What is a poacher? Historically, a poacher was from a low socio-economic class in Europe, where wealthy landowners were considered to own the animals that roamed their land. When a hungry peasant would occasionally kill an animal for food, that peasant was called a poacher. Poaching was a serious crime against a landowner.
The word "poach" comes from the Middle English word "pocchen," which literally means to enclose in a pouch, or to "bag" something. The idea is to hide what one has taken.
In this country during the Great Depression when game laws were not yet widely respected, many people poached because they felt the laws were unjust. In those days, a game warden might occasionally look the other way when he knew a family was hungry and had no other alternative.
Many hunters today are sympathetic with that motivation, but with so many government food programs and a variety of agencies that provide food, including venison donation programs, hunger is no excuse for poaching.
But poaching continues because poachers have a variety of other motivations. Some poachers kill for pride. Some poachers kill for certain body parts that have a value on the black market. Some do it because they disagree with hunting regulations. Some make poaching a game of outsmarting game wardens. Some poach purely for the pleasure of killing.
In the late 20th century environmental scientists began applying the word "poach" to the illegal harvest of plant species, so even the innocent picking of wildflowers could in some cases be considered poaching. When the definition is broadened, its application to game animals is weakened.
That may be why few people accept such a broad application of the word, and most still connect poaching primarily with game animals. Some mistakenly equate hunters with poachers, but poachers are not hunters. Here's why?
1. Poachers don't abide by laws that govern hunters. Hunting and conservation laws have a long and strong history. Hunters during the early 20th century created a wildlife conservation system that has no room for the idea of poaching. The system of enforcing game laws is respected by hunters, but not by poachers.
2. Poachers aren't self-limiting as hunters are. Hunters have limits, and they want limits. When a hunter attaches a tag to an animal, he is well aware of the limit and he accepts it. He recognizes that it's illicit to try to use that tag again. He has successfully made a harvest, and recognizes that to attempt to use that tag again is a selfish act. The poacher doesn't care that he's selfish.
3. The methods of poachers are unacceptable to hunters. Most hunting regulations are created at the state level, so state game agencies stipulate what methods of harvest are legal. Hunters accept those regulations and methods. Poachers do not. Poachers use weapons that are not legal for hunting, think nothing of taking animals outside the legal dates or hours stipulated for harvesting a species, and take animals that are illegal to hunt even threatened and endangered species for which there is no open season.
4. Poachers steal from hunters and from the population at large. In North America, wildlife is not owned by those who own the land it lives on. Nor is it owned by those licensed to hunt it. Until it is killed, it's owned by the people at large, and to kill an animal illegally is to steal from them. Properly licensed hunters are not stealing when they use the methods and weapons sanctioned for hunting, and hunt within the stipulated seasons and times.
5. As thieves, poachers operate in a covert way. This relates to the origin of the word "poach," to hide in a pouch. The actions of poachers don't bear the scrutiny of public view, so poachers must hide their kills and manipulate the facts and circumstances when they take an animal to a butcher or a taxidermist, or display it on the wall. No hunter needs to hide his kill, and hunters can be honest about the facts of the kill.
Hunters are a healthy and necessary part of wildlife conservation. Poachers are destructive to it. Poaching is not hunting, and poachers are not hunters any more than bank robbers are a bank's customers.
When the "Everyday Hunter" isn't hunting, he's thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell him exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him at EverydayHunter@gmail.com. This column and others can be accessed online at www.EverydayHunter.com.