Hunting and heresy: A skirmish with Ortega y Gasset

If my pristine hardcover copy of Meditations on Hunting was a paperback, it would be heavily marked up.

Here and there, a sentence would be underlined, noting my emphatic agreement. Mostly, though, the margins would be crammed with question marks, exclamation points, and words of protest.

This little book, written in 1942 by Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, is quoted so often in the literature of hunting that it has taken on near-scriptural status. I guess I’m a heretic.

Of the dozens of bones I have to pick with Ortega, here I’ll chew on just one.

Ortega celebrates the “exemplary moral spirit of the sporting hunter” who hunts for diversion. He looks down on the “utilitarian” hunter who, like “Paleolithic man and…the poacher of any epoch,” hunts for food.

A sport is the effort which is carried out for the pleasure that it gives in itself and not for the transitory result that the effort brings forth… In utilitarian hunting the true purpose of the hunter, what he seeks and values, is the death of the animal. Everything else that he does before that is merely a means for achieving that end, which is its formal purpose.

Ortega seems to have forgotten something here. What the utilitarian hunter seeks and values is not death. It is life: food. But Ortega has more to say.

In hunting as a sport this order of means to end is reversed. To the sportsman the death of the game is not what interests him; that is not his purpose. What interests him is everything that he had to do to achieve that death—that is, the hunt…

Setting aside the fact that some sport hunters do seem quite interested in “the death of the game,” I agree with Ortega that there is far more to hunting than the death of the animal. The process of the hunt is undeniably compelling.

But, here again, Ortega has missed something. Utilitarian hunters are also compelled by the hunt itself. In his introduction to A Hunter’s Heart, Richard Nelson writes, “During a year I spent in the arctic coastal village of Wainwright, I was struck by the fact that Inupiaq men lived to hunt as much as they hunted to live.”

Ortega’s sportsman may live to hunt, but he does not hunt to live. And that makes the killing—and Ortega’s explanation of it—more tenuous.

Death is essential because without it there is no authentic hunting… The hunter seeks this death because it is no less than the sign of reality for the whole hunting process. To sum up, one does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.

So, for Ortega’s sportsman, the animal’s death is a “sign” that the hunt was “authentic” and “real.”

To my ear, such insistence on authenticity suggests one thing clearly: Ortega’s sportsman is out of touch with reality. Why else would he need a sign of it?

Here, as elsewhere in the book, Ortega’s case for the superiority of sport hunting over utilitarian hunting appears to stem from a fundamental cultural arrogance. Tribes who depend on hunting for survival, Ortega writes, “represent the most primitive human species that exists.” Ignorant as these primitive brutes are—lacking “the slightest hint of government, of legislation, of authority”—their hunting and their philosophical understanding of it must, naturally, be inferior to those of civilized Europe.

But it his own ignorance—of tribal cultures and their enormously complex “utilitarian” hunting traditions—that Ortega demonstrates.

For, as Bob Kimber writes in Living Wild and Domestic, “it is the utilitarian hunter dependent on the hunt for sustenance who will have the greatest knowledge of, and respect for, his wild brethren and whose culture will make that knowledge and respect manifest in its arts, rituals, myths, and day-to-day behavior.”

Unlike the Inupiaq hunters described by Nelson, I don’t need to hunt to survive. But I do hunt to eat. Food is central to the landscape of meanings in which my hunting is rooted.

It is for food—not for a sign that my hunting is real—that I take aim at the whitetail’s heart.

© 2010 Tovar Cerulli


  1. Chad Love says:

    I’m glad to see that someone else doesn’t take everything that’s written in that book as gospel.

    Now, I say that as someone who’s read the book, loves the book and whose original 1972 first English printing of the book (signed by Howard Wescott) is one of the crown jewels of his meager collection of collectable tomes, but…

    You do make a valid point. Like you, I sometimes have trouble reconciling Ortega’s attitude toward subsistence hunting (and its ultimate goal) with my own feelings that the two primary reasons (sport and food, and I’ve never really liked the term sport, anyway. I prefer compulsion) for hunting are inextricably linked.

    The first time I read it I thought it made some wonderful points but my hillbilly roots detected a whiff of aristocratic class bigotry that initially colored my opinion of it a bit. And of course we shouldn’t forget that it’s very much a European book and perhaps (maybe unintentionally) reflects that stratified European attitude and cultural realities about hunting.

    Which, of course, makes it even more ironic that American hunters, who generally loathe the various European hunting models, love to quote it so much.

    But overall I do love the book, and you can’t deny its importance. What I try to do with Ortega is overlook such (relatively minor, in the grand scheme of things) inconsistencies and instead focus on viewing what he writes through more of a grand, overarching philosophical framework, if that makes sense. Not so much a treatise on the whys of hunting, but a treatise on the whys of life seen through the metaphor of the hunt, which Ortega, being a philosopher, would probably argue is the point.

    And if the aristicratic dude who wrote it sometimes lets his bias slip through, well, it’s annoying but I won’t let it put me off it completely.

    I do, however, remain convinced that most guys quote Ortega not because they’ve actually read and mulled it over, but because it makes ’em sound smarter than they are. God knows I’ve been guilty of that…

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Chad.

      I don’t like the term “sport” either, and I very nearly included that caveat in the post. But I decided to let well enough alone and engage Ortega on his own terms. To give his ideas a fair shake, we do, as you say, need to get past our annoyance at his terminology and tone.

      Yes, the European-ness of the hunting Ortega celebrates certainly does lend an irony to his American following. Maybe part of the allure lies in him being a highly educated, articulate philosopher who writes about hunting in a complicated way. Maybe the sheer complexity of his thinking and language lends it the appearance of credibility, an aura which, as you noted, can be borrowed by those who quote him.

