Meat and meaning (or, Hunting on the brain)

The past few months have been crazy. I had the final six chapters of my book to draft. And I had a thesis to write.

Seven days a week, I got up around 5:00. I went to my computer. I stayed there. If I woke up at 2:00 and couldn’t get back to sleep, I got up then.

No, I did not rest a lot, and no, I was not a lot of fun to live with. Ask Cath. I took to telling friends that I didn’t bother with the clutch anymore, I just left myself in fifth gear.

On the book front, I was thinking about my own journey into hunting, and about ethics and ecology, religion and philosophy, and the history of human/wildlife relationships in North America. I’m happy to report that I now have a complete draft of The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance. I’ll be making revisions over the next few weeks, then the manuscript is off to my editor at Pegasus.

On the thesis front, I was thinking about other people’s journeys into hunting, analyzing 28 hours of audio recordings: the result of interviews I did with 24 adult-onset hunters. (According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a full third of first-time hunters are 21 or older.) Most of my interviewees live here in the Northeast. On average, they started hunting in their early 30s and have been at it for 8 years.

If I had to sum up my findings in a few sentences, I’d say this:

  • Participants spoke of hunting as a deeply meaningful way of (1) being fully engaged with the natural world, (2) experiencing connection and belonging, and (3) cultivating ethically and ecologically responsible relationships with animals and nature, especially in terms of food.
  • They spoke of these things as being particularly meaningful in the context of the modern world. Hunting was talked about as a response to modern life, as a physical and spiritual remedy for the disengagement, disconnection, irresponsibility, and unhealthiness of industrial society and industrial food systems.
  • Participants also talked about the mixed feelings that accompany (and should accompany) the act of killing, and about the ethical imperatives of killing swiftly and making use of animals, especially as food.

In talking about being fully engaged, interviewees described the magic of listening as the forest wakes at dawn, and the wonder of seeing thousands of ducks rise up off a coastal bay. They spoke of the meditative, reflective experience of sitting quietly for hours on end, waiting. They spoke of the excitement of seeing an animal and of the intense, fully present alertness required of the hunter.

In talking about connection and belonging, they spoke of feeling connected to land, nature, and animals, to spirit, to other people, to our ancestry as a species, and to something deep within human nature.

In talking about responsibility, they spoke not just of hunting, but also of gardening, foraging, raising chickens, and keeping bees. They spoke of all these practices as ways of living well, of understanding our impacts on animals and nature, and of cultivating a deepened sense of what it means to eat.

In talking about the modern world, they spoke of how our fast-paced, money-driven lifestyles diminish our experience of being alive. They spoke, too, of how our high-tech, industrialized society disconnects us from the earth that feeds us, and of how it harms nature and animals, especially in factory farming. (I was sitting at my computer as I wrote up these findings. I was totally plugged in, my arms locked in a bent position. The irony did not escape me.)

The basic beliefs apparent in all this talk—about the value inherent in feeling connected to nature, for instance, or about the moral importance of treating animals humanely—are, of course, shared by many non-hunters.

Naturally, there was diversity in how people talked. Some participants, for instance, emphasized the importance of having a hands-on connection with their food sources, but never mentioned spiritual connection. Not surprisingly, those who lived in Massachusetts and along the central California coast spoke of local hostility to hunting, while those who lived in Maine, Vermont, and Alaska spoke of much greater acceptance.

Most participants grew up in non-hunting or anti-hunting families. But a few grew up in active hunting families and simply didn’t start hunting until adulthood. The contrasts between these two groups—and the reactions of a few other lifelong hunters who have reviewed summaries of my results—have led me to some speculations on the different ways we talk and think, both about hunting and about why we hunt.

But enough for now.

The short story is that the thesis—“Meat and Meanings: Adult-Onset Hunters’ Cultural Discourses of the Hunt”—will be filed with the UMass-Amherst Graduate School in June. I just need to make a few final edits, based on helpful suggestions offered by committee members Donal Carbaugh and Benjamin Bailey during my defense.

For anyone who really wants to read the 140-page academic text, I’ll happily share it. For those who prefer something shorter and more reader-friendly, I plan to find homes for a couple of related magazine articles.

I hope my findings will prove useful to fellow hunters, to non-hunters who want to understand why some of us hunt, and to hunter education programs, wildlife agencies, and conservation organizations interested in reaching out to existing adult-onset hunters or recruiting new ones.

I have a hunch that adult-onset hunters may be of increasing value in public dialogues about hunting. Many of us can talk and listen across the hunting/non-hunting divide. We might prove to be useful ambassadors, especially if—as sociologist Jan Dizard has predicted—hunting continues to “edge nearer and nearer the center of our ‘culture wars.’”

In April, I discussed my research at the Northeast Fish and Wildlife Conference. In June, I’ll be discussing it at the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences Conference. I’m looking forward to seeing where these conversations lead, and to putting the finishing touches on both the thesis and the book manuscript.

In the past couple weeks, though, I’ve been enjoying some time away from the computer. For one thing, my limbs have straightened out again.

© 2011 Tovar Cerulli


  1. In short I most definitely agree (I am also a ‘child onset hunter’ from a non-hunting family).

    I would actually like a copy of the whole thesis Tovar. I have PM’ed you my email on Twitter.


  2. Carol Eberhard says:

    Once again, Tovar, I am posting one of your blog pieces on Facebook. You say it so well. I grew up hunting small game as a young girl, but did not take up deer hunting till I was 35. Venison is our staple, along with the fish and wild turkey we harvest.

    Good Hunting,

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks for commenting, Carol. I’m glad you’re enjoying things here. Thanks, too, for the link posting on FB. I’m just putting together a FB page for the blog and book.

  3. Tovar, I am pleased that you are making such progress on both of these works. I am honored to have been able to contribute in some small way. I would love to read the whole thesis, when it is ready. I feel your pain … too much time plugged into the “matrix”, but the stark reality is that we are stuck in the “zombie culture” and must work our way out.

  4. Phillip says:

    Glad to hear you’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel… more-or-less.

    I’m still interested in reading what you’ve come up with… both the book and the thesis.

  5. Kevin says:

    Great post Tovar, really looking forward to reading the book and would love to have a look at your academic papers as well.

