Eating and caring: The lines we draw

Photo by Ken Thomas

Some hunters pursue and eat birds, rabbits, and deer, but draw the line at bears. For them, bruins resemble humans a little too much: They’re intelligent omnivores. Their eyes face forward. They can stand on two feet and climb trees.

I haven’t ever pondered bear- hunting, but I may be one of these hunters. Though I understand the need to manage bears and to keep them from getting too comfortable in people’s backyards, I’m not sure I would squeeze the trigger myself.

Vegetarians draw the line at fish, birds, and mammals (or, in the case of vegans, anything derived from them). One reason is that these creatures resemble humans a little too much: They have faces and vertebrae. They walk, run, swim, and crawl. They have the capacity to suffer.

Most people in this part of the world won’t eat cats or dogs. These animals may not resemble us any more than pigs do, but culturally we have embraced them as members of the extended human family.

In short, I think everyone holds some version of the same conceptual category: “Fellow creatures about whom I care too much to eat.”

I think everyone also holds some version of the opposite category: “Life forms I eat without concern.” Some people don’t trouble themselves about animals, domestic or wild. Most of us don’t fret about plants. Despite the indications—from ancient teachings and modern science alike—that plants sense far more than we give them credit for, few of us worry that a tomato vine is traumatized by being stripped of fruit.

When I was a vegan, those were the only two categories I saw. The line I drew was absolute: Above it, sentient beings I cared about and would not eat. Below it, non-sentient edibles about which I need not care. Black on one side, white on the other. A tidy dualism.

The world, however, does not conform to such a convenient moral order. For most of us, there is a third and more troubling category: “Creatures I care about, harmed by my eating.”

How do we handle this messy middle ground?

One option, of course, is not to admit it. We can sit down to a burger or a steak and refuse to acknowledge the steer or the slaughterhouse. We can sit down to a fruit salad or a veggie stir-fry and refuse to acknowledge the deer, rabbits, mice, and birds injured and killed in orchards and fields.

But what if we want to acknowledge it? What then?

In Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez wrote:

No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind: how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s own culture but within oneself.

I wonder: Are we any closer to solving this dilemma than our ancestors were?

© 2011 Tovar Cerulli


    • Tovar says:

      Thanks, Al. I know a number of hunters who hunt black bears here in the East, and quite a few people who really enjoy bear meat. I’m not opposed to that, I’m just not sure it’s for me.

      I’m nearly certain I couldn’t hunt fellow primates, short of absolute life-and-death necessity.

  1. Eric Nuse says:

    One of my favorite quotes about hunting comes from Arctic Dreams – It goes something like this – There is nothing more alive than a hungry indigenous hunter.
    I have eaten a bear – a young male road kill. Skinned, it looked very much like a very strong wrestler. After I got over that the meat was very good- mild beefy flavor. I may hunt the bear that has been breaking into our hen house eating the grain (but interestingly not the hens – vegetarian bear?). I finally have it bear proofed, not an easy task, but he is still in the neighborhood but thankfully working on choke cherries and raspberries.

  2. Steven Bissell says:

    While I was a ‘full contact’ biologist and doing a lot of trapping of mammals I decided to eat, at least once, every species I killed. The only exception I made was skunk which I just couldn’t do. I did eat a weasel once and it was nasty. Also I ate small bats (never killed a fruit bat although they are commonly eaten in Asia and Polynesia) and they were pretty vile. Bear is actually quite good, but you have to take parasites into consideration here; I had a crusty old game warden tell me he wouldn’t eat bear because ‘they are too much like dogs!’ . One surprising thing was Mountain Lion; it is delicious! I ate a opossum once and it was alright. There was a time when you would see Muskrats on restaurant menus in the SE USA, but I don’t know anymore. Beaver tail is great, but really rich.

    I find the issue of ‘sentience’ interesting as the meaning seems to shift. On one hand the original use of the word was taken to mean ‘self aware’ and I was never sure how to determine that. However ‘sentience’ now seems to mean ‘capable of feeling pain.’ That puts us into an interesting situation where we need to determine pain thresholds in animals as a moral issue. I joyfully consume oysters a few times a year and they are still alive when I do so! Do they experience ‘pain,’ ‘terror,’ or anything like that? I have no idea but if I thought about it I’d have to say ‘no.’

    Vegans on the other hand seldom seem to consider the environmental impact of what they eat. Right now Brazil is the second largest producer of soy in the world (USA is first) and much of that is in the Amazon and Mato Grosso and involves cutting rain forest or draining wetlands. Soy production in the USA often involves irrigation. Soy takes about 20 inches of water and in the Arkansas Valley here in Colorado there is only about 12 inches of rain per year. The difference is made of with irrigation and that water is often diversion water from the Colorado River drainage. So the soy production is impacting at least two drainages, often in adverse ways.

    Interesting issue.

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks for sharing your experiences and thoughts, Steven. I have to respect your adventuresome palate!

      True: sentience, awareness, and suffering are all in complex territory.

      The impacts of agriculture played a significant role in stripping away my illusions about my vegan diet.

  3. Kevin says:

    Great post Tovar. Excellent questions that are not easily answered. Steven, its funny that you said that game warden wouldn’t eat bear because they’re “too much like dogs.” I feel the same way. Its really the sole reason I don’t hunt bear. I don’t like that they often cry-out when they’re struck with a bullet or arrow. Triggers my mirror neurons.

  4. I think about this a lot, and I don’t think it’s possible to articulate a sound reason why we will eat this edible animal or plant and not that one – it is an utterly irrational decision.

    I eat animals because they are part of a normal human diet, and my body has made it clear to me that I require meat. I consider all animals (and plants) my kin, which requires me to do my best to avoid inflicting non-fatal wounds. I don’t eat or kill my personal friends in the animal world – on the contrary, I’ll go out of my way to nurture and protect them. I’ll also go out of my way to avoid unintentionally hurting non-friends (the spider stuck in the bathtub, etc.).

    Can I defend those statements and declare that they are morally “right”? No, but I have come to the conclusion that nature is amoral – it is a perfect system for perpetuating life in general, but it generates millions of cruelties to individual lives. Deciding that any part of it is “right” or “wrong” is irrelevant, because it is what it is, period. All we can do is live in nature in a way that makes us most comfortable, and that is a choice we can make only for ourselves.

    • Tovar says:

      At one level, yes, perhaps the distinctions we make are irrational and cannot be established as abstractly and absolutely “right.”

      Yet there is always a moral dimension, and probably a kind of moral logic, to human action and speech. That’s the quandary I think Lopez points to: Much about the natural world we live in may, as you say, be amoral, yet we live in it as moral beings.

  5. Phillip says:

    Great stuff.

    As to bears, I can’t make myself shoot one. Alive, they look too much like my beloved labrador retrievers, and dead they do look a lot like humans (although, once dead, I’m much less squeamish about it). I’ve had the opportunity, tag-in-hand, and crosshairs leveled at less than 60 yards… but couldn’t pull the trigger. On the other hand, though, if someone else has shot it, I will certainly eat it.

    Otherwise, there’s not much meat I won’t try. I’m hesitant to eat our various ground squirrels due to the risk (probably overblown) of bubonic plague, but I know there are several folks who do eat them with no apparent ill effects. I really wish CA would lift the ban on mountain lions, because I’ve heard nothing but good things about the quality of the meat. Bobcats are legal, and supposedly just as tasty. Unfortunately, since I learned they’re good to eat, I haven’t had the opportunity to shoot one.

    How we draw these lines varies a lot, though, and it is an interesting question.

    And thanks, by the way, for bringing Barry Lopez into the conversation. I can’t say I’m in love with everything he’s written, but I do enjoy much of his work.

    • Tovar says:

      I expect that I, like you, Phillip, would probably eat bear meat if someone offered it.

      Personally, I don’t have any interest in hunting predators like bobcats. In part, that’s probably because bobcats aren’t that numerous here. On the rare occasions when I get to see a bobcat, I see them through a conservationist’s eyes — thinking about habitat and connectivity, without any thought of hunting them. For me, I guess, how they taste is irrelevant.

      In part, our line-drawing intrigues me because it’s something we all seem to have in common (from vegans to avid hunters). All that varies is how and where we draw those lines, and the specific moral/emotional logic behind them.

  6. Arthur says:

    I guess the only line I draw occurs when it comes to dogs. I love dogs, and could never kill one purposely, or for food. I would, however, not hesitate to kill one that is doing harm to someone.

    I have no problem with killing a bear, deer, goat, elephant, etc., as long as their is/was a need for the killing – it’s a nuisance animal, or it’s providing food.

    I suppose it is quite the debate, and it has been going on for many years, but I just don’t get too picky about which animals I would kill to provide food for the table. I suppose I do have some that I prefer not to kill, but, if the situation called for it, I wouldn’t hesitate.

    We humans put much thought into this, while our animal brethren do not consider it at all. Plus, we have a moral compass, and I think that is what ultimately separates us.

    Great post, Tovar.

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks, Arthur.

      I think dogs are particularly hard for many of us to imagine eating, or even harming (barring self-defense, as you point out).

  7. Ken Thomas says:

    My grandfather (who learned to hunt in a time when there were far fewer deer than there are today) hunted for meat, but he enjoyed it because it required some skill. It was a challenge. He loved turkey hunting for the same reason. “Killing a bear,” he would say “is just luck. You got lucky or he got unlucky. That’s all there is to it.” That’s why he never killed a bear.

    Most bear hunting down here in the southern Appalachians is done with dogs, and that’s one of the main reasons I’ve never gotten into it. I don’t have anything against hunting with dogs, but it’s not something I’m equipped to enjoy personally. Some of my friends bowhunt for bear, but I’ve never been able to get excited about that. Tracking a wounded bear through the brush doesn’t seem like my idea of either a good time or a smart hobby.

    But, the truth is I may be guilty of anthropomorphizing bears a little bit. I’ve had my crosshairs on a bear’s shoulder at least 3 times, but I’ve never pulled the trigger. I never really analyzed the emotion behind it until I read your post, but I’ve been sitting here thinking about it for awhile now, and this is the best reason I can come up with:
    Deer are part of the forest. Turkey and squirrel seem like part of the forest. Wolves and coyotes seem like intruders in the forest. Bear seem like they’re sharing the forest with us. They are fellow predators without being rivals.

    • Tovar says:

      Interesting thoughts from your grandfather, Ken. So many factors go into hunters’ different senses of what they will or won’t hunt and why.

      I’ve heard that bears can be very hard to track. In the unlikely event that I ever do hunt bears, I don’t think it would be with a bow.

      That “fellowship” you describe — between bears and us — is, I think, a big part of the sentiment that leads some hunters not to hunt them, or not to shoot.

  8. I think about these issues a lot. I raise sheep, vegetables, and at various times poultry, and sell at a farmer’s market as well as eating what I raise/forage (at least when I have time around the full-time off-farm job right now). There is a strong vegan movement here in town, and a lot of vegetarians that draw the line in various places. At market, I have conversations about the ethics of eating meat/killing animals a lot.

    Death is too remote from most modern lives, in my opinion. Most folks have very inexperienced, unbalanced opinions based on myths and gossip. The transition from city kid to farmer has brought me closer and closer into the web of life, through birthing/hatching but especially through all the various death experiences. Learning to be comfortable with death in all its forms has been a long emotional journey, and I can’t say I’m “there” yet. But I feel that the more comfortable I am with death, the more truly human/humane I become: more compassionate, gentle, humble; less violent, dominating, harsh.

