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Monday, February 25, 2008

Hunting for Votes

Gail Collins had her trenchant wit on full display in a weekend op-ed column, “A Bad Year to Be a Mallard,” in the New York Times. She aptly noted, “There is something about an election year that makes politicians start bragging about how many furry or feathered critters they’ve killed.” Other bloggers and journalists, like Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle, have weighed in on this “quadrennial psychosis.”

Huckabee_huntingOf course, it’s not uncommon to see presidential candidates trot out their hunting bona fides and brag about their prowess as sportsmen—and, by coincidence, it tends to happen in the days leading up to primaries and caucuses in rural states like Iowa and Wisconsin. It’s a wonder, though, that candidates still feel obligated to pander to the gun lobby. It may have been a sound strategy when the likes of Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, and Richard Nixon were stumping on the trail, but it should be a relic of campaigns past as the number of hunters has been on a steady decline since the 1970s.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there were 16.6 million hunters in 1975 and there are just 12.5 million today. While the adult U.S. population increased by 46 percent over the last two decades, the number of hunters dropped by 25 percent. During that same time period, the number of people who participate in observing, feeding, and photographing wildlife has climbed, now numbering 71 million.

Our relationship with animals is changing, and the numbers reflect that change. Hunters now represent 5.5 percent of Americans 16 years and older, while wildlife watchers outnumber them by almost six-to-one, making up 31 percent. Even in some of the biggest hunting states, which will hold their party primaries next week, wildlife watchers outnumber hunters by four-to-one in Texas and by seven-to-one in Ohio. Wildlife watchers also contribute more money than hunters to the economy.

While fewer Americans are hunting each year, more and more people are celebrating animals in numerous ways. Two-thirds of American households have pets, and spend $41 billion annually on pet care and products—more than they spend on movies, video games, and recorded music combined. There are more than 272 million annual visitors to national parks, where people go to see the beautiful mountains and valleys, but also to see the animals in their natural habitat. There are more than 143 million visitors to accredited zoos and aquariums, where people go to see the animals, too. 

Let’s hope that presidential candidates pay attention to these social trends, and show us that they are candidates of the future, not of the past. The day will come when presidential hopefuls won't try to appeal to voters by dressing up in camo and stalking creatures in the woods. They will show their compassion, instead, by visiting a local animal shelter, with the television cameras in tow, and adopting a dog or cat.

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