    If you ever decide to come up North for a hunt, be sure to drop me a line. It would be great to hunt with a kindred spirit. I’ll take you to some great spots I know here in Manitoba.

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks, Phillip, Kevin, and Tamar!

      Kevin: I’ve never been to Manitoba and would love to visit and meet you someday.

  6. Al Cambronne says:

    I’m a little analytical, and would love to see the whole thesis at some point. Quite an interesting topic. I, too, felt honored to contribute in a small way. (I’ve never been a research subject before. The closest I’ve come is selling blood a couple times.)

    Glad you’re getting a little break, but it sounds as though you’re about to begin another push with revisions on your book MS. Hang in there. It’s going to all be worth it. Can’t wait to order a copy. Any idea about when it will be hitting the street???

    And yes, I think adult onset hunting is going to become an interesting part of a broader cultural dialogue. I understand some vegans are fond of saying “never eat anything with a face.” Now Mark Zuckerberg is saying he’ll “never eat anything at Facebook” unless he kills it himself. Times are changing…

    • Tovar says:

      I’ll send the thesis your way, too, Al. Just doing some edits on it this morning.

      The book is scheduled for release in February. That seems both a long time from now and bizarrely soon!

  7. Ingrid says:

    First, Tovar, congratulations on some very hard work, well done! My ambivalence about hunting notwithstanding, I wish you the rewards that should and, hopefully, will come from such diligence and passion.

    My perspective on hunting and adult-onset hunting comes from my work with animals in many contexts, including my most recent years in wildlife rehabilitation. Almost every piece or blog post I read relating to this new crop of hunters — some in the 20s, some in their 40s — relates to the concept of connectivity. And here and in Holly’s blog, I’ve argued that deep connectivity to animals, to nature and to the essence of our existence is possible without bloodying one’s hands.

    In engaging with all of you in these comments, I’ve taken some of your thoughts to my wildlife rehabilitation friends — and also to a few friends who used to be hunters. Two became rehabilitators, and a few others simply put down their guns after many years of hunting since youth.

    The most common response I hear from them is fatigue: fatigue of seeing wildlife suffer the consequences of human actions across the board, inadvertent or deliberate.

    My significant other and I were discussing a dead gull we’d found, wing tangling mercilessly in wire. He expressed the same thing to me: I can’t imagine deliberately adding to the carnage that we already inflict on wildlife. It’s a wretched scene I come up on often, whether it’s an animal choked by discarded fishing filament, or debilitated by poison, or maimed by a car or a pellet or dart gun (a recent, grisly vision).

    In discussions I’ve had with hunters, they’ve often said (and they’re most often right) — that the death inflicted by hunting pales by comparison to these types of incidents — in terms of both animal suffering and animal numbers. The problem I have, and it’s a feeling shared by some of my friends who work with animals, is that hunting animals in this modern age is, unfortunately, yet another assault on wildlife after this huge load of everything else we inflict. Hunting is clearly a historical pattern and precedent. It preceded the issues of modern hazards. It’s obviously a survival skill that goes back to our ancient roots. And had we remained hunter gatherers instead of becoming cogs in this greater, destructive machine, it might be a sport that’s easier to reconcile.

    But when I read about guys like Zuckerberg taking on this challenge, it falls flat on these ears. We are so far from subsistence level when we’re talking about quests like his. And after you help animal after animal after animal — and see the intense burden we’ve inflicted by our mere existence — animals who’ve succumbed to the hazards of our technology and also our malice — I will say that when you hear an animated flock of geese migrating overhead to wintering grounds, the first thing that comes to my mind is, can’t we just leave them alone and find other ways to be connected in these tenuous environmental times? They endure enough as ancillary damage to our lives.

    Yes, it’s an admittedly visceral and emotional response, in the same way that hunting has become a visceral imperative for you all. But I guess it’s why when I hear new hunters explain the sport as a way to “connect,” it’s hard not to wish they would come work with a wildlife rehabilitator before they take up hunting — to feel connected in a way that forces full accountability on us humans for everything we do to them. Killing animal with one’s own hands is not the only way to feel bound to the truth of our nature and to the spirit of life and death that runs through all of us beings.

    I know there are some hunters who also rehabilitate orphaned or injured animals. That, to me, suggests a genuine immersion in the full cycle of life as a conscious human — the taking from nature (hunting and acquisition) and the giving back (healing the harm). We humans have a lot to account for in terms of how we’ve abused nature — and what I believe we owe in return for a very long, very one-sided relationship.

    Rave on, my friends. 🙂

    • Kevin says:

      Believe it or not Ingrid, I understand where you’re coming from, although, I do of course see things a little differently.

      The crossroad for me, if you can imagine was either to existentially come to terms with the death of the animals I consume or become a vegetarian (even considered full on vegan). For health reasons, I’ve chosen to continue eating meat and as a result, came to a very similar place that Tovar, Mr. Zuckerberg, Michael Pollan and other AOH’ers did. I felt responsible to pay the the “full karmic price” for my meat and therefore took up hunting.

      In order for me to do that, I had to come to terms with the idea that if I am to live, other living things have to die. That principal holds true, whether you’re a meat eater or a vegetarian or a vegan.

      I believe anyone who comes to terms with that realization begins to see life a little more differently. Hunting doesn’t make me less sensitive to the beauty and contribution of other animals of the world, I think it makes me respect them more as a matter of fact. Partly because through the stalking, killing and processing of your own food, you also come to terms with your own mortality.

      On any given day during the hunting season, I will take a life so that I (and my family) may live. In return, I will some day give my life so that others may live. Again, that holds true with plant or animal life.

      I realize that claim isn’t entirely accurate because of the access we have to food. If I don’t return home after a full hunting season without a filled tag, I will still eat but the grocery store alternatives are a lot harder to justify when you’ve obtained the skill to harvest your own. If you’re a gardener, I’m sure you can understand that sentiment.

      The real issue IMO, is how the grocery store society combined with ever increasing urbanization has further separated us from our true omnivorous nature and given birth to the sentiments you’re referring to.

      The imparting of human qualities toward things with faces has been made much easier with the industrial revolution. We’ve become too reliant on others to provide for us, and are spared the gory details. I don’t think we should be spared those details. The increasing momentum of AOH is a sign that many others agree.

