It might seem the heading is backward – that first we hunt, and then we kill. That’s not true though for many of us, and in a certain sense it’s untrue for all of us. You see, all of us are killers – it comes with being alive. We may not all hunt, but if we allow ourselves to be part of this civilization, then we partake of the killing that runs through it. We can move off the grid as far as we like, we can rail against any part of it we dislike, but if we haven’t opted out completely, we’re still here, a part of it. We’ve willingly accepted a ride – a ride that ends the lives of many things in its path. We share the reality, the responsibility. If we’re here, there’s no valid claim to innocence.
We can acknowledge our participation though, and still ask a question. Yes, we kill, but why also hunt? Why avidly hunt and kill when it seems unnecessary?
Looking at a Michigan road map, the dots and lines almost merge and seem to cover much of the state, as if there is little space left. It appears that one town stops where another begins and all are connected through multiple roadways. However, when actually in your car and driving beyond the city limits, beyond the freeways, the extent of rural Michigan still surprises. Fifty years ago it was more so, but even today there’s mile after mile of sparse population. As we travel the two-lanes, the black tops, and gravel roads, farms and fields of all sizes are passed by. There are run-down abandoned shacks, newer modular houses on small lots, and older homes of a few acres or less. We see larger farms with nostalgic red barns and silos. Chickens and other poultry peck away in little enclosures or strut in yards between coops and sheds. Cows, horses, or other livestock serenely browse in pleasant fields or feed in dusty barnyards. These are the picturesque farms we like to see in paintings and photographs – the type of farm advertisers conjure when promoting healthy, old fashion products, or values. Occasionally we pass the newer, less bucolic farms of industrial proportions. Here, the red barns and silos are gone, replaced with long, efficient, factory looking buildings housing livestock or poultry. Huge tractors and strange, futuristic machines scribe the fields. A few long semi trailers sit idly in line, as if awaiting orders.
If our direction is north, the homes, the farms, the fields, become smaller and further between. Trees gradually replace fields, and it is still possible to drive for long stretches seeing no farms at all, or even houses. Cities may be less than an hour away, but already we seem to be in another time, another reality. It’s possible to feel we’ve entered a time warp, and that little has changed through the decades.
More than fifty years ago I grew up in the rural thumb of Michigan. It was on a partially wooded, ten acre tract of land, situated on a square mile of small homes and two larger farms that occupied half the area. The square also held a small gravel pit, an oil-soaked old junkyard, and was traversed by two meandering streams. One creek was tiny and sometimes dry. The second zigzagged through both farms and was large enough at one bend to form an adequate swimming hole. It was shared intermittently by kids and cattle. In those days, hygienic thoughts were of little import – everything flowed down stream and out of sight. A nearby wooded hillside always had a trickle of water percolating from its base, forming a bowl sized little pool. It was said to be a natural spring, and we had no qualms of drinking from it. The gravel pit was abandoned, worked only by locals for an occasional truckload of driveway material. For kids it was a place to be archeologists, digging for mastodons, and T-Rex skulls. We settled for fossilized corals and colorful sandstones. The junkyard was a forbidden and mysterious land – acres of rusty cars piled atop one another, visible above and between corrugated metal panels trying to hide it. From the safety of the woods beyond, we surveyed its bleak landscape. It always smelled of petroleum and potential danger.
Dad was not a subsistence farmer. Every morning he awoke and was gone before the rest of the house came alive. He drove twenty some miles into Flint each day, through all weather, to work in a factory for General Motors. He was a farmer at heart though, and our ten acres was large enough to hold pens and coops for rabbits, chickens, and ducks. There was still more room for fruit trees, grape vines, berries, and always, a large vegetable garden. We usually had at least one dog in the yard, as did most of the neighbors. When someone walked down the gravel road, it was possible to track their position through the progression of barking dogs in each yard. On summer nights, in bed with windows open, we could hear each car from a mile away as it made its muffled way down the dusty road. Much further away, from beyond the small town of Clio, the long lonely wail of a train would spark imaginations of the world beyond. On weekend nights, from about the same distance, came the muted sounds of stock car racing at the Dixie Speedway, near Birch Run. It was a rich and wonderful world, full of things for childhood thoughts and exploration.
This same or similar setting was, and still is, repeated all across rural Michigan. Big farms, small farms, and less than small farms are everywhere. They resemble perfect little worlds, places that could inspire a Norman Rockwell painting, or an Andy of Mayberry episode. In nearly all of these nostalgic places though, killing is a regular and normal activity.
