I haven’t known any of the deer I’ve eaten.
I may have been intimately familiar with how whitetails moved through that stretch of woods. I may even have seen that particular deer before. But I haven’t spent an extended period of time getting to know the individual animal, letting him get to know me.
This comes with the territory of hunting wild creatures. But what are the implications?
Over the past few weeks I’ve been talking with folks around New England about all kinds of things. Not surprisingly, one of the recurring themes has been the killing of animals: what it means, the conflicted feelings it evokes, how I and others handle it, what we make of it, and how we integrate it into our lives.
We have talked about commonalities between raising animals for food and hunting them. People have talked about the sadness they feel when slaughter day comes for the chickens they raise, or the wave of deep shock that rolls over them when they kill a cow: emotions very much like what some hunters experience at the end of a successful hunt.
Yet a difference has also been noted. As one friend put it, “When you take a deer, aren’t you killing a stranger?”
Yes, I am indeed killing and eating a stranger.
I respect and admire deer. I feel compassion for them. I feel an intense relationship with the particular animals I kill and with the venison that results, but it is clearly a predator-prey relationship. It is not a relationship of mutual affection. It is not friendship.
And that has me wondering: Emotionally speaking, what are the differences between hunting wild animals and slaughtering domestic ones?
For thousands of years, cultures around the world have surrounded hunting with ritual. There is, after all, something fundamentally unsettling about violence toward animals, especially large fellow mammals. What shifts, I wonder, happened in those rituals when people started herding?
Today, our modern culture is far more comfortable with the idea of farming animals than with the idea of hunting them. Hunting somehow seems more extreme.
In at least one way, though, isn’t a homestead-style farm slaughter more troubling?
I know hunters who can’t imagine raising animals for food. Some simply prefer, as I do, to see animals living free, rather than in captivity. But others know they couldn’t bring themselves to raise an animal—getting to know his or her individual personality, quirks, and moods—and then betray that relationship by killing.
There are many reasons why I hunt rather than raising chickens or other animals. There’s my distaste for the distance and forgetfulness inherent in our industrial food system (wherein we buy the meat of strangers who were raised by strangers, slaughtered by different strangers, shipped to us by still other strangers, and sold to us by yet more strangers). There’s my love of being outdoors, focused on woods, landscape, and the ways of wild creatures. There’s the unpredictability of hunting, the appeal of uncertainty. There’s the fact that having domestic animals makes it harder to take off for the weekend—chickens won’t ride shotgun the way our dog will. The list goes on.
But I still buy local poultry, raised and slaughtered by others. And I wonder: In part, do I hunt because I’d rather not eat friends?
© 2012 Tovar Cerulli