      Ortega does say things with which I agree. And he raises important questions about hunting and the “terrifying thing” that “death, especially ‘caused’ death, murder, is or should be.” But I rarely find his answers satisfactory.

      Maybe I’d find the book more palatable if Ortega had stuck more clearly to the philosophy of life, making fewer grand pronouncements about hunting itself. He could have taken his own advice—offered as an admonishment to someone with whom he disagreed—to try “a little harder to be less sure about things which perhaps one can never be sure about.”

  2. Josh says:

    That’s it. I’ve been “working” on a blog post on the need for a better term than sport, and you and Chad here have really helped that along.

    I think Ortega y Gasset needs the kill for the reality of the hunt specifically because he cannot understand the connection and relationship of the hunt-kill-eat. This may be why much of his writings sound too far into intuitionism without the balance one gets from having an end-reason. Possibly ironically, he may have actually thrown the baby out the window and kept the bathwater in his condemnation of hunting societies. He desires to keep the violence without the reasons for it.

    • Tovar says:

      I look forward to seeing your post on “sport.” Though the term had its role in other places and times, I think it has outlived its usefulness. Here and now, it smacks of competition and entertainment. That may be relevant to how some Americans hunt, but it doesn’t describe most hunters I know.

      Yeah, I think you’re right: Ortega kept the bathwater!

  3. I think Ortega y Gasset’s views reflect his elitist worldview. I do think this is different than the “sport” hunters of today who seem to see hunting as contest. They do not see animals as a resource and necessity but as something to conquer or defeat. I do not understand this myself but I do have a theory. The elites of the past and the sportsman of today live such safe and secure lives that it drives them to make normal activities seem adventurous and daring. It must fulfill a need they have. I have been blasted by many for my view of animals as food and clothing, but at least I don’t view them as toys. I kill animals with no remorse because I have to eat while some kill for bragging rights. Don’t get me wrong I will defend hunting as a sport because these hunters have done most of the conservation work around the world and fight to insure my right to hunt, but I will never be able to call myself a sportsman….I am an outdoorsman. I have never found a hunting book I completely agreed with but I particularly dislike this one for its high handed tone and lack of content beyond the kill. I am more interested in the sum of the adventure not just how your approach is far superior to the uncivilized world. In my opinion you will never find a sport hunter who can match skills with a subsistence hunter, their life depends on it. Your pal the Envirocapitalist.

    • Tovar says:

      Interesting thoughts, Gabe. The desire for adventure and for feeling fully and intensely alive is, I think, natural and healthy. But fulfilling that desire need not include making animals into adversaries or “toys,” as you put it.

      Ortega admits that, as you say, the sport hunter is never as skilled as the subsistence hunter: “Today’s best-trained hunter cannot begin to compare his form to that of the sylvan actions of the present-day pygmy or his remote counterpart Paleolithic man.” He even allows that the modern European subsistence hunter is far more skilled than the sporting hunter. But, for Ortega, that modern European subsistence hunter is an uncivilized brute: “the poacher,” an “eternal troglodyte” who “always smells a little like a beast.”

  4. Ingrid says:

    Thanks for writing this, Tovar. Because I’m a non-hunter, I haven’t publicly argued this point much. I’ve been told more than once that I can’t understand Ortega y Gasset precisely because I don’t hunt. It’s refreshing to read the other comments here, to see that it’s not just us non-hunters who harbor some ambivalence.

    I walked away from this book with a huge dose of cynicism. It’s very hard for someone who works with injured wildlife to buy into his romanticizing of sport for pleasure’s sake. I’m surprised how often hunters have recommended this book to me, actually. I don’t see it as a particularly good emissary for the modern hunter.

    I tend to agree with you and the other commenters here who call out the author on the elitist tone. If I could muster a re-read (I read it years ago) I might have a more lucid critique than this one. But, I’ve got a huge stack of un-read books awaiting my midnight readings. Suffice to say, you captured a sense similar to the one I had after closing the back cover.

    • Tovar says:

      My pleasure, Ingrid.

      Yes, I agree: the book is a poor emissary. Given that many hunters are ambivalent about the book, how can we expect non-hunters to be convinced by it, unless they are easily swayed by flowery language and complicated thinking?

      Some defenders of Ortega—one of whom, to my surprise, is David Petersen—contend that Ortega’s critics take his famous one-liners out of context. That may be true. But his defenders do the same thing.

      In Heartsblood, for example, Petersen explains one of Ortega’s lines (“The only adequate response to a being that lives obsessed with avoiding capture is to try to catch it”) by writing, “Elk evolved as prey, while humans evolved as part-time prey and full-time predators; so what could be more natural than for our human hunting instincts to be excited by the deer’s keenly evasive instincts…?” Petersen points out that “other mammalian predators are instinctively inclined to pursue anything that runs away.”

      Fair enough. If you accept the premise of the human hunting instinct, then Petersen’s explanation of Ortega’s line is sound.

      But Ortega wrote that line in the context of a scene involving, not elk or deer, but wolves! That changes Ortega’s claim substantially. Wolves did not evolve as prey species. Rather, they are the ancestors of humanity’s ancient hunting companion, the dog.

  5. Ian Nance says:

    These comments – and that book – are really signs of the times. The 30’s and 40’s weren’t exactly high times for wide spread sport hunting, especially here in the US. Big game populations weren’t what they are now. War and economic realties hindered travel. So, yes, it is certainly elitist. The value of the hunt – for any purpose – has gained appreciation since then, as more opportunity has been presented. Also, respect for game animals have increased. And what is considered right or wrong, in this field of gray, evolves. You know, Teddy Roosevelt considered stand hunting to be unethical for deer. Times change. Before him, they probably wrote about gunning pronghorn off the tops of trains. So, no, it is not gospel, just a history piece.

