‘Gone killing’

Hunters and anglers, writes Marc Bekoff in Animals Matter, “often like to hang signs that say ‘Gone Fishin’’ or ‘Gone Huntin’.’ But what these slogans really mean is ‘Gone killing.’”

When I opposed hunting, I would—like Bekoff—have objected to the euphemisms. Even catch-and-release fishing, with its professed intent not to kill, often does.

Now that I hunt, though, what strikes me is simply that “gone killing” is a terribly inaccurate description of my experiences in the woods.

When I hunt deer, the creatures I see most often are small woodland birds, usually chickadees. If I’m lucky, a pileated woodpecker might land on a nearby tree trunk with a thwack, or a pair of ruffed grouse might scurry by in the brush. Typically, the biggest mammal I see is a red squirrel, hopping past or pausing to scold me.

Hunters do hope to kill now and then. Yet many of us go years without doing so. I recall talking with a man who was out in the woods, hunting with his son. He said he hadn’t shot a deer in over twenty years. He seemed perfectly content just being out there.

Even when animals do show up, often there isn’t any opportunity for a legal, ethical shot. And even when there is, hunters don’t always kill. Sometimes we let the moment pass.

On the rare occasions when I do shoot a deer, the killing itself takes mere seconds.

In short, killing isn’t what hunters do with most of their time in the field.

But, just for a moment, let’s imagine that Bekoff’s words were literally true—that all hunting entailed killing. If we were all subsistence hunters, dependent on the meat to keep our families alive through the winter, perhaps we’d be glad to know that we’d return from every outing with dinner in tow.

Even then, though, how would the certainty and the constant killing feel? What kind of experience would it be?

I’m not even sure what we’d call it. As one local hunter—a particularly experienced and skilled outdoorsman—once put it after a long, unsuccessful deer season, “That’s why they call it ‘hunting,’ not ‘finding.’”

Maybe next time I head to the woods, I’ll hang a sign: “Gone looking, listening, and birdwatching—and, just possibly, killing.”

© 2010 Tovar Cerulli


  1. Nathan says:

    Great post, Tovar!

    I took a colleague and his son out for a “still” hunt last fall (I guess that’s what it’s called). After walking (and trying to teach them how to walk silently, and how to *look*) for several hours, they started to realize that they might not once hear a gunshot, even *if* we see a deer. Truth is, if you’re in this for the shooting, a firing range is what you need. 😉

    Cheers, Nathan

    • Tovar says:

      Hey Nathan, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. Yes, that sounds a lot like my deer hunting experiences, especially the first few years!

  2. Hi Tovar,
    Just playing catch up after a couple of 12 hour night shifts, hence the belated comment. As always a thought provoking post making me think of what notice that I’d pin to my backdoor, and the simple “Just Out There” seemed the most fitting. If I tried to leave a note telling people of all the sights, smells, emotions and connections that wash over me whilst ‘out there’ I’d need to leave the note on a roll of toilet paper! I think that people who don’t immerse themselves ‘out there’ whether it be hunting, fishing, tracking or just meandering just don’t get it. Hope that this makes sense, still waking up.
    Best regards,

    • Tovar says:

      John, I like “Just Out There,” though I’d also like to see what you’d write on that roll of toilet paper. Oh, right, for the long version, check your blog. I have been stopping by…fun stuff! 🙂

      I like, too, that you point out how that “out there” immersion can happen in a number of different ways, tracking and meandering included. Hunting has engaged me in different ways and for different reasons, but hiking the woods as a non-hunting conservationist was (and still is) good, too. I only hunt a tiny fraction of the time I’m outdoors. Even then, though, I suppose my attention has another dimension now that hunting is part of my experience.

      Rest well!

  3. Gone killing is the sign the guy that slaughters chickens to be sold to McDonald’s for nuggets hangs on his door. Most hunters I know would hang a sign that says gone killing time. I hang a sign that says gone looking for something to eat. If I don’t kill a squirrel (we have a spring squirrel season) I will pick some ramps or morels so it doesn’t look like I was wasting time to the wife. Your pal the Envircapitalist.

    • Tovar says:

      Yep, the food part is important. I hunt for lots of reasons, but I don’t kill except to eat.

      There’s still snow on the ground up here. If we get another storm, it may be here for another month or two. So I envy you your much-earlier wild leeks and mushrooms down there in Tennessee!

      • The wild leeks can be dug year around, I have dug them out of snow. The only time I don’t like them is the middle of summer when the bulbs seem to be tougher. I don’t know the science behind that.

        • Tovar says:

          I guess your ground doesn’t freeze as solid as ours. I might need a jackhammer to dig leeks out of the snow. I don’t know that it’s been written anywhere, but I suspect that’s outside the bounds of good ramp-hunting etiquette. 😉

  4. Arthur says:

    I think my sign would say something like, “gone to experience nature, and maybe to provide food while finding myself as well.”

    I guess I would need a big sign. But it’s true. And it doesn’t even begin to cover all the reasons I hunt – few of them actually involving the kill.

    Another great post.

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks, Arthur.