      When we speak of being connected, I think I’m speaking for most when I say that we don’t just mean being better observers of nature, it means feeling reconnected to something more natural within ourselves.

      I’ve been an outdoors man my whole life and I can comfortably say that no camping, hiking, canoeing or multi-day mountain biking trip I’ve ever taken has produced the same sense of connectivity to nature for me as hunting has. There’s no doubt in my mind when I hunt that we were intended to do so.

      • Ingrid says:

        Kevin, like most of the people who post here at Tovar’s blog, your comment is indeed sensible and, in some respects, irrefutable. You feel you were meant to hunt, whereas some of us, even though having been an intimate part of killing and of the food process (I come from a family of farmers and some hunters) decided that it went entirely against our innate nature to purposefully kill. I’ve joked with a few people here that I almost believe there are distinct human sub-species — that we, too, are divided into predator humans and prey humans, and that some of us genuinely lack the drive that compel hunters to hunt. It’s apparent even within my own family tree.

        I’m just having a tough time buying into the current trend, often in affluent foodie circles, of “I’ve got to kill my own food” to be authentic or connected or complete. For one, I see it as sort of a self-serving premise to believe one can only become spiritually and physically whole at the expense of another life. I’m not talking about you, or Tovar, or Tovar’s friends here. But it’s a lot of people I’m running into these days. I just talked to two young graduates from a super-expensive liberal arts college, who believed their life was meaningless until they “felt the pulsing heart of the rabbit in their hands” as they took its happy life. “It was happy, and that’s all we can ask for.” I hear things like that often, and it just doesn’t sit well. Sure, it’s adding to the crop of hunters in this country which, no doubt, pleases hunters and hunting organizations. But it saddens me that killing a rabbit (in this case) was what it took for these two young people to actually feel connected to the essence of their humanity and their physicality.

        It reminds me of that line in “My Dinner With Andre,” (I think I’ve used this here before) where Andre says, “someday, people will pay $10,000 to be castrated, just to feel something.”

        It’s that particular breed of neo-hunter-farmer that gets my goat (pardon the pun). Zuckerberg seems that to me, but I could be misguided in my judgment. To me, it’s symptomatic of a generation disconnected and over-stimulated and unable to experience those same feelings on a subtle level. For many of them, hunting is their FIRST real connection to nature — ever. And any one of us knows that our first powerful experience in nature is life altering. I don’t happen to believe it requires killing. I think people hunt for a lot of reasons, some more easily explained than others, but if it’s for connection, c’mon, does it really have to be with a rabbit’s beating heart in your hands?

        I’m not saying that there isn’t some respect owed to those who kill their own food instead of relegating the dirty deed to others. It’s more about the supercilious culture surrounding this new phase of food consciousness. I doubt very much the Osprey I saw yesterday, catching, perhaps, the only fish of the day, hunts for the sake of connectivity. So, when people say they need this to feel fully human and natural, my point is that it’s really escape and transcendence from the trappings of modernity that most people are seeking. I often wonder why it has to be in the form of violence toward animals. Even hunters will point out that an exponential growth of hunter/gatherers in our world is not a sustainable way of living in an over-populated world with diminishing resources. So maybe we’d all better find ways to connect that don’t involve always taking of the resources in this way.

        • Tovar says:

          Thanks, Ingrid! I appreciate your sincere encouragement, especially in light of your ambivalence.

          In writing this particular post, I was wearing two hats: author of my own story and researcher/analyst of others’ stories.

          Wearing the first hat, I’ll say that I agree with much of what you say. Yes, deep connection is entirely possible without hunting or killing. Yes, fatigue at seeing harm to animals could lead anyone to quit hunting (I’ve glimpsed that in my own limited experience and heard it from other hunters).

          Yes, in my non- and anti-hunting days, deliberate participation in carnage seemed alien. Like you, I wished people would just leave animals alone as much as possible. In the past couple years, I have come to the realization that I can more easily make my peace with my own deliberate, purposeful killing than with the collateral damage I inflict as a driver, shopper, and general consumer. Does my purposeful killing reduce the collateral damage? Not necessarily, except if a deer’s swift death offsets impacts my eating might otherwise have had. But it’s a radical perceptual shift, from more easily accepting unintentional harm to more easily accepting intentional harm.

          For me in my anti-hunting days (and, I’m guessing, for you now), the basic objection is to harming animals, especially voluntarily. Given that objection, people might excuse killing when it’s absolutely necessary (e.g., for subsistence, or to keep agriculture viable), which is sort of like excusing violence against other humans in cases of self-defense. When it’s not absolutely necessary, we have trouble reconciling it. (In a contrasting parallel, if we don’t object to the act of putting a shovel in the ground, we wouldn’t have any trouble with Zuckerberg or anyone else exploring gardening as part of a personal “food quest,” regardless of whether he needed the veggies for true “subsistence” reasons.)

          Switching to the other hat, I can say that the participants in my study spoke at length of their ambivalence about killing, of the emotions it evokes, of the importance of killing only for good reason (mainly for food), of their fear of making anything less than a swift, humane kill, and so on.

          I can also say that participants sketched a picture of a complex set of ideas and beliefs. It’s a picture I can’t do justice to in one blog post, one magazine article, or even one thesis!

          Yes, “connection” and “belonging” were part of what they talked about. But it would be a gross mischaracterization and oversimplification to say they “kill to feel connected.” Yes, killing is part of the hunt and connectivity is part of why they hunt. But the experiences of connection (as well as the experiences of engagement and the sense of living in an ethically and ecologically responsible way) are rooted in many things for these folks: in gardening, in tapping maple trees, in cutting firewood, in making solar electricity, in sitting in the woods at dawn, and in eating wild meat. They are not rooted simply in killing.

          You write of the value of “a genuine immersion in the full cycle of life as a conscious human — the taking from nature (hunting and acquisition) and the giving back (healing the harm)” and of humans having “a lot to account for in terms of how we’ve abused nature.” Whether or not we do rehab work with individual animals (habitat conservation work is more common, I think), a good number of hunters would agree with you wholeheartedly. Many of the participants in my study expressed related sentiments.

          This comment has already grown to post-length, so I’ll leave you with a quote from one of the participants, a 31-year-old hunter from here in Vermont: “Any activity that really helps support a culture of positive, healthy relationship with the land and with the landscape, and identifying ourselves as part of an ecological system—and not control over, separate from—I just think is so critical.”

