Jim Derhaag is a big-game trophy hunter — and proud of it.
Scores of game animals are on display at his office in Shakopee: A stuffed Russian brown bear looms over his desk, a lion gazes out from tufts of savanna grass, a tawny leopard stands guard in the corner. There’s a Cape buffalo head on the wall, a hippopotamus skull on the floor and a giraffe mounted in the warehouse space out back.
“This is who I am,” says Derhaag, 64, a former race car driver whose Facebook photo shows him posing with an elephant tusk thrown over his shoulder. “Every one of these is a legally taken animal. It’s a three-dimensional picture that is a memory for me.”
Many big-game hunters have gone underground in the past week because of the international furor over the killing of a beloved lion in Zimbabwe by Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer. He’s become the target of vitriol on social media and his fellow hunters fear they too could draw death threats and protesters at their front doors.
But some hunters are stepping forward — not necessarily for Palmer, but to defend what they see as a legitimate sport that pours millions of dollars into poverty-stricken countries and can contribute to wildlife preservation.
“There’s so much misinformation,” said Gary Goltz, of Squaw Lake, Minn., who owns a safari business in Africa. “They think we’re a bunch of drunks with guns and we kill animals just to hang a head on the wall. … Hunters are conservationists first and foremost.”
Animal rights groups have seized on the killing of Cecil, the 13-year-old lion that was wearing a research collar when Palmer shot it with a bow and arrow. Palmer, his guide and a local landowner are facing poaching accusations in Zimbabwe, on the grounds that they lured the lion from a protected sanctuary. U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials also are investigating the case.
Once a celebrated pursuit
The uproar — which has sparked renewed calls to restrict the importation of game trophies and increase protections for wild animals — has cast a pall over a sport that was once celebrated and pursued by such American icons as Ernest Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt.
Goltz realizes that big-game hunting has fallen out of favor. He no longer shares photos of himself with big-game conquests outside of the hunting community, because so many people disapprove.
But he defends the safari business in Mozambique that he and his wife, JoDee, have spent more than a decade developing.
Their company, Gajogo Safarilands, has built schools, dug wells and installed dams. It works with the national park to protect endangered animals and employs a full-time staff of 44 game wardens to ward off poachers.
“Poaching is our biggest problem,” Goltz said. “You drive around and see these magnificent animals and see what poachers do — it makes your blood boil.”
On Goltz’s safaris, the meat is rarely wasted. After a hunt, animals are gutted in the bush and taken directly to a skinning facility where meat is saved for local residents, he said. Bones are taken to a place where vultures and hyenas can converge on them.
“We have never just cut the head off,” Goltz said, referring to allegations against Palmer and his team.
Trophy or subsistence?
Hunter Barry Babcock has never been to Africa. But the uproar over Cecil has made him feel “disgusted and sickened” — and conflicted.
“I know what it will mean on the Internet for the next week or so is a host of postings on what despicable beings hunters are,” he wrote on a Facebook post, “and I, for one, am sometimes at a loss as how to express my beliefs or justify them.”
Though he eats what he hunts, Babcock, who lives 20 minutes outside Bemidji, admits he relishes nabbing a buck with a big rack. He keeps the rack as a trophy and believes “the spirit and essence of the animal” is in its horns.
“We get a lot of flak for shooting these big bucks,” he said. “Are they trophy or subsistence?”
He doesn’t believe hunting poses a threat to wild animals. “The biggest threat to wildlife around the world isn’t hunting,” he said. “It’s the loss of habitat.”
Josh Dahlke, of Savage, agrees.
“Hunters would be the first ones to stop hunting a species if we didn’t believe it was sustainable,” said Dahlke, a hunter who works at Scout Look, a website and mobile app that provides weather information for outdoor enthusiasts. “The last thing we want to do is kill our own lifestyle by overhunting or doing anything detrimental to the species we value so much. It goes way far beyond the kill.”
The kill is part of the thrill, at least for Derhaag, who once drove Trans Am cars at 200 miles per hour for a living. Big-game hunts feed his “adrenaline-junkie” needs, said Derhaag, who’s been on 15 African safaris and hunted in Russia, New Zealand, Peru and Argentina. Trophies fill every room of his home and business.
Derhaag said he’s waiting to see how the investigation of Palmer turns out. In the meantime, he’s not going to apologize for his love of the hunt.
“In a society that has become overly politically correct, you have to be like Trump is now — not afraid to take a position and not back down.”