It’s a provocative word. “Killing” comes with negative connotations – so much so that we often seek other words in its stead. Harvest, convert, process, dispatch, cull – whatever the word, it still means the same. Killing is what we do for food production. It’s what occurs on farms and what they are all about. The cattle in lush green fields, the orange hens wondering through the barnyard – they’re not just there for milk and eggs.
As you drive the countryside, you’ve probably seen the little signs that simply say “Fryers”, Eggs”, “Sweet Corn”, etc. One of those could often be found at the end of our driveway. The rabbits and poultry raised on our small farm were mostly for family consumption, but with the occasional sign at roadside, we sometimes sold to others. The preparation of small animals for food, while not a daily activity, was regular enough to be a part of childhood familiarity. One such memory stands out – not because the activity was unusual, but rather, for its historical context.
It was a Friday afternoon in late November. Someone knocked on the classroom door in our parochial school and the teacher briefly left the room. It was at first a welcomed break from routine, but upon return, he brought the unsettling and somber news that our president had been shot. In our young minds, the announcement hinted at tremors in a world we thought stable. Some silence followed, and then a prayer for the president and our country. On Saturday morning, while the larger world was attuned to the tragedy in Dallas, in our little corner, the news was already far away, in another dimension. We had chickens to deal with.
I can’t remember if they were for our own freezer, or for someone else, but we had about a dozen chickens to prepare and package. The number was large enough that the whole family would be involved (including our dogs). Methods might vary, and depend on the type of animal being prepared, but for us and for chickens, it went as follows.
We had a large chopping block – part of an old tree trunk about thirty inches in diameter. Two large nails protruded from the top, which were used to secure the chicken’s head. While holding the legs and wings with one hand, a sharp hatchet was wielded by the other to quickly chop through the neck, close to the head as possible. If killing just one or two, it was held securely while the chicken bled out and stopped quivering. When doing more, it was faster to chop and then toss the bodies to the grassy lawn, moving on to the next one. It was probably for less than a minute (it seemed longer) that the headless bodies would jump and flap around, sometimes even in grotesque summersaults. It wasn’t unusual to see more than one in this final dance of Saint Vitus, before stillness prevailed. The dogs would become agitated with the activity and anticipation, jumping and yelping around, creating an even more chaotic scene.
The remainder of the operation was more subdued, somewhat like a loosely organized assembly line. There was a tub or large pail of very hot, scalding water in which the chickens were dunked to loosen the feathers. They were pulled off as quickly as possible, and the bodies inspected for tiny, emerging “pin” feathers that were more troublesome and annoying to pull. Some had fine “hairs” that were removed by passing through a flame. The final steps involved removing the entrails and other parts of the chicken that most people were happy to discard. The giblets we kept, while “leftovers” became dog treats or chicken feed. Anything inedible was burned or buried. The last was a light job – feathers were about the only thing left that nothing would eat.
That was the system used for fowl on our little homestead. While not always providing a pretty picture, the raising of animals and preparing them for consumption is ordinary farming activity, and takes place throughout the countryside. Rural families grow up close to such scenes, and there’s no drama or psychological trauma associated with them. It’s this proximity with food production that provides much of the backdrop to hunting.
About 97% of our society consumes meat. To accomplish this, we kill animals, or have it done for us. Most of us enjoy the comfort of being removed from the direct experience. The process takes place far away, and we’re able to ignore or suppress the details.
The remaining 3% of our population are vegan or vegetarian, and choose not to kill or consume animals at all. This doesn’t quite mean that no killing is involved in the choice. Fields are prepared for crops. Food must then be grown, stored, shipped, and shelved. Throughout the process, damage and threat from insect, bird, and mammal must be dealt with. Animals are not killed as food, but are eliminated to produce and protect the intended source. To some degree, even vegetarians and vegans are part of the killing that is involved in food production.
Aside from the food factor, simply being alive necessitates imposing ourselves in ways detrimental to other species. If we live and move, we kill things. We take medicines to kill bacteria. When mowing a lawn, we kill countless insects and unwary rodents, toads, or other small, unnoticed things in our path. Our highways are littered with carcasses run over on the way to work or to the grocery store. When building homes and factories, we kill or disrupt the lives of thousands of creatures. Even a benign walk through the yard or along a path in the woods involves the trampling of things we hardly notice. It seems whatever we do in being alive, involves the elimination of other life forms. Whatever our benign intent, there is no path to total innocence. Killing is a consequence of our being. It’s universal.