    I feel terrible when my livestock dies of “natural causes”. It’s usually a horrible death–ruptured spleen, rampant infection, anemia from parasites draining the lifeblood away through the stomach lining, starvation from old age. Wild animals suffer these things, too, and also being hit by cars. I feel like I have done well and have given an animal the best life possible when its death is a simple, clean, planned slaughter.

    Every animal will die–it’s just a question of how and when and who it will feed. Every person, as well. The meat inspector and I solemnly agree each time, as we watch the kill in the little family-owned custom processing plant–we would like to be able to choose such a quick end for ourselves, were we to find ourselves near the end of a terminal illness.

    My eyesight makes me a lousy shot, but I wouldn’t hesitate emotionally to hunt just about anything that is being more trouble than it’s worth, with the exception of birds of prey who are so essential to natural pest control. I’ve live-trapped squirrels and groundhogs, drowned them, and eaten them.

    Whether livestock or varmint, it’s the same arrangement: We take turns: I feed them, they feed me. We enter into a mutual dance with one another, enter into each others lives in a very intimate way. Do I “win” by eating the other? No, I will die too, and feed worms or a fire, and become the nutrients for new life.

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Natalya. You express these things beautifully.

      The insights (and conflicts) you name have been central to my journey as well. In my vegan years, I would have found it impossible to comprehend how killing could make you “more compassionate, gentle, humble; less violent, dominating, harsh.” Now, I know exactly what you mean.

      Like you, I see life-and-death as a whole cycle, a “mutual dance.” We are not masters of the food chain. We are merely participants.

  9. Al Cambronne says:

    Where to draw the line, and why? Very interesting questions.

    A lot of people in my area hunt bear, but I just don’t know… I’ve heard that, especially skinned and with the head and feet removed, those carcasses look way too human. Don’t think I’d like to make my living as a taxidermist specializing in bears.

    Many years ago when I was living in Taiwan for a while, I had the opportunity to sample a lot of new foods. I tried to be open-minded, and I did try dog meat once or twice on certain social occasions. It was delicacy that was supposed to make you feel warm and healthy when the weather was cold. Since it was quite expensive, there wasn’t actually much meat in the stew. The recipe seemed to use a lot of star anise intended to make it taste meatier. It tasted like red meat.

    It certainly wasn’t something I’d have ordered on my own. Nor would I want to kill and butcher it on my own. Similarly, I’m not sure I’d want to hunt coyotes or wolves, whether I’m eating them or not. Too much like shooting the neighbor’s German Shepherd.

    Out in the country, I saw small cafes with signs advertising rat meat. Since I’d recently been living in the city, this seemed pretty disgusting. But then I realized that in rural areas these rats were probably nice clean wild animals living out in the fields, so it wouldn’t be very different from squirrel or rabbit. (Except they probably have a lot of cavities from chewing on all that sugar cane.) Never did try it, and if I had it would have been just so I could say I did.

    Even in rural Asian backwaters, both dishes are probably served less often these days. And that’s probably OK. But it’s a matter of taste.

    Are there moral, culturally neutral, rational rationales for where to draw the line? I think so. Sentience, as others have noted, is a slippery slope. A rabbit, pheasant, or deer can feel pain. And despite being cold and slimy, fish probably can, too. But they’re not as intelligent or aware as some other creatures. At some point, an animal is just too close to being human—and too close to being family.

    I’d have a hard time eating another primate. Maybe that’s not culturally neutral; I’ve read that this is a common sort of “bush meat” in some parts of Africa. But to me that would be just a half-step short of cannibalism.

    I’d feel exactly the same about eating cetaceans. Whales and dolphins might be hairless, but I believe they’re far more sentient than most people realize. The only reason they haven’t developed technology and civilization is that they don’t have hands, and they can’t make fire underwater. Otherwise, they’d rule the earth. That’s my theory.

    • Well said, Al. I could probably kill a cetacean for food if I needed to – my threshold for killing is really about use of the animal – but I agree that if they had opposable thumbs, the earth would be a very different place, because they’d rule the oceans. (Of course, chances are they’d make poor decisions with their superior intelligence, just as we have. LOL, they’d probably be disposing of all their garbage on our beaches!)

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks for mentioning your culinary experiences in Taiwan, Al. Very interesting.

      I think “a half-step short of cannibalism” is a good shorthand for much of this topic. Different people have different ideas about how long a step it is to primates, dogs, cows, fish, and so on.

      I’d like to think that cetaceans wouldn’t make a mess of the ocean if they had opposable thumbs. But maybe Holly’s right: maybe they’d invent catapults to toss their garbage up onto Sacramento and Boston.

  10. Chas says:

    I worked a couple of seasons as a cook/camp hand for an outfitter’s bear-hunting camp but never had the slightest desire to shoot one. Too much like us, maybe?

    On the other hand, I don’t think that whales are any smarter than buffalo, but that is no excuse to drive them to extinction.

  11. I have often pondered the dichotomy of this arbitrary, yet very fundamental, line drawing. Some animals are family, others are units of production produced to only to eat and most people feel quite comfortable with this.

    It’s not an issue of sentience, we love pork and we all know pigs are some of the sharpest of our animal brethren. Of course it’s largely cultural, including religious (Hitchens has a very thorough explanation of how pork fell into disfavour amongst Jews and Muslims for example).
    The bear issue is also common here. I eat them and find their meat very good. However I also admit that I don’t treat them like a ‘primary meat animal’. Giraffe are a common issue too. I meet hunters here who would love to hunt in Africa but say they could never kill a giraffe, for no clear reason. Giraffe are delicious, common and no different to any other ungulate but the cultural weight and symbolism they bear is quite different.

    It is with some shame and with the hindsight of maturity that I admit that as a teen I shot problem monkeys. I grew up in Africa, monkeys were a constant pest in some places and when they trashed a campsite or farm house we shot the perpetrators. There is no way I could kill one now! In fact I hate safari reports when hunters claim how they would love to shoot a ‘pile of baboons’, I find it to be wanton killing and it angers me. I also fail to see the attraction in shooting gophers, which is major sport here in the spring. I would rather hunt a bear and eat it than stand on the prairie and giggle at gophers doing backflips from my .17HMR. I understand they are pests but fail to see the how people relish gopher season regardless of the pest status or not?

    Situational ethics and cognitive bias towards killing animals, born out of a bounded rationality, is fascinating and certainly complex. Thanks for the interesting post.

    • Bravo, Brian. I agree 100 percent. I appreciate your candor about what you used to shoot too. I’ve never wanted to shoot animals that way, but I know it’s pretty common for boys to go through that phase (though I’ve been chastised for saying it). I’m sure it serves a purpose, biologically, just as my incredible (but more restrained) passion for hunting does: It ensures that we hunt and acquire protein for our diets.

    • Tovar says:

      Interesting observation on “the cultural weight and symbolism” of giraffes, Brian.

      And, as Holly said, thanks for your candor about monkeys, and the link you drew to the desire to wantonly shoot a “pile” of any creature as some kind of entertainment.

  12. Thanks,

    I agree Holly, boys do go through that stage, which is essentially similar to Kellert’s first stages.

    I often read safari forums where folks ask how many snakes they can annihilate in Africa or how many Rattlers they can kill on a whitetail hunt in Texas. I am a snake fan but that aside, it just seems too much like wanton blood thirst to me and there are very few legally huntable species I would not pursue. I have discussed the Argentinian dove shooting before – I would happily go and shoot doves there but this whole ethic of trying to break the ‘1000 in a day’ mark just turns me off!

    The status of giraffe amongst some hunters is odd to me Tovar. I bet there are some who would kill a ‘pile’ of monkeys or baboons if given the chance on a safari but would decline the opportunity to hunt a giraffe. I guess it’s akin to the disinterest in hunting bears amongst some avid hunters. I also meet hunters here that have taken a few bears in their careers and feel they have had their fill. I hunt them (not off bait though, I have no ethical quandaries with that, I just don’t think it’s very satisfying) but am not focussed on filling the freezer with bear, like I am keen to do with deer, despite that the last 2 bears my friend and I have hunted have been very good table fare.

    • Agreed on the dove hunting – I don’t even want to shoot 1,000 clays in a day, much less 1,000 doves, particularly when there’s no realistic way for me to bring them home.

      I know this form of hunting – meaning shooting everything you can of species X, Y or Z – is legal in some cases, but I think it makes it harder for us to defend what we do. Most people want to know there was a good reason for us to kill an animal, and “because I felt like it” doesn’t qualify.

  13. Kim Graves says:

    My wife, Masha, calls me the least squeamish person she knows. But I have limits to what I’ll eat. I won’t eat primates; I won’t eat whales or dolphins; I won’t eat endangered species of any sort; I won’t eat species at the top of the food chain because they’re needed to keep the ecosystem healthy; And I won’t eat human beings.

    Since moving to the country three years ago I’ve confronted the idea of hunting and the reality of killing animals for food. We raise chickens and in the past guinea fowl. I occasionally slaughter them. Friends raise rabbits and have taught me first hand how to slaughter them. I hope to raise my own rabbits starting next spring. Our neighbors bring us venison once their freezers are full and we relish it.

    Here’s my dilemma that I’ll just throw out to the group for your insight. Slaughter when it’s done correctly is quick, deliberate, and sure. The animal is stunned to unconsciousness and then bleed out to kill it. Once the process is started the end result is meat. The good work of Temple Grandin has made the time up until slaughter as stress free as possible. If any of you have ever had general anesthesia, where a “light switch” is thrown and you’re out. If you died during that time you would never know it and therefore not suffer. When slaughter is done properly, I imagine that there is no suffering on the part of the animal. I have no problem with slaughter or with eating slaughtered animals.

    Hunting is different. The animal is not stunned prior to being bleed out by a bullet or arrow. And if the hunter misses a critical area, the animal may be wounded and escape. Either way, my guess is that there is suffering involved. I don’t know how to reconcile that. I certainly can’t reconcile it if the animal is not eaten – if the motivation is a trophy: a “pile of baboons”; a 1000 dove day; a large rack. Killing anything for its own sake seems to me to be immoral.

    Hunting to eat I think is different but I’m still struggling with how. I admire the skill needed and the experience of hunting. I don’t want to deny anyone that experience. Good hunters are conservationists. There is still suffering involved, but if you eat the animal, somehow that makes it okay. Deer in my area are a very serious problem. They strip not only the garden and the yard (which I really don’t think matters) but the forest floor as well. There are just too many of them because of the abundance of corn and other agricultural crops along with the killing of predators. So we happily allow our hunting friends to hunt our property with conditions: deer only; does only. But though I can slaughter our domesticated animals, I’ve never hunted and am not sure I would be comfortable with it.

    • Al Cambronne says:

      Kim —

      I’d question two assumptions that seem implicit here. First, that the slaughter of domestic animals is always pain-free and fear-free. I know of Temple Grandin and her work, and it’s certainly true that a curved ramp leading to the killing-room floor is better than a straight one. Thanks to her and others, there are also many other ways that a modern slaughterhouse is more humane than it might have once been.

      Still, I don’t think commercial slaughter is always–and maybe not EVER–as humane as the “general anesthesia” scenario. Even if it is when things go right, there are probably lots of times when things don’t go right.

      The same, of course, is true of hunting. Even the most careful, conscientious hunters may sometimes make a bad shot and cause suffering. But hunting can be just as humane as whatever happens out of sight in a slaughterhouse. When everything goes right, I’d argue that hunting can even be MORE humane. It really can be like flicking a light switch to OFF. The animal may, quite literally, “never know what hit it.”