    Excellent post and blog.

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Ian.

      It’s true, times and ethical guidelines do change. But even in the context of Ortega’s time, I find it hard to reconcile his assertions.

      He claims that “a good hunter’s way of hunting is a hard job which demands much from man [sic]: he must keep himself fit, face extreme fatigues, accept danger” and that there is “a very precise line, below which fall innumerable forms of hunting that are deficient modes of this occupation; deficient in the aspects of dexterity, boldness, and effort, or simply in the moral aspect.”

      If Ortega believes his own claims, how can he place the European battue—in which beaters drive the game to the hunters—above that “very precise line,” alongside the chase and falconry?

      Kimber’s book has a delightful passage on this, describing noblemen who wait at the edge of the woods as peasants drive wildlife toward them and “blaze away at anything that runs, crawls, or flies… What—apart from money and the power to order people around—is required of the hunter?”

  6. Excellent points, Tovar. I read Ortega y Gasset early on, in perhaps my first season of hunting, and recently revisited it because I thought I would get much more out of it, having done much more thinking about hunting.

    What I found was some material that really hit the mark for me, and other sections that didn’t make sense to me the first time I read it and still made no sense. The oft-quoted “kill to have hunted” line is one of those that I just can’t reconcile with my view of hunting.

    I hadn’t particularly taken your tack on it, though, in part because I view his aristocratic-sport-hunter bent in the context of the time in which he wrote it. I too loathe the term “sport hunting” because it’s really not a contest or a sport when the goal is killing, and I really wish we would ditch the term. But I also understand that the term arose as part of the rehabilitation of hunting early last century, when we were moving away from the notion of hunting as a pillaging of the resource, and toward the notion that it was a gentlemanly (ahem) and regulated thing to do. Like so many terms we employ to change people’s views of the things the words describe, this one has worn out its usefulness.

    That said, I believe some of what he says still has meaning. Example: Some of the ornate rules and “ethics” we take so seriously in hunting today really have no place in the world of subsistance hunters. If I’m hunting for subsistence, all bets are off. I’m going to bait, I’m going to hunt at night, I’m going to kill does and any fawns that are big enough to be worth my time. But I, as a “sport hunter,” wouldn’t do some of those things – particularly baiting. I like the fact that we have rules that compensate for our powerful weapons. So in that sense, it does make me similar to the “noble” sport hunter Ortega y Gasset venerates.

    I’m also fascinated with some of the points he makes about how hunting is something desired both by the rich, who have means and abundant leisure time, and by the poor who – in Europe in particular – have neither the means (because hunting has become a sport of the rich, or because game is “owned” by the rich) nor the leisure time. There was one section in particular in which he wrote about the poor immediately taking up hunting after a revolution, and how the revolutionaries were irked because they’d made such a sport of mocking hunting all along.

    In my personal pantheon of books that have inspired me and nurtured my intellectual journey through my new world, Ortega y Gasset has a place, but not the most important place. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Woman the Hunter, Animals Make Us Human, Catching Fire and even The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game, with its ludicrous and offensive ending, have left a bigger mark on my thinking. But I’m still keeping ole Jose on my shelf, marked up and dog-eared, because what he says is still worth contemplating – just not adopting wholesale.

    • Tovar says:

      Yes, I agree that we need to take Ortega’s era and place into account when we read him.

      As you say, the American term “sport hunting”—though it has outlived its usefulness—is tied to our important history of rehabilitating hunting and conserving wildlife populations in the decades circa 1900. It marked “sportsmen/conservationists” as different from the unregulated “market” hunters and “pot” (utilitarian) hunters who had driven so many species to the brink of extinction.

      Ortega, though, doesn’t appear to have had any of this in mind. He hardly addresses the topic of conservation, writing of the inevitable progress of civilization and “the error of believing that it is feasible to save game.” And he traces the etymology of “sport” to the 15th century and defines it as “an effort made completely freely, for the pure enjoyment of it,” distinguishing it from “work [which] is an obligatory effort made with an eye to the profit.”

      If food qualifies as “profit,” then I suspect that Inupiaq hunters—like you, me, Chad, Josh, and many of the other Euro-American hunters I know—would have trouble separating enjoyment of the hunt from appreciation of the profit.

      Regarding the rules and ethics we hunt by, it seems to me that our discussions of them might be improved by differentiating among different types of rules and ethics. For example, we have rules and ethics oriented toward conservation (for the good of the species, ecological health, and hunting opportunities for ourselves and other hunters), toward “fair chase” (to give the animals, and other hunters, a chance) and toward the minimization of suffering. The methods you mentioned you might use as a subsistence hunter all violate our current notions of fair chase, which is where the comparison with Ortega’s sporting code comes in. Yet they might—in addition to filling the freezer—minimize suffering and, where a species is too numerous, serve conservation goals as well.

      Yes, I was intrigued by Ortega’s sections on how hunting is a privilege coveted by rich and poor alike. Some have interpreted his words as a call for greater democratic access to hunting, as in the North American model. But I read them in the context of Ortega’s devotion to the naturalness of social hierarchy and privilege. He defines “authentic societies” as “societies divided into classes, with their inevitable ‘upper’ and ‘lower’” and writes that, “for two hundred years Western man [sic] has been fighting to eliminate privilege, which is stupid, because in certain orders privilege is inevitable and its existence does not depend on human will.”

  7. I personally have not read this book. I am guessing, from the brief descriptions and comments that I would take offense to some of the ideas. I took up hunting to regain my place in nature – to feel connected to reality, not our wasteful, exploiting materialistic, man-made version of “real”. It is part of my awakening – like learning to make cordage, tan hides, make birch bark containers, etc..