There is a difference though, in the approach and the degree to which we participate in killing.
There seems to be three significant categories of killing associated with food production. The first is incidental, when an animal not intended as food, is killed in the process of procuring another food source. The second is killing an animal intentionally, and solely, as a source of food. The third is killing an animal intentionally, but with motivations not solely aimed towards the procurement of food – such as for population control or recreational purposes. These three divisions sometimes overlap and create confusion (or denial) as to what we are doing, or why we are doing it.
Hunting made possible our species survival, our evolution. With relatively fragile bodies, hunting and survival favored the development of large thinking brains – brains that eventually took us to the top of the food chain. Those same brains have taken us into this modern, increasingly industrialized world. Hunting as a means of survival has given way to farming, to agriculture, to an industrial scale of food production. There are still parts of the world beyond the reach of industrialization, where hunting is for subsistence, but in our familiar modern world, even in most of our rural areas, hunting is rarely for physical need. So why do we do it?
For the greater part, hunting is a rural activity, or at least with rural roots. Most of us, who hunt, have grown up in a rural setting, or have hunting friends who did. It’s easy to see the connection. We live in the countryside where animals are raised for food. When we take a walk into the woods to shoot a rabbit or deer, it seems little different than harvesting cattle or poultry. In some ways its less exploitive – the forest animal lives a noble free life, up until the end.
Besides the proximity to food production, there’s also the traditional aspect to hunting. If our life is rural, there’s a pretty good chance we’ll grow up in a hunting family. It’s primarily a male activity. In our modern era, there may be more female hunters than ever before, but it is still almost 90% male dominated. As such, it’s often a male bonding exercise and brings with it a rite of passage. Hunting tradition and its rugged, independently minded, rural image are also attractions for some who are not necessarily rural or from a hunting family. They may be invited into, or seek out the activity, initiating a new tradition of their own. Our politicians are well aware of the hunter’s rugged image (and the voting segment it might harness). Every election cycle, even some of our most urban candidates attempt to adopt the life style, at least for a day. They’re usually seen in spotless fresh togs, confidently striding into the field, trying to look like it’s something done throughout the season. An interesting aside is that when politicians hunt on media day, it’s always for birds. When shot, a duck of pheasant falls out of the sky far away. Upon retrieval, the pleasantly sleeping bird is unmoving and any pellet wounds are hidden by feathers – nothing unseemly to notice or be associated with. Mammals are sometimes less cooperative.
Cap pistols, just toys, came first to my life. They shot no projectile, but the red cap rolls did provide a bang just like a real gun, with every pull of the trigger. As small children, we protected the yard from Indians, outlaws, and dangerous animals. I was about eight years old upon receiving my first gun that actually shot something from the barrel. It was a kid’s lever-action Daisy, but was real and could actually be lethal to tiny things. I hunted insects, sparrows and other birds considered pests, which frequented our yard and field. I was enthusiastic, but rarely successful with anything larger than the flying grasshoppers common in the grassy fields.
I think I was twelve when given my first real gun, a .410 shotgun. It was small, but so was I. It enabled me to hunt real animals with my dad, my brother, or just myself. I was able to bring home rabbits and squirrels – animals we ate. I was a provider, and at least in my mind, had become an adult – a man. There’s a kind of elation in making that passage, a sense of fulfillment carried forward that can grow and last through a lifetime – but maybe not always.
I was fourteen or fifteen. It was a beautiful autumn day, and I wasn’t in school. Cool and sunny, a bit of summer still lingered as I walked into the woods. It was with a bolt-action .22 rifle, my favorite squirrel gun. A blue jay followed along, alarming the woods of my presence. It annoyed, but would lose interest before too long. I found the tree I was looking for, sat down, and leaned my back to the warm trunk. The noise I made in the approach and the shrieking jay had silenced the other woodlot noises, but I knew they’d return. The smell of the trees, the drying leaves, the bits of sunshine filtering through the branches, made for a comfort and exhilaration. It was one of those special fall days, or last days of summer, that you know will soon end.
The blue jay screamed a bit longer, then gave up and flew away. The sounds of the forest slowly came back. The background hums, the buzz of insects were first, and then gradually, the songs and twitters of small birds returned. There was the drumming of a woodpecker from not far away, and the boisterous racket of ever watchful crows from much further. I could hear the sound of cattle a half mile away and the distant sound of tires rolling over a gravel road. Days like this should never end.