      That’s true when hunting with a firearm. I’m less certain about bowhunting, and that’s one reason for my hesitation in trying it. I’m told, though, that with a good shot it’s still possible for the animal to feel little pain and expire quickly.

      To sum up and generalize a great deal, I think large-scale commercial slaughterhouses are often far less humane than many people believe, and hunting is–potentially, at least–far more humane than many people believe.

    • Tovar says:

      The questions you raise were very much on my mind when I took up hunting, Kim, and remain on my mind today, particularly when I am actually hunting. In my first few years afield, I had a couple of near misses — almost wounding an animal — and was ashamed and sobered.

      Just a few weeks ago, a magazine editor (who is editing a piece in which I am mentioned) asked me, “Are you of the mind that slaughter through hunting is less stressful on the animals?”

      I answered this way: “It depends. When all goes well, yes. I have killed several deer with a rifle and all have lost consciousness in a few seconds or less. I’m confident that they felt no pain or fear, only a moment’s shock. Most didn’t even know I was there. This is the kind of kill that all conscientious hunters strive for. On the other hand, things are not perfectly controlled or predictable in the woods. Whether through callousness, carelessness, or misfortune, some non-fatal (or slow and fatal) wounds do get inflicted. This is the kind of situation that all conscientious hunters dread.”

      So, Kim, I guess my perspective is twofold: The hunting kill can be better than even the best domestic slaughter, with the animal living a free, wild life and then losing consciousness in a flash. The hunting kill can also be worse than a lot of domestic slaughtering, causing extended suffering, especially if the animal escapes entirely. It all depends. In domestic situations, it depends almost entirely on how the situation is designed and how diligent the people are. In the wild, it also depends on both circumstances and diligence, but there’s no denying that greater unpredictability comes into play.

      Yeah, I wrestle with this stuff in the book. There’s no getting away from it.

      • Kim, that’s a good thought-provoking comment.

        I’ll echo Al’s response and make some additions. In her work Grandin actually found something like 30%+ of US slaughterhouses had regular gross violations in humane handing and slaughter practices. Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Eating Animals’ has a good account of slaughterhouse practice and Matthew Scully does too in ‘Dominion’. Scully also references a host of journos who have reported on slaughterhouse cruelty. Dr. Michael Broadway has worked on the negative social aspects of slaughterhouse work, but these are intricately correlated to the constant violence and cruelty that workers endured each shift. In fact Foer and Scullys transcript quotes from interviews with kill floor workers will turn your stomach! Their reports of sadism at work are horrifying.
        I think equating small scale conscientious subsistence slaughter as you do is incommensurable with large packing plants – but that just my opinion.

        Hunted animals may, and I am sure do, feel pain. Veterinary evidence suggests that nocicpetion and opioid secretion may dull pain for short periods of time – in other words the same phenomena that people describe after trauma, many report not feeling pain for a few seconds. Nocicpetion blocks pain stimulus at the base of spinal cord and prevents it from reaching the brain. It’s an adaptation that allows us to flee the mechanism of injury. The stress is not short circuited, just the pain signal. Now, I realize that this sounds like a moral bypass that legitimizes inflicting pain. It isn’t. Nor is there any way to know if it happens in each situation. I am however confident that a properly placed shot may only cause a few seconds of pain, much like any death that a deer is likely to endure from predators. I am hoping to take my first archery deer this year and an interested to see how I feel about it after that. I am satisfied that a lethally shot animal is better off than a sow confined in a farrowing crate that has deformities, constant pain, broken bones and infected lesions while being repeated inseminated to produced more units of production.

        This may sound like Peter Singer –esque ‘happiness calculus’ but if the options are a gunshot wild, free range moose that ran for 7 seconds, fell over, kicked a couple of times and lay still vs. a cow from a feed lot that stood in its own crap for months, endured depravations, mistreatment, electrical prodding, dehydrated transport and needed to be beaten into the kill chute, I’m going moose! I will however readily eat pasture raised beef that is killed on-farm by its owner and am trying to do this exclusively over store bought unknown –origin beef. In fact I have been substituting ground bear for ground beef and it’s a bomber substitute, I have a bear bolognaise for lunch today!

        • Tovar says:

          We are, of course, comparing a number of different things in this discussion. There’s (1) factory-farming, (2) factory-farming with Grandin-style improvements, (3) conscientious, free-range, pasture-style farming, and (4) hunting, plus variations on each of those. And there’s (A) the animal’s entire life and (B) the actual moment of death/killing. Lots of permutations there, each raising questions about the animal’s experience, happiness, and suffering.

          • In this conversation we are also presuming agreement on several really basic assumptions, which in fact my experience entering into the web of life on the farm has led me to deeply question. These include:

            1) We assume that life, whether ours or that of other living beings, can and should be free or pain and suffering.

            2) We assume that pain and suffering are somehow “evil” or “bad”.

            3) We assume that we, as humans, have a responsibility to never cause pain or suffering to another living being (or to a living being that meets or exceeds certain thresholds) and that this is possible if we try hard enough.

            In fact, these are as much part of life as eating, breathing, etc. And we can’t control the outcomes of our actions.

            I think that we make these impossible assumptions in order to more easily justify and “substantiate” our judgements that certain situations/actions are utterly, always wrong. It’s much easier to set black and white boundaries once and for all than it is to take each situation under consideration on its own. I find that I can’t honestly say I would “never” eat this thing or that thing…only that in most situations where these are offered, I might make a different choice.

            In part, it’s the mental exercise of thinking about it in abstract terms, that makes it easy to reject certain ideas of what to eat. In a real situation, our on-the-spot decision might be different and appropriate. When I used to think about eating squid, I naturally thought “Yuck! No way”. When the bride-to-be ordered calamari salad with lime at the fancy restaurant at the rehearsal dinner, I decided differently: “Well if she likes it, I”ll try it, I might be missing something good.”

            I think we also make these assumptions out of empathy. We take our little daily ouchies and trials, or the really big traumas in our lives; transfer our feelings and responses to other living beings who in reality have entirely different sensibilities and pain thresholds; and magnify those imagined feelings to what we consider a worst-case scenario–the process of dying.

            Meanwhile, we conveniently ignore that every time we take a car on the highway in a non-urban area we are pointing a deadly weapon at every wild thing that crosses the road. Do we stop driving because we might cause incredible suffering to a deer or coyote or snapping turtle that gets a glancing blow? Should the emotional trauma of hitting a skunk with a transit bus end my career as a bus driver in order for me to stay a spiritual person? People refuse to order frog legs in a restaurant yet will blithely commute daily on a roadway covered with smashed frogs.

            I suspect that we fear that without setting simplistic boundaries–believing that pain and suffering are evil and never to be inflicted by ourselves or other species–we collectively will devolve into utter brutality, and we will have no way to distinguish ourselves from a gruesome unrepentant serial rapist/killer.

            In following this train of “thought” or rather reactions to our emotional responses, we have created a culture where we are in serious denial about not only death but all kinds of pain and suffering. I think it is that denial itself that makes unbelievable human cruelty possible.

            We also have created an environment where it’s not ok to hunt pest deer in suburban areas, but it’s ok for them to starve to death, die of disease, or be hit by cars (killing and maiming countless humans in the process).

            When we accept our own pain, suffering, and ultimate mortality, never taking our current well-being and existence for granted, then I think we become compassionate and moral people. I think a lot of people develop this through a lifestyle of hunting and/or raising livestock and/or even gardening…often it’s what draws us to this lifestyle. From this foundation, we can do what is reasonable to procure food and carry out our lives without pre-set rigid boundaries or going to extremes, whether raw food veganism or trying to shoot a “pile” of something just to say we did it.

            i think when we try to insist that animals’ lives be free of things that would cause us fear and pain (often without regard for their real fears–Temple Grandin’s genius is understanding and elucidating animals’ experiences of the world around them), we are really wanting our own lives to be more comfortable…and since we often can’t control the pain and fear imposed on us by our circumstances, we try to control it for animals.

            I have to say that the situations that created the most pain, stress and suffering in my life are also those that have helped me to grow and become physically stronger, more emotionally resilient, more deeply spiritual, more intellectually alert, and more compassionate for others. So, unless motivated by true cruelty, I feel that death, pain, suffering, etc. are neutral, normal parts of life.

            • Natalya,
              I like your last 4 paragraphs! You have obviously given this some thought. However I should add, in the spirit of debate:

              I agree that some level of pain or trauma is inevitable in any farming, hunting, life in general or even by the most caring of mothers, inflicted upon their children.

              I am concerned by the postmodernist relativism inherent in saying ‘its all just natural’. It’s akin to believing that rape, murder and child abuse are just the nature of things and have been part of society since Australopithecines walked around Sterkfontein or Olduvai and therefore we should not fret about them.

              Yeah, nature can be a cruel mistress and many of us or other animals will die in pain but for me the issue is that if pain and suffering are caused wantonly and can be prevented, then we are dealing with a moral issue. We spend much of our time as a species making moral decisions.

              If I see a dog that is clearly suffering and in chronic pain because its owners have a tight piece of wire around its neck, it SHOULD trouble me. If I see someone fling an 80yrd arrow at a deer, slice it guts open and turn around and proclaim ‘hey, that’s just how it goes, that suffering is part of its life’, it should trouble me because neither are an accident. As such I accept inevitable pain like a buffalo drowning slowly in a mud wallow but I don’t accept slaughterhouse workers beating pigs with steel pipes because the pigs ‘pissed them off’ – do you?

              To answer your three proclamations:

              1)“We assume that life, whether ours or that of other living beings, can and should be free or pain and suffering.”(I don’t, not sure who the ‘we’ is. ‘We’ also assume we should make $60/hour and live in mansion. Our assumptions often leave us disappointed! However I do, in part, agree with you on this; those divorced from food production may very well expect a total lack of stress and pain which is almost impossible to rule out, yes).

              2) We assume that pain and suffering are somehow “evil” or “bad”. (That’s because at some point, in some contexts, they are and you would have to be particularly postmodern or insane to argue against that I am afraid! The pain caused by Commrade Duch in Cambodia, Josef Fritzel, the kids who put fireworks in the german shepards anus or the guy who dragged his disobedient dog behind his truck is pure evil).

              3) We assume that we, as humans, have a responsibility to never cause pain or suffering to another living being (or to a living being that meets or exceeds certain thresholds) and that this is possible if we try hard enough. (That’s because we do have a responsibility to try. There is a utility calculus that allows us to inflict some pain if the utility is great enough – e.g. food, protection, work etc. but not if the utility is deemed inappropriate e.g. repeatedly kicking my dog to hear it yelp. That utility is of course cultural but I argue that across the globe those institutions of tolerable cruelty have significant commonality and overlap, and I have traveled quite widely. So yes, I have a responsibility to prevent unnecessary pain and suffering where I can. I do however understand your premise of expecting unreasonable levels of pain prevention which are just about impossible to achieve, even to ourselves!).

              • I have no big argument with your responses, Brian. Going back to the original blog topic, it’s all a question of where we, either as individuals or as a society/culture, draw the line.

                Sorry it is confusing to use “we” sometimes to mean “we mindful hunters/herders” and sometimes to mean “this crazy culture we’re stuck being part of”. Alternatives get cumbersome.