          Of course you’re welcome to read the whole thesis if you want!

          • Ingrid says:

            Absolutely, Tovar. I’d love to read it. I’ll have to tackle it in small chunks.

            Oh, and by the way, I had a pang of commenter’s regret after I published my notes, thinking that I should have just left my words at the congratulatory phase. I didn’t keep my usual, argumentative impulses in check.

            Your works are wonderful accomplishments, and I understand what it takes to immerse yourself in an endeavor (or endeavors) like the ones you just completed. It’s monumental and all-consuming.

            I’ve said many times over that if I encountered more people like you in the field, I’d have few complaints about the sport of hunting, aside from some of the philosophical quandaries we’ve addressed here.

            ‘Ambivalence’ really does describes my stance — a general discomfort punctuated with appreciation for those of you who take very seriously, our relationship and our attitude toward wildlife, ecosystems, and the associated responsibilities and moralities.

            • Tovar says:

              No need for regrets, Ingrid! Simple congratulations are nice, but they don’t lead anywhere, do they? The exchange going on here is great. I particularly appreciate the ideas and questions you and Erik have raised.

  8. Lieing Wolf says:

    your posts are the most interesting to read and i always look forward to the responses. As a wise old gentleman once reminded me, we all live in our own realities. Children , married couples, politions, and definately hunters go through different stages.The true human being takes time to grow often about sixty years it seems, before they understand and are about all they can be. No disrespet to anyone intended and many do well early! Hunting stages are like others, shooting at first , actually killing, limiting out , method stage, trophy stage, and sportsman stage (hopefully) giving back. Tovar, myself and others did just that this afternoon in the govenors office , signing a bill to make wildlife a public resource & trust on the books of our state, in writing! These folks bragging about dead rabbit heart are still boys in the grand sceme of things. Often in multiple stages at once moving ahead and reverting back, bouncing in a learning , experiencing, emotional cuve of natural human brain growth. ..Each unique, interesting and on a different plain of reality. Your right about the divide in the need to kill. This is where you will find the balance in what it means to be human , and how different survival stratagies can come into play and move man’s evolutional stategies forward. We all are witnesses to this great need.

    • Ingrid says:

      I like this response, Lieing Wolf. The most unfortunate aspect of your analysis is that much suffering in others can be attributed to the ‘experimentation’ of the boys, as you call them. The boys (and corresponding girls) of this existence clearly need some of the limitations we set by legal and moral code. I suppose that’s why I always argue for, but never expect agreement on, the idea of more strictly overseeing any pursuit that involves the taking of a life. I believe ownership of weapons with intent to kill should carry with it more stringent training and proficiency requirements . . . and that unsupervised children with weapons (actual children or adults) wreak enough havoc for me to advocate for this stance, however impossible to manifest. From my point of view, it doesn’t seem a lot to ask for that degree of responsibility and accountability from a sport that has the desired but sobering outcome of death.

      Of course, it could turn out that for those of us who believe more compassion could and ought to be actively cultivated in this existence, the big cosmic joke could be on us if we find out, ultimately, that the life game was supposed about nihilism, hedonism, narcissism and general self-serving mayhem. 🙂 I hope not, but who really knows? It’s difficult for me to make peace with the idea that we, the most harmful species of all, as it turns out, have nearly unchecked and often abusive reign on this beautiful planet.

      • Erik Jensen says:

        Ingrid, I don’t know that requiring people to be more proficient with weapons before they go into the field is totally unattainable, but there would have to be some kind of support that goes with it, or else it would be a barrier to recruiting people to hunting (another hoop to jump through). Do you support offering firearms safety in schools (run by state wildlife agencies, not the NRA) ? I know in Nordic countries, there are high standards for people becoming hunters, including firearms proficiency, but those societies have very little anti-hunting sentiment and most activities have social support. For example, my sister is living in rural northern Norway, and sending her kids to a nature-oriented Montessori school, part of what kids learn there is how to hunt artic grouse. I’m not sure even in rural parts of America that could happen. Even Minnesota, a very pro-hunting state, has a law that says there are no firearms on school grounds, even for kids who are going hunting after school. Automatic three day suspension. No provision exists for them to arrange having guns in their cars if they notify in advance and have trigger locks, store ammo locked, etc. As you might guess, I disagree with the NRA’s advocacy of armed principals (in response to school shootings), but I also disagree with “guns and kids don’t mix”. These are the kinds of supports hunters need if there are going to be the higher standards you seek – or else they will simply be an assault on hunting.

        • Ingrid says:

          Erik, those are interesting points. And I didn’t know about the education in Norwegian schools. I spent formative years in Europe, but Amsterdam has a decidedly different social ethic. 🙂

          I’m going to think about your comment. I haven’t addressed this angle in my mind before.

          • Erik Jensen says:

            There is a little caveat about the Norwegian schools – this is in a rural area where hunting is common. It’s also a private school, but that is less of a distinction than here, as it is heavily subsidized by the government and that money probably carries a lot of strings. I wouldn’t be suprised if there are school-run hunting groups in public schools in rural areas of the country. When I was as a boy living in Norway in urban Oslo for two years, I never heard anything negative about hunting, whenever it was described by teachers, it was a positive, legitimate activity. While I feel some Norwegian (other Nordic countries are similar from what I can tell) hunting requirements are overly restrictive and unnecessary, their high standards for ethics create a social consensus concerning hunting and other use of animals by humans. Killing animals for human consumption is totally legitimate, but high animal welfare standards are unquestioned as well.

            • Ingrid says:

              Erik, in this sentence, you just encapsulated a point I wish I’d made: ” . . . their high standards for ethics create a social consensus concerning hunting and other use of animals by humans. Killing animals for human consumption is totally legitimate, but high animal welfare standards are unquestioned as well.”

              That’s it. I grew up in Europe as well, in two countries where animal welfare was taken seriously, but hunting was also respected. I’ve tried to make this point with hunters — that I think one must follow the other, respectful behavior engendering social acceptance. We’re at a point in American hunting culture where, because of resistance to restrictions and rules (as I see it), it becomes somewhat of a free for all out there. Hunters don’t see it that way, I know, because they still have to purchase the licenses, take hunters’ ed, etc. But from my perspective, the standards are so incredibly low in terms of what we can do to wild animals.