    I question whether is has become our responsibility to hunt? We are destroying habitat, and with it the natural predators, at an alarming rate in many areas. In many areas, overpopulation is becoming an issue. I would prefer to see “green areas” set aside to stop some of the ridiculous sprawl, but I do not have the means to do so alone. That said, these areas would, without proper respectful management, likely become overpopulated, disease breeding grounds. We, and other predators, play a role in the healthy propogation of prey species. There is a balance that needs to be maintained.

    Regardless, thanks for the enlightening information. I will need to decide whether I will put this on my “to read” list.

    • Tovar says:

      The need for population control often seems to masquerade as a motive for hunting, as if hunters take up hunting out of a sense of ecological duty. Very few do. That said, I think your question is an excellent one, and hunting certainly does play a critical role in wildlife management.

      I’m interested in how different communities deal with wildlife overpopulation problems, especially in urban and suburban areas. Sometimes the problems are ignored. Sometimes hunting is used. Sometimes other methods are employed.

      Last night, over dinner, Jim Posewitz told me how Helena, Montana, went through a decision-making process about the city’s severe deer problem. In the end, “hunters” were not used. Instead, off-duty police officers were trained in a capture-and-kill method and thousands of pounds of venison have been donated to local food-shelf/soup-kitchen operations.

      I also had a recent email exchange with a US Forest Service botanist about the 7,000-acre Blue Hills Reservation near Boston. That area, he says, has one of the most frightening deer overabundance problems he’s ever seen, resulting in extreme loss of biodiversity.

      In the case of deer, human extirpation of predators like wolves and mountain lions does leave us with a grossly imbalanced system. And hunting is one way to redress that imbalance. Let’s ask ourselves, though: Why do we call wolves and mountain lions, but not humans, “natural” predators?

  8. Art says:

    Wow, another great discussion you have going on here, Tovar. I honestly don’t even feel I’m up to the task of trying to formulate a comment. I believe all the things I wanted to say have already been said.

    But I do love the conversation, and the insights from everyone. It makes me think, and that is why I constantly come back to visit your blog.

    For the record, though, I do hate the term “sport” to be used anywhere near the word hunting. I know Phillip will tend to disagree with us on this – when he does comment here – but the term sport just doesn’t sit well with me when it comes to the views and feelings I associate with my hunting experiences.

    And, I definitely hunt for food. But, also, I hunt for a variety of other reasons that I simply don’t have the time to list here. However, I don’t need to have a kill “authenticate” my hunt; or need a kill to make my hunt “real.”

    I definitely think Gasset missed the mark there.

    This is a great discussion, though, and keep writing the great posts, Tovar.

    • Tovar says:

      Hey, Art, I’m glad you’re enjoying the discussion. It’s always good to stay on our toes and keep those synapses firing!

      Though I dislike the term “sport,” I have heard well-articulated defenses of it, some referencing the connection to the late 19th century emergence of the American sportsman/conservationist, others arguing that it accurately describes the way the “game” of hunting is played, with particular rules and guidelines for behavior—as in “being a good sport” or “sportsmanlike conduct.”

  9. Ingrid says:

    Holly said, “If I’m hunting for subsistence, all bets are off. I’m going to bait, I’m going to hunt at night, I’m going to kill does and any fawns that are big enough to be worth my time. But I, as a “sport hunter,” wouldn’t do some of those things – particularly baiting. I like the fact that we have rules that compensate for our powerful weapons.

    I see your point, Holly. And I like that you like those rules. 🙂

    I think I’m on the verge of taking this off the track of Ortega y Gasset, but I think there’s something to be said for defining subsistence in these contexts. Well, for the purposes of argument, anyway.

    One of my old school buddies is a subsistence hunter, in the sense that he kills one large animal a season (deer or elk) and lives on that meat in his winter hovel. (I know, easy to say. My “friend.” I’d give you his name if that wasn’t a complete violation of his privacy.)

    But anyway, I haven’t talked to him in quite a while, but as long as I knew him, he didn’t buy meat (he only ate what he hunted). And, in fact, he spent the cold season away from amenities, working in a natural resources context. He was truly a mountain man.

    And even he did not bait or engage in actions that could be construed as unfair (by some) in a sporting context. I asked him about that once, after having witnessed some luring of animals that really upset me. He believed very strongly in fair chase and admitted he’d never been physiologically starving or near death, which would probably change the context of ethics for many people. Plus, he was adept at foraging, so he had a high degree of survival skills that didn’t involve meat and which allowed him to survive without it, had he failed at a hunt. (I suspect that is true of most you here — the foraging/survival skills and aptitude, that is.) Of course, he works in a field related to conservation so his feelings on this are based in a personal commitment.

    But I’ve often thought about him when presented with a discussion of ethics. Because I think that whether hunting for food or for sport, it’s not unreasonable for those of us who care about wildlife, to ask for a more uniform idea of what’s ethical when it comes to engaging with wildlife — whether as a hunter or a recreational wildlife watcher or as a photographer. Of course, I don’t get very far with this because I realize that challenging any number of practices in hunting is a threatening proposition for those who do engage in practices that I find distasteful, like baiting. And I realize that “ethics” is often an individual designation. But I still think that when it comes to the preciousness of life and our resources, there ought to be more agreement that some practices simply don’t match the ostensible morality of post-enlightenment humanity.

    As one example, there’s an incredible amount of disparity between the ethics of a hunter, who engages regularly with wildlife, and me, a wildlife worker, who also engages regularly but in a different context. In our work, we must adhere to a strict code in terms of our behavior. And yet I always fear an argument if I suggest a similar code of engagement around hunting. Habituation is the death knell for wild animals and we work so hard to avoid anything that could lead to human-wildlife familiarity. And yet, baiting for the hunt is precisely that — a form of habituation. And in my mind, not often justified. Well, at least not as often as it’s used.