                I think a huge component is that the “line” needs to be drawn not entirely by the result (death/pain/suffering) but according to the intention of the actor–to procure food? To protect self and to some extent others and property? There is a sense of balance in those motivations if carried out responsibly. For revenge? To control territory? To express displaced anger? To delight in others’ suffering? These motivations range from inappropriate to outright “evil”.

                Daniel Quinn nibbles at the edges of these concerns in his book “Ishmael” which is foundational to my thinking and my farming practices…his distinction between “Takers” and “Leavers” is helpful language but not universally known.

                You mention mothers inflicting pain on their children…That is a good example with the sheep’s experience of pain/suffering being different than us humans, and people making inappropriate cross-species judgements–the “pain” lambs inflict on their mothers. City folks may think it’s cruel to shove a sheep, punch it in the rump to get it to move…or to thump the udder with my fist to stimulate the milk let-down reflex. Yet the sheep’s social life is founded on smashing their skulls together with force that would maim or kill us (having been on the receiving end a few times, I’m very away that I’m lucky to not be in wheel chair or in the grave), and the lambs sometimes throw their mothers off the ground repeatedly, slamming their heads agains the udder. I simply am not strong enough to cause “pain” or “suffering” by manual force applied to my sheep, short of deliberately trying to break a leg on a small-boned animal.

                What IS cruel to a sheep is to gently place it in a safe, comfortable location with good food and water where it cannot see or hear any other animals. I make sure at the slaughter house that there are other animals going through after mine on a given day. Pigs don’t seem to respond to solitude as badly as sheep.

                I think we mainly have a responsibility to keep anger, frustration, greed, and any harsh reaction to our own inner pain from motivating any actions towards any other beings…eliminate those from the world, and most unnecessary pain and suffering would be gone as well.

                Apply this “test” to the many examples that have been brought up in the whole conversation, and I think my meaning will be fairly clear. The slaughterhouse worker who perpetrates cruelty is so often reacting to inhumane working or living conditions by venting rage on the animals.

                “Hurt people hurt people”…and they hurt animals too. Hungry people just eat what they need.

                • Ingrid says:

                  Natalya wrote: “I think we mainly have a responsibility to keep anger, frustration, greed, and any harsh reaction to our own inner pain from motivating any actions towards any other beings…eliminate those from the world, and most unnecessary pain and suffering would be gone as well.”

                  I agree with your comments about how human anger and agitation — the unexplored, unconscious responses to internal issues — contribute greatly to the suffering on this planet. But I don’t think that’s the only component of cruel behavior. In fact, I would argue that the pragmatism to which you allude (viewing suffering in terms of “necessary” or “unnecessary,” for example) contributes to a detachment that can just as easily lead to cruel actions.

                  Having been raised overseas, I’ve been in countless agricultural, market and slaughter scenarios where some of the most heinous acts perpetrated were done precisely because the cultural mores dictated that level of detached pragmatism. There was no apparent anger involved in the pain inflicted on the animal. It was a product of the passive acceptance of these social mores. And it was just as cruel as if someone had beaten the animal with an iron rod for the joy of it.

                  Working as a wildlife rehabilitator and also in domestic animal rescue, I’ve seen my share of unconscionable meanness inflicted for the sake of perverse pleasure or emotional release. But equally disturbing are those acts perpetrated through either ignorance or through an intense rationalization for why it was okay to behave this way toward the animal.

                  Because of my experience, my agreement tends to lie with Brian in both what I value as an idealistic striving to reduce pain, while simultaneously understanding the impossibility of preventing pain. But, and this is a significant caveat for me … the impossibility of preventing pain does not in any way (for me) excuse humans, who have moral authority, from deliberately causing it. Animal husbandry, hunting, any exploitation of animals for our use becomes tenuous in moral terms, just by virtue of that reality. I think that’s why Brian’s argument resonate with me. Moral relativism is a very slippery slope, with behavior easily categorized and justified.

              • Ingrid says:

                Most of you know by now how I — the resident bleeding heart, non-hunter — feel about these issues. So, thank you, Brian, for articulating much better than I would have, the sentiments which mirror mine. I agree completely about moral hazards of postmodern relativism, and would lay additional blame at the feet of the deconstructionists who rejected their postmodernist inclinations (lol). Foucault comes to mind. And Foucault almost made me lose my mind the first time I read him for the very types of rationalizations you cite here. I couldn’t read without throwing the book against the sofa repeatedly. 🙂

  14. I just want to express my appreciation for finding this conversation with such a great, thoughtful, humane, articulate bunch of folks. Way more civil than my church listservs! Thank you all very much. It’s great to know such people are out there, even if I haven’t found many where I live.

  15. Pretty much agree Natalya! I like your sheep evidence. I like sheep and if I were a stock farmer that’s what I would farm. Being from SA we have a huge sheep industry, not so here in Alberta, although my friends keep them for personal use (its almost impossible to make a good living from them here).

    Ingrid, Foucault drove you nuts, really? Nooooo, hehe 😉

    • Brian–I think few people make a good living FROM sheep, but many of us make a good life WITH them! They have been exceptional teachers of many things…likewise the now-deceased, not-yet-replaced Border Collie and Llama. Like hunting, they get you to go “out yonder” when otherwise you would stay by the comfy fireside or air conditioning…and therein lies a world most modern Westerners don’t even know exists.

      Tovar–I will certainly check out that book next “reading season” whenever that happens.

  16. Tovar says:

    Thanks to everyone for the foregoing conversation! Heartfelt and fascinating. I find much to agree with in what each of you has said.

    I’m glad you’ve found us, Natalya, and are enjoying the good folks here. It has become a point of pride for me that, here, people coming from a wide range of experiences and perspectives can engage in civil, spirited dialogue about food, animals, and our relationships with the natural world.

    By the way, you mentioned the Leaver/Taker concept from Ishmael. Have you read Sharif Abdullah’s book Creating a World That Works for All? He talks about Keepers and Breakers…and also Menders, which I think many of us strive to be.

    • Tovar says:

      Kim: I didn’t expect this discussion to provide you with any answers, but I do hope it has given you some enhanced questions…

      • Kim Graves says:

        Unfortunately this thread has gotten completely away from me – I haven’t been able to keep up with it. So at the risk of saying something completely off topic, let me jump back in.

        The first objection to my observation about suffering was that slaughter houses are imperfect. Indeed! Don’t get me started on the problem of slaughter houses. The lack of adequate slaughter access is the number one impediment to humane small scale meat production. The system is setup and perpetuated by “the evil Big Ag.” The poor souls who work in those facilities are drones – of course there are abuses.

        But that’s not my point. My point is one of intent. The intent of slaughter is meat. And that’s what you get at the end of the process even if you botch or abuse the process along the way. The intent of hunting is more complicated and multifaceted. E.g.: ambition, wonder, self-identify, a good story and fun are all reasons to hunt. After all, almost none of us needs to hunt for meat. We can buy it at the supermarket. We choose to do it for reasons other than procuring food.

        So my point is how do we reconcile “fun” with killing an animal? Are the rewards of “fun” equal to or more than the moral quandary of killing?

        I have no answer here for any given situation. I can imagine where one might kill an animal and say to oneself, “that kill was not worth the fun.” I can also imagine where one would be so moved by a particular hunt as to say “this fun is so great that it more than makes up for all the other times where it wasn’t worthwhile.” So my challenge to the group is how to maximize the later and minimize the former?

        I might be able to point at a possible way to do this: hunting should be hard and adventurous. When you start out you should not know where you’re going to end up at the end of the process – whether you’ll be successful. A minimum of gear and a maximum of skill should be the goal. I know – “a lot of shoulds.”

        These goals come from my background as a small-stream fly fisherman. Many of my fellows stand shoulder-to-shoulder on big-name rivers waving their $5000 bamboo rods around in the air trying to layout the longest cast of anyone around them. Those rivers are all stocked with +14” fish from a truck that comes around every evening to replenish the stock taken. And the fish taste terrible because they’ve been raised in concrete bins and fed Purina trout chow. For me this sort of fishing (I’ve done it once) is like death.

        Fishing small streams – maybe 10’ across – the pools are small, the banks overgrown, casting is very hard without getting your line snagged, the fish are easily spooked. You have to “put your best sneak-up on to them” in order to not spook the situation before you even make the first cast. The best small streams are inaccessible – you have to walk up into the mountains sometimes for miles. The fish are wild and they’re small. If you catch any you consider yourself lucky. If you keep a couple – they taste very pure.

        The fish I remember the most was in a pool I had never visited before and only about 5’ by 5’ and maybe 10’ deep (no kidding) – There was a “big” (small stream) fish at the head of the pool sipping insects off the surface as they came over a water fall. Spook him and he would dive and be gone. There was an open field on one side and a steep bank on another so I couldn’t approach without spooking him. I couldn’t cast because waving my rod over such a small pool would spook him. I knew I only had one chance. I lay on my belly for an hour and then used my rod as a bow pulling the fly with my hand to launch only the six foot leader into the bank and the fly into the head of the pool 6” upstream from the trout’s nose. Now that was fun!

        • Tovar says:

          Great points and questions, Kim.

          Many, of course, hunt for food and those more complicated, multifaceted reasons. It’s not either-or.

          Yes, if I wanted only food, I would buy it all at the grocery store. Like almost all present-day hunters, I am also after additional things when I hunt. For me, those things include wonder, a relationship-with-animal-and-food that I cannot buy at the store, and a sense of place, of connection with the land, of belonging-in-nature.

          So, yes, one question is how do I reconcile the value of “wonder” and of particular kinds of “relationship” and “connection” with killing an animal? For me, though, the “moral quandary of killing” is not weighed against those experiences. The moral quandary is part of the value of the experience. So I also ask myself: How do I reconcile “the value of engaging with that moral quandary” with the killing itself and the potential for suffering? I could, after all, let all my impacts on nature and wildlife occur by proxy, inflicted by farmers, sharpshooters, automobiles, etc.

          Out of your list—“ambition, wonder, self-identity, a good story, and fun”—you picked “fun” as the go-to word. Plenty of hunters would probably do the same. For me, “fun” is not the right word. But I’ll leave that alone for now. Enough time for that when I put up the post on “sport.”

          The suggestion that the hunt should be hard and adventurous has been made by a number of hunters in the past. It makes perfect sense, but only if such adventure and hardship provides what the hunter most values. We get into dicey territory when we start declaring that all hunters should place primary importance on the experience we value, and that our way of pursuing that experience is better than all other ways.

          • Kim Graves says:


            You’re right, I chose “fun” rather than “wonder” but that was simply because of the arc of the post not because I think it’s the ultimate metric of legitimacy. And you’re also quite right that we get into dicey territory if we try to dictate what a legitimate experience is. The problem is that if we don’t, we open the possibility that all experience is equally morally valid. I think that’s a real danger: the collapse of a moral imperative. For example: hunting endangered species; hunting from a helicopter. I once saw a person catch a fish, then stomp it to paste with the heel of his boot and laugh. If you have no rules than why play the game?

            I think we agree that confrontation with the moral quandary is a good reason. It’s certainly one of the major reasons I still pursue something as selfish as technical climbing. Recommend “On the Ridge Between Life and Death” by David Roberts. (see:

            Cheers, Kim

            • Tovar says:

              More good points, Kim. I agree about the danger of the letting the moral imperative collapse. I’m just not sure there’s any easy way to draw the line.

              Hunting endangered species is the easiest one. That’s unethical for biodiversity reasons. It’s generally illegal, too, though that doesn’t stop everyone.