              I’ve seen it. I’ve seen way too much horrific behavior in the field to ever respect hunting as a whole again. And that is a sad statement, because that is not my philosophical history.

              Throughout the years, I’ve had friends and acquaintances who hunt. I never opposed it in theory, because I always felt that they were at least walking their talk. In college, I dated a hunter and learned quite a bit about the process on the sidelines. I killed one big salmon with my own hands and almost couldn’t live with myself, so my predatory days ended there. My husband had a similar experience, growing up in the country. He shot just one bird himself, and it pained him so much, he was done. But I felt I understood the pursuit a bit more as a result of my informal education.

              The problems for me arose when I became a wildlife rehabilitator — and started spending more time in the field, as a wildlife photographer as well. The pristine picture of hunting I witnessed with my college boyfriend — and that I’d been educated on by my friends was NOTHING like what I saw in the field.

              The bad behavior, for me is rampant. The worst I’ve witnessed in California are the sky blasters, duck hunting. It’s a wanton, cruel waste of life. And I haven’t seen any repercussions. When I bring it up with duck hunters, they say they don’t like it, but they have no recourse or choose not to say anything. It is, in effect, legal. And this is the point I make: if respectable hunters had more tools with which to reign in bad behavior, the sport, I think, could regain some semblance of the societal acceptance it’s earned in countries where the high standards you cite lead to better practices.

              Recovering animals with what may be hunting injuries (one never knows if they were legally shot, as hunters remind me) has also sobered me to the gruesome reality of hunting injuries. And I learned those scenes are not as rare as my hunting friends led me to believe. And worse, I’ve now seen the hunting practices and behaviors that lead to these outcomes. And often, it’s negligence, carelessness or ineptitude. It’s tough not to argue, as I do, for higher standards when you see those bozos harming wildlife.

              When I bring these points up with hunters, most often the response is that more regulation isn’t the answer — that education is. That there are just some bad seeds, most hunters are good. I don’t know. I don’t think either of us can say for certain how many respectable hunters are out there versus the slobs. I’ve had a few friends in parks law enforcement who would say the bad outnumber the good.

              I guarantee you, the guys I see out there doing this stuff are NOT the ones reading these blogs. They do, however, post on hunting forums which is pretty brazen, given the practices in which they’re engaging.

              I have every confidence that anyone reading Tovar’s blog, or Holly’s blog (which I also read), or Phillip’s blog (where I stop by from time to time) are people who are concerned with these very issues the way you and I are.

              There just has to be a way to bring about a sea change in this area. Many hunters seem to want the respect for the sport, without the attendant sacrifices that go along with earning public trust. I think we’re such a long way from that in this country. I’ve made the point that PR campaigns, showing the best of hunting may work for a general populace unfamiliar with reality. But for those of us who’ve seen the worst, it does nothing. In fact, it seems disingenuous. I say, put the money toward programs that will really work to ensure that those who pick up arms against animals, have much more stringent training before they’re even permitted to do so. Of course, at the same time, I feel the futility of challenging hunting and NRA lobbies and hunters in general when I say this. But in a way, it would be “ammo” for hunters to be able to say, look, all of us went through serious basic training, ethics and what have you before we were even permitted to hold a gun.

              It’s a Catch-22. Hunting is often vilified here but, I believe, for good reason. Enough of us have had enough — in an era where I think we humans do expect a bit better from each other. The unfortunate part is that the camps become so marginalized as a result of this impasse. And now we’re in a state where hunters feel too defensive to change or give, because they feel it’s a concession to “antis.” And “antis” (I hate that word, by the way) feel they have to be extra tenacious in the face of the cruelty and abuse they witness.

              We need more discussions like this — but discussions that end up transcending the blogging table and actually manifest, somehow, in pragmatic action and effective compromise.

              • Ingrid says:

                p.s. A number of my family members were hunters, too, and farmers — but they hunted in a different environment, for baseline, starvation subsistence. Even then, the taking of a life was serious business, whether it was an old rooster on the farm, or a rabbit in the woods. So, when I mention my experience with hunting through the years, I’m talking more of the people I knew who hunted for sport, and who [usually but not always] ate the animals they hunted.

              • Erik Jensen says:

                As quick as I can…I think there are a two-three problems for real action. One is that people who would want higher ethical standards for hunting don’t offer anything in return. Hunting is already on the decline and under attack by other social forces/trends (PETA/animal rights movement have very little impact on hunting participation) – loss of habitat and a society that places little value on outdoor activties of many kinds – so why take this up and create all sorts of division within the hunting community ? This is the same for gun ownership. I support some stricter regs, but what will we get in return (more affordable access to ranges, policitically neutral firearms education offered in public schools ?). Also, American culture teaches people to be insular and not think…”who are my allies ?” I’ve seen this up front from many years of being active in the labor movement. Lastly, I think the NRA (ultimately an anti-hunting org) and other groups like Safari Club International do play to a real cultural conflict over guns and hunting. They exaggerate threats to both, but there is a small segment of the population, usually (not always) urban, liberal and well-educated that knows nothing about guns and hunting, but really dislikes both in an irrational manner…if they had their way, it would be bad for us. I encounter (a few) of these people as I work at a University, even in a very pro-hunting state (MN) with high firearms ownership.

                • Ingrid says:

                  And me, too, as quick as I can, on my way out . . .

                  As with all of your points, Erik, I’d like to mull them over in more detail. (btw: my brother is also Erik with a “k.” 🙂

                  One thing comes to mind, and that is the return you mention. I can see how hunters would view it that way, in terms of the outcome of a negotiation. But I would argue that we restrict activities in our culture have no apparent trade off for the person who engages in the activity.

                  What, for instance, is the return for a coal burning plant that’s forced to implement the cost of new scrubbers to comply with environmental law? That lack of return is obviously why fossil fuel companies fight and pay to limit these restrictions and try to effect policies that gut the EPA. But in this case, the return appears the common good. It cuts into the gratification and profit of the corporation, but the end result is cleaner air and common benefit.

