T. rex in my sights: The ethics of hunting dinosaurs

Chances are only the comet that ended their reign killed more dinosaurs than the time-traveling safari guide Reginald Rivers, but that doesn’t mean the man is without principles. As Rivers explains to an animal rights activist in L. Sprague de Camp’s short story “Miocene Romance”:

“Believe it or not, I’m a wildlife conservationist, too. I spend my own hard-earned money on organizations that try to protect endangered species, of course of which the Earth has lost hundreds in the last century. But the beasts my clients hunt on these time safaris are all long extinct anyway. Ending the safaris wouldn’t bring any dinosaurs or mastodons back to life.”

And that’s the end of the discussion, at least as far as Rivers is concerned. Dinosaurs are already dead so hunting them shouldn’t pose the same moral dilemma as hunting elephants or black rhinos, both of which still have a fighting chance of living long into the future. But is Rivers being a little too dismissive of the complaint lodged against him? If it were possible, would it be ethical to hunt dinosaurs and other extinct creatures, or should they enjoy the same protected status as many of today’s endangered species?

Before I go any further, let me say I realize this is a silly debate. The likelihood of any human ever getting to hunt a dinosaur, let alone meet one, is about the same as space aliens landing in my backyard and declaring me Queen of the Universe. (It turns out these particular aliens are a little confused about human anatomy.) But it is a fun thought experiment and an issue that really hasn’t been explored in literature despite the many tales of humans hunting the “terrible lizards.”

The romance of the safari

As far as fiction on the subject, the great white hunter has been a central character in dinosaur stories almost since the beginning of the genre. The earliest example is Lord John Roxton from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. The book was written during the early days of the modern conservation movement, but Roxton showed no qualms about shooting any animal, living or extinct:

“This is a Bland’s .577 axite express,” said [Roxton]. “I got that big fellow with it.” He glanced up at the white rhinoceros. “Ten more yards, and he’d would have added me to HIS collection.”

Still, Roxton’s role in The Lost World is a relatively minor one. Later authors would elevate hunters to lead characters, creating a type of story that would become its own subgenre: the dinosaur hunt. Examples include de Camp’s Rivers of Time, David Drake’s Time Safari, David Gerrold’s Deathbeast, Robert Wells’ The Parasaurians, Evan Hunter’s Danger: Dinosaurs! and, most famously, Ray Bradbury’s short story “A Sound of Thunder.” There is even a popular video game series, Carnivores, for anyone who wants to live out their own dinosaur safari.

Hunting Triceratops in the video game Carnivores.

What is the appeal of stories about humans hunting dinosaurs? The lure is in the big game hunt itself, which has been romanticized as the ultimate test of civilized man against primitive nature. And the bigger the game, the more the romance, as author Bartle Bull explains in his history of the African safari, Safari: A Chronicle of Adventure:

When Europeans began to penetrate the interior of Africa in the early nineteenth century, animals were in such plenty that elephants foraged in herds of hundreds. At times antelope covered the savannah like a carpet. Lions were literally a pest. One might see 150 rhinoceros in a day. Dedicating a lifetime to foxes and pheasants, or at best to stag and boar, European sportsmen saw in giraffe and elephants the animals of paradise. To the European hunter, Africa was Eden.

Dinosaurs are the next logical step up from giraffe and elephants. They are the largest, most dangerous game, and therefore would be the most romantic to hunt. They also are conveniently extinct, giving modern writers politically correct prey to populate their otherwise unfashionable safari stories. Most people today get squeamish when seeing an elephant put down, but they don’t have the same reaction when the animal in question is a T. rex.

The nature of time

Perhaps audiences should feel just as sorry for the T. rex. Dinosaurs, by the very fact that they’re extinct, would qualify as the most endangered of endangered species, right? That might be true if we found a dinosaur living today in the middle of the Congo rainforest. (For the record, we won’t.) But in most cases if we want to go hunting dinosaurs, then we’re going to need to hop in a time machine and travel back to the Mesozoic Era, and that’s where the question of ethics grows complicated.

Interior art for “A Sound of Thunder,” published in Playboy in 1956. Image source.

The answer will depend on the nature of time itself. Can the past be changed? Or is it fixed, meaning nothing that time travelers do will alter the future? If it’s the former, then the dilemma goes beyond the implications for dinosaurs. Time-traveling hunters could put the very existence of the human race at risk. This is the situation explored by Bradbury in “A Sound of Thunder.” Stomp on the wrong mouse, the story’s safari guide tells a client, and the entire course of history is changed:

“So what?” Travis snorted quietly. “Well, what about the foxes that’ll need those mice to survive? For want of ten mice, a fox dies. For want of ten foxes a lion starves. For want of a lion, all manner of insects, vultures, infinite billions of life forms are thrown into chaos and destruction. Eventually it all boils down to this: fifty-nine million years later, a caveman, one of a dozen on the entire world, goes hunting wild boar or saber-toothed tiger for food. But you, friend, have stepped on all the tigers in that region. By stepping on one single mouse. So the caveman starves. And the caveman, please note, is not just any expendable man, no! He is an entire future nation. From his loins would have sprung ten sons. From their loins one hundred sons, and thus onward to a civilization. Destroy this one man, and you destroy a race, a people, an entire history of life.”