              Stomping on a fish and hunting from a helicopter are less obvious. Both feel wrong to me, the first because of the disrespect and waste, the second because of the extreme technological advantage. Depending on where you’re fishing or hunting, one or both might be illegal. But how exactly to draw the line, especially in less extreme cases?

              • Kim Graves says:

                There seems to me to be great value in that this is hard. If it were easy – an either/or – than the moral category would collapse. If you can write a set of rules than confrontation with the epistemology of the situation is unnecessary. You program the “moral computer” to decide if it’s right or wrong and stand back and watch the amoral process compute. But because there is no confrontation going on that amoral computation is to my mind immoral. So I’m happy with it being hard.

                I wanted to learn how to raise my own animals and slaughter them for meat precisely because I didn’t want to take meat for granted. But slaughter for me is very hard. Out of the half dozen times I’ve done it, I botched it once (didn’t kill quickly) and am keenly aware of the responsibility entrusted upon me by the animals. If I’m going to keep animals I have to be able to slaughter. But the act of killing is not something I enjoy or look forward to.

                Looking forward to your “sport” post.

                I cut a path down to the creek today. I’ve been busy all summer and just haven’t gotten to it. It’s gotten pretty overgrown – grass and weeds head high in places. As I was cutting my way through the thicket I came across a clearing in the middle of a field of day lilies. The lilies were all flattened down – 10’ by 10’ in size. We’ve seen almost no deer this summer. It was nice to find their secret spot.

                • Tovar says:

                  Well put, Kim, and interesting.

                  That second paragraph — “I wanted to learn how to raise my own animals and slaughter them for meat precisely because…” — could, with a few tweaks, nicely articulate a substantial portion of why I learned to hunt and how I feel about killing.

  17. Tovar, I know I’m late to this discussion, but it’s a good one and I hate to miss it.

    I think Holly is right that a lot of the decisions we make when it comes to eating animals are not rational. They’re gut-driven, arbitrary.

    On which animals we’re willing to eat, I think it’s primarily a factor of feelings, tempered by how hungry we are. I suspect that, if any of us were faced with the prospect of life-threatening hunger, the list of animals we’d eat would get much, much longer.

    The animal I’ve decided I won’t eat (yet) is the snapping turtle, for the “reason” that it might be older than I am and looks so prehistoric. It’s made such an investment in its life that I don’t want to kill it.

    I think the question of suffering is similar. Unless your stance is “no suffering allowed” or “any level of suffering is accpetable” you’re not taking a moral stance, you’re taking a pragmatic one. “Minimize suffering” is my position, but minimize it to what? Minimize it to a level my gut can tolerate. In other words, arbitrary.

    I think it’s useful to talk about which of these concerns are moral, and which are something other than moral. There’s no moral reason to be willing to kill a pig but not a bear. There are plenty of visceral, emotional, cultural, or whimsical ones.

    • Tovar says:

      I agree with much of what you say, Tamar. But I question this: “Unless your stance is ‘no suffering allowed’ or ‘any level of suffering is acceptable’ you’re not taking a moral stance, you’re taking a pragmatic one.”

      Are you arguing that only black-or-white stances are rooted in morality? That doesn’t ring true for me.

        • Tovar says:

          The essence of my response was encapsulated by Brian above: “If pain and suffering are caused wantonly and can be prevented, then we are dealing with a moral issue.”

          I’m sure that Brian, like me, has no illusions about this being a world in which any of us can succeed in causing zero suffering. Yet we also contend that wanton suffering should not be caused. To me, navigating that middle ground looks and feels like “a moral issue,” as Brian put it.

    • ingrid says:

      Tamar wrote, “I think the question of suffering is similar. Unless your stance is “no suffering allowed” or “any level of suffering is acceptable” you’re not taking a moral stance, you’re taking a pragmatic one.”

      The truth is, all of the above arguments, mine included, contain moral reasoning fallacies of one type or the other. A lot of arguments in support of hunting commit every single fallacy of moral reasoning on the books … legalism )”it’s legal so it’s moral”), conventionalism (“it’s moral by virtue of its tradition”), slippery slope reasoning (“well, even walking causes harm, so hunting is okay”), etc and so forth.

      I hesitate to take the discussion to this place, because I’ve seen the process of moral reasoning taken to diabolical conclusions, based on the acceptance of a dubious normative statement. Descartes comes to mind. And, of course, people far more erudite than myself have been clashing for centuries over what constitutes morality. So, in other words, I realize that moral reasoning itself is rife with subjective constructs.

      But with respect to Tamar’s comment above, actually the comment is itself an expression of morality … of moral absolutism. To accept one or the other extreme here is to define right and wrong in black and white terms. And there’s a clearly articulated morality in that. Even the fact that one person can see killing as a purely pragmatic decision whereas another sees it as a moral choice, speaks to the impossibility of avoiding the gray areas of “morality,” even if taken to extreme notions.

      • Tovar says:

        Ingrid wrote, “The comment is itself an expression of morality.”

        I agree. That’s what I was suggesting in my reply to Holly, way up top: “There is always a moral dimension, and probably a kind of moral logic, to human action and speech.”

  18. As a livestock keeper and an ardent observer of/participant in the ecology (both human-created and naturally evolving) of my 12 acre farm, I tend to take a giant step back from questions of “suffering” and “what I will eat”. To me the question is not whether a creature is to “suffer” because I want to eat it, but rather, which creature is to “suffer”, i.e., lose its life to feed another member of the food web? The ducklings and fish eaten by the snapping turtle, or the snapping turtle? The chickens eaten by the coyote, or the coyote who is being eaten alive by mange?

    In part, I simply don’t equate “suffering” with “being killed”. Being alive, without any predator intervention human or otherwise, can still involve suffering…lack of water, lack of food, exposure to extreme heat or cold. These can all kill, too…slow, miserable deaths.

    So perhaps our topic is actually “suffering caused by being killed by human beings through deliberate actions intended to end the animal’s life”. Because we also clearly aren’t talking about accidental deaths through environmental degradation, or automobiles, or things like that.

    So, what about roadkill, and folks who glean from that source for human consumption? Is eating roadkill (animals hit by cars) an engagement in animal suffering? Is driving, since there is always the chance of hitting some hapless creature?

    • ingrid says:

      Because we also clearly aren’t talking about accidental deaths through environmental degradation, or automobiles, or things like that.

      Actually, that’s been a topic quite heavily explored here — ancillary damage through lifestyle, etc. Just not yet in this thread. 🙂

    • Tovar says:

      “I simply don’t equate ‘suffering’ with ‘being killed.'”

      I think everyone here would agree with you, Natalya. Death may evoke intense emotions and moral questions, but it is quite different from prolonged suffering. I have been able to make my peace with causing the former, not the latter.

  19. Certainly, the idea that less suffering is better than more suffering is a moral one. But I’m talking about where you draw the line on the amount of suffering you’re willing to countenance. Anyone who goes into the woods with a gun understands that there is a possibility that he will injure an animal grievously, not be able to find it, and leave it to die an excruciating, drawn-out death. None of us likes the idea of suffering, and we all oppose it when it’s deliberately inflicted for no reason, but it seems to me that, in hunting, we’re all taking the position that the worst-case scenario is acceptable.

    • Tovar says:

      “It seems to me that, in hunting, we’re all taking the position that the worst-case scenario is acceptable.”

      Aha. Very interesting. Is that the case? I’m inclined to say no, but I’ll have to think on it.

      Perhaps the answer hinges on what we mean by “acceptable.” Do we mean it’s okay? Or that it’s not okay, but it’s a risk we are willing to take?

      Perhaps the answer also hinges on how much weight we place on the deliberateness of the harm. This brings in Natalya’s mention above, of accidental deaths and automobiles. Some 1.5 million car-deer collisions occur on U.S. roadways every year. Every time I drive, I take the risk of injuring/killing a whitetail (not to mention many other, smaller creatures). The harm is not deliberate: I’m not taking my car out, hoping to make a clean kill but failing by wounding. But am I taking the position that the worst-case scenario is acceptable?

  20. Al Cambronne says:

    For me, the “worst-case scenario” isn’t acceptable. It’s a risk I’m willing to take, but only if I do everything I can to mitigate it. That means choosing carefully the shots I’ll take, and having the discipline to pass on anything that’s uncertain. As people have noted in previous threads on the topic, better to regret shots not taken than to regret ones we did take, but shouldn’t have. “Probably somewhere in the front half of the deer” isn’t good enough odds.

    A little extra dry firing and target practice this time of year doesn’t hurt, either. As much as I enjoy shooting for its own sake, it’s not always easy to get out when work is busy, it’s hot out, etc. And dry firing sure does get boring after the first half-dozen shots. But this discussion has given me extra motivation.

    • Al, we can everything in our power to minimize the possibility, but we have to acknowledge that it can still happen. And if we’re willing to go out in the woods, knowing that it’s possible, it is, by definition, acceptable.

      Bad, yes. Very bad. But you can’t be willing to do it and still claim it’s unacceptable. That’s having your cake and eating it too.

      • Tovar says:

        To clarify how you’re using the word “acceptable,” Tamar, let’s up the ante. If I drive through downtown Montpelier (or Boston, or Manhattan), I have to acknowledge that I might hit a pedestrian. It is possible. I do not intend it; in fact, I abhor it. Does that meet your definition of “acceptable”? (Or does the lack of intention somehow exempt me from having to answer the question?)

        If I eat farm products, it is possible (well nigh certain) that I, by proxy, will cause the suffering of an assortment of creatures. I do not intend it; in fact, I abhor it.

        If I hunt, it is possible that I will cause suffering, rather than instant or near-instant death. I do not intend it; in fact, I abhor it.

        • To answer your first question — of course it does. When we build a society around the automobile, we (collectively and individually) accept the harm that automobiles do — to things they hit, to the environment, to our waistlines.

          The difference is that it’s extraordinarly difficult to opt out of that, given the way we live now. It’s easy, though, to opt out of hunting.

          What I’m saying here is that, although we all of us try to minimize suffering, it’s useful to remember just what the worst-case scenario is. Among other things, I think it’s a good motivator, as Al pointed out.

          • Tovar says:

            Okay, then we use “acceptable” in different ways.

            Over time, I’ve found that the ease/difficulty in opting out of something makes little difference in how I feel about the impacts. We just become accustomed (numbed) to the consequences of the behaviors that are harder to opt out of.

            “It’s useful to remember just what the worst-case scenario is.”

  21. Phillip says:

    Dammit… I just lost a fairly lengthy response to the recent turn of the discussion. Probably just as well. Ya’ll can thank CAPTCHA later.

    The gist of it, though, is that I find the discussion once again miring itself in the ever-tightening noose of semantics, when the real point has been pretty clearly articulated again and again.

    None of us hunters wants to cause pain or suffering, but circumstances sometimes mean that it is a very real outcome. We each, to the extent of our personal values, do all we can to mitigate that risk. We each, also, know that absolute perfection is unattainable… in hunting as in every other human pursuit.

    There are those who would argue that, because we cannot be perfect as hunters, then we should not hunt. It’s the ultimate impasse. It can’t be overcome by reason or by emotion. It simply is.

    Fortunately, most of us don’t live in a world of absolutes. We don’t have to argue the point, because it’s inarguable. Move past it.

    • ingrid says:

      “There are those who would argue that, because we cannot be perfect as hunters, then we should not hunt. It’s the ultimate impasse. It can’t be overcome by reason or by emotion. It simply is.”
      Sorry, Phillip. You’re right about semantics — people can get hopelessly lost in them, myself included. But since you understand semantics, you also know this is a flawed premise.

