What kind of person enjoys taking another living being’s life? It may seem improbable at first glance, but what if the same twisted psychology that drives a man to maim, stalk and—an agonizingly painful 40 hours later—shoot a lion to death might also drive a man to break into a house and plunge a knife into the people found inside? Such killers hide in plain sight. They are military officials and Boy Scout leaders. Gynecologists and dentists.
Serial killing and trophy hunting are terrifyingly similar. As wildlife researcher and author Gareth Patterson* points out, both types of killers often immerse themselves in violent imagery. Hunting magazines are designed to titillate hunters and help fuel violent fantasies of stalking and killing prey. They are full of pictures of hunters standing victoriously over animals they have slain, the obvious message: Kill something—or, rather, someone—and you, too, can achieve greatness.
Similarly, serial killers often draw inspiration from bondage pornography. Dennis Rader was obsessed with violent images of men dominating women, and he used them to fuel his fantasies of tying up and killing women. Eventually, fantasy made way for real life. The same has been true for other killers, like Ted Bundy.
Patterson notes that both types of killers enjoy the excitement of planning their kills and building anticipation while they stalk their eventual victims more than the actual act of killing. And how many times have you heard hunters say, “It’s more about the hunt than the kill”? They describe in detail their love of being outdoors, seeing their intended prey for the first time, tracking them down, cornering them and conquering them. Perhaps, like many serial killers, they’ve actually become addicted to the adrenalin rush they get from controlling their victims’ fates.
According to John Douglas, one of the FBI’s first criminal profilers, serial killers who take souvenirs from their victims do so to prolong their violent fantasies. Some take jewelry or locks of hair, while others take photographs or body parts. Trophy hunters proudly display their victims’ severed animal heads on their walls and share photos of themselves on social media grinning beside their corpses. Like serial killers, trophy hunters are compelled to prove their status as a person who has power over life and death. Between hunts, both value their souvenirs as a way to remember the power they once held over another living being.
Neither type of killer shows remorse for the killing but rather excuses the behavior as filling some sort of vague spiritual need. When selecting their victims, some hunters describe a “tremor” they feel when they see the “right” animal. They like to interpret this as nature’s way of telling them they are “supposed” to kill that particular being.
Some serial killers also believe they are instructed by a higher power to kill a particular person. Cannibal Richard Chase tried the doorknobs of strangers’ houses. If he found one locked, he took this as a sign that he was not welcome and would leave the occupant alone. An unlocked door, though, was an invitation—he was “meant” to kill the person inside.
Some hunters of animals “graduate” to killing people. Robert Hanson—an avid hunter with a living room full of mounted animal heads who was featured in a national hunting magazine—flew kidnapped women into the Alaskan wilderness, released them and then hunted them down. Why did he do this? Because hunting nonhuman species was no longer thrilling enough.
“[Killing people] is so much fun,” the Zodiac Killer said in one of his letters. “It’s even better than killing wild game in the forest because man is the most dangerous animal.”
Both types of killers could keep their fantasies as just that—fantasies. Trophy hunters could shoot photographs rather than high-powered crossbows. But both decide—enthusiastically—to take a life in order to fulfill their own selfish desires. They plan their killing sprees carefully, and then they kill and kill again, with no sign of stopping.
It’s time for us to call trophy hunting what it is: the pastime of psychopaths.
*Well known for his work with African lions, Gareth Patterson is an environmentalist, independent wildlife researcher, public speaker and author who has worked for more than 25 years for the increased protection of African wildlife. His current book, an autobiography, is My Lion’s Heart.