The risks are so great in Bradbury’s version of time one wonders why time travel to the past is allowed at all. That said, chances are the famous author got it wrong. The general consensus among scientists since Einstein is that the past is unchangeable. This is because the passage of time is something of an illusion. The past, present, and future are not really separate entities. They exist more or less as a single, self-consistent whole. We think of the past as set in stone and the future as hazy and unformed, but in reality every event that will ever happen has happened, so the actions of future time travelers in the past already are a part of history. Stomp on all the mice you want, you’re not going to change anything.

Besides laying waste our notion of free will, the concept of an unchangeable past gives credence to Rivers’ argument that it doesn’t really matter how many dinosaurs hunters kill  – we’re doing nothing that changes the fate of a species. Hunting dinosaurs is not comparable to present efforts to save black rhinos because we have no knowledge of the future, meaning we could still play a role in the survival of the rhino population. But we do know what ultimately happens to T. rexes, so affording them the same protected status as black rhinos would be pointless. T. rexes will live and die during roughly the same time frame we see in the fossil record, whether we hunt them or not.

TARDIS vs. reality

We can’t stop there. The answer to our question gets more complicated! Rivers’ argument was an easy one to make because he essentially has a magic time machine. Like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, the time machine Rivers uses is able to travel to any point in the past. That means he can spread out his hunts over enough time so that their ecological impact would be minimal. Say, for example, that Rivers’ policy is never to travel to a time within 100 years of a previous visit. As a result, Rivers could make 1,860,000 trips to the Mesozoic Era before running out of times to visit. Given the countless number of dinosaurs that lived throughout the era, Rivers’ safaris would barely count as a blip.

Dinosaurs and the TARDIS from the 2013 episode “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.”
Image source.

Unfortunately, time machines probably won’t work the way that Rivers’ machine does, if they work at all. Most time machines dreamed up by physicists won’t even be able to travel to the Age of Dinosaurs, given they can only take travelers back in time to the point of the machine’s creation. The one exception might be the creation or discovery of a wormhole that leads back to the Mesozoic. A wormhole is a tunnel through spacetime that theoretically could exist, although no evidence for wormholes has yet been found. The limitation of a wormhole is it could only connect us to one point in the Mesozoic, so we couldn’t pop in and out of different times throughout the era like Rivers does over the course of de Camp’s stories. This has profound implications for dinosaur hunters.

If we’re stuck with only single point of time we can access, then we could easily overhunt species in that time period to extinction. “Wait a minute! You’ve already pointed out we can’t change the fate of a species we already know is extinct.” True, but that ignores the fact that our knowledge of the prehistoric past is incomplete because the fossil record is an imperfect means of recording information. Only a tiny, tiny number of individual animals are preserved as fossils, with entire species likely leaving little to no fossil record at all.

That lack of information means we have no way of fully gauging our impact on a prehistoric environment, which leads to my next point: Any ethical hunter will tell you that one of the sport’s core principles is that future generations should be afforded the same hunting opportunities that today’s hunters enjoy. That’s why many hunters, like Rivers, are conservationists. It simply would not be sporting to hunt T. rexes to extinction because you are denying future hunters that same opportunity. Rivers may be able to shoot dinosaurs willy-nilly thanks to his magic time machine, where he can spread out any damage to the ecosystem over millions of years, but if we have a gateway to only a single period in prehistory, hunting would need to be strictly regulated to maintain animal populations for future generations of hunters. The concept is not so different from that of modern game preserves, although in this case the correct term would probably be “temporal preserves.”

Time travel is far-fetched to say the least, but what if we went the Jurassic Park route and cloned our dinosaurs? There are very good reasons to believe this is a dilemma we will never have to face, given that cloning a dinosaur is pretty much impossible. Plus I doubt that any company that went to the time and expense of bringing back a T. rex would simply sell off the hunting rights to the highest bidder. Michael Crichton had it right: businesses would maximize their profits by sticking those dinosaurs in a zoo and selling tickets.


This Lego set is probably as close as we’ll get to actually hunting dinosaurs. Image source.

One question I didn’t address here is whether we should be hunting animals to begin with. There are obviously some groups, such as PETA, that believe we should not. That debate is part of a much larger discussion that will need to be argued in other places. I also conveniently focused on dinosaurs and didn’t talk about prehistoric animals that may have went extinct because of human hunting, like mammoths. If we could bring mammoths back, should we be allowed to hunt them? The ethical questions there cut a little deeper and probably will need to be considered in a separate essay.

Now it’s time to lay my cards on the table: What are my thoughts about hunting dinosaurs? If we were somehow able to invent a time machine, I would rather see the animals studied than hunted. That’s not to say there won’t be opportunities for limited hunts – to research dinosaur anatomy we’re going to need to kill a few of them. (If that shocks you, where do you think animal mounts in natural history museums come from? They’re not wax sculptures.) But for the most part, dinosaurs would simply be of too much scientific value to end up as trophies on some rich hunter’s wall.

It’s not a dilemma that keeps me up at night. As I have already stated, time travel to the past is almost certainly impossible, so I very much doubt any hunter will ever get to test his or her mettle by staring down a charging T. rex. Luckily we have talented writers who can dream of what that experience would be like.

Part Two: Gunning for dinosaur.

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