      First, I can’t think of one person I know or who has argued here that hunters should be perfect. Would I, a non-hunter, argue for people not hunting? Sure. But that’s a far cry from wanting people to hunt, albeit perfectly. The main reason I engage in these discussions is because I’m willing to explore a sane middle ground, as hard as that is for someone who finds so much of what I see out there in the field so repugnant.

      Second, the “I’m not perfect, I’m only human” defense has been used to justify a lot of bad behavior. So, when considering a discussion like this where people are genuinely grappling with the idea of what is or isn’t moral, that feels like a total cop out to me. Of course you’re not perfect. But that doesn’t mean people can’t come to a much better resolution of what is acceptable. The individual values argument just doesn’t cut it for me. I’ve seen what leaving moral decisions up to the individual does when it comes to treatment of animals.

      Finally, expecting perfection is not the ultimate impasse. Absolutism on either end of the spectrum is. And to say that “it is what it is,” move on, nothing to see here folks, is as absolutist a perspective as the one you criticize. There are moral gray areas that I believe should be discussed, precisely because of the potential of grossly unacceptable outcomes.

      To stick with the car-driving analogies from above, I could say, look, no driver wants to cause pain or suffering, we do all we can to mitigate that risk. But since absolute perfection in driving is unattainable, just leave it up to me which risks I find acceptable. Never mind that an accepted notion of universal morality is what tends to guide us through civilized society and discourse.

      I think it’s worth discussing, and I do believe it’s all arguable.

      • Phillip says:

        Ingrid, you’re not “sorry,” or you wouldn’t challenge me.

        And you’re right. My premise is flawed. But I contend that every premise is flawed. That’s the very essence of human discourse, and without it there’d be no need for discussions… however academic they may become.

        I jumped in here this time because the debate over the use of “acceptable risk” has taken off down the same rabbit hole as discussions over the use of “Fair Chase” and “Sport Hunting.” And as I’ve said before, beyond a certain point I don’t much care if you call it, “George.” Whatever you call it, we all recognize and agree on the key principles. Let’s discuss these and quit batting around irrelevancies like the definition of “acceptable”. Language matters, but only to a point.

        None of us hunters (discounting certain aberrations) want to see animals suffer and we make efforts to avoid it. This is a common value across the hunting community, just as a concern for human safety is common across the community of automobile drivers. Despite my personal misanthropic sentiments, I recognize that people are generally pretty conscientious when they’re aware of the risks, and they’ll take measures to mitigate those risks. The extent of those mitigation efforts varies pretty widely, because despite “universal” mores or laws, individuals make their own value judgements on the spot. Hence, the hunter who chooses to make a marginal shot is no different from the driver who, just this once, decides to pass in a curve. It’s going to happen, and no amount of debate amongst these great minds is ever going to change that. To expect otherwise is to expect perfection, which is exactly how I got where I was going in my last comment.

        And despite your argument to the contrary, there are many in the anti-hunting community who would argue that, because hunters cannot guarantee that every shot is a clean and perfect kill, that hunting is unconscionable. Thus, as it is a voluntary and “unnecessary” practice, it should be banned. This is the very crux of the argument against bowhunting, and has been used repeatedly against bird hunting as well… most recently in the attack on mourning dove hunting. Your own comments regarding waterfowl hunting and the “unacceptable” wounding rates have stopped barely short of the same thing, but followed to their logical conclusion would certainly go the distance.

        The only way to guarantee that no animal is wounded and left suffering by hunters is to eliminate hunters. This is the shortcut to the end of the aforementioned rabbit hole. Oh sure, there are a lot of conversations and ideas between the entrance and the egress, but this is where it comes out.

        I don’t oppose the academic discussions. Not at all. I think that they’re a great exercise for the participants, and they make some thought-provoking reading for the spectators. If I didn’t see value in them, lord knows I would’t waste my own time taking part. But I do think it’s worth recognizing that there’s a big difference between defining an ideal and the expectation that anyone should attain it. Moreso, I dislike the flavor of a conversation that makes those who are content with a level below the ideal appear to be morally inferior.

        • ingrid says:

          Okay, [I’m not] sorry Phillip [:-) — and since you want to get into the semantics of that word, “sorry” can also mean grieved or sad over said situation, not necessarily remorseful. So in that sense of the word, yes, I was sorry.

          As much as I can’t make accurate generalizations from the hunters I’ve seen in the field, neither can you say that “most” hunters strive for the ethics you describe. It’s quite possible, as we’ve discussed here previously, that because of your personal ethical code, which I know to be stringent, you don’t spend much time with the hunters who so flagrantly violate those ethics. I, however, see them all of the time, which can draw me toward erroneous conclusions myself. And yes, waterfowl hunting and archery are two sports where I’ve seen the potential for suffering escalate because of those very violations.

          So, in your experience, most hunters strive for a high standard. In my experience, many hunters are not nearly so high-minded. Somewhere between your contention and mine lies the truth. But again, your original comment suggested that personal values be the measure of how a hunter conducts him or herself, beyond the woefully inadequate (in my mind) legal baseline. And I disagree vehemently with that idea. Little I’ve seen in my life suggests the type of judicious self-policing you personally experience or witness in the field, once absolute power over such a decision is granted. And I think history is testament to what ungoverned hunting behavior leads to. Oh hell, not even history. Look at countries like Malta where the government has basically stopped policing any legality or ethics, allowing individual values to guide the shooting. They’re wiping out European migratory birds at an alarming rate. Yes, it’s illegal, but my point is that without delineation, this is what people will do. And the looser the restrictions, the more wiggle room there is to construe what ethical behavior actually means.

          So, if anyone here, not necessarily you, accepts my premise that without baseline standards that are legally and socially enforced, personal values will not guide good individual behavior as a whole … if, indeed, that premise is accepted, then I would argue that those standards can be changed, based on evolving understanding of ourselves, of our environment, and not least of all, our understanding for what sentience actually does entail for species beyond our own.

          This whole discussion began with various hunters quite candidly talking about what animal they would or would not kill. And so much of the decision seems to revolve around anthropomorphic considerations: they look like us, or they can cry like our dog can. I’m not one to argue against anthropomorphism because, as you know, I believe we undervalue the non-human experience as a general rule. Non-human animals do share many of our qualities — even those who cannot cry out the way we do. But my point is that if even hunters base some of their hunting decisions on their perception of an animal’s sentience or similarity to us and ours, it stands to reason that as we move toward greater cultural and scientific understanding of what capacities non-human animals have, our behavior necessarily toward them does and should change. And that involves deliberating over what is and is no longer acceptable. Hunters so often oppose any evolution in this regard. The argument again, becomes the fallacy of convention — it’s always been done this way so that way is morally right.

          All of that is quite arguable, and I would hope — although I’m not that much of a fool to believe in all of my idealistic notions — that this isn’t just ideological banter but a sincere effort at moving the discussion to a place where more of us can agree on a common standard. Where do those changes in culture begin if not in public discourse like this? Yes, of course there’s a difference between defining an ideal and expecting that it be attained. But when you cut the conversation to the quick by saying these points are inarguable, how does one ever raise the level of conduct, even if perfect conduct is never possible? To the best of my knowledge, everyone here is engaging voluntarily.

          • Phillip says:

            I think we may need to back up again, Ingrid, so that I may clarify a critical point. I don’t share your belief or philosophy regarding our relationship to non-human animals. Much less, obviously, do I share your foundational belief that hunting should end based on some “evolved” understanding of that relationship. On that point hinges most of our disconnect here.

            That said…

            The concern and focus of law should be on impacts to the whole, not the individual. I know it doesn’t always work out that way, but that’s what I believe and, by and large, that’s how the law is written. Hunting regulation should, first and foremost, ensure healthy populations and habitat, but it should also ensure equitable access and opportunity for hunters. This precludes, in some cases, the extensive training requirements and technologies that Natalya espouses, because they would make hunting too expensive for the lower economic classes. It would also create a pretty significant hurdle for those coming to hunting without the benefit of a lifetime of hunting tradition and “training”. How many of the “late-in-life” hunters would have come to the sport if they were required to pass intensive marksmanship, fieldcraft, and tracking requirements? It’s hard enough to come to this sport as it is without a family or community of hunters to guide and mentor.

            For those of you who believe the laws don’t address the issues like cruelty, wanton waste, and safety well enough, I’d highly recommend reading both the regulations and the associated legal/penal codes. For the most part, every key issue that’s been brought up is addressed by law. The fact that the laws are still broken, or poorly enforced doesn’t indicate a need for more laws. It only indicates that they are poorly enforced, and in large part, that’s not because no one cares… it’s simple logistics. There aren’t enough law enforcement officers to cover every aspect of human behavior… whether that’s hunting, driving automobiles, or jaywalking. As to the lawbreakers, you can’t regulate human nature.

            By the way, in direct response to Natalya’s recent commentary… when you sign for a driver’s license (or a hunting license, for that matter), you are signing a contract of agreement to abide by the laws of the issuing authority. This any laws prohibiting the use of intoxicants. This contractual agreement is the basis by which your license may be revoked for violations of the law, and by which you may face additional penalties.

            So, while I’ve said this before I’ll repeat it… louder for the cheap seats. The issues in the field are, by and large, not an issue of a lack of laws. The worst cases are a matter of defiance of the law (and poor enforcement), or they are issues of self control. The one can only be resolved by placing a peace office behind every tree. The other… well, I’d argue that there’s not a heck of a lot that can be done about that. Social pressure may help. Better education would be useful. But when fingertip touches trigger and synapses in the brain connect in a certain way, nothing on god’s green earth is going to change the outcome.

            What I’ve been saying is that, in addition to the law, social controls are out there and can be pretty powerful. As a simple example, there’s a pretty widespread hunting camp tradition of cutting the shirttails off of a hunter for missing. Maybe on the surface this seems merely frivolous, but the underlying intent is to make the hunter consider the shot more carefully and refrain from taking a dangerous or risky opportunity. The expectation is that the hunters not be out there blazing away at anything that moves. And it works… to a point. Imperfect, but an example of how hunters do use peer pressure to manage behavior in a positive way.

            Ostracization is also big, and I’ve witnessed it in many cases. The drunk, the belligerent, the slob or game hog… when they hunt with groups, they are rarely tolerated and soon ejected from the community. Are there exceptions? Of course. Hell, it’s not that hard to find groups of hunters who are all belligerent drunks. This is where the law should step in, and it does when it can. But lack of law enforcement is a huge problem, and one we’re not going to resolve here. There just aren’t enough peace officers to go around because hunting is only a small fraction of the other human activities taking place out there… and all of those activities have their own litany of problems, lawbreakers, and ethical black holes.

            Of course, as with any social interaction, there are challenges to all of these. One of the more common questions I get in my email comes from individuals whose hunting companions are not ethical or even legal. “What do I do?”

            You’d think it shouldn’t even be a question, but the truth is that the decision is tied up in the desire to be accepted by our peers, fear of repercussion, and self-doubt that our personal standard is the right one. It’s harder than it seems, sometimes, because the human animal is a hell of a lot more complex than a simple, black-and-white set of decision-making parameters. As someone who has called the game wardens on his own brother, I have a pretty strict opinion here, but I can sure appreciate how hard it can be.