                  It’s a huge and contentious issue, obviously, the issue of the public commons. But I would say that hunting falls into a similar category of commons. Those of us who care deeply about how our resources are managed, hunters and non-hunters alike, stand to benefit from policies and practices that reduce harm to our (I hate to use the term for living things, but) “resources.” I think the burden of responsibility lies on those who are purposefully participating in a lethal activity. To me, it falls under the auspices of freedom require a great degree of responsibility. And if one wants to freedom to engage in an activity that involves killing resources that belong to us all, I don’t think the type of return you’re talking about is necessarily a mandate.

                  I am a wildlife photographer and abide by a much stricter code of ethics toward wildlife than most hunters. In fact, we are permitted in far few places in our wild lands than hunters. During hunting season, many parts of our refuges are cut off to people like me . . . and, frankly, are distasteful because of the shooting I witness when I do go to photograph there. Would I accept further restrictions on my access if it benefitted the greater whole? I would. Even though the outcome of my activity, if done right, results in little or no harm to the animals or the environment where I set up my tripod — save for the oil-related and automobile issues of actually getting to places.

                  I have often said that even if I could never take another photograph, never step onto another trail, never set foot in the woods, I would fight to the end of my days to protect those habitats because I know intimately, the lives that thrives on those lands. And that knowledge is enough for me feel a diligence about the issue. I think there’s a fair equivalency there but I’d like to hear your thoughts.

              • Tovar says:

                Ingrid, I’m struck by how your evolution is a mirror image of Holly’s. You went from acceptance of hunting to deep ambivalence as a result of experiences in which hunting was revealed to be nothing like the image you’d had of it. Holly, I think, went from ambivalence to acceptance/participation as a result of experiences in which hunting was revealed to be nothing like the image she’d had of it. Opposite shifts, both rooted in shattered images.

                Are there just a few bad seeds out there, spoiling everything for an overwhelming majority of conscientious folks, as many hunters argue? Possibly. But I’m not so sure.

                The marginalization of the hunting/anti-hunting camps is indeed unfortunate. As you say, in such conditions each group gets more defensive, tenacious, and entrenched, less able to hear to what others are really saying. And both groups are minorities, each apt to get painted with a broad and distorting brush.

                • Ingrid says:

                  I know, isn’t that funny — the mirror? Holly and I have a number of things in common, too, I hope she’d agree. I agree about the difficulty of reconciling the two camps. I am, however, a fighter in spirit, and I refuse to believe there isn’t some way to come to a better consensus. We need different people running the show and the “negotiations.”

  9. Erik Jensen says:

    Wonderful work, Tovar. I focus a lot of my time on youth hunters, including my daughters, but the AOHers need more attention. Mark Duda’s stuff is very helpful, but sometimes his research has a message that says: “if they are not hunters when they are young, give it up”. It’s clear that’s not a good analysis, or at least it’s an incomplete one.

    I sure hope hunting doesn’t come closer to our our culture wars, I’ve had enough of cultural warfare already !

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks, Erik! Even that USFWS report expressed some surprise that a full third of first-time hunters were 21 or older.

  10. Ingrid,

    While I may disagree with you slightly on some issues I enjoy your posts very much. Despite our juxtaposed views on hunting I also agree with a number of your sentiments. For example you wrote “To me, it falls under the auspices of freedom require a great degree of responsibility.” I am a firm believer in this mantra. You then also wrote “respectful behavior engendering social acceptance”. I think the issue with hunting is that many hunters feel they may never be accepted regardless of how they behave, even if it is as archetypes of the ‘model hunter’. I think much of this stems, firstly, from non-hunters conceptions of hunting. Even perfect hunting behaviour can perturb people who have never seen it in action and be construed as ‘bad behaviour’ (as does the killing of even the most ethically raised and slaughtered livestock). I get told regularly how tree stands are highly unethical and unfair for example…but I digress.

    Secondly, and Anthony Lynn ( made this point to me on my blog, public antipathy for weapons, especially guns, is closely tied to the dislike of, and the constructions of violence, in hunting. Couple this with my aforementioned point about the urban divorce from nature (and most folks in the west are urbanised), and you have a situation where I think many hunters feel like they are still damned if they do it with the utmost care. HOWEVER, in concession to you I agree that a good few hunters do need to be reined in, there is no doubt about that!

    The cultural war surrounding hunting interests and dismays me. I don’t like how hunting often times gets an ‘outlaw’ type of identity (re: the discussion we had about the ‘aggression’ that is common in archery marketing). The unfortunate phenomenon is that hunters often conduct their sport on the fringes, out of view of those who ‘would revoke our rights’. This is an artefact of a polemic: non/anti hunters who without knowledge call for ‘restrictions’ on hunting that may seem well intentioned but are impractical and thus seem like Orwellian attempts to end hunting (I am not referring here to the calls to end grossly inappropriate behaviour as you described, that’s wholly agreeable). It’s also a product of the push by hunters to govern their activity with a libertarian freedom from restriction, to conduct their hunting as they please under the aegis of ‘unquestionable rights’. The result is a classic standoff.

    I too would not be opposed to different approaches to hunter Ed and forms of field competency testing but I often wonder how this could be implemented. I think a major issue with this is the notion of gentrifying hunting as all the testing and training becomes a financial burden (e.g. Germany) and let’s not forget that in north America the historical antecedent to this was the shrugging off of elitism and the ‘kings game’, off limits to the commoner. I grew up hunting in a country where there is a lot of game but it’s heavily gentrified and Europe appears to be even worse. I like the idea that as a poor-ass PhD student I have few financial impediments on my hunting – only my initiative and avidity prevent me from going on what many hunters would consider ‘dream hunts’. Even as an immigrant I will ‘fight’ passionately to keep the Canadian wild-lands wild and access to wildlife public. BUT, I also want to see those lands treated with care and the wildlife treated with reverence.

    Lastly, I find the comparisons between photography and hunting worthy of further investigation. I have 2 friends in SA who are both pro/full time photo safari guides and wildlife photography nuts. One is also a keen hunter and professional hunter (guide). He typically dislikes guiding hunts but loves to hunt for himself. He see similarities between photography and hunting but also glaring differences – there is a massive difference in the mind set with you approach each one, according to him. Ivan Carter might be a good guy to email about that one he is good at both!

    OK, that’s my long incoherent response! I should have more time soon to write better thought –out responses!