      Yep, like a lot of us, you’re going to need either (1) a really big sign and a paintbrush or (2) an itsy-bitsy pen and a roll of t.p. like John’s.

  5. Ingrid says:

    Your commentary here definitely points to the genuine commonality hunters might share with a non-hunter like myself. I know there are hunters who think those of us who don’t hunt somehow lack an intimate association with nature and the outdoors. But my experience precisely emulates yours.

    I took a class once, on a rather obscure topic, wherein we were given the exercise to report back with experiences that left us agitated. The normal incidents arose: traffic jams, annoying people, etc. The subsequent week’s exercise was to simply note those moments or times when we felt at peace. The common denominator in all of the “peace” anecdotes was a sense of connection. When people felt connected, they felt at peace, they felt settled. And more often than not, those moments of connection came when they were able to leave the boundary of their humanness to gel with the greater whole of what’s around us: the branches, the birds, the breeze, the spice of wild sage and fennel. You are so right about this.

    I’m curious what you think about Marc Bekoff’s writings. I’ve read two of his books, and as you might imagine, I like his efforts to bring some pathos to clinical, scientific endeavors. I’ve always felt that it’s impossible to develop an understanding for something as intangible as animal emotion and [non-human] communication, if the paradigm with which animals are being studied lacks the language for explaining these things. To me, it’s been an unbreakable paradox in science and I hope that people like Bekoff help bring about a theoretical evolution in this regard.

    • Tovar says:

      I agree about the commonality, Ingrid. At least some hunters out there are very much after that sense of connection with “the greater whole,” just as many non-hunters are.

      There are differences among all our experiences, of course, and becoming a hunter has added a valuable dimension to mine. But it would be unfair to privilege my experiences and associations as “more intimate” than yours.

      Has hunting sharpened my attention in certain ways and to certain things, even when I’m not hunting, and given me access to new feelings and experiences? Sure. I’m participating in nature in ways that I wasn’t before. On the other hand, I’m more aware of some experiences in (and aspects of) nature when I’m not hunting, which is most of the time I’m outdoors. In other words, hunting heightens certain kinds of awareness for me and opens certain doors, but it can also create tunnel vision at times, especially if deer are close by. (That’s clumsily said, I know, but I hope it makes some sense.)

      I’ve only read a small portion of Bekoff’s work, but I’m favorably impressed so far. Building deeper understandings of non-human animals is, I think, an important task for us as individuals and as a society. In a way, my next post is going to touch on this; I’ll be curious to hear what you think.

  6. Eric Nuse says:

    Ingrid said, “When people felt connected, they felt at peace, they felt settled. And more often than not, those moments of connection came when they were able to leave the boundary of their humanness…”
    I agree, but would add – their “modern” humanness… I suspect that 20,000 years ago nearly all humans were very connected to nature, if not they didn’t live very long. I feel this connection most when I’m hunting, but I have a very broad definition of hunting which includes foraging, gathering and eating wild stuff.
    A friend of mine participated in an experiment at the Univ of Wisconsin a few years ago. They rigged him up with a heart monitor and a time synchronized tape recorder. Then he went off deer hunting. He tracked what he was doing and seeing on the tape recorder so it could be matched to the second with the heart monitor. When he heard and then saw some deer the monitor went thru the roof. He is an experienced hunter and a wildlife biologist, so this wasn’t his first sighting of a deer in the woods. Something very deep and subconscious goes on here. It seems to be one of those things that you have to experience to believe. But be careful – it can be addicting or, if you have a heart condition, fatal.

  7. Ingrid says:

    Eric, you’re right. And I think we all feel that innately as young beings here on the planet. Maybe some of us never outgrow it. My heart still stops when I see another living thing in my space. As many deer, wild turkeys, raccoons, bears, foxes, etc who’ve crossed my path, I have no doubt that the heart monitor would register the same for me — and probably for all of you, too. Perhaps you’re arguing that it’s through the pursuit of a hunt that such a response occurs. If so, my apologies for misreading the study. All I can say is that whether I’m there to take a photo or simply spend long hours in stillness, I can relate to the jolt/excitatory reaction you describe. A professor friend of mine whose expertise is in eastern theology and philosophy would say that we respond that way because we are simply recognizing the one that is us. I like that. Because in my own ancestral, spiritual traditions (animism) there was no such artificial delineation, something that quantum physicists might confirm on at least one level.

  8. Doug says:

    Just found your blog and really enjoy your writing. I’ve cross posted about one of your posts “Gone killin'”. I hope you don’t mind – All credit has gone to you.

  9. Stephen says:

    My sign reads “gone to chill.” I recently got into hunting and my mentor says something similar to your quote “That’s why they call it ‘hunting,’ not ‘finding.’” But he says “That’s why they call it ‘hunting,’ not ‘killing.’” More often than not we don’t bring anything back, but to me it’s more about the experience than the actual harvesting of game.

    • Tovar says:

      Hey, Stephen, thanks for adding your version of “the sign.”

      And welcome, both to my little corner of the blogosphere and to the adventure of becoming a hunter later in life.

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