Animals through a hunter’s eyes: Not just meat

Photo by Ken Thomas

“Did becoming a hunter change how you see wildlife?” The question came during a recent book talk.

No, I thought.

In my thirty-plus years as a non-hunter, I enjoyed watching all kinds of wild creatures, from goldfinches and squirrels to rabbits and herons. I still enjoy watching them.

In those three decades, I also took care to avoid causing inadvertent harm. In June, for instance, I kept an eye out for the painted turtles who crawl up from the pond to lay eggs along our driveway, lest I run one over. I still take the same care.

The second part of the question was more focused: “Now, when you see deer, do you see meat on the hoof?”

“No,” I said and began to explain.

As a non-hunter, I took aesthetic pleasure in seeing whitetails. I marveled at their beauty and grace, glad to know that these beings were among my wild neighbors. I still do.

I now have a deeper appreciation for how deer live, eat, and thrive, for how they interact with each other and with other animals, for the difficulties they face each winter. And I have become more attentive to their tracks, to the places where they tend to cross hiking trails, to their patterns of movement across the landscape. Most of the year, though, I simply enjoy seeing them.

As a non-hunter, I also took care to avoid harming deer. Driving at night, I watched roadsides, lest a whitetail suddenly leap in front of the car. I still do. Though aware that hunting season might bring me into a very different relationship with a particular deer, I do everything I can to avoid indiscriminate harm.

And I’m not alone. In my experience, hunters hate the idea of killing a whitetail outside the bounds of hunting, and hate the idea of wounding one in any context. One deer hunter told me how, while mowing the tall grass in front of his hunting cabin, he once came upon a tiny spotted fawn. He stopped cutting immediately, relieved that he had noticed the animal.

A few weeks each autumn, I do contemplate taking a deer’s life. Sometimes I actually kill, and then begin the deliberate ritual of dismantling that body, packaging meat that will feed our bodies through winter. In my eyes, though, deer are much more than food.

That’s one of the many truths factory farming obscures: Animals are not just meat.

© 2012 Tovar Cerulli


  1. Carol Eberhard says:

    Well said, once again, Tovar. Deer have always fascinated me, just as the creatures they are, yet at times, I pursue them as a predator. There have been many times in that pursuit, I did not take a deer, but merely observed them, thrilled for the moment. There have also been times, when a neighbor has asked me to dispatch one, like the time one was hopelessly entangled in a hogwire fence. That killing was necessary, but totally gut wrenching.

  2. Erik Jensen says:

    I switch my thinking even from day to day and I’m aware of it. Watching game animals or birds, I definitely I see meat on the hoof or in the air sometimes, but other times I just watch them and reflect on how they go about the world, what they eat, how they struggle, how they relate to other animals.

    Certainly being a hunter makes me think in ways some people might find strange. Until last year, I never contemplated hunting bears, partially because in MN, for some understandable reasons, bear hunting is done with bait. It just didn’t appeal to me. But, on our elk hunt in Colorado last year, we saw bears on regular occasion, and in some cases we could have successfully stalked them and killed them with our bows. About the fifth day of eating dried food and not getting a shot at any elk, I sort of wished the license was also good for bear as it would have been in some western states, I really wanted fresh meat and I started relating to bears as a possible food source.

    Then there are other times, more likely to be outside of hunting season, I am more like the non-hunter, just curious and fascinated, but even in those times, I will sometimes see animals as food, just less than during hunting season.

  3. somsai says:

    Hunting has changed the way I view animals in profound ways.

    Animals used to be just an enjoyable part of the scenery. Part of the backdrop that makes it fun for me to spend time in forests and wilderness. I also like to see avalanches, alpine big walls, and remote undammed rivers. Hunting allowed me to see animals differently just as climbing allowed me to see rocks differently.

    I spent the spring, summer and early fall of the year before I started hunting learning the tracks, habits, and even the scat of the mule deer, elk, and moose, until I reached the point where I could tell the difference between the track of a small elk and a large deer or young moose. I learned where the different ungulates like to sleep and when. I even learned the habits of the other animals that prey on ungulates, the coyote, black bear, and mountain lion.

    The deer have not become domestic, they don’t have it in their nature to become cows or horses, hunting deer led me to some understanding of why.

