitivism appears in John G. Mitchell's, even-handed study of hunting in America, entitled simply The Hunt. Mitchell here quotes a neurologist from New York who loves to go big game hunting in Africa. The neurologist explains:

'There is a wild romanticism about Africa,'… Hunting, there, you are living with the moving finger of time. There is only the present. You see the tracks. You see the animal and it becomes a love object. There is tremendous sexuality in this. I mean sexuality in the sense of wanting something deeply, in the sense of eros… And as you close in on the animal, all the cold fat of your being is cut away. All the wheels are turning and greased. And as the animal moves into your sights, you are most thoroughly alive. (140-41)

Why do men hunt? Primitivists would answer that men hunt to escape from modern life, to feel the stirring and tap into the energy of primitive life. By hunting, one is participating in nature, not simply observing it. The hunter is immersed in the wild and is responding to the call of the wild within himself. Indeed, many hunters believe that the hunting instinct is hard-wired into us, that hunting is part of our nature. Aldo Leopold, for example, asserts that "the hunting fever is endemic in the race" (233) and that "the man who does not like to…hunt…is hardly normal. He is supercivilized, and I for one do not know how to deal with him" (227). Paul Shepard, author of The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game, argues that "Man is in part a carnivore: the male of the species is genetically programmed to pursue, attack, and kill for food. To the extent that men do not do so they are not fully human" (122-23). Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, in his classic book Meditations on Hunting, agrees that "hunting… is… a deep and permanent yearning in the human condition. It is as if we had poked a trigeminal nerve" (33). Ortega y Gasset concludes, "This is the reason men hunt. When you are fed up with the troublesome present, with being 'very twentieth century,' you take your gun, whistle for your dog, go out to the mountain, and, without further ado, give yourself the pleasure during a few hours or a few days of being 'Paleolithic'…. 'Natural' man is first 'prehistoric' man—the hunter" (134).

Is hunting right or wrong? Some primitivists are convinced that hunting is right because it is "natural." And not only right, but good. Others admit that the act of killing will always be ambivalent, that the hunter is never one hundred percent sure that what he does is right, and that facing that moral question is part of the experience. Ortega y Gasset confesses that "Every good hunter is uneasy in the depths of his conscience when faced with the death he is about to inflict on the enchanting animal. He does not have the final and firm conviction that his conduct is correct. But neither, it should be understood, is he certain of the opposite" (102). The thorny question of ethics aside, Ortega y Gasset, like others, naturalizes hunting, pointing out that

The cat hunts rats. The lion hunts antelopes. The sphex and other wasps hunt caterpillars and grubs. The spider hunts flies. The shark hunts smaller fish. The bird of prey hunts rabbits and doves. Thus, hunting goes on throughout almost all of the animal kingdom. There is hardly a class or phylum in which groups of hunting animals do not appear. (54)

Ortega y Gasset's insinuation is that, whether we call it right or wrong, hunting is the way of the world.

Is hunting a form of domination? Yes, most primitivists imply that it is, but they also believe that domination is natural, that hierarchy is manifest in the natural world, and that relationships based on power are a fact of life. Ortega y Gasset states unequivocally that "Hunting is irremediably an activity from above to below. Thus, without our seeking it, the universal fact of hunting reveals to us the inequality of level among the species—the zoological hierarchy" (56). He defines hunting as follows: "Hunting is what an animal does to take possession…of some other being that belongs to a species basically inferior to its own" (57). Even Aldo Leopold, saint to many deep ecologists for his biocentric vision, at the end of his essay "The Land Ethic," quotes a poem which reads, "Whether you will or not / You are a King, Tristram…." In other words, humanity is the dominant species of the planet, and we delude ourselves to deny it.

Finally, what role does gender play in the primitivist position on hunting? Most primitivists assume that women do not hunt. Many believe that there is a "natural" division of labor between the sexes. Some argue that the evolution of hunting one or two million years ago precipitated this division, which makes sense and is beneficial. In this immemorial arrangement, women bear and raise children and tend the home fires, while men venture out to hunt. Women are biologically and psychologically different from men, the theory goes, and they lack the instinct to kill. Paul Shepard explains:

For a million years under conditions of the hunt women livedand because of their biology still live—geographically more circumscribed lives than men. They have a poorer sense of large-scale spatial relationships and directions and are not good throwers or runners. They probably have superior social intelligence and inferior strategic cunning than men. These differences are genetically controlled and are part of the personality of all living women, taken as a group…. Even the psychological differences between men and women were shaped originally by the conditions of life in a hunting-gathering society. (119-20)

Shepard and others do acknowledge that there is a close connection between the hunt and love, between predation and copulation. Shepard explains that "The human hunter in the field is not merely a predator, because of hundreds of centuries of experience in treating the woman-prey with love, which he turns back into the hunt proper. The ecstatic consummation of this love is the killing itself" (173). Some primitivists hold that because hunters vent their predatory heat in the hunt, they are therefore disposed to treat women more gently than do men deprived of the opportunity to hunt.