With the symphony of the woods returned, he lost reticence and poked his head from the hollow of a tree. The squirrel climbed out and scampered to a branch. He was probably only twenty feet away as he looked down and studied my presence. I was something foreign in his familiar territory. Being quiet and unmoving, I posed no immediate threat, so he did what squirrels do. He sat on his branch and scolded me. It was to let me and the rest of the woods know that I was seen, that I ought to go away. As I raised the gun and took aim, there was a fleeting thought that maybe I should go, that I was an intruder and didn’t belong here. I vanquished the thought before it took firm hold and pulled the trigger. A .22 doesn’t make a deafening boom like a shotgun. It was just a crisp, sharp crack with hardly even an echo. The shot was loud enough though, to silence the woods. The symphony was over. It was a clean shot. The only sound was a slight rustling of leaves as the squirrel’s last quivers quickly abated. I sat still for a bit in the silence. The sounds came back, but not all at once. First the buzzing of insects, then more gradually, the flutter and chirping of nearby birds returned. The woodpecker went back to drumming, and the crows sent a silent scout over my tree to assess the danger. I finally stood, picked up the squirrel, and walked out of the woods. The jay returned and followed me a ways, just as noisy as before. All the woodland sounds were back. It was almost as if nothing had happened, that nothing had changed.
It would probably be to my credit were I able to claim a moment of clarity, that from that time on, my thoughts were different, my actions changed. Not so much – I continued hunting for several years thereafter. There were no outward changes, nothing visible. I was who I was, nothing much was altered. There was something though, that had changed, something I didn’t notice right away, or pay attention to. At some point it occurred to me that I didn’t have so much feeling for it anymore. The elation had slipped away. The sense of purpose and the satisfaction I had known in hunting were muted. The hunting continued, but with less enthusiasm. In some vague and probably repressed way, I was still listening to that silence in the woods – a silence that had lasted for less than a minute, but was still unwinding in my mind.
We live in a land of opportunity, free to make choices. We are one land, but with many cultures, many values. The decision to hunt is one of those choices, and comes with positive and negative implications. On one hand, it lends images of ruggedness, power, and utilitarianism – an image of someone close to nature and not afraid to make use of it. On the other hand, the same choice conflicts with other values adhered to (at least superficially) by much of the larger society. The idea of fairness, respect, and kindness towards other life forms, seems at odds with modern hunting. When hunting is for true need, for survival, there seems to be little conflict. It’s the hunting without need, the hunting which has become recreational, that brings conflict. This conflict of value stimulates argument and justifications. There are many.
It’s an easy contradiction for hunters to point out. We live in a meat-eating society, but shrink from the reality of procuring it. We condone the endless march of animals through our slaughter houses, but would decline to ever visit one. For most, such a visit would be hellish, shocking, and mind numbing (even a ghostly internet visit, free of the sounds, free of the smell, is appalling). How can the same society be critical of a hunter walking into the woods and dispatching an animal in its natural surroundings? Isn’t that scenario more humane than the other nightmarish scene?
While the comparison is justified, it doesn’t fully explain the “why”. In addition to the industrial scale killing that is condoned for food, why add to it? The hunter’s kill may take place in a more pleasing environment, but if it’s unnecessary, why do we want to make it at all? No matter how humane or pleasant the surroundings, if unnecessary, it’s just that – a killing without need. Noting the contradictions and inconsistencies of another’s position may parry an argument and provide a defense of sorts, but ignores explanation for the position taken. Why do we want to hunt and kill?
There are some who claim to hunt as a means of bypassing this industrial scale production of food altogether. They might do so either to seek a purer food, free of contaminants, or to avoid all involvement in the mass production and slaughter of animals. While both may provide true reasons for hunting, to be valid explanations, each position must be lived to the fullest. If our expressed intent in hunting is to assure unadulterated and healthy nutrition, that concern should govern all aspects of diet and bodily care. If less than thorough, we’re probably paying lip service. Likewise, if we sometimes hunt for meat, and sometimes go conventional (grocery stores, restaurants, etc.), there’s more than a slight chance our hunting has a recreational component.