    Deer have to be about the gentlest of animals, it’s not for nothing that the male rabbit is called a buck and the female a doe. Deer are that same gentle. The expression doe eyed is a metaphor for soft beauty. When just out for a walk I take care to make enough noise so the deer hears me a ways off instead of surprising it.

    Of late it has become stylish to attribute sloth and laziness to elk that aren’t preyed upon by wolves. I know that those who think that way have never skinned an elk or seen it in it’s springtime semi starved condition. Elk carry a sixty pound blanket over their back in the summer and fall, it’s their skin with all it’s hair and a very thick layer of fat to last them the cold winter. Elk overheat easily, they move as slowly as possible to preserve precious calories for the terribly cold winter ahead. They chew their cud cool in the shady deep timber.

    Some people revel in the thought of elk and deer being eaten by predators in some kind of a natural Roman Games of tooth and claw. The thought of such gentle creatures being eaten alive in terror and pain repulses me, yet I know many gather at Yellowstone to watch with extremely high powered expensive spotting scopes never far from their climate controlled land yachts we call SUVs. I doubt they care for these large deer the way I do.

    I have great respect and admiration for the predators. I keep my distance from the tree under which the remains of the carcass has been drug by the very same bear that watches from the shadows. And I smile at flushing that trickster the coyote from where he was hiding and seeing him turn yards into time fleeting.

    None of that comes close to the deep affection I feel for all the deer, so gentle, so beautiful, so wild. All that from hunting.

    • Tovar says:

      That’s beautifully said, Somsai.

      As I suggest briefly in the post (“a deeper appreciation…more attentive…”), hunting has changed and deepened my sense of deer. What is has not done is reduce them to mere meat in my mind — or, obviously, in yours.

  4. Interesting questions, Tovar. Were those people surprised by the answers?

    Hunting has totally changed how I view animals, but probably not in the ways non-hunters would expect. I now know more about them, and have way more respect for them. By that I don’t mean respect as in trying to avoid inadvertent harm, though that’s part of it (always has been). What I mean is I respect their intelligence and capacities far more now that I watch them as a fellow animal, not a look-but-don’t-touch passerby.

    • Tovar says:

      Hard to say whether they were surprised, Holly. My impression was that the woman asking those particular questions was curious about my experience and was also trying to wrap her mind around what it would be like to be a hunter: how the occasional pursuit of killing for food would (or wouldn’t) change how she saw an animal like a deer. (If she was an omnivore, I wonder if she saw cows as “meat on the hoof” or chickens as “meat on the foot.”)

      You wrote: “Hunting has totally changed how I view animals, but probably not in the ways non-hunters would expect.” I agree. That’s an important message to convey.

      • Oh, now I see where she was going. My biggest fear going into hunting was that I would become callous toward animals. It was a huge and pleasant surprise that what happened was the exact opposite.

        • Tovar says:

          Yeah, I think callousness can be a risk. I, like you, wouldn’t want to end up there.

          Along those lines, one of the things I like about Val Plumwood’s essay “Being Prey” is how she reminds us that all creatures (including humans) are both edible and more than edible.

  5. I’m very much in Erik’s camp — how I view animals changes, depending on circumstances, the animal, and the day. Because I also raise some of my own food, I’ve started seeing some animals as competition. I can still appreciate a hawk’s hunting prowess and majesty, but I see it differently when it’s directed at my chickens.

    But I will have to admit that, since I started hunting (something I’m new to, have little experience with, and, so far, pretty much suck at), how I view animals has changed in what I suspect IS the way non-hunters would expect. I have a willingness to kill them, and I have lost some of the sentimentality and squeamishness that would have prevented my killing them before I decided I was going to hunt. But those feelings haven’t changed because I hunt — I made a concerted effort to change them in order to hunt.

    • Tovar says:

      Tamar wrote: “How I view animals changes, depending on circumstances, the animal, and the day.” I hear you there! To some degree, I imagine that’s true for anyone who has any variety of interactions with animals.

      It’s interesting how you describe making a concerted effort to change certain feelings about animals in order to hunt. I don’t recall doing that precisely, or at least wouldn’t have said it that way, but I definitely had to overcome some real discomfort with the idea of killing.

  6. Paul Roberts says:

    I never see meat on the hoof or wing. I see life, then I make a decision. Sometimes, and rarely, it’s to take that life. I have become comfortable with that. That too was a decision.

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