    Obviously, the difficulty of ethics is that it isn’t always convenient or easy to come to a shared philosophy. But in as much as most of us seem to have come to an agreement about “thou shalt not kill” when it comes to humans (most of us), I feel we owe it to our non-human brethren to have more serious and difficult discussions about what should be expected of us in terms of behavior when it comes to their lives. Of course, that’s what you’d expect of a non-hunter, I suppose. (Thanks, Tovar, for your open forum.)

    • For the purposes of my comment, “subsistence” meant “civilization has collapsed and I’m hungry and I’m going to do whatever I can to feed myself, even if it means going Donner Party.”

      If you use a broader definition, you could almost call my boyfriend and I subsistence hunters now because the vast majority of our meat comes from wild game. But for me, that wouldn’t trigger the all-bets-are-off response.

      In a situation somewhere in the middle – we all hunt to eat, but we aren’t on the verge of starvation – I think you come to a middle ground of ethics rules that calls for hunting choices that preserve the health of the game species. I’m thinking of a basic hunter-gatherer ethic here, one in which humans live in balance with our cousins, the non-human animals. It’s an interesting question, though: While I know hunter-gatherers often had rules designed to maintain the health of game species, I don’t know if they had (have) rules comparable to our fair chase concept. Can anyone answer that?

      • Ingrid says:

        Holly, do you, by any chance, remember “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer” (Phil Hartman)? He gamed the system by arguing that he was just a simple caveman, unfamiliar with our modern ways … in spite of the fact that he drove a Mercedes, traveled by jet, and was an early adopter of the cell phone. Sometimes, after I post here, I feel like I’ve pulled an Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer on the forum, arguing for concessions armed with anecdotal syllogisms.

        btw: I’m interested in responses to your question about hunter-gatherers. By today’s standards, some of the tribal hunting methodologies would defy “ethical” as I’ve defined it (fair, humane) and yet many indigenous cultures embodied a relationship with the earth (as opposed to a domination model) that could easily be termed sustainable — and probably falls pretty close to your middle-ground rules of preserving the health of the game species (and the land).

      • Tovar says:

        Interesting question about “fair chase” rules in hunter-gatherer cultures, Holly. Such cultures are and were extremely diverse, of course. Some certainly have/had “religious” taboos concerning hunting, and some certainly have/had conservation-of-game rules. Whether any have/had “fair chase type” rules, I don’t know.

    • Tovar says:

      Good points on ethics and codes of engagement, Ingrid.

      Here, again, I think it might be helpful to parse out different elements of those codes. In baiting for the hunt, for example, in what ways might the practice affect animal behavior, health, and even conservation goals? One result, as you mention, might be a kind of habituation, with various consequences. Another element: In what ways might baiting affect the “fair chase” aspect of hunting? And another: In what ways might it affect the swiftness of the actual killing?

      To what extent is each of these elements part of an “ethic” that should be codified in some way? And to what extent is each part of an “aesthetic” that should be left to individual human discretion? (For an argument in favor of defining many hunting issues solely as “aesthetic,” see Cornell philosophy professor Jim Tantillo’s piece, “Ethics versus Preferences,” posted a while back on Eric Nuse’s blog.)

      • Josh says:

        Here’s another question related to baiting: What is habitat restoration, if not baiting? And, what if habitat had evolved with human interactions to the extent that animals, including humans, thrived? I’m thinking of the fires set by Californians before European settlement. It’s probably true, for example, that Yosemite Valley’s habitat was due to human introduced fires on a regular basis. The lodgepole pine encroachment on the Valley is about 150 years old – the time we started serious Sierra fire suppression.

        When we hunt, do we look for places where the animals are feeding, or moving to/from food and water sources?

        I completely understand, and disagree with, American hunters baiting animals by supplying huge piles of food. At the same time, I recognize that only a stupid hunter would hunt where there is no good habitat for their prey.

        This is all about understanding the reality of the natural world and our relationship to it – recognizing that real habitat will include relationships we don’t completely understand. This takes a love for place and a desire to be a part of that place.

        As for the fair chase connotation, I’m starting to see it as a secondary ethos, related only to the ethical requirement that a hunter be skilled and intimately understand and relate to her prey. In a world where our sustenance does not depend upon the success of the hunt, “fair chase” takes the place of hunger as the whetstone upon which we hone our skills. This is vital to hunting as an ethical endeavour, and should in no way discount the importance of fair chase.

        • Tovar says:

          When I talk about baiting, I mean piles of food and such: salt licks for deer, buckets of pastries for bear, etc.

          But your thoughts on habitat are interesting, Josh. As in your example, Native peoples in pre-colonial Massachusetts regularly set ground fires that cleared the undergrowth and dead leaf litter, and favored particular types of trees. As one result, grasses and other herbaceous plants thrived, attracting and benefiting deer and elk—hard to imagine elk in Massachusetts! The cleared, grassy ground was also ideal for stalking quietly and taking unobstructed shots with bow and arrow…

    • It’s really neither, Swamp Thing, but it is worth reading with a grain of salt. I find it’s almost always useful to learn other people’s perspectives, even when I disagree with them. The world is an incredibly boring place when we listen only to the people with whom we agree – and dangerous, too, as we run the risk of being certain we are right 100 percent of the time.

      • Swamp Thing says:

        Very true. But we each also have a limited time on earth (and each day), so it’s important to use discretion….I’ve read other snippets of Ortega y Gasset and never have I been inclined to think, “Wow, that’s really thought provoking and yet I disagree. I need to read more.”

