The Column: Cougar-killing official should listen to Torahs respect-for-life words

The gun-toting hunter grins ear to ear, his arm draped over a dead mountain lion nestled in the snow. It’s a trophy photo from a trophy hunt. The hunter killed the cat because, well, just because he could.

Last month the story broke that California Fish and Game Commission president Daniel Richards shot a 115-pound cougar on a January hunting trip to Idaho’s Flying B Ranch. That photo of him made the papers and got the commissioner in trouble.

Several politicians demanded Richards resign because of his insensitivity. Hunting cougars is illegal here, and he is, after all, supposed to be the state’s top defender of wildlife. Richards refused to step down, calling his critics “enviro-terrorists.”

Indeed, he broke no laws (though an ethics complaint against him was filed). After a few weeks the story slipped off the front pages. The owner of the Flying B said he would have shot the creature eventually. So what’s the big deal?

Here’s what you might have missed: All that winter’s day, Richards tracked the mountain lion over high cliffs and forbidding forests, as the animal desperately tried to shake his pursuers.

Finally, Richards’ dogs cornered the exhausted cougar, which sought refuge in a tree. Richards aimed and pulled the trigger, “harvesting” the big cat, to use hunter parlance.

Then it was time to smile for the camera. The next day, Richards dined on mountain lion cutlets. Good times.

Are you OK with this? I sure as hell am not. True, I’ve never hunted, so go ahead and call me a sissified city boy, but sport hunting sickens me.

I happen to be a vegetarian, but I’m not militant about it. I get that people need protein, and though I detest factory farming, I appreciate the organic beef industry and eco-kosher movement promoting healthier, cruelty-free meat. More power to them.

But hunting for sport, as in shooting a puma that simply made the mistake of wandering onto a private ranch? Utterly sinful. Nobody needs to eat mountain lion.

What does Judaism have to say on the subject? At first, I figured the Torah, composed at a time when hunting was universal and necessary, would pass no judgment. I was wrong.

The first hunters we meet in Genesis are the cruel tyrant Nimrod and the gruff Esau, brother of Jacob and loser of the battle between Isaac’s progeny. Both are portrayed unflatteringly, unlike those who tend flocks.

Leviticus spells out the rules for hunting and trapping, stressing that such activities are permitted only in pursuit of food. My take-away: Hunting for the pleasure of it, for the stuffing and mounting of it, displeases God.

In other texts, prohibitions against animal cruelty abound. Beasts of burden are granted certain rights we enjoy, such as rest on Shabbat. The Talmud says we must feed our animals before we feed ourselves. Clearly, Jews were the original people for the ethical treatment of animals.

Not that I would ever get anywhere with an anti-hunting campaign. A deeply entrenched tradition, sport hunting will never disappear. A dead deer on the roof of a car is as American as capital punishment.

There is one thing I crave about the hunting experience: the stillness and silence of the backcountry, far from the madding crowd. Stuck as I am in the city, I’m usually the maddest of the madding crowd.

But occasionally, the backcountry comes down from the Berkeley Hills. Once I spotted a doe and her fawn grazing on the lawns off Solano Ave. And when you take the time to watch them, squirrels, raccoons and opossums put on quite a show in suburbia.

Nothing will top what I saw last month on the Ohlone Greenway, in the heart of busy Albany. Walking my dog, I suddenly snapped to. Just ahead, a dozen wild turkeys, unperturbed by the speeding BART trains overhead, came loping along.

Joggers, stroller-pushing moms and cyclists all stopped, standing at silent attention as the flock passed by. It was the strangest parade: wild animals walking unafraid down our paved path, and we, the ones with supposed dominion over them, struck dumb with respect.

How much more respectful should we be when we trespass onto their high cliffs, their forbidding forests?

Daniel Richards, for shame.

Dan Pine can be reached at [email protected]

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.