‘Tro­phy’: Nu­anced look at moral­ity, pol­i­tics of big-game hunt­ing

Money, ex­ploita­tion of an­i­mals play sig­nif­i­cant roles


The doc­u­men­tary "Tro­phy" takes a mul­ti­fac­eted ap­proach to big-game hunt­ing, a con­tentious is­sue that many, on both sides of the de­bate, con­sider quite clear cut. It does so by pos­ing a ques­tion that may chal­lenge as­sump­tions: Can the com­mer­cial ex­ploita­tion of an­i­mals help — rather than harm — threat­ened species?

Co-di­rected by Shaul Sch­warz and Christina Clu­siau, the movie largely fo­cuses on two su­per­fi­cially sim­i­lar yet con­trast­ing fig­ures.

When we first meet Phillip Glass, a Texas hunter and sheep farmer, it is through a quintessen­tially all-Amer­i­can scene, as he takes his young son out on his first buck hunt. When we are in­tro­duced to South African rancher John Hume, he is lead­ing an ex­pe­di­tion to tran­quil­ize a rhi­noc­eros, and then saw off its horn.

These scenes, while per­haps sen­sa­tion­al­is­tic, set up the film's cen­tral quandary: Both men say they love an­i­mals, but their ac­tions — and their feel­ings — seem in con­flict with their words. "I love those lambs," Glass says, of his live­stock, "even the ones that are go­ing to be some­body's lamb chop this sum­mer for July Fourth. But that's what they're for."

Hume's po­si­tion may be more im­me­di­ately sym­pa­thetic. By cut­ting off the horns of the rhi­nos he raises, he is try­ing to make the an­i­mals less at­trac­tive to poach­ers.

A con­ser­va­tion­ist, Hume ex­plains that the num­ber of rhi­nos killed by poach­ers has sky­rock­eted, de­spite a South African ban on the sale of their horns, which some be­lieve to have mag­i­cal prop­er­ties. Le­gal­iz­ing the sale of rhino horn, in­clud­ing those that he har­vests non-lethally, could be the only way to save the an­i­mals from ex­tinc­tion, by fi­nanc­ing Hume's oper­a­tion — in essence, a sanc­tioned form of an­i­mal ex­ploita­tion.

Sta­tis­tics seem to fa­vor Hume's ar­gu­ment. On the other side of the de­bate, the lion pop­u­la­tion has in­creased over the past cen­tury, in part be­cause of ranches that breed the big cats in cap­tiv­ity — not as a sanc­tu­ary, but as a farm, pro­duc­ing game for hunters to kill. One rancher sums up his mixed feel­ings: "When you see (an­i­mals) and feed them ev­ery day," he says, on the verge of tears, "you get at­tached. But there comes a day when you have to let go." There's an­other para­dox: More li­ons mean more at­tacks on nearby vil­lagers' live­stock — and some­times on vil­lagers them­selves.

At first, the film seems to vil­ify hunt­ing, as Shaul and Clu­siau take us to the Sa­fari Club con­ven­tion, a Las Ve­gas show­case for wealthy hunters will­ing to shell out tens and even hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars for the op­por­tu­nity to go af­ter what are known as the "big five": buf­faloes, leop­ards, li­ons, ele­phants and rhi­nos. (Bag­ging a rhino in its na­tive habi­tat will set you back $350,000.)

Footage of hunters laugh­ing as they pose for pho­tos with their kill will prob­a­bly strike many view­ers as hor­ri­fy­ing. But, as the film­mak­ers make clear, there can be rea­sons to hunt, apart from sport. In ad­di­tion to con­trol­ling such dan­ger­ous preda­tors, the meat from a sin­gle ele­phant can feed an en­tire vil­lage — one whose pop­u­la­tion might have oth­er­wise gone hun­gry.

Late in the film, the di­rec­tors take us to a rally protest­ing the killing of Ce­cil, a beloved (and nearly tame) lion that had been an at­trac­tion at a park in Zim­babwe, and whose 2015 death be­came a ral­ly­ing cry for anti-hunt­ing ac­tivists. "We will shame these peo­ple," one pro­tester says, un­will­ing to en­ter­tain that there might be an­other side to the emo­tion­ally fraught story.

To its credit, "Tro­phy" nei­ther shames its sub­jects nor of­fers an easy so­lu­tion. Rather, it takes a rea­soned and thought-pro­vok­ing view — from many an­gles — of a prob­lem for which there is, as "Tro­phy" ar­gues, no quick or sim­ple fix.

Three stars. Un­rated. Con­tains strong lan­guage and graphic footage of an­i­mals be­ing killed. 108 min­utes.

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