By Stephen Vincent
When animal rights advocate Chris Foster considered joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints eight years ago, he was anxious to learn the church”s stance on animal rights.
The missionaries explained to Foster that animals were God”s creatures and should be treated with respect.
After Foster”s baptism, he said he found that the missionaries were correct about the church”s doctrinal teachings on animal rights.
But Foster said he was also disappointed that LDS culture didn”t reflect those teachings, particularly when it comes to deer hunting.
The ethics of hunting has been an ongoing debate for quite some time. But Foster and other LDS animal rights advocates are trying to show that hunting is not harmonious with the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ — an attempt that has not been warmly received by the pro-hunting folks.
Deer hunting has been a popular event in Utah and is embedded in the culture. Schools and businesses in the state used to close on the day of the deer hunt.
KSL, the LDS church-owned TV station in Salt Lake, used to broadcast segments on its “Sportsbeat Sunday” show from the hunt camping of then BYU quarterback Ty Detmer.
LDS animal rights activists are puzzled by the cultural acceptance of hunting among Latter-Day Saints.
“Love for God”s creations is an essential part of charity,” said Foster, a part-time BYU philosophy professors and founder of Mormons For Animals.
Foster said compassion is at the center of his argument not to hunt.
“Deer value their lives like we value our lives,” Foster said. “To kill them is immoral.”
But Foster”s arguments have been unpersuasive among some Latter-day Saints.
“Loving to kill a deer and watch it suffer is wrong; killing a deer is not,” said Barrett Runyon, 23, a senior majoring in philosophy and sociology from Dallas, Texas. “These animal right groups are moving the argument from loving to kill is wrong to hunting is wrong.”
Runyon added that God”s purpose is not centered on animals.
“The purpose of God is to bring forth the immortality and eternal life of man — not animals,” Runyon said. “I”m not saying animals can”t have a purpose or can”t be exalted. But the focus of God is us.”
Foster said he cannot believe how many Latter-day Saints don”t value a deer”s life.
“I just feel like when you look in the eyes of an animal, you feel that something”s there, and it values its life,” Foster said.
Runyon, the president of BYU”s College Republicans and a member of the Utah County Republican executive committee, doesn”t disagree.
“You look at animal, and there”s something special about it,” Runyon said. “But you can look into a forest and see the trees and the bushes and be awed. But that doesn”t mean I shouldn”t eat plants.”
Foster said his belief that it is wrong to kill animals for sport or when other food sources are available is scripture-based.
“They (proponents of hunting) are going to say he (God) has given us animals to eat and wear,” Foster said. “But every time it says that in a scripture, a few verses later, it says not to do so unless it”s absolutely necessary.”
Foster points to Doctrine & Covenants 49:21: “And wo be unto the man who sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need.”
Runyon also used scriptures to back up his claim, including verse 18 of the same Doctrine & Covenants section Foster quoted: “And whoso forbiddeth to abstain from meats, that man should not eat the same, is not ordained of God.”
Runyon said the next verse says that man can use animals “in abundance” for food.
“In abundance. Bold it. Underline it. It”s the key word there,” Runyon said.
Runyon also reworded a famous scripture from 1st Nephi to make his point: “It is better that one deer should perish than a whole nation dwindle in starvation.”
Foster, however, believes that animals should be used as food when no other food source is available.
Foster said D&C 89 reads meat should only be eaten in times of winter or famine.
“In those days, animals were the only food available in winter,” Foster said.
Runyon refutes this by pointing to Nephi, the Book of Mormon prophet, who was hunting deer with a bow.
“Why did he bring a bow?” asks Runyon. “If there were deer there, the deer had to be eating plants. So why didn”t he just eat plants like the deer were?”
Foster also points to King Benjamin”s final sermon about being in the service of “our fellow beings.”
“I think he says ”fellow beings” on purpose — all God”s creations are beings,” Foster said. “Animals have their purpose in life and the right to fulfill it. I think it”s disrespectful to our fellow beings to kill them.”
Runyon said animals do not have rights, basing this idea, in part, on a quote he has by Damian Moskovitz: “Rights are derived from the capacity to reason, and thus people have rights and animals do not.”
Runyon said even if animals have rights, they do not accept other animals” rights.