Some assert we have a predisposition to hunt, that we are genetically coded to pursue and kill. Our ancestors certainly were hunters. We were not simply carnivorous, though. We hunted more as omnivores. We were, and still are, opportunists – eating whatever food type is available. We eat meat, but seem just as content to raise it, as opposed to chasing it. In the United States, less than 7% of the adult population consider themselves to be hunters. In other industrialized nations, the numbers are often less. Is that enough to point towards predisposition, that we are genetically coded to hunt? Maybe yes, maybe no – conjecture always seems to play a role in linking behavior to genetics. Perhaps the genetic urge is simply to seek food, rather than assigning a specific route to its source. In any case, the more we use genetics to rationalize human behavior, the further we find ourselves from the idea of free will. The further from free will we wander, the more we resemble the instinctual animals we hunt. Is that the argument being made – we are but instinctual animals; therefore it’s futile and pretentious to behave otherwise? That direction seems to run counter to another justification made for hunting – the idea of “dominion”. The divine granting of “dominion” would seem to imply that humans are distinct from other animals and not enslaved by instinct – that there are other facets of our being to recognize and nurture.
Somewhat related to the thought of a hereditary factor towards hunting is the idea of a transcendental link to our ancestors and to the prey we are hunting. It alludes to a spiritual or mystical awakening as we hunt, bringing a communion with our forbearers. The spirit of the animal may even be invoked, offering its respect to us for the honorable way we’ve dispensed of its life. It’s a colorful, gratifying idea, but thankfully, not so widely claimed or at least spoken of in the field. It’s an embellishment more readily found in hunting publications, or plied by media personalities who like to glamorize their hunting activities.
The idea that our hunt even resembles that of our ancestor’s, let alone communes with it, is over reaching, to the point of silliness. Ten thousand years ago humans were already atop the food chain. With cunning insight and cooperation, with little more than sticks and stones, the first humans became the most dangerous hunters – more so than the largest carnivores. However, dominance wasn’t synonymous with invulnerability. They hunted to survive, and when successful, were able to celebrate having food and clothing for a bit longer, enough to reach the next hunt. If unsuccessful, existence was put at risk. Injuries, hunger, and death were always lurking, always waiting.
Today, when entering the woods, we do so with full stomachs and from warm, secure homes. We dress in comfortable, protective clothing and quite likely load our trucks with more food and all the appropriate hunting paraphernalia. We take our semiautomatic rifles or shotguns, or if we wish to feel more challenged and primitive, we might load a bow or cross-bow. Even our bows and cross-bows, though, have evolved. They more resemble science fiction or adventure movie weapons than the bows of our ancestors. Truck loaded, we drive to where we wish to hunt, either with a group, or perhaps alone, to sit in a blind. We are comfortable enough to enjoy the nature around us, with no fear or anxiety. If there is danger, it’s most apt to be from ourselves or our comrades. It’s all meant to be enjoyable, and a diversion from life’s nagging necessities. If our hunt is successful we celebrate like our ancestors – we go home to a warm meal and share adventurous stories. If we are unsuccessful, we still go home to a warm meal and stories. There’s no risk. There’s no physical need being met. There’s no spiritual or shared experience with ancestors. It’s a silly fantasy; the mind’s replacement of an activity’s lost relevance.
Some hunters sight the activity as channeling our natural aggression and primitive urges into an acceptable and productive outlet. If we teach our children to hunt, the time spent, the sharing, and the skills learned, will help them become well adjusted adults. True enough, but the same can be said of just about any activity we share with our children – so why choose hunting? The claim may be valid as a justification, but less so as an explanation for hunting. Do we really become hunters to enhance the growth of our children, or were we already hunters? Why do we really hunt? Where does the need come from?
There are environmental and economic concerns that are aided through the hunting industry, but they seem to be a by-product, rather than an initiating factor in becoming a hunter. It’s also probably not coincident that much of the attention brought by hunters to environmental needs is towards efforts to preserve hunting land and game species. We can credit the hunting industry as being beneficial to our rural environment, in the same way that we laud the gaming and gambling industry for bringing nurture to our cities. The extolled benefits derived from either do not fully explain the reason for their existence.
It’s not surprising when God’s will is invoked to support a cause – it can be seen as the ultimate support for a position. If we speak for God, how can we be wrong? Fortunately for those who like to do so, there’s no shortage of holy text to site, and more importantly, no ultimate interpretation. We can find religious context to almost any opinion, and bring support for even contradictory conclusions. The biblical reference to “dominion” is sometimes used in defining our relationship to animals. Hunters sight it as justification for their activity. If we settle on the word, without even considering the translations it’s evolved through, we still have a word with ambiguous intent. Does “dominion over” mean “take what you want”? Does it mean “take what you need”? Does it mean “take care of”? The reference provides no explanation for hunting. Because it can mean whatever we wish it to mean, “dominion” is lacking, even as justification.