  11. Erik Jensen says:

    Ingrid – I would say that legal, regulated, and ethical hunting is a socially beneficial activity (I won’t go on and on about this), at least when there is minimal or NO motorized assistance (ie ATVs). It is an activity that should be encouraged. So, I disagree with your position that stricter standards shouldn’t accompany some support. I agree with Brian’s concerns about the gentrification that could happen as has happened in the European mainland and the UK. The places in the world where regular people hunt (among rich countries) are the U.S., Canada, and the Nordic countries as far as I can tell (I know there is a creeping concern about hunting becoming gentrified in Norway, mostly because of wealthy foreigners coming to hunt moose, but presently there is higher hunting participation than in the U.S.). New Zealand may also be in that category of having regular people hunting. I have to say you seem to view a lot of hunting through the prism of wounded animals. I view a lot of this as preventable, but not all of it and I am frankly less bothered by animal suffering because I view it as part of nature and that you can’t get too caught up in it or you will lost sight of the reality of nature. I’ve had a similar discussion before with non-hunting environmentalists and even my own very progressive, environmentally concerned state house representative (not related to hunting ethics, but other hunting lobby concerns). My position is, don’t do anything that can be characterized as anti-hunting. It puts the progressive, environmentalist/conservationist hunters in a bad position and on the defense. It makes it harder for us to argue that we need to work with non-hunter allies. Your job is to bolster the “progressive” wing of the hunting community. That helps the survival of hunting (yes, I’m willing to say that we have better answers than the “right” wing of the hunting community), and brings hunters more into a broad coalition for the environment and the promotion of outdoor activities.

    • Ingrid says:

      Erik, yes I do see a lot of it through the prism of wounded animals. I don’t want to be a broken record at Tovar’s blog, since he knows who I am. But I’m a licensed rehabiltator, and that, primarily is what changed my perspective toward hunting. In the context of that work, along with my field work in wildlife photography, I’ve spent a lot of time in lands shared with hunters. And I’ve encountered situations that have been unimaginably awful in terms of the damage I’ve seen hunters do to animals, some without much thought, some with intense, prolonged suffering. And the worst part is, there is nothing I can do about it. I can not intervene under penalty of law. I’m not a veterinarian, my wildlife work is a sideline, but the best equivalency I can find is that it’s like asking a medic to stand by and do nothing while a person suffers dies before his eyes. It affects you profoundly. So, it’s true — it’s impossible for someone like me not to advocate for less of this behavior. And, after hundreds of discussions with hunters, I can see no other way than to enforce something more strict in education and practice because voluntary guidelines simply do not work. As Brian pointed out, so much of what happens, happens out of view of public scrutiny. And, after my many years, I, unfortunately, do not have much faith in the human animal to self regulate. Some humans, yes. But too many will take shortcuts. If these principles aren’t enforced strongly from the beginning, I don’t see much hope of someone suddenly becoming an ethical hunter.

      I’ve often said that hunters, especially bird hunters or small game, do not see the ancillary damage of their bad shots. The animal runs off and hides, often dying days or weeks later with septic infection or other gruesome injury. If the hunter is unable to track the animal, he or she moves on and goes home with the next quarry they shoot. The good hunters may be haunted by the experience. But, again, after the hunting day is over, it’s done for the hunter. It’s not done for that animals. And it’s not done for people like me who come upon the bird with the missing wing, shot off . . . or the gangrenous leg . . . or the animal with bird shot wounds or arrows through the side. I’ve said it here before, that hunter ed should include presentations from wildlife hospitals and others who can impress upon new and young hunters how serious and cruel these injuries are. And they’re not rare. There are some official state game statistics, for instance, on injured ducks. And the numbers are huge, especially in waterfowl hunting. It’s the hunting I like least, owing to the huge injury rate.

      As far as these things being inherent in nature, I feel I can speak to that. As a wildlife photographer, I spent most of my free time in wilderness areas, observing and photographing wild animals. I’ve seen hundreds of hawk strikes and predator chases and catches. And although my observations are admittedly anecdotal, just as my observations about hunting are, I will say that the injury rate and wanton waste of prey is nothing compared to what I see humans doing. The death by predation is brutal no matter how you slice it. But there’s a huge difference in terms of imperative and injury rate. An Osprey has to eat fish. 99 percent of its diet is fish, and when it catches that one fish, it eats every single bit and feeds it to its mate and babies. There’s no catch and release, there’s no removing the wings and throwing the rest away (as I’ve seen skate fisherman do in the Bay Area).

      A Cooper’s Hawk misses more birds than it catches, and young raptor mortality is high, this being one of the reasons. But a raptor is not out there wingshooting and sending millions of songbirds off to die from gunshot wounds. There’s a recklessness built into human hunting, by virtue of the ease with which people can acquire weapons and use them in this regard. That’s the basis of my argument. And the attendant damage is so much more than the predation hunters like to cite in nature. There is no sport about it for an animal predator, even if predators in the wild are skilled hunting machines. Itand yes, I do believe the fact that hunting is recreational for a lot, of not most people, changes the standards attached to it.

      As far as working with hunters, I believe Tovar and Holly will attest to my willingness to do so. I’m a bit of a gadfly, but I’ve entertained these discussions in an sincere attempt to find some resolution to what I see as a significant problem, and one that isn’t being addressed adequately, as I see it, in the hunting community. I am not an “anti” in the stereotypical sense. But it seems that when we non-hunters cooperate with hunters, most of the accessions are on the non-hunting side. Look at the allocation of accessible lands during hunting season, for instance. There’s a great disparity and it’s tough for me to understand how hunters complain about this. I have far less access to public lands than hunters do, during winter hunting season, and I’ve had to accept that. I have to stand by, as I say, and do nothing for wanton injury because I could be prosecuted by law. These are significant concessions. When do hunters concede and admit there is more that could be done, more of a mandate in terms of how this “sport” is practiced and perceived? The minute we even touch on this, the innate fear of restrictions takes hold and we get nowhere.

      • Ingrid says:

        p.s. you wrote, “Your job is to bolster the ‘progressive’ wing of the hunting community.”

        For purposes of argument, if so, then what is your job in terms of bolstering my side of the equation, based on my concerns?

