The man called about buying some rabbit. My friend Lila—ex-vegetarian and present-day purveyor of fine, homegrown meats—welcomed him to stop by the house late in the day. The rabbit would be cool by then.
“You mean it’s still alive right now?”
It was. And the caller, perhaps suddenly imagining Thumper hopping happily about, decided not to come that day.
“Maybe I’ll just come next week,” he said.
Lila—who, like her husband Dave, needs to know that their animals have lived well and died humanely—realized belatedly that she shouldn’t have given a potential customer quite so many details. But she was amazed, she told me, that “even conscientious meat purchasers need to disconnect from the real fact that meat is animal.”
To his credit, the man had gone to the trouble of finding a source of local, healthy, humanely-raised meat. But he balked, his conscience uneasy. Was he deterred by recognizing that “meat is animal”? Was he deterred by “the reality of individual death,” as Holly Heyser put it in her recent blog post? Quite possibly.
But there may, I imagine, have been another factor, too.
When I departed from the path of vegetarianism, I had to confront more than the recently-living individual-birdness of the chicken legs I was suddenly barbequing. I also had to confront why the bird had died. It had died for me.
That’s not how we usually think of it, of course. Buying meat in the store lets us tell ourselves a little story: It’s already dead. I didn’t cause its death.
But whether we acknowledge it or not—whether we buy meat in a store, get it from a farm, or kill it ourselves—the animal is killed for whoever eats it. In a sense, it is killed by whoever eats it. Maybe, in that brief conversation with Lila, the fellow realized that his phone call was about to trigger a rabbit’s death, as surely as if he had picked up the animal and done the deed himself.
That’s one reason I took up hunting. When I look down a rifle barrel—sights aligned with the head of a snowshoe hare or the heart of a white-tailed deer—I’m brought face to face with more than the exquisite living, breathing creature. I’m brought face to face with myself: the one who chooses to take its life.
© 2010 Tovar Cerulli
I’ve got to admit, Tovar, that picture of the REALLY cute white rabbit freaks me out! No, not because I was traumatized by the Killer Rabbit in Holy Grail.
My first pet, after we moved to Saigon just in time for the Tet Offensive, when I was 3, was a white rabbit. And Bunny’s demise when I was 9, and we were leaving what was South Vietnam, was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life: something about looking at the death of a loved one, right in front of your eyes, through the eyes of a child.
As an adult, I’ve seen much, much, much worse…but it’s interesting how we’re effected by when and where we’re exposed to death: especially if we’re required to draw our sustenance from that death–I had to eat the rabbit for dinner, that rabbit who was previously my closest friend.
…Did I say it was traumatic? So, traumatic that it surprised me when I was in solitary confinement in Vietnam on false charges of spying for the CIA in 1983. The bright side is that introspective lesson in solitary for seven months out of a total of 11, after the mock execution and tortures, did turn out to become fuel for my memoir that became a #2 Topseller for three weeks when it was released in 2004: http://preview.alturl.com/fdfp
And what was the other aspect of lessons of coming to grips with death that sustains us? Well, I must have overcome them because rabbit, especially freshly hunted cottontail (something I’m looking to hunt soon: got a number of French and British cookbooks that came in that need to be reviewed on my blog that showcase rabbit in all its wonderous offerings), is the main ingredient for my favorite French rustic dish: La Pain de Chasse!
Dr. Randall Eaton, Hunter, naturalist, research scientist, fellow medicine Pipe Carrier, and blood brother, and I were talking yesterday morning about what you so eloquently described in your last graph, about what Native American circles like to say: “A Hunter hunts Him or Herself when He or She goes hunting”. We’re brought back to what we really are, our humble origins, or as Shakespeare said, we all end up as worm food. And what better way to that understanding than through the “honest knowing” that something dies so that we may live…whether a rabbit hunted or a rabbit raise in a small farm hutch?
Everything else we do while we’re alive is gravy. This is something that combat veterans, who surmount PTS and memories of combat, who realize how lucky we are to be alive; get to rejoice in this “new” life, living this life we’ve been fortunate to have after the honesty of seeing how close we came to dying.
On a level much less traumatic, but no less rewarding, hunting permits us this honest awareness about ourselves and Humans and about the circle of life and death, and our position in this universal circle.
…Some might think that by eating only veggies, we somehow remove ourselves…doesn’t it seem like an arrogance that vegetarians think that by not eating an animal or fish that they somehow put themselves above life and death? Are they sure that a carrot doesn’t scream when it’s pulled out of the ground? Does a trout truly feel no pain when it’s hooked through the mouth?
If you ask a Lakota Tribal Healer the meaning of “Mitakuye Oyasing” he/she’ll say that it means “We are all related”. But, that’s not just people and animals and fish, but everything: the rocks, trees, plants, water, the Earth itself–EVERYTHING.
To walk in communion (aware connection) is why killing and even setting a tepee on the ground that would kill the grass is a very spiritual event, always commenced with the prayer and giving of thanks to the rocks, the soil that is changed by our trespass, and the grass that gives its life.
For this reason, I always give a prayer of thanks, and leave an offering like tobacco or cornmeal, to the deer, elk, pig, duck, goose, bear, or…rabbit..or even a tomato (perhaps my imagination, but they seem to actually break off the vine more easily), that “offers” itself for my table through its death from my rifle bow or shotgun, fish hook, net, or hand. Most especially I seek out the best recipes to make sure that everyone at my table will pay respect to the animal, fish, bird or vegetable that gave it’s life so that I may carry on in my souls adventure among the living with total awareness and respect.