        We each have our own boundaries to deal with (and stretch!), and I guess the validation of the hunt is not somewhere that I feel conflicted. Trust me, I have plenty of other “theories” about the outdoors and life that are very firm, yet I can’t really defend, and I do try to push those boundaries and educate myself. I do think it’s important – as you do.

        Kudos to you for challenging yourself with this book!

  10. Phillip says:

    As I mentioned in my recent reply on Josh’s blog, my intellect isn’t firing on all cylinders lately, so my responses here won’t get too deep.

    First of all, I’m in total agreement that Ortega y Gassett should be read with a grain of salt… several grains, actually.

    One needs to consider that he writes from the perspective of a liberal philosopher, not as someone intimately connected with or involved in the sport. Meditations On Hunting, so often quoted, was really only a preface for someone else’s book on hunting. In the context of his other writing, the concepts and ideas he puts forth in Meditations are pretty consistent… and carry the same weaknesses (especially when viewed from a 21st Century perspective).

    My own thoughts about the book are that it makes a great spot to start a conversation. I think this discussion is a perfect example.

    • Tovar says:

      I wonder if Ortega’s relative lack of experience and involvement with hunting accounts, at least in part, for the ways in which he misses the mark. Or maybe that has more to do with the differences between cultures and centuries.

      Has anyone ever read any part of the book for which Ortega wrote this long prologue, Twenty Years a Big-Game Hunter by Count Yebes? Does Yebes tackle philosophical or ethical issues to any degree?

      Thanks for chiming in, Phillip!

  11. chacha1 says:

    Linked over here from Casual Kitchen and – as a lifelong non-hunter (but not anti-hunter, I grew up in the backwoods South!) and conservationist – just want to say I found this discussion unexpectedly articulate and thoughtful. I appreciate what you all have written.

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks! I’m glad you appreciated what you found here. This is, indeed, a fine group of folks to talk such things over with.

  12. jreed says:

    why dont we ask a terrier about the ethical rules of engagement. A terrier is either on or off and anything within sight or smell is usually considered fair game. Most game is not eaten and purely thrill of the chase, and game above and below ground is often pursued. While i may not write as well as the others in this forum i still have strong opinions. after reading many blogs here and liking some of what I read i appreciate the effort to study the ethics of the hunt. The rigid rules and ideas surrounding the game animals you choose to pursue and the manner in which you undertake such above activities. Southern boys are often taught to hunt, why raise beef in a state with millions of deer. Now in california ive been hunting for years. working hard and lack of good public land make hunting hard and deer are not scarce. short and complicated seasons dont help either. While Ive never killed a trophy that doesnt mean i wont Ive never killed a legal deer yet, and Ive never had an empty freezer and lack of meat because I wasnt willing or able. I hunt for food and I eat meat to live.

  13. jreed says:

    hunting also includes game management which is a by product of modern culture and civilization , edge species like deer often benefit from the sport hunters who are managing the populations not just subsisting, while I wont hunt with sport hunters cause they often dont know how to use their tools of engagement safetly i wont blast the either for taking trophys, what i think we might agree of is making that a culture itself bothers us all

    • Tovar says:

      Hi Jreed, thanks for stopping by.

      Yes, I think we’d learn a lot if we could more easily communicate with animals, both domestic and wild!

      Finding the time to hunt and places to hunt can, indeed, be tough.

      I’m not sure I follow you when you say “Ive never killed a legal deer yet, and Ive never had an empty freezer and lack of meat because I wasnt willing or able.” Are you saying you kill deer illegally?

      • jreed says:

        im being polite to say Im not concerned with the department of fish and game and what they think of how i feed my family, not to mention private land hunting

        but this doesnt mean you dont practice ethical game managment or are not concerned, i show my concern by not taking trophies

        • Tovar says:

          I can sympathize with your resistance to the government dictating how you hunt and eat. But illegal hunting is not something I’m willing to do.

          If one person does it, no real biological/conservation harm is done. If everyone did it, we’d have serious problems.

          This was, as I understand it, one of the difficult choices that early hunter-conservationists (like Teddy Roosevelt and company) had to make. They valued freedom, individualism, and so on. But a laissez-faire approach to wildlife was devastating the continent’s wildlife populations, forcing conservationists to realize that government intervention and management were necessary.

          • I’m with you on this one, Tovar. While hunting to feed one’s family often brings a meaningful conservation ethic with it, it denies wildlife of funds that are used to protect their habitat.

            And on the whole, paying for the privilege to hunt wildlife makes sense to me. My understanding is that in Europe, where hunting is vastly more constrained than it is here, wildlife belongs to whoever’s property it’s on, which is funny, considering wildlife doesn’t understand imaginary boundaries. In America, wildlife belongs to the people (all of us), whether you shoot it on public land or private. Paying for it isn’t unreasonable.

            • Tovar says:

              Technically, going back to the Magna Carta of 1215, even in Europe living wild animals didn’t belong to anyone until they were captured or killed. In that sense, I believe North American wildlife management is rooted in English common law.

              In practice, however — long after 1215 — commoners were forbidden from hunting, owning hunting weapons or dogs, etc.

