Philip Glass has been hunting wild animals since before he can even remember. It started with rabbits and squirrels, progressing to deer when he was 10, and now that he’s 46, he cannot begin to count how many animals he’s killed, let alone how many varieties.
“I’m a rancher in Texas, and predator hunting is part of my life,” he explains. “I shoot coyotes and deer to keep my sheep alive. But I’m also a trophy hunter. I’ve shot four out of the 'big five' in Africa: a lion, a leopard, a buffalo and an elephant. The only one I haven't shot is a rhino.”
His journey to killing a lion and elephant is documented in the BBC Four documentary Trophy: The Big Game Hunting Controversy. It is difficult viewing for animal lovers. Glass is seen shooting an elephant that lies on the ground moaning in pain and distress before it finally dies. And, a strong male lion is shot in its natural habitat. And Glass discusses the 20 trophies he has on his walls at home – the “coolest” of which, he says, is a giraffe.
“For most hunters, an animal head on the wall is a memory of a very special time in their lives,” he says. “It’s not just a dusty trophy – it’s a reverence. When I see my trophies, I remember the rush and thrill of each of those hunts. I thank God for those animals and those trips, where I got to travel the world and see them in their natural habitats.”
Nowadays, trophy hunting is often seen as brutally cruel and unnecessary. When Cecil the Lion was shot in 2015, there was widespread outrage. The lion was a known favourite at a national park, but was killed when he was outside the park's boundaries – which is legal. It was insinuated that he was lured off the park, but Zimbabwe dropped all charges against the hunter in question. It led to petitions where thousands called for justice for Cecil.
Glass says he accepts the viewpoint that killing wild animals for pleasure is upsetting and gratuitous. But he defends himself by pointing out that what he does is legal. He says trophy hunters are nothing like poachers, who illegally kill endangered animals to sell on their parts – such as ivory or rhino horns - and that licensed hunters pay a large fee to government-approved organisations that can go up to six figures.
“I’m completely anti-poaching,” says Glass. “It’s against the law and there’s no death more painful and long than an animal being hung in a poacher’s snare. I see myself as a conservationist.”
The idea that hunting can lead to conservation comes down to the fact that in some African countries, such as Zambia and Zimbabwe, half of the money from a hunt is meant to go to the community and conservation groups.
However, critics say that in Zimbabwe, less than 0.5% of the country's GDP comes from trophy hunting itself, and that the benefits often fail to reach ordinary Zimbabweans. Meanwhile, a 2009 report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature revealed that sport hunting in West Africa does not provide significant benefits to the surrounding communities.
Zoologist Craig Packer – who also features in the BBC Four documentary - disagrees with Glass’s justification for hunting. “To Glass, God put all the lions on Earth so it’s fine to shoot them. What he implies is there’s an inexhaustible supply of nature, but that’s really far from reality. There are only between 20-30,000 wild lions left in North Africa. There aren’t as many lions left to shoot anymore.”
He also points out that half of a hunting fee – typically between $25,000 and $50,000 – isn’t enough to protect animals from poachers and local communities. “The difficulty in conserving an animal like the lion that's so fierce and dangerous is that it’s very expensive," says Packer. "Yes, hunters pay money to go, and they may well in their heart believe that money is enough to make a difference. But it’s not. If they gave $1 million per hunt, and 100% of it went to conservation, then that would be closer to the amount that’s needed.”
Of course, the other major criticism of trophy hunting comes from animal rights groups. PETA says on its website: “Hunting is now nothing more than a violent form of recreation that the vast majority of hunters do not need for subsistence. Hunting has contributed to the extinction of animal species all over the world, including the Tasmanian tiger and the great auk.” The animal rights organisation also highlights the pain it can inflict on animals if they are hurt and not killed, as well as the negative effect on natural habitats and ecosystems.
Philip Glass says that he tries very hard to be ethical with killing, and to do his “due diligence”. He explains: “People think I jump on an airplane, get off, run out to the bush, and shoot a lion, but that’s not even close to the real process. I plan a year in advance. If I want to hunt a buffalo, I want to know if the management of the hunt I book has a good success rate, that they’re open about their permits, and that they’re straight-up and honest. I read books on anatomy so I know how to shoot an animal ethically, causing it minimum pain, and I go to a shooting school for dangerous game hunting.”
However, his efforts do not always pay off. In the documentary, the elephant he shoots looks like it is in pain and appears to be shrieking. Glass is uncomfortable about this and says he thinks it looks exaggerated on film, but accepts: “It is hard for people to watch. It’s upsetting to me, just the same as it is to you.”
His views on animals seem conflicted. He calls himself an animal lover, but also believes in killing them for sport.
“I live with animals. I feed them, care for them, and hunt them too, because I love them,” he says. “But though I love animals, I don’t believe they have any rights. I think that’s a modern myth that’s been created by people. At the very beginning of the Bible, when God mentions mankind, he gives men dominion over all animals. We’re in charge. But we’re also responsible. I take that seriously, and try to be ethical when I shoot.”
There is a moment caught on film when he shoots his first lion and cries. “I can’t apologise for that rush of emotion,” he says. “It was a mixture of pride and joy at achieving a dream I never felt I could have. The lion is something I never thought I could hunt. It was the most gorgeous lion – a single solitary male. I don’t feel guilty about shooting him, because I'm certain that if I hadn’t, he would have died being torn limb-to-limb by other lions.”
Glass says he is aware that many viewers of the documentary will not understand his views – that they will see him as cruel and delusional. He says he has already received huge amounts of abuse online, particularly on social media where he proudly poses with the animals he has shot – a leopard, an elephant, a baboon – but he doesn’t care.
“Most people won’t ever understand the heart of a true hunter,” says Glass. “[Critics] don’t have to like it, but I believe that what we do helps wildlife. I appreciate their heart for animals, but I want them to know I have the same heart. I just do things in a different way.”
BBC Four's Trophy: The Big Game Hunting Controversy is on iPlayer.