“Have you ever seen two animals discuss how to treat other animals well?” Runyon said. “Have you ever seen a shark treat a dolphin with respect? No. Sharks eat dolphins, and they don”t ask dolphins if they can eat them nicely.”
Foster said because animals can”t reason is not an excuse to treat them poorly.
Foster said he looks at it as an issue between moral agent, someone who can make a moral judgment, and moral patient, a being who is the recipient of the moral agent”s behavior.
As moral agents, human beings must respect an animal”s moral rights, Foster said.
“An animal may not be able to read (a document like the Declaration of Independence), but it still has the right to its life and its pursuit of happiness,” Foster said.
Foster completed his argument by paraphrasing a quote by philosopher Jeremy Bentham: “Someday, we”ll figure out if they walk on two feet or four feet, the question is not can they reason, but can they suffer.”
Foster also looks to a paper by Sandra Bradford Packard, who compiled quotes by LDS religious leaders against hunting.
Packard quotes Elder George Q. Cannon as saying, “These birds and fish cannot speak, but they can suffer, and our God, who created them, knows their sufferings and will hold him who causes them to suffer unnecessarily to answer for it.”
Foster highlighted another quote from Packard”s paper, this one by President Joseph Fielding Smith: “They [the animals] also were commanded to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. It was intended that all creatures should be happy in their several elements. Therefore, to take the life of these creatures wantonly is a sin before the Lord.”
Foster also points that President Spencer W. Kimball, when he was president of the church, devoted a general conference address to the ills of hunting.
But Runyon also quotes an LDS general authority to claim that hunting is acceptable in Mormon theology.
Runyon points out a New Era article by Elder Dean L. Larsen printed in 1983, when Larsen served as one of the seven presidents of the Seventy.
In the article, Larsen discusses how he loved hunting as a boy.
“The deer hunt was an important event for the family, not only because of the meat that would go into our cold-storage locker, but also because it was an exciting adventure,” Larsen wrote.
Runyon said the article, published in a church magazine, shows hunting is not a no-no in the LDS church.
“If he”s hunting and holds a temple recommend and talks about in the New Era, it doesn”t mean you have to hunt,” Runyon said. “But it does mean you can be a temple recommend holder and hunt. Where does it ask in the temple recommend interview, ”Do you eat meat or hunt?” Where does it say in the missionary discussions, ”Don”t eat meat?””
But Runyon said he doesn”t want to misunderstood; he thinks animals play an important role in God”s plan.
“I don”t think animals are just there for our consumption,” Runyon said. “They are there for our respect and to help us remember the power of God.”
Besides religious considerations, the hunting debate also centers on whether hunters are needed to help control the deer population.
“There”s still deer populations that are growing,” said Jeff Andrus, 26, a senior, majoring in biology from St. George. “But there”s not enough habitat for them to expand because cities are growing. If we let them go, they”ll die of starvation and overrun other animal populations, such as elk.”
David Berg, the legislative director for the Utah Animal Rights Coalition, disagrees.
“Studies have shown animals under unnatural pressures, such as hunting, can increase or decrease litter size, depending on population size,” Berg said.
That, said Berg, means hunting can increase deer population and create a younger herd that are unaware of the dangers of traffic.
Runyon balks at the argument.
“If you have three deer, and one dies, you have two deer,” Runyon said. “Three minus one equal two.”
Berg also said herds are not starving and have “tools of nature” to guard against starvation; the deer do not need humans to survive.
“They”ve existed for thousands of years before humans came along,” Berg said. “There are people starving in the world, and I haven”t heard people advocate that we issue hunting licenses in those places to end starvation. But if you followed their (hunters”) logic, that”s what they”d advocate.”
Mark Hadley, a spokesman for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, believes that man is needed to regulate the deer population because of the way man has altered the deer”s habitat.
“Man has had an impact on deer population,” Hadley said. “We look at hunting as a way to control the populations.”
Hadley said the Division of Wildlife Resources biologists watch herds carefully.
After the buck hunt, the biologists will measure the effect on the deer population and make recommendations on how many does should be taken.
Hadley said the goal is to ensure that the number of deer do not exceed the habitat”s ability to take care of the population.