We can feed the hungry with the animals we kill. Food banks and charitable organizations are always in want of food to dispense. Hunters can point at such donations as a benefit to communities in need. It’s a true claim, but is that why we hunt? In the same vein, we see drug lords providing gifts to the communities around them. We see corporations sponsoring schools and aiding charities within communities they sometimes exploit. While the benefits can be appreciated as real, the gifts can also be seen as attempts to obscure culpability or to mute criticism. Donating an animal to feed the hungry is similar to other charitable donations. When it’s not money, we usually donate our surplus – the things we enjoyed accumulating but no longer need or have room for. Animal donation implies surplus, hunting beyond need. We enjoy hunting to the extent of accumulating beyond need or desire – so we donate it. Its real, someone does benefit from our activity, but it doesn’t explain why we want to hunt or why we’re so willing to kill.
Some bluntly claim their palate as a major factor in the decision to hunt. It gives justification, but a base one, implying an importance beyond ethical considerations. In making it, other considerations are intended to be avoided. “I just like the taste” is a means of ending conversation, that there’s no point in further discussion or thought.
Killing is a definitive act. It ends one life and defines another. A broad survey of current world events and human history would seem to indicate our esteem for life is pretty low. It’s a wide-angle view, one that sees everything from far away. When moving closer, seeing first our species, then tribe, and finally family, we see an increasing value placed on life. We see human lives as more important than nonhuman lives, our tribal existence as more meaningful than that of another, and our family’s wellbeing is prioritized over a the concern for a neighboring family. As lives move closer to our own, we place more recognition and value upon them. The appreciation for life can be seen as both an aspect of human survival, and as a moral code – the care and protection of family, tribe and species.
When we are not overruled by emotions, mental illness, or acts of war, we value life and hold it to be precious. This regard extends beyond human life to much of the animal world around us. There are social restraints and stigmas attached to indiscriminate disregard for life. An act of killing draws attention. Our usual response is to be repulsed at the thought and reality of senseless violence. Besides causing revulsion, when violence appears cruel or unnecessary, it also invites condemnation and shame.
In spite of the moral code and the potential stigma, our repulsion to violence is apparently not absolute. We seem to be gifted with a morally conscious and empathetic mind, but also have a keen ability to overwrite it. There are multiple conditions under which the uneasiness is put aside, where we still manage to kill. When we do, manipulations take place to mend it. We make it right in our head. How is it that we come to terms with the killing around us, the killing we condone and take part in?
One sure way to cope with killing is by placing it beyond awareness. We slap a mosquito, rub it between our fingers and continue a conversation without breaking thought. Somewhere in our mind, we’ve already processed the mosquito as being tiny, annoying, and alien. Its life is so small and irrelevant to our own, that we’re able to dispense of it without recognition. We tend to do this with the lives we least resemble. Further along, when awareness intrudes, we might still make things right by minimizing the significance of a life we end. “It’s just a bug”, “It’s just a fish”, “It’s just a deer” – to various degrees we’re able to justify and accept killing all the way through the animal world (including human) by deeming an existence to be insignificant, foreign, or of little importance compared to our own. When we do recognize the significance of a life, its similarity to our own, we might still be able to end it by judging the act to be necessary. We kill for self preservation, or at least the belief that we are doing so. We kill to eat, to protect, and so on. Beyond necessity, we sometimes even kill for nothing more than apparent reward. The reward might be physical or psychological. Dubiously, our value system might accept an act of killing if the perceived benefit is greater than the stigma (or danger) attached to it. The code, the appreciation for life is real, but so is our ability to overlay and rationalize. As hunters or non-hunters, we thus come to terms with the killing we’re a part of.
This quote from Jose Ortega Gasset is often referred to: “One doesn’t hunt in order to kill, on the contrary one kills to have hunted.” In original context, the intent may have been different, but the passage is usually sighted alone, showing that the hunter is not obsessed with killing, but rather that it’s the other aspects of a hunt that compel him. It’s the tradition, the preparation and excitement leading up to it that draws him forward. The hunter doesn’t enjoy killing – it’s just the necessary final event bringing it all together, giving definition and purpose to the effort.