            The other thing I’ve been saying is that most hunters do have an ethical standard that goes beyond the rule of law, and they apply this standard to their own hunting, as well as to their attitudes toward other hunters. If you’d like me to amend this to “most hunters I’ve known”, that’s fine. But I’ve known a pretty large and diverse number of hunters from all over this country… and a few other countries as well. I’ve shared conversations, correspondence, and extensive field time with far more hunters than I can count. I’d say my sample is probably significantly larger than yours, Ingrid, and probably larger than that of many of the folks in this discussion.

            Ingrid, you’re absolutely wrong about one thing. You wrote: “It’s quite possible, as we’ve discussed here previously, that because of your personal ethical code, which I know to be stringent, you don’t spend much time with the hunters who so flagrantly violate those ethics.”

            As a professional guide and occasional mentor, I’ve spent a great deal of time in the field with people who absolutely violate my personal sense of ethics. I try to model good behavior, offer guidance when I think it’s worthwhile, and in extreme cases I have shown people to the gate. And sometimes, I make the judgement that I’ve so often espoused… that while I don’t like it, it’s not illegal, harmful or dangerous. They’re paying customers, and it’s my job to get them on game… not to preach about esoteric ethical precepts.

            I know, absolutely, what goes on in the field. I don’t know exactly what “evils” you’ve witnessed, but trust me when I say I’ve seen my own share. You seem to believe I live in a bubble of my own ethical mores, but in almost 40 years of hunting, that bubble has been burst so many times you’d think it would be beyond repair. It’s also been reshaped many times, as my preconceptions and values have been challenged (which, by the way, is the reason I participate in discussions like these).

            What I am not saying, and never have, is that most hunters aspire to be paragons of hunting virtue. That’s absolutely not true. I can honestly say that less than 1-in-10 of the hunters I’ve taken into the field is striving to some live by the strictest tenets of hunting ethics. Most are perfectly satisfied to be conscientious and careful, and I think that’s perfectly fine. This is evidenced by the fact that despite lack of law enforcement or oversight, real examples of wanton waste and cruelty are still exceptions. They make news because they are exceptional. I specify “real” examples, by the way, because like many hunters, I do not consider unintentional wounding (e.g. waterfowl) or lost game to be either cruel or wanton. These are unfortunate but realistic facts of bloodsport. Predation is never perfect, whether the predator is human or non-human.

            And if you’ll be honest, Ingrid, this is where the conversation stops for you. I don’t mean this to be disrespectful to your intellect or your convictions, but I have no faith in your motives. You can continue to go on about how we should discuss stricter laws and higher ethical standards to control accidental wounding, but the truth is that nothing will be enough except a halt to hunting. You make pretense that you’d like to see the conversation continue to develop in hopes that it will make hunters more conscientious, but really, the basis of everything you write is that ever-tightening noose I described before. It ends at the realization that, if we really, honestly want to stop wounding and maiming our animal friends, then we must stop hunting.

            You can also dispense with the suggestion that I am so close-minded to think this means we should stop talking about ethical concerns. I obviously don’t believe that at all. But I think the conversation should be tempered with the reality of our topic. Hunting is blood sport. I don’t care how anyone dresses it up or re-markets it (and I know my insistence on this point irritates the hell out of Tovar and some other folks). It is messy and imperfect and it is absolutely not a requirement for modern human life. We can elevate the hell out of the ideals, and work hard on our public image, but at heart the fact remains that hunters are a small contingent of a larger community, engaged in an activity that few non-hunters understand. I’d argue that not many even want to understand.

            And what of the outcome of the ethics discussions?

            I do think Natalya hit on a very good, and crucial point when she brought up “talking the talk and walking the walk”.

            I’ve mentioned it before myself, and it didn’t go over very well. For all this talk about uber-ethical behavior, I’ve seen a lot of that disappear right quick when the individual gets into the field. The whole “I’d never…” quickly turns into, “Do you think I could?” Or, just as often, it becomes, “I think I can.”

            I’ve known people to express the utmost concern about wounding or maiming their quarry, and yet they still take to the field with archery tackle, or embrace wingshooting… both practices which result in a disproportionate number of wounded, maimed, or lost animals. Which is it?

            There are more than a few who go on and on about how they always shoot for the perfect, clean kill, yet these same folks don’t shoot 20 rounds a year at the range or in the field. How can you ensure a quick, clean kill when you’re guessing where your bullet should hit?

            Personally, I’ve recognized a similar hypocrisy in myself. After introspection, I determined that perhaps my personal standards were unrealistically stringent. While I am still pretty satisfied with my own actions in the field, they didn’t always live up to what I was preaching. So I changed my sermon. I lowered the bar. While I remain my own worst critic, I try very hard to be less critical of other hunters if I don’t understand their motivations or intent. I recognized that, like many others, I was shooting at a target that was out of reach… and doing so for all the wrong reasons.

            These conversations are extremely worthwhile, particularly as they tend to shape our thinking about our personal standards and behaviors. My ongoing contention is that we should be careful and extremely thoughtful about how we apply these standards to others, especially when it comes to trying to change their behaviors based on our own set of ethics and motivations.

            • ingrid says:

              Phillip, your first comment is the most accurate as to why we don’t see agreement: we don’t share the same beliefs about non-human animals. It’s true. I do give non-humans much more consideration than you do in most ways. And I believe, at my core, that we exploit non-humans so often unnecessarily, and at cost to our own humanity. I believe, as pacifists throughout history have suggested, that civility is often connected to our capacity to show compassion toward the “lesser” among us, the less powerful. So, yes, you and I will never agree on these points, short of some mutual epiphany, maybe getting stoked on Ayahuasca in a Brazilian jungle (that’s being systematically deforested as we sit there). And we know what the likelihood of that is. [:-)

              With most other points in your post, I disagree. But we’ve been down that road already, so I won’t extend the disagreement beyond it’s logical conclusion, which, is not by the way, this:

              “And if you’ll be honest, Ingrid, this is where the conversation stops for you. I don’t mean this to be disrespectful to your intellect or your convictions, but I have no faith in your motives. You can continue to go on about how we should discuss stricter laws and higher ethical standards to control accidental wounding, but the truth is that nothing will be enough except a halt to hunting. You make pretense that you’d like to see the conversation continue to develop in hopes that it will make hunters more conscientious, but really, the basis of everything you write is that ever-tightening noose I described before. It ends at the realization that, if we really, honestly want to stop wounding and maiming our animal friends, then we must stop hunting.”

              So, I’m not being honest and my words are all pretense. Nice of you to make that character assessment. We may disagree and debate, Phillip, but if you have to resort to an ad hominem attack on my integrity, I have to question how strong and viable your position really is. I suppose if you believe that I’m out to eradicate hunting, I can see why you’d draw that conclusion. Perhaps you find it impossible to believe that anyone could advocate for a solution that wasn’t 100 percent in line with their personal views.

              I will say that as a force of one, sometimes two, in many of these discussions where I’m outnumbered by those who share your views, not mine, of course my stance is going to seem adamant. When playing the devil’s advocate, it does you no good to retract the horns.

              It’s true that in my “ideal” world, I would like to be out in the field in November and not have to rescue mutilated, wing-shot birds. If you were to ask me if I would prefer that outcome, I’d answer yes. That’s honest. And I’ve expressed that honestly before. But emotional honesty has pragmatic caveats. Some of us are quite capable of seeing the distinctions.

              Having that emotional view is NOT the same as understanding what is practically possible impossible in this world. We all come at issues with strong emotional biases. That doesn’t preclude consensus. It doesn’t preclude compromise. That’s precisely what compromise is — moving away from your end of the spectrum and toward someone else’s.

              I worked with someone much more adept than I in the technology of wildlife medicine. She was dismayed by the awfulness of trying to heal an animal with an archery wound. They are quite terrible to deal with in a veterinary setting, removing the arrow alone without totally shredding the poor animal.

              I asked her, “based on what you’ve seen, would you like to see archery outlawed?” She responded, without a beat, “what I would like to see is archers permitted to carry firearms so they could end it quickly when the shot doesn’t go well.”

              Does that sound like an “anti” all-or-nothing sentiment to you? There’s a pragmatism that takes over when you care for injured wildlife that transcends your personal investment in an issue. Yes, I’m personally invested in the outcome for the animal. I wish there was far less human-inflicted injury. But owing to the pragmatic reality of life, my primary intent is to eliminate or reduce injury where possible. And, like it or not, hunting being a voluntary activity in many, many cases, it’s a logical place to look for increased standards and consideration for the concept of injury and suffering reduction.

              If you’ve never been in a setting where you’re dealing with injury after injury, you simply cannot understand what the repercussions are for the animal or for the humans involved in trying to heal that animal. I’ve said this before, I wish hunters’ ed could include some investment of time by hunters in a setting where they could see and really feel the outcome. Most of you do not see the end result of missed shots. You do not see the duck that lands miles down the road, lying helpless with a broken wing. I’ve heard hunters make trite comments like, “oh well, coyote food.” Maybe, maybe not. The chance of a coyote eating a downed bird in a tulle-overgrown swamp isn’t that likely. I’ve found plenty of animals who lay injured for a long time without being eating by predators. And even if they are, it’s a long wait for that painful outcome.

              Of course, you probably won’t share my concern about those types of issues. But I wish more hunters would. I wish they truly, viscerally understood what it meant. And if they did, there might be more possibility of consensus on practical issues of animal “welfare,” as opposed to animal “rights,” which will be forever contentious and not a point I’m out to win on.

            • Tovar says:

              In many cases, Phillip, I’m sure you’re right about there being laws that simply are not enforced. In at least some cases, though, the laws just aren’t there. Vermont, for instance, lags behind many other states in not having a wanton-waste law. There was an effort to get one on the books a couple years ago, but it was scuttled under pressure from vocal hunters, perhaps part of the overrepresented minority to which Steven refers below.

              As you suggest, you and I have been through the “sport” argument before. But I’ve never come close to fully articulating my thoughts on the terminology. I think that may be up next here on the blog—or, if not next, sometime soon.

        • Tovar says:

          Sorry about your experience with Captcha, Phillip. Before launching it to cut down on the spam I had to sort through, I tested it. No matter what error I made in the comment form (not entering a name, not entering the Captcha code, entering the wrong Captcha code, etc), I was always able to hit the back-button on my browser and my comment text was still there. Not sure what happened in your case. Maybe some kind of browser setting.

          If my exchange with Tamar sounds like mere semantics to you, you’re reading it differently than I am. I was trying to understand what she was saying about morality and suffering.

          For me, it was important — not irrelevant — to understand what she meant by “in hunting, we’re all taking the position that the worst-case scenario is acceptable.” To me, that falls well within the category of discussing “key principles,” as you put it.

  22. Steven Bissell says:

    Years ago I made, tongue firmly in cheek, the suggestion that archers be allowed to coat their arrow heads with an Acetylcholinesterase or other toxin to cut down on wounding loss; which is high in most studies about archery hunting.

    The point here is that hunting can be 100% effective, but at what cost?

    I met some hunters who are not, by my standards, ethical but under the law were legal. Over the years I have become more and more strict on myself about what I will and will not do as a hunter. However I am uncomfortable with saying that my own ethical rules should be generally applicable.

    • Tovar says:

      I understand and appreciate your discomfort with imposing your particular rules on all others, Steven. Yet I remain puzzled by the stance taken by many hunters: that no minimum ethical standard should be imposed on any hunter. The impossibility of enforcement aside, this seems bizarre.