Turning now to the ecofeminist position, I will begin by reprinting excerpts [with permission to author from Dustbooks, Poetry Northwest, and the poet] from a poem by Judith McCombs titled "The Man":

See, a small space in the woods,
green overgrown with green,
shadows trees brush entangled
At the edge of the clearing a man
a white man, middle-aged, aging
just his face stands out in the dimness
"dominion over every living thing"
a hunter's jacket, hunter's cap
He lifts the spear of his rifle barrel
with cold, hard, arthritic hands
16 years on the line, finally made foreman,
finally inspector, finally retired
The cold, square, aging jaws of the man
are barely flushed, a tingle of fear
or pleasure as he aims diagonally across the clearing
into the black furry mass of the bear
She sits on her haunches, back to a stump,
an ancient, massive, dog-nosed brute
pawing the dogs
who yap & skitter away
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
My mother does not understand
rears, paws, shakes her head & its wattles of fur
thinking she's won
Afterwards the body is hoisted
"a sack full of lard" on inaccurate scales
is hung, dressed, weighed on accurate scales
The skull (unshattered, unhurt) is found eligible
for Boone & Crockett official measuring
The head is stuffed & mounted
safe on the walls
where every evening he enters, approaches
fires recoils fires into the small stupid eyes
"the thrill of a lifetime" my mother
                                    ( Anderson 271-73)

The second passage representing ecofeminism appears in Susan Griffin's Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her. The piece is entitled "The Hunt." Throughout this piece, Griffin alternates back and forth between two narratives, each intended to comment on the other. Parentheses signal these narrative shifts.

She has captured his heart. She has overcome him. He cannot tear his eyes away. He is burning with passion. He cannot live without her. He pursues her. She makes him pursue her. The faster she runs, the stronger his desire. He will overtake her. He will make her his own. He will have her. (The boy chases the doe and her yearling for nearly two hours. She keeps running despite her wounds. He pursues her through pastures, over fences, groves of trees, crossing the road, up hills, volleys of rifle shots sounding, until perhaps twenty bullets are embedded in her body.) She has no mercy. She has dressed to excite his desire. She has no scruples. She has painted herself for him. She makes supple movements to entice him. She is without a soul. Beneath her painted face is flesh, are bones. She reveals only part of herself to him. She is wild. She flees whenever he approaches. She is teasing him. (Finally, she is defeated and falls and he sees that half of her head has been blown off, that one leg is gone, her abdomen split from her tail to her head, and her organs hang outside her body. Then four men encircle the fawn and harvest her too.) (103-04) 

Why do men hunt? According to ecofeminists, men hunt because they love to kill. As Mary Daly defines it, patriarchy is a necrophilic state (88). In this view, men are believed to have an insecure need to dominate both women and nature. Lacking the ability to bear children, men feel inadequate and afraid, so they exert their power over women by raping them, and over nature by killing animals. Thus, ecofeminists postulate that men kill because they are deficient in other skills. As Ursula LeGuin theorizes in an essay entitled "The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction":

The average pre-historic person could make a nice living [gathering nuts and fruits] in about a fifteen-hour work week.

Fifteen hours a week for subsistence leaves a lot of time for other things. So much time that maybe the restless ones who didn't have a baby around to enliven their life, or skill in making or cooking or singing, or very interesting thoughts to think, decided to slope off and hunt mammoths. (165)

Andrée Collard, in her book Rape of the Wild: Man's Violence against Animals and the Earth, concurs that hunters remind her of "irresponsible little boys driven to savagery out of boredom, a boredom so desperate that relief comes only from the thrill of hunting that culminates in the kill…. Hunting becomes the fix that enables the hunter to bear the humdrum of his unfeeling existence as a cog in the wheel of culture" (46).

In the ecofeminist view, is hunting right or wrong? That's easy: wrong, wrong, wrong. Animals have subjecthood and have a right to live. Ecofeminists do not deny that animals kill each other, but they claim that animals kill for different reasons than humans do. Their killing is instinctual and is necessary for their survival, whereas our killing is perverse: we do not need to hunt to live. Maybe at one time we did, and maybe certain cultures (like the Eskimo) still do, but in the ecofeminist view modern humanity no longer needs to hunt, and should not.