              • jreed says:

                interesting, i pay for tags but the unreasonable laws make legal hunting a joke. Migratory waterfowl are really the only wildlife gaining major funds and conservations efforts. Tovar, try and get a depredeation permit for one deer in your vinyard or orchard. the whole carcass must be buried on site ( useful ) here in my county and the land with animals and the season make actually obtaining meat from your effort a joke, mind you im a bit miffed for most that is a luxury and for some reality. Ever try feeding your family good, reality is that Mcdonalds is cheeper than even good frozen veggies go figure. I pay for tags, but bucks arent active in the heat and I cant take a week off for a hundred and twenty pounds of meat. I have more luck getting fresh roadkill which is also illegal. deer arent in need of protective habitat. I hit 4 alone in one year with a small isuzu truck and deer whistles, and edge species so abundant that you cant have a garden with out a deer fence in california. Those rules are often because many trophy and sport hunters no nothing of wildlife management, herd numbers, or even how to cook the meat they shoot. Or only take a few select cuts while leaving the carcass to rot. Good times, Im not looking to be antagonistic simply pointing out you are enjoying a luxury to be able to do it the idealistic aproach and Im pointing out that you can also know your game, hunt with honor as a family provider, and also have sophisticated ethics while out side of commonly constructed boundries. and still be a conservation minding individual …..

                • Tovar says:

                  Your points are well taken, Jreed. I wish all “outlaw hunters” put as much thought into what they did and why.

                  I’m sorry to hear that California’s laws are so unfriendly to eating wild meat. No one can use the venison from deer shot to prevent agricultural damage? Roadkill can’t be eaten either? That’s ridiculous. Can some of my other California friends confirm this craziness?

                  Here in Vermont, I’m fairly certain the venison can be utilized in both cases. If, for example, you hit a deer with your car, the game warden will usually offer the carcass to you.

                  • jreed says:

                    Its the transportation of a game animal that is illegal , the same as if I catch a fox or bobcat eating my turkeys. I can call a fish and game officer and he will come and shoot it but I am not supposed to even trap them and I cannot transport them for release. Go figure, agg deer must be buried the entire carcass on site. ( I eat many nuisance, and save the state money for conservation effort by keeping the warden onto real business that his time is needed for and not silliness. While Im not really an outlaw, I am subsistance

                    • I didn’t know about the agricultural depredation issue with deer, but I do know that’s the case with mountain lions, which our voters outlawed hunting a couple decades ago. You can shoot one that’s eating your livestock, but you may not keep head, pelt or meat Which is to say, nothing.

                      One thing worth noting is that our deer population is in decline here in Cali and they’re trying to figure out why:

                      The roadkill thing sounds about right. There’s some roadkill you can pick up if you’re licensed (raccoon, for example), but others you can’t pick up, and you can’t even finish off if you see it suffering from mortal wounds on the road.

                      That said, I know some wardens, and I can’t speak for all of them, but they’d rather work on the egregious cases of poaching (people who kill way over limits, or who bait) than picking on people trying to feed their families. But unless you know your local warden, you never know if that’s a risk worth taking.

                  • Phillip says:

                    CA does prohibit the collection of road killed game animals. The issue comes from the problem of people poaching, and then claiming the animal was found dead on the side of the road. The prohibition is certainly a baby-with-the-bathwater approach, but it’s justified by the severe lack of manpower in our DFG, coupled with the extensive geography and high population in the state.

                    As far as utilizing deer killed on a depredation permit, I don’t have first hand experience, but what I’ve heard is that deer permits are very hard to get, and the depredation agent is not allowed to use the meat. It comes back to a handful of dishonest poachers leveraging the “depredation” argument to cover up their illegal activities. (I do know, first hand, that depredated hogs can be utilized, but hogs and deer are treated differently by the DFG, as they should be.)

                    If you’re seeing a common thread here, you should. It’s poachers… people killing game without regard to season, limit, or other regulations… a real life example of a few bad apples ruining the whole barrel.

                    I’ve held my tongue so far on jreed’s comments because my first inclination is to always offer benefit of the doubt. I don’t know jreed, and I have no idea about the reality of his circumstances, his personal motivations, or anything else. I know there are people out there who truly subsist on illegally killed game, and of those people I’ve known personally, I have a hard time condemning them for their actions.

                    The folks I’ve known were quiet about what they did (they sure as hell wouldn’t trumpet their actions over the Internet). They didn’t offer justification or excuses. They were simply people with very low incomes, living in isolated areas where they had limited access to relief resources. They were also surrounded by a natural bounty, most notably an overpopulated deer herd. It simply made sense to take a little from time to time, and I agree that it probably hurt nothing.

                    On the other hand, we have folks who choose not to apply the laws of the land to themselves because they feel somehow entitled to the exemption, or think the regulation or law doesn’t make sense or is unfair. From what I’ve read so far, this is the category in which our friend, jreed, belongs. It’s the same mindset that is used by shoplifters and thieves who justify their actions because prices are too high.

                    When I read the complaints about lack of good public land, how hard it is to find legal game in CA, or how “unreasonable laws make hunting a joke,” I can’t help but think someone is just making excuses because hunting legally is too difficult. This is made even more obvious when I see foolishness like, “bucks aren’t active in the heat.”

                    This state has some awesome public land for deer hunting, and the hunter who learns his quarry can put that public land to work for himself. With a reasonably developed set of hunting skills, a persistent hunter can kill deer…even in the heat of the early seasons. If it’s truly about feeding the family, then that should be all the incentive a hunter needs to put in the time and effort to tag out. The argument that, “I cant take a week off for a hundred and twenty pounds of meat,” just doesn’t fly.

                    With that said, I don’t necessarily disagree with everything jreed says. CA regulations are a little screwed up. In some places, we need to open things up a bit and allow antlerless hunts. I believe that, with better oversight the depredation permits for deer should allow utilization of the meat. And of course I think folks should be allowed to recover road kill, although I understand the concerns that currently make it illegal. Unfortunately, it is the actions of people like jreed that keep these laws on the books.

                    By the way, I also agree that many of us do take for granted the luxury of sport hunting. It’s not a pursuit that’s readily available to every citizen… particularly urban folks. In many cases, it’s barely affordable to those below the poverty line. However, introspection into our motivations and methods is hardly the sole province of the privileged class. Not saying that every hunter should examine it to the lengths that some folks here are doing, but it’s an exercise we should all consider.

