The online reaction came fast and furious, with outrage and even threats of doxxing as the couple disappeared from social media amid the growing storm.
It was a familiar incident to those who remember the anger over the 2015 death of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe, which prompted similar international vitriol. Cecil was being tracked by University of Oxford researchers as part of a long-term study when Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer killed him.
Both photos stirred outrage among Canadians. But activists say that trophy hunting is something even more common here in Canada, where hunters regular seek out big game in the form of bears, elk and deer. In fact, Canada exports more animal trophies than South Africa. For years, animal rights activists have been working to restrict trophy hunting here. Hunters, meanwhile, say they do more than just hunt for trophies.
Sport hunters say they’re taking part in conservation efforts and that the only difference between them and sustenance hunters is that they get a keepsake. Much research has been done to determine whether hunting contributes to conservation, with mixed results depending on the country’s industry standards and the animal being hunted.
Mike Donovan, co-founder of Ban Trophy Hunting Ltd., said he doesn’t think Canada gets enough scrutiny.
About 6,000 trophy hunters come to Alberta alone each year, he said, adding that they are aided on hunts by guides and outfitters. While recent data to confirm that estimate was unavailable, a 2009 provincial report on the socioeconomic impact of hunting in Alberta found that of the 99,001 hunting licences identified in the province during 2008, seven per cent were from outside Canada, or more than 6,900.
The United States imports more trophies than any other country, accounting for close to three-quarters of import demand, according to 2016 data from The International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Organizations against trophy hunting have been working for decades to limit or ban it. But they’re not always joined by the general population, except when social media shines the spotlight on the practice.
After U.K. tabloid The Mirror ran the Edmonton couple’s photo, Darren and Carolyn Carter’s names spread around the world. Their Instagram account was shut down, and calls to their taxidermy business in Spruce Grove, Alta., went straight to voicemail.
On the Facebook account for their business, people called the couple “cowards,” “despicable,” and “nasty.” Animal rights organizations such as Ban Trophy Hunting Ltd. shared articles about the photo, renewing their call to ban the practice.
However, social media outrage doesn’t necessarily result in lasting change. A 2017 paper by Stefan Carpenter and David M. Konisky from Indiana University explored whether viral anger over Cecil the lion’s death had resulted in any meaningful progress for anti-trophy hunting efforts. They concluded the attention had resulted in only a “limited impact on the adoption of significant new policy.”
Rebecca Aldworth, the executive director of Humane Society International Canada, said a couple of high-profile photos and videos have resulted in change. For example, a video of a hunter killing a Canadian bear with a spear prompted a ban on spear-hunting in Alberta.
An oversight body called the Alberta Professional Outfitters Society (APOS) and the Alberta Conservation Association (ACA) are both important parts of the Alberta hunting industry, said Donovan.
Donovan said he takes issue with the claims that trophy hunters use the meat from their kills. He said he understands the practice of sustenance hunting, but said that not all trophy hunters keep the meat from their hunts.
Claude Juteau, who operates two outfitting companies in Saskatchewan, said around 75 per cent of his clients are trophy hunters, usually from Canada and the U.S. They mostly hunt whitetail deer and black bears. He said some of the hunters bring the meat back home, and if they don’t, he gives it to the owner of the land where the animal was killed.
Shane Crow, a member of the Blood Tribe First Nation who has been hunting and trapping all his life, said that though sport hunters are legally required to use the meat they kill, he said it’s often left for the outfitter to deal with.
“The outfitter is kind of stuck with it. So a lot of meat gets wasted,” he said, adding that it’s frustrating to see meat get wasted when the aim of his own hunting is to use as much as possible.
Todd Zimmerling, president and CEO of the Alberta Conservation Association, said he thinks the term “trophy hunting” is too widely used, when almost none of the hunting that happens in Canada meets his definition of the term.
That’s because in almost all cases, hunters are legally required to use the meat of the animal, whether they use it themselves or give it away, he said.
To Zimmerling, true trophy hunting would be hunting only for the antlers, head or other part of the animal — and he said that’s not what happens in Canada.
“It’s not a trophy hunting industry,” he said. “As long as the meat is not being wasted.”
Aldworth said regardless of whether the meat is used, she thinks the motivation is what makes it a trophy hunt.
“In the case of trophy hunters, the meat is a by-product,” she said.
She also took issue with the hunting industry’s claims that their practices contribute to conservation. She said companies and organizations have tried to “blur the lines,” but she believes most Canadians would prefer that conservation efforts not be funded by hunting.
Zimmerling said the economic benefits of hunting tourism also contribute to conservation efforts — each year, he said the association brings in around $8 million from hunting licenses alone, which goes directly to conservation efforts.
But despite these efforts, some animals are facing dwindling populations, prompting calls to ban hunting them.
British Columbia banned grizzly bear hunting in 2017, a move conservationists applauded, but that some First Nations took issue with. They retained the right to hunt for the bears, but as The Walrus reported, some Indigenous communities relied on the income from hunting tourism.
Though First Nations don’t abide by the same regulations when it comes to hunting and trapping, Crow said they tend to follow any bans related to dwindling population.
A 2012 report by the federal tourism commission recommended Canada capitalize more on interest from U.S. hunters, noting that visiting American hunters tend to spend more time in Canada than regular American tourists. It quoted the 2009 report, which found the 7 per cent of hunters in Alberta who came from outside Canada spent around $7 million in 2008 on direct hunting expenditures.
According to a 2017 survey by Insights West, many people in Canada are against trophy hunting. The survey, commissioned by Ban Trophy Hunting Ltd., saw 80 per cent of respondents say they would support a trophy hunting ban in their province. However, 68 per cent said they supported hunting for sustenance.
Aldworth said social media has provided another type of trophy for hunters: the chance to celebrate online by posting photos of themselves posing with their kills. And once the images are posted, she said Canadians “come face to face” with what trophy hunting looks like.
Zimmerling said he thinks there’s more outrage over animals perceived as “exotic” to North Americans, which is why photos of animals like Cecil and the lion killed by the Darren and Carolyn Carter go viral.
“They’re put on a much higher pedestal. The idea that a lion could be a pest isn’t something we usually consider,” he said. “It’s all perspective.”
Rosa Saba is a reporter/photographer with Star Calgary. Follow her on Twitter: @rosajsaba