The use and repetition of Ortega’s quote reveals another aspect to the hunter’s experience. It implies awareness of something not quite appropriate with the killing that takes place – hence the proclamation that it’s not enjoyed, but only necessary (perhaps a joyless gratification). We love to hunt but admit we don’t really like to kill. We kill reluctantly, as ticket price for enjoying the rest of the experience (our reward).
So, we have all these justifications for hunting and the sighting of its benefits. Some have truth and merit, but little explanation for why we wish to hunt, why we are willing to kill when killing seems unnecessary. We do it and we come to terms with it, but why? What is the need we are satisfying? Where does the urge to hunt, the willingness to kill, come from? In a setting that has become increasingly recreational, why do we continue? In the absence of bodily (physical) need, what is the psychological need that perpetuates our desire to hunt, to fish, to kill?
We know our ancestors were hunters. We exist today because they were good at it. They were the strong, the providers, and the protectors. In the emerging modern, but preindustrial world, hunting and fishing were still of primary importance in food gathering, a means of survival. Two hundred years ago, life outside the city’s boundaries still predicated subsistence hunting. One hundred years ago, the need still existed for many, but less so. In today’s industrial world, with the advent of large scale farming, with mass transportation, with all the comforts of modern life available in all but the furthest corners, hunting is an activity of little importance in sustaining our physical bodies. Yet, we continue to do so.
Hunting is traditional, born from a time of need. It’s a rural tradition – because that’s where the animals are found, both the ones we raise for food, and those nearby, the animals we hunt. We’ve seen how the proximity to farming, the cultivation of animals for food, is not greatly different from walking into the forest and harvesting more.
As a tradition, if our fathers hunted, it’s likely we will hunt (at least the males). If we hunt, it’s likely our children will do the same. We tend to be born into hunting. Occasionally we may be recruited from outside, through friends or associates. There are also some who seek out the lifestyle on their own, but it’s not an activity often picked up spontaneously or independently as an adult. The usual entry into the hunting community is through family.
The hunting tradition shares similarities with religious tradition. Both are apt to be inherited. We grow within the belief system that surrounds us. Both traditions provide a community of shared values. The values are reinforced through family and community activity. Both hunting and religious communities provide nurture, and along with it, expectations of behavior and a degree of conformity. They support our growth, and provide an identity and a validation of lifestyle.
As young hunters, we pass through stages. They might lack the formality and documented stages of religious training, but there are steps taken and levels of acceptance to attain. First we witness. We see the adults – fathers, uncles, brothers – prepare and leave for a hunt. We watch and listen as they return with stories and food for the table. At some point, we’re allowed to tag along and to observe. We learn techniques and how to unlock some of the mysteries of the woods. We become more integrated, gain familiarity with a gun and the responsibility of its use. We practice with targets and perhaps are allowed to take a shot in the woods. Eventually we receive a gun of our own. We take part in our first hunt, carrying that gun like an adult. Sooner or later we celebrate our confirmation – the first kill. We become recognized as young adults in the hunting community, and as with religion, there are observances to be made that give testimony to our continuing involvement, and provide bonding with family and community. Hunting displays, such as trophies, antlers, and the kill itself, provide proof not only our prowess, but also of our steadfast continuity and community membership.
As with religion, the childhood exposure, family expectations, and the natural will to emulate, provide powerful incentives towards becoming part of the hunting community. We grow into it with family and friends, sharing joy and purpose in an exciting pastime. Along the way, hunting becomes part of our identity. By the time we’ve reached adulthood, we’ve integrated a time filling activity into our lives. We’ve bonded with family and friends, and have already invested a substantial part of our lives and self-image into a community that shares our experience and values. We’re members of the community.
While religious identity tends to come through family, some do come to it from outside, later in life. A minority of the hunting community also come in as adults. It’s not like the idea of hunting can only find appeal in young developing minds. The image, the outdoor activity, and the camaraderie can be persuasive attractions. When it so happens, it often seems the new members bear witness with even greater fervor than traditional members. There’s likely a new purpose, a new energy that wants to be shared – perhaps a need to prove oneself. For whatever reason, those newly arrived are often prominent advocates. For newcomers, there’s not the momentum of tradition being brought to the hunt – it’s the exhilaration of a new activity, of newfound purpose, of validation within a newly shared community. So, like with religion, the hunter is most often pulled forward by the momentum of tradition, but may occasionally be energized with the fervor of new faith.