                    • Tovar says:

                      Thanks for the thoughtful replies, Holly and Phillip. Good points.

                      Just to clarify: You can’t legally pick up road kill in Vermont either. But when a deer, for example, is killed in an accident, wardens sometimes invite the driver to take the animal home. It would take a pretty desperate poacher to intentionally incur thousands of dollars of damage to their own vehicle to get a deer!

                      If the driver doesn’t end up with the meat, and if it isn’t too terribly torn up, then the warden usually calls someone else. Vermont wardens maintain lists of local folks who could use the venison.

                      Also, I checked with VT F&W and they confirmed that farmers who get permits to kill deer are often allowed to keep the meat. Overall, it seems that here our laws are more closely tied to subsistence (farming and hunting) and to wildlife as a food source.

                    • Phillip says:

                      Tovar, the model that VT and several other states have for disposing of road kill is a good one. It’s a great way to minimize the waste, and make the best of the inevitable when you combine motorways with wildlife habitat.

                      The issue of poachers using the roadkill excuse isn’t so much that people are running them down with their vehicles (although I know for a fact that there are people who do this…crazy as it sounds). It’s more common to encounter someone who shot the animal, and when they get caught they claim it was “crippled by the side of the road” and they just “put it out of its misery”. I also know for a fact that this goes on.

                      It’s unfortunate that CA manages things like this, but based on the size of the state and the number of people here, I understand why they do.

                    • Tovar says:

                      In my hunter education class some years ago, they showed us a video of someone in a truck, running over a deer decoy in the middle of a cornfield. The wardens — on a nighttime stakeout for deer-jackers — got a bit of a surprise on that one.

                      I gotcha on the “roadkill excuse.” I was just joking around, playing off the extreme of the vehicular poacher. 😉

                    • jreed says:

                      just commenting on ethics not trumpeting, no need to be rude, I didnt class you as a rich or middle class white guy that wants to be survivor man and feels manly because he kills with a high powered rifle at 350 yards an animal that he never knows and never has seen him did I? No I only eat red meat killed along the rural roads or killed often on the agg land where it is a problem ( my dogs often get the deer stuck in fences when called to jump deer in vinyards for the owners, o and I fix fences and actually try and keep the deer out to first. the A zone hunting season is well before the rut and often very hot and black tail deer love cool and rain the chances of good bucks in a non rifle zone is very tough is you are a working man without the luxury of much free time, especially when involved in grape crush and if you have or raise animals like turkeys ducks guineas and chickens for eggs and meat aka all other non red meat eaten then you often have to be around to care for them and ensure there night time safety and passage to free range pasture in the day, o yea and managing a dairy goat ranch, right morning and evening 12 hours a part 7 days a week and a 24′ trailer and a income of 15g or less for the past ten years and child support from the former high scholl sweetheart …. right exactly Im better than everyone, silly dude. Right and just because I can too, I bet ive eaten more roadkill that the vultures and my dogs survive on it in jerky…. save the judgements for the One above and we will all be doing each other favors. What I am trying to do is share how diffficult an issue ethics is even between hunters and the difference that situation shares even if we all look actively for deer and there sign and occasionally have the thrill of the harvest of a wild game animal. That one can avtively observe the local poulations and also make conservation minded decsisions. I know my local deer by heart, sight, trail, and You think I want to endanger my valued meat supply. Or do you really think I can waltz into whole foods in some open toed shoes still wearing my yoga pants and slap down 18 dollars per pound for some buffalo meat or even 15 a pound for some grass fed beef. Really, come on join the ethics and conservation topic and drop the profiling. …Thanks for the forum Tovar, Ive enjoyed the forum and your website and journey. Living in community situations for many years and having many low energy vegan roomies and village mates that constantly consumed high doses of sugar, and who were also highly idealistic helped me to learn I need to consume meat myself to be healthy and energetic. I also realized i need more than the occasional chicken and turkey. Now I raise heritage animals and even keep gamebirds like guineas to brood from my own eggs and also a incubator set up, I will have consumed more than 20 turkeys this year alone not to mention other fowls, my small terrier dogs also consume many eggs and the garden helps feed the birds. I didnt know how to even process the first animal I killed properly and now consume and use all the parts I know how thanks to the latino culture and goat cleaning lessons from farm hands experianced with ungulates. I now eat much meat already dead is fresh or process it for the 4 legs i share my home with. While I occasionally have killed a spike buck in the past few years from my local supply And the area I live in there are many many many and the raods are dangerous because of them ( i assure i didnt hit any on purpose with my 80s vintage small diesel with its thousands of miles, 3 hit me brodside) ive picked up a traditional bow and begun revisiting childhood lessons and begun practicing in a effort to have a early season chance at legal food or a trophy if I am legit ( right?) while I havent taken a deer in a while since ive plenty food i assure you I do make an effort to the best of my ability and have my safety card and classes and also tags yearly I will most likely take a pig legally becuase of the quantity of meat available first. Signing off….Jr

                    • Tovar says:

                      For anyone who hasn’t read it, I highly recommend Edward Abbey’s essay “Blood Sport.” He describes his father’s subsistence poaching and quotes Thoreau as well. It’s the first essay in A Hunter’s Heart.

  14. jreed says:

    i can understand that high power weapons in the hands of people who are no conservation minded can do horrible things to wild populations, yet I dont know any one that hunts feral cats that kill sonbirds and ocean mamals due to the parasite that wash through the watersheds because of that. Im not anti government and recomending anrachy. Im saying I cant afford good meat and have mouths that need it. I guess I can hunt a cow but that would have a mre devastating effect on my family

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