Do ecofeminists consider hunting to be a form of domination of nature? Absolutely. Domination, in fact, is the essence of the act. Hunting is power-over. Ecofeminists assert that domination of nature and domination of women are all part of the same oppressive system. Again I quote from Collard:

In patriarchy, nature, animals and woman are objectified, hunted, invaded, colonized, owned, consumed and forced to yield and to produce…. This violation of the integrity of wild, spontaneous Being is rape. It is motivated by a fear and rejection of Life and it allows the oppressor the illusion of control, of power, of being alive. As with women as a class, nature and animals have been kept in a state of inferiority and powerlessness in order to enable men as a class to believe and act upon their "natural" superiority/dominance. (2)

As should be evident by now, gender informs the ecofeminist critique of hunting at every level. As Aviva Cantor's essay in Ms. magazine argues, hunting is a training ground for the domination of women, teaching "callousness, cruelty, and insensitivity,… teach[ing] men not to feel anything when they kill or maim a living creature" (27). Joni Seager in her recent book Earth Follies writes that "Rape, especially gang rape, can strikingly resemble hunting: both feature the stalking of prey, the cruelty and thrill of the capture, the degradation of the victim, and the enjoyment of the victim's terror and defeat" (209). Seager notes that in our culture violence against women is often "animalized." She describes a photograph in an issue of the porno magazine Hustler; the photo is captioned "Beaver Hunters" and depicts a nude woman tied with ropes to the hood of a jeep in which two men dressed as hunters sit with rifles. The text under the photo reads, "These two hunters stuffed and mounted their trophy as soon as they got her home" (209-10). In short, as Seager says, "Hunting 'normalizes' male violence, and it is both women and animals who suffer" (210).2

After listening to the primitivist/ecofeminist debate on hunting, you may be feeling justifiably perplexed, for despite the fact that the primitivists are pro-hunting and the ecofeminists are anti-hunting, the two sides actually make many of the same assertions. We have witnessed the curious spectacle of a very heated debate in which both opponents are shouting the same thing. Consider the points that both sides make:

1. Men hunt.
2. Men love to kill.
3. Hunting is violent.
4. Predation occurs in nature.
5. Hunting is a form of domination.
6. Men hunt to escape modern life and return to the primitive.
7. A man's feelings for his prey are similar to his desire for a woman.
8. Women do not hunt.
9. Women bear children.
10. Women value the family, the community, and the arts.
11. Women cherish life.

When both parties in a debate make the same assertions yet disagree fervently, we have gridlock. Primitivists and ecofeminists on hunting describe the same world. Primitivists behold this world and proclaim that it is good; ecofeminists insist that it is evil. We have no resolution. The different valuation of the same activity may derive from the diametrically opposite points of view of predator and prey. Primitivists sight down the gun barrel; ecofeminists stare up into the loaded muzzle. What is ironic is that both primitivists and ecofeminists value wilderness and consider themselves its advocates. If such intractability exists between wilderness champions, what is the likelihood that we will ever achieve consensus about wilderness management among other groups, such as developers, urbanites, and ranchers? One can only hope that, while all the opponents face off, a rabbit will seize the moment to disappear into the chapparal.



I would like to thank Scott Slovic for his valuable comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

1 Because this paper focuses on the way that arguments about hunting become a forum for debate about gender issues, I do not discuss two important but gender-neutral positions on hunting, namely the views of subsistence hunters and of Native Americans, even though it is my opinion that these views contain the greatest wisdom about hunting. For thoughtful presentation of these positions, see Nelson (1989) and Snyder (1990).

2 Similar ecofeminist discussions of the connection between the killing of animals and the oppression of women can be found in the essays by Lori Bruen, Carol J. Adams, and Marti Kheel, collected in Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature, edited by Greta Gaard.



Cantor, Aviva. "The Club, the Yoke, and the Leash: What We Can Learn From the Way a Culture Treats Animals." Ms. 12.2 (August 1983): 27-30.

Collard, Andrée, with Joyce Contrucci. Rape of the Wild: Man's Violence against Animals and the Earth. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

Daly, Mary, and Jane Caputi. Webster's First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language. Boston: Beacon P, 1987.

Gaard, Greta, ed. Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1993.

Griffin, Susan. Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her. New York: Harper and Row, 1978.

LeGuin, Ursula. "The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction." Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. New York: Grove P, 1989. 165-70.

Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. 1966. New York: Ballantine, 1970.

London, Jack. The Call of the Wild. 1903. New York: Penguin, 1981.

McCombs, Judith. "The Man." Against Nature: Wilderness Poems. Paradise, CA: Dustbooks, 1979. In Sisters of the Earth: Women's Prose and Poetry About Nature. Ed. Lorraine Anderson. New York: Vintage, 1991. 271-73.

Mitchell, John G. The Hunt. New York: Knopf, 1980.

Nelson, Richard. The Island Within. San Francisco: North Point P, 1989.

Ortega y Gasset, José. Meditations on Hunting. Trans. Howard B. Wescott. New York: Scribner's, 1972.

Seager, Joni. Earth Follies: Coming to Feminist Terms with the Global Environmental Crisis. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Shepard, Paul. The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game. New York: Scribner's, 1973.

Snyder, Gary. The Practice of the Wild. San Francisco: North Point P, 1990.


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