      I’ll leave it at that for the moment, both because I need to run and because I feel another blog post coming on…

      • Steven Bissell says:

        Tovar, my experience is that hunters who want no ethical standards are an extreme minority. I think that is supported by the research (‘The Future of Hunting and the Shooting Sports’ Responsive Management and The National Shooting Sports Foundation, 2008 and ‘The Sportsman’s Voice’ Duda et al. 2010) which shows that the majority of hunter’s in the USA are supportive of a wide variety of laws and regulations, many of which are based on ‘fair chase’ ethics. Over the years I can probably count the number the hunters I’ve met (or written tickets to) who want no regulation on my fingers and a couple of toes. Unfortunately this group is currently disproportionately represented in some of the hunting organizations around the country.

        But this discussion has gone afield from the issue of eating bear meat hasn’t it? Don’t blame me; you started it. 😉

        • Tovar says:

          I sincerely hope that you — and the RM and NSSF survey results — are right, Steven. And do I think you’re correct that disproportional representation is part of the problem.

          You never know where these discussions are going to end up. 🙂

  23. “no driver wants to cause pain or suffering, we do all we can to mitigate that risk. But since absolute perfection in driving is unattainable, just leave it up to me which risks I find acceptable. Never mind that an accepted notion of universal morality is what tends to guide us through civilized society and discourse.”

    I would like to point out the hypocrisy of this statement, and then extrapolate to hunting.

    I would like to suggest that we (culturally) do NOT do all we can to mitigate risks of driving…or of hunting. We set a level of “acceptable risk” that is probably unconscionably high. I think there are two reasons: 1) we (generally, as individuals) would rather stay in denial that our skills/standards/etc. are substandard, and 2) we (culturally, and generally as individuals) resist external controls (rules/regulations/mechanical safety devices) that we perceive could inhibit our “freedom” (sometimes also known as “impulses”).

    “We” agree that drunk driving is reprehensible. No one should be killed by a drunk driver! The property damages and taxpayer dollars even from non-injury drunk driving accidents are staggering. Yet we have the technology to absolutely stop drunk driving…the breath ignition interlock. Why is it not mandatory on every car? Mere pennies compared to the loss of even one life! Do we require random drug/alcohol tests of all drivers? Hmmm…. Or even sign a certification that we will be drug free, when we get a driver’s license or tag a vehicle?

    As a professional driver with a CDL Class B Passenger license, I am subject to far more rigorous driving standards by law than the “amateurs” on the road, even though some of them spend more hours on the road than I do. I’m not allowed to drive as long as some of them do! If the CDL laws make for safer drivers/safer roads, why not have everyone follow them? Numberless stalled cars in the heat today, many in dangerous intersections…did those drivers legally have to check their coolant levels before leaving the driveway like we do? Hmmmm….

    Beyond the CDL requirements, my company mandates an hour of safety training per month, plus annual “refresher training”, plus “retraining” after a safety incident, plus random drug and alcohol testing, etc. We also have a rigorous safety point system…if you have a pattern of unsafe incidents, whether or not they cost money or injure anyone, even if they are not breaking the law but just unsafe, you can lose your job pretty easily. We take safety seriously, and we have a great safety record as a company.

    Safety training could be required for all drivers. But it isn’t. Why not? In several cases, the reminders gained in training actually prevented a potential fatality within days of the training. I am a far better driver off-duty than I was 5 years ago, because of the regular training.

    So. That kind of attitude could be applied to hunting.

    I took a “hunter safety” class when I was about 30 in order to get a hunting license so I could legally hold the gun when I accompanied an ex when hunting. The rest of the class was 8 year old boys. They were mostly focused on “When do we get to ignite the black powder?” which their older brothers had told them was the best part of the class. About the same level as the rudimentary written driving test for an “amateur” driver’s license. Just as one doesn’t have to take an actual driving skills/safety test every year, we didn’t have to demonstrate any actual skill with a gun to pass the class. We just had to be there in the chair.

    But–placing any requirement for skill, safety training, safety interlock equipment, etc. on guns would generally be perceived as a violation of a constitutional right to “keep and bear arms”…which is not the same as a right to hunt. We license hunting. We could require real safety and skill, if we wanted to, through a system similar to that of the commercial driving industry: laws, ongoing training, consequences for violations.

    But–we (culturally) are not ready to give up our “right” to kill things even if we are incompetent at it. So, we set the standards low enough that anyone can be allowed the illusion that they are “hunters”.

    Sorry if I write too much. 8 hours of driving on a quiet day is a lot of time for thinking at stop lights.

  24. ingrid says:

    Hi, Natalya, you’ve just stated the position I’ve taken here many times. That is, why can’t we aspire to higher standards across the board? I’ve had some serious issues with what you aptly describe as the limited application of hunters’ ed. Of course, I’m a non-hunter, I’m not particularly fond of hunting, and I also work in wildlife rehabilitation so you might expect I’d have a contrary view here.

    I’m in agreement with you that driving a lethal weapon, which is what an automobile is, could indeed be subject to more rigid standards as well.

    Can you clarify why you thought my comment was hypocritical? Perhaps it seemed that way, taken out of context. I was paraphrasing some points Phillip was making. Does it contradict something I said earlier?

  25. Ingrid–Cultural hypocrisy, not yours! Sorry!

    Simply pointing out that we (culturally) DON’T do all we can to mitigate the risks of driving…far from it. Ditto hunting. We SAY we value safety, but we don’t walk the walk. Several writers have made the same point but you said it especially nice and clearly–so clearly that I was able to put my finger on what didn’t quite seem right to me. I am not implying any individual commenter was hypocritical…but simply pointing out that we all tend do more talking than walking in many areas of our lives because that’s what our cultural norms are.

    It is hard to improve shortcomings of which we are not aware. When a low standard is accepted, we are not aware that things could be better, and so we continue to accept an artificial “limit” to what is reasonably achievable.

  26. ingrid says:

    I like this: 🙂

    “When a low standard is accepted, we are not aware that things could be better, and so we continue to accept an artificial “limit” to what is reasonably achievable.”

  27. One more comment…I keep seeing references to “ethical” standards. But I don’t think they are all solely “ethical”…at least when I reflect on the auto analogy.

    There are standards on several levels: skill with the tools (operator training); knowledge of and compliance with laws that, well, “direct traffic” to manage the challenges of many people wanting to do the same thing at the same time; ensuring that those operating the tools are at that moment mentally/physically in control of their faculties (enough sleep, no alcohol, etc.); procedures, principles and laws to ensure safety of operator, bystanders (which would include non-human) and “fixed objects” (“things” in the environment…i.e. leaving the woods the way you found it). In professional driving, these things begin with licensing. In amateur driving, as well as hunting, these things seem to end with licensing! “There–I knew the rules enough to pass the test…now I can forget them.”

    All of these could be applied to hunting…and are, by the responsible hunter…but more “continuing education” training could be focused on them. What I see in the transit business is that having practical requirements such as these tends to “weed out” those who don’t have basic the sense of ethics that gets them through training and keeps them in compliance…and lets them make the on-the-spot ethical decisions for which rules can’t be written.

    Beyond those practical issues, we have a set of policies and values that address customer service, etc. That’s where a lot of the ethical decisions come in. Some of us are better than others at it, in Bus-world. But we have a strong foundation from which to make ethical decisions, because sloppy safety, mental incapacity, lack of skill, etc. just aren’t part of the picture any more. And we can discuss our differing responses to ethical dilemmas peacefully, as we are doing here, and grow from it. This conversation feels “safe” because y’all have seem to have voluntarily assumed a much higher standard of behavior than the average hunting population. I would not feel safe having this conversation with my hunting neighbors…they have more guns than values, I’ve see that demonstrated by the number of missed shots I pick up out of my fields…watching them shoot swallows for fun…unhealthy lifestyles overall…abuse of hazardous materials in their other hobbies…flagrant violations of county zoning laws…etc.

  28. ingrid says:

    Natalya wrote, “This conversation feels “safe” because y’all have seem to have voluntarily assumed a much higher standard of behavior than the average hunting population. I would not feel safe having this conversation with my hunting neighbors…they have more guns than values, I’ve see that demonstrated by the number of missed shots I pick up out of my fields…watching them shoot swallows for fun…unhealthy lifestyles overall…abuse of hazardous materials in their other hobbies…flagrant violations of county zoning laws…etc.”

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Natalya. For all my adversarial posturing, I am deeply respectful of this forum and that people here are willing to engage, however contentious. It’s not often you can openly challenge accepted notions.

    btw: I feel for you about your neighbors.

    You know, they aren’t just committing an ethical breach in shooting swallows, they are committing a Federal crime. Swallows are protected. And the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act can penalize people up to $15,000 and six months in jail. I wouldn’t hesitate to turn them in if I caught them, particularly since what you describe seems like repeated, reckless behavior across the board. There are good reasons why most birds are Federally protected from numbskulls like this, and why there is some legal recourse if people are found killing them.

  29. The time I actually saw the teen age son intentionally shoot a swallow and it landed in my yard, I walked over and handed it to him and told him it was a federal violation and I would report any further occurrences. Now they know not to shoot when I’m home! I also invited them to come pick up clay fragments and shotgun shells on many occasions…which they did…but it never stopped there from being a next time.

    Ironically, when I tried to get a Conditional Use Permit to be allowed to let visiting farm volunteers stay in campers or tents on my farm, these same neighbors told the County that they would not accept tent camping on my land unless no one was allowed to have guns on my land!

      • The “logic” seemed to be that anyone who “lives” (i.e., stays for more than day) in a tent is necessarily homeless. People who are homeless are necessarily evil, drug-crazed, uneducated, rapists/arsonists/burglars who will plunder the neighborhood while I’m not looking and harass innocent neighbors. It was fine for these people to stay in my home, though. The problem with camping would be that sleeping under canvas turns people violently mentally ill. In addition to banning guns at my farm if I were allowed my existing house-guests to take the expensive backpacking tents out of their Subarus and pitch them back on the sheep pasture, they would need to wear identifying armbands while walking on city streets.

        The campfires that they would necessarily have 24-7 would be a fire hazard for surrounding properties (unlike the huge burn pile near my house where the same neighbors regularly burn mattresses and other household waste). Their “fecal material” would necessarily contaminate neighboring wells (never mind that the neighbors have a septic lateral field and a horse barn closer to their well than my property is).

        The increased street traffic from a few people camping at the farm (compared to the volunteers who already legally drive in every day) would threaten pedestrians (unlike the neighbors’ huge family gatherings, non-code-compliant farm stand and cabinet building business, and permanent garage sale).

        A tent or camper not even visible from the street would be a permanent blight on the neighborhood, ruining property values for miles around. Furthermore, it was my natural woodland landscaping on my 150′ of street frontage that caused everyone’s property values to plummet in 2008.

        This was all stated as fact in written public comments and presented in person at public hearings. Petitions were signed by more than 40 people, who formed a covert organization that later sent threatening emails to me. The gun ban and armbands were suggestions from the formal Planning Commission members as “compromises” to the neighbors’ plight at having such a terrible neighbor as me and my farm volunteers.

        This is in a city that is home to some 85,000 people PLUS a major state university. My very secluded 12-acre farm is outside city limits, but the street it’s on is in the city.

        This has given me a new perspective on what farmers, hunters, alternative builders, sustainable livers, backpackers, canoers, etc. all over the country are dealing with. Our civilization is mentally ill, collectively. Logic does not apply.

        • ingrid says:

          Natalya, a Krishnamurti quote comes to mind:

          “It is not a sign of good mental health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick world.”

          What unbelievable chaos you’ve had to deal with in the context of this issue.

          btw: I’m not a follower of Krishnamurti, but I find his comment relevant.

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