Of course it’s just a semblance to religion. We don’t worship – there’s no hunting deity we build the culture around, but the similarities to religion are real and persuasive. The recognition and comparison helps in understanding the real “why” and the “want” in hunting. The rationalizations we make, the benefits we list are really just dances around the one need that hasn’t disappeared. In the absence of physical need, what is left is psychological. We no longer hunt to sustain our bodies or to protect our tribe. We hunt instead to sustain a tradition. It’s in tradition, a compelling tradition akin to religion that finds home to the “want” and “why” of a hunt that has lost relevance. The physical necessity is gone, but the psychological needs are still present and deep-seated. We continue to hunt, because we’ve always hunted. We’re part of a hunting community. We’ve learned from our parents, we’ve taught our children. Our lives are invested in an activity that provides pleasure, identity, and self-validation. The momentum of tradition moves us forward. It’s the path of least resistance and the road likely taken.
For new and traditional hunters alike though, there’s still the shadow – the tacit acknowledgement of conflict within recreational hunting. The killing that’s not quite essential for survival, but required as an end point, leaves hunters with a value discrepancy. There’s the joy of hunting, while knowing it’s an unessential activity that will require an ultimate act of violence. There’s an activity that brings pleasure and validation, coupled to act that should not bring pleasure. Somewhere along the way reconciliation takes place. The psychological rewards of the hunt are deemed more significant than the resulting kill. When killing is for reward, particularly psychological reward, the mind often looks for more solid ground. Justifications and rationalizations are found – some trivial, some colorful and even eloquent. Nearly all contain at bits of truth, at least enough for the mind to hold onto. It’s a coming to terms.
We’re part of a huge population. It’s easy to think of our individual actions as being of little consequence with regards to the whole. Abstractly, we know we’re part of a collective, a larger voice, but so often, our input seems muted or diluted to the point of being meaningless. If I vote, will it really impact the election? If I buy on Main Street, rather than at the mall, will the downtown be saved? If I avoid the hamburger at lunch, will a cow be pulled out of the endless line and given reprieve? We seem so often confronted with choices that have consequences divorced from visibility. We make a decision; we take action that we feel is right, but seldom see immediate impact. If there is impact, it’s downstream, far away, beyond direct experience.
If we hunt, we are presented with a rare moment of clarity. The ambiguity that clouds the meaning of so many choices is lifted, and we have the opportunity to see immediate consequences to an action we take. In that moment, with the finger still motionless, abstraction is stripped away. The entity directly before us is more than an ideal, more than a statistic. It has a real life and a will to be alive. Our action will unambiguously determine its fate. Will it end in a minute? Will it live another day? In that second, before the trigger is pulled, we hold the moment of choice. Two lives will be affected. It’s a definitive moment.
More than fifty years have passed. It’s another beautiful autumn day, as I walk along a wooded path in Southern Michigan. Like that day so many years before, the air is pleasant, perhaps a bit warmer than is expected for the season. Several birds, including some winter robins are fluttering about. As usual, from further away, comes the sound of crows. They’re in an uproar and seem to have found something of interest, probably a hawk. A lake is not far away, and from it I hear a small motor. Here and there the chattering of squirrels adds to the forest sounds. As I walk, from much further away, perhaps a half mile or so, a shot echoes out. It’s quickly followed by two more, and a few seconds later, a final one. The shots were loud, probably a shotgun, and I think the pattern was probably not that of target shooting. The explosions reverberate, and then all becomes silent. I stand still for a moment and my mind reflects on distant memories. I wonder if the shooter is an old man, or a young man. I imagined how elated he must feel, if a young man. Perhaps it’s a first kill, a time of pride for bringing home some food that will actually be eaten. I remember more, and wonder if there had been a pause, a fleeting moment of doubt before that first shot. I wonder if after the fourth shot he had stopped for a moment, if he had heard the stillness, the silence around him.
As I turn and walk away, the forest has returned to normal. Some birds are chirping again, and a squirrel climbs down a trunk to the leafy ground, looking for nuts. The suspicious crows have gradually resumed their noisy outburst, and it seems the gunshots are already forgotten. It’s almost as if nothing had happened, that nothing had changed.
So, does hunting make us human? Let me pair it with another question: Do rodeos make us human? It sounds kind of silly, right? Both activities, though, display skills that can be used for essential purpose. Modern hunting however is rarely essential, and rodeos are entertainment events. When animals are killed or agitated for human entertainment or psychological gratification, I would be at a loss in trying to explain how it might be making us more human.