I remember one night on the Anchor River, just down the road from my writer’s mountain cabin, guiding friends up from California for silver salmon. While fishing on my own, I was catching a fish on almost every cast of my flyrod. Right next to me was another “Lower 48er”. At one point my friends commented on how the unknown angler in the dark kept muttering, “I don’t know what’s wrong! I’m using the same damned thing he’s using…I just fished that same hole! How come I’m not catching an fish?”
There was only one difference between this angler and myself: everytime I brought a 10-15 lb salmon in, I reeled it in quickly on heavy leader, and immediately picked up a large rock and killed it. As it convulsed, I prayed to its soul, and thanked the Great Mystery, and slid my hand down its sleekness, head to tail, visualizing that I was wiping its soul back into the river to be reborn as another salmon: I would say, “Thank you salmon for offering your life to me. Go my brother, be free and become a salmon next year.”
I caught nine, fresh from the sea, silver salmon that night, while no one else catching a fish, not even my friends up from Cali: I even told them to imagine this a communion and “talk” to the salmon, asking them to become hooked. Those salmon kept me fed during the winter on my resident’s subsistence license, with moose, spruce hens, and other other bounty of Nature.
Was I just lucky? Was it because I took full responsibility for killing this salmon, after it offered itself, and was extremely respectful? What do you think?
Great post. If you fancy seeing more of the funny side of these ‘little stories’ have a look at the comments on this rabbit based post by Stoney
A story of my own. I was talking about deer hunting with a colleague and this exchange took place – you couldn’t make it up.
C: Don’t you feel guilty about killing them?
SBW: No I feel guilty about animals being factory farmed so we can eat meat, don’t you?
C: My mum makes all my meals.
PS C was 30 years old!!!
I guess there is definitely a disconnect for people if they buy their meat from a grocery store – and that is probably why he was so uncomfortable with eating the rabbit that day, since he knew he was causing its death.
I’m funny, though, I guess, because I prefer it that way. Sure I eat meat bought from the store, but I prefer to eat wild game that I’ve had a hand in from the time I pulled the trigger until it was in the freezer.
I suppose plenty of people would be uncomfortable with that fact – knowing that they were responsible for the death of the meat on their table – but it’s something I have grown to love.
As you said, Tovar, it connects you to yourself, and it connects you to nature and our primal roots.
It really is too bad that so many people are so disconnected from that experience.
Cork: Luck? Respect? Don’t know.
SBW: I gather C wasn’t a vegetarian, eh?
Arthur: That’s very much the way I see it, too. When I started hunting, I wasn’t sure how it would feel. At first, it was hard. It’s still hard in some ways, but—like you—I prefer the experience of connection.
Tovar, you’ve really hit on an excellent point. That sense of personal responsibility for our meat alarms people. I wonder what it is that makes some of us run TO that responsibility, rather than away from it.
Part of me gets angry at these folks who don’t want to acknowledge it. But I think it really is the unsurprising byproduct of an industrial society. People have been raised to believe that the killing is appropriately someone else’s responsibility, not to be seen or discussed.
SBW, GREAT dialogue! (And for the record, while Hank makes most of my meals, I still kill for easily half of them…)
Holly, thanks for your thoughts. It’s an interesting question you pose: what makes some of us move toward that life-and-death encounter and responsibility, rather than away from it. If you find a possible answer, let me know!
I suspect your answer to that question would be more valid than mine. My inclination comes from my upbringing: When I was 7 years old, my family started raising animals for food. It’s not terribly remarkable to continue on the path your parents set you out on. The only way I strayed was by taking up hunting instead of raising the animals myself.
But I’ll hit up my newbie hunting friends who don’t come from a hunting or animal husbandry background – see if I can gather some insights.
Yes, I’ve been wondering: Are the motivations different for hunters who come to hunting as adults, as opposed to those who grow up hunting?
I hear what you’re saying about the continuity between your parents raising animals for food and you hunting. But, still, the two are quite different, don’t you find?
For me, both vegetarianism and hunting have been ways of attempting to take responsibility for my relationships with animals. I started exploring this in the chapter I just wrote for Hunting & Philosophy, but I expect there’s plenty more exploring to be done!
I think there’s a huge difference between doing what you choose to do and what you’re raised to do. I think any conversion made as an adult comes with far more conviction. You’ve got to really believe in something to stray from how you were raised. But of course, that doesn’t really answer your question about the actual motivations.
And yes, hunting is different from animal husbandry, so there was a small leap for me. But for women in particular, accepting personal responsibility for killing is the biggest hurdle they face when deciding whether to hunt. Not so for me, because I had already accepted the concept – even though I’d never done the killing as a child. I just helped with dressing and butchering.
Very interesting, Holly.
I did fish and catch bullfrogs as a kid, but was raised by non-hunting, meat-eating parents who bought meat at the store. And, yes, my conversion to vegetarianism at 20 came with a lot of conviction. My later conversion to hunting came with a different sensibility; I suppose you could call it conviction, but it was (and is) far less marked by strident certainty.
LOL, I think that’s a function of age. Everything seems so black and white at age 20, doesn’t it?
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