        • Erik Jensen says:

          Ingrid – last response on this – I think I can definitely integrate some of what you are saying into what I’m doing, and even into a bigger concrete program of action if enough forces ever got together. The outdoor mentor program in MN I’m somewhat involved with (which is largely geared toward the promotion of hunting and fishing, but not entirely) makes a strong point of imparting to those we mentor respect for all life, even worms being used for bait. We need to work in the importance of emphasizing the importance of clean kills. I’m not sure we do now, although I know the youth firearms ed is better than it used to be. Also, there is a way to marry the interests of hunting effectiveness and the concern for wounded animals – good shooting skills and self control in the field result in more hunting success and fewer wounded animals. BTW, Brian, I’m totally into chest shoulder shots. I’ve killed deer with neck shots in the past, and when it works, perfect. But, the likelihood of a wound is much higher, I’m doing just chest shots now. On the question of motorized assistance, it should be minimal if used. More roads break up habitat, and unnecessary use of vehicles contribute to global warming and that’s anti-hunting. I often shoot deer from a stand a quarter of a mile from a road, or on a farm where I might get assistance from the landowner who already has a tractor. But backpacking hunts are the best. Using ATVs just to avoid walking to a hunting location when you can is really lame and wasteful.

  12. Ingrid – I would welcome a more emphasis on the consequences of wounding in hunter Ed courses! My one hunting mentor used to fine hunters on his ranch if they head-shot animals. Seems odd seeing as how a brain shot (along with neck shots) are the most humane. However the margin for error is slight and animals with non-brain head wounds are not incapacitated enough to making finding them easy. He used to tell hunters that he often found animals that were proclaimed ‘missed head shots’, weeks later, eaten by hyaenas. His rule was simple – shoot heart/lung, waste a couple pounds of shoulder meat or bugger off!

    Erik, I strongly agree with your notion of hunting being beneficial to society, although am not as cavalier about not worrying about pain and suffering. I also honestly find the romance of ‘no motorized assistance’ a bit contrived. If I pull my moose tag this year and shoot one miles from a road you bet I want a truck of even quad to help me! Is locating game from a vehicle wrong? Not at all. Easier perhaps, less rewarding to the hunter yes, potentially more dangerous ITO firearms in the vehicle, but not wrong or unethical; it makes zero difference to the animal. Having said that I also look forward to the backpack sheep hunt I am trying to put together, where motorized access is not allowed or physically possible in most areas. It will be a tough challenge! I also just came back from bear camp where we do a lot of driving to locate bears but I fail to see how this is a problem? My friend shot his first bear in sight of the truck, thats just how is was for him and how it was for me too, I have no regrets.

    • Ingrid says:

      Thanks, Brian. Although I’m overextended just making rent right now, my life goal is to be more immersed in wildlife education in the future — education across the board. Among non-hunters, I see a lot of ignorance with respect to how they or their children interact with wild animals. It ain’t always pretty there, either. (With a bit of good fortune, it will be the near future, rather than the too-distance future.)

      I’ve obviously had plenty of time to ruminate on these issues, and I’ve often thought I would like ecologically minded hunters to be a part of the brain trust in founding some new ideas. I’m not even sure what the limitations would be, state by state, according to wildlife services regulations. I’d have to explore that. But if the type of education we’re describing could be incorporated into hunters’ ed, with some noticeable effect on new hunters, I would consider that a huge move in a productive direction.

      Although, as I said, I don’t believe in humans to self-regulate unless they’re already abiding by some ethical standards to begin with, I think there is something to be said for enforcing a meme by way of education — where a new way of thinking becomes more of the norm. That’s probably an area where hunters like you and non-hunters like me can agree. Of course, there will probably always be people who object to having their kids exposed to these “lib” ideas. My long-time home town, after all, is San Francisco. 🙂

  13. Erik,
    I largely agree with you about the motorized access issues and yes, I get the basic ecological issues. The roads hunters use that fragment habitat are seldom artifacts of hunters though, they exist for other, normally industrial reasons like logging, as you well know. So the motorized hunter is not to blame for the roads existence though.

    I too like to walk, its a far more intimate manner to interact with the landscape. We only really drive for our paddling and hunting, daily tansport is via peddle, so hopefully I can bank for carbon credits to use my truck for hunting, at least to access hunting areas as I dont like live in a rural area where I can hunto on foort from my house.

    • Erik Jensen says:

      Interesting…I like to think of my biking to work most of the time as an urban resident as “carbon credits” for the use of cars or trucks for hunting and fishing as well. Right about the roads existing for other reasons (generally, with the exception of ATV trails), but there gets to be an alliance between those interests and hunters who are less environmentally oriented, vs conservationist/environmentalist hunters, a pretty intense 50-50 split in our hunting community as far as I can tell.

  14. Erik,
    Thats been my experience here too – the quad issue is very divisive. Most hunters don’t mind if they stick to roads and established trails (including me, for the most part). However in my experience many hunters welcome mortatoriums or proposed bans on new trails and stiffer sanction on those who quad in restricted zones or make new trails. Of course the hunters who quad recreatioanlly tend to feel threatened by these proposals.

  15. Tovar says:

    Thanks for the fantastic discussion, all!

    Sorry I haven’t chimed in over the past few days. Those thesis and book revisions — not to mention some computer crises — have been demanding my attention…

  16. James says:

    I for one have recently been afflicted by Adult onset hunting, I’d be very interested in reading your thesis. Thanks for all the hard work!

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks for your interest, James. And sorry to hear of your affliction. Reading my thesis will, I suspect, do anything but cure you.

      I’ll put you on the list of interested parties. The document is currently under technical review (margins, spacing, numbering, etc, etc, etc) — I’m hoping there won’t be too many glitches.

  17. Ingrid says:

    Tovar, is there any discernible pattern (in your interviews/experience) in terms of what a person’s connection was to nature prior to adult-onset hunting? That is, do most adults who take up hunting have a life-long or strong connection to nature prior to hunting? Or is hunting, for many of them, their first such connection? Or is it split?

    • Tovar says:

      That’s a great question, Ingrid. My sample is small: personal experience, plus these couple dozen interviews. But among the purest adult-onset hunters (folks who didn’t grow up in a hunting family or have any significant connection to hunting), I’d say the majority have some kind of strong, longstanding connection to nature. They include longtime hikers, nature photographers, wildlife filmmakers, wildlife biologists, environmental advocates, and so on. But then there are others, whose prior connection to nature was less intense.

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