Monkeys, venison, and the sentience of dinner

Was that the faint sound of steps? Of hooves crunching dry leaves under the thin blanket of snow?

Photo by Ken Thomas

Seated on the ground, I shifted to the right and half-raised my .54 caliber caplock.

Moments later, I saw deer some forty yards off, walking toward me among the pines. Two, three, four of them. I brought the rifle to my shoulder and eased back the hammer. My third year of hunting would come to a close in less than a week and I had yet to kill a whitetail.

The first in line was a doe. My tag was for a buck. The little parade had closed to less than thirty yards now, weaving through the trees. Heart pounding, I stared along the iron sights, watching for antlers.

If the chance came, I would probably shoot. Yet I couldn’t be sure. I had mixed feelings about the idea.

It would have sat more easily if I believed, with Descartes, that animals are senseless: nothing more than animated meat. But I don’t.

How different am I, after all, from my fellow primates? Some days I don’t feel like the brightest monkey in the forest. If my mind was not cluttered with abstract ideas, might I experience the world much as an ape does?

If I cannot exclude all non-humans from the realm of sentience, by what logic can I exclude some, drawing the line somewhere south of chimpanzee? A deer is not a primate, but it does have senses—perhaps different in kind, perhaps different mainly in degree. So does the hawk. So does the rabbit on which the hawk feeds. If we give credence to old teachings and recent science, even plants have kinds of awareness.

Perhaps the world is more complex and more beautiful than we have imagined. And more terrible.

My vegan diet had taken its toll not only on plants, but on animals, too—those displaced by the conversion of forest and prairie to farmland, those minced by the combines that harvested my grains, those gassed in their burrows to protect my salad greens, those shot in defense of the soybeans that became my saintly tofu.

Now my omnivorous diet was taking its toll on vertebrates more directly.

And here I was in the woods, wondering how willing I was to exact that price myself.

The lead doe was closer now. Looking past her, I could see that the second in line was a doe as well. The third, also antlerless, looked like a six-month-old. And the fourth?

Ah, another doe.

There would be no killing today, and no answers. Yet my heart still pounded.

The lead doe stood broadside a dozen paces away, her breath pluming in the frosty air, her ears and great, dark eyes focused on me. All four deer paused, aware of my crouching form. Unsure what I was, they hesitated. They looked and listened. Then, slowly, they turned back the way they had come.

Trembling, I sat and watched them go.

© 2010 Tovar Cerulli


  1. Bill Koury says:

    Tovar, you’ve done a beautiful job of describing those moments when a deer hunter sees the quarry up close, appreciates the contact, and lets it walk because it’s not the right animal or the right time for whatever reason.

    For some time after the moment, we still have a quiver of excitement from the experience. How great is that?

  2. Art says:

    Another great post, Tovar.

    I don’t think animals are senseless – far from it as a matter of fact. But there is a definite divide between us and them. Our ability to reason being one of the main differences.

    I do love this particular scenario, however, because all of us hunters have been there. Whether we couldn’t fill the tag because of legalities, or whether we didn’t fill the tag because, for some reason, it just “didn’t feel right”, we’ve been there.

    It’s a decision that can have a profound impact on a person. And none of us take it lightly.

    That’s a good thing.

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks, Art.

      One thing that fascinates me: There are cultures where humans are seen as fairly low in the order of nature. In the view of one African tribe I once read about, one of humanity’s flaws is that we need language to communicate. Animals are a bit better at communicating, needing some sounds, but no actual words. Plants are best of all, communicating in complete silence. Quite a contrast with our usual perspective!

      You’re right, that decision can have a profound impact. A good thing to take seriously, indeed.

  3. Eric Nuse says:

    Have you noticed how differently you feel when you see game while hunting v. any other time?
    For me it is completely different. Like you, while hunting when I sense game coming my heart starts to pound, my vision and hearing focus in. As Barry Lopez says in “Arctic Dreams” – I become “alive man”. If I’m wildlife watching or scouting with no intent or means to take game – I focus in, but the beating heart is not there. My sense is my excitement comes from a very deep part of me and beyond my control. I also know it is not the killing that triggers it. As a former game warden I killed lots of sick, wounded wildlife. That was work, no enjoyment or beating heart in that. It has to be the hunt with intent to kill that wakes me up in a way few other things I have ever done has.

    • Tovar says:

      I know what you mean, Eric. I don’t entirely understand it. I imagine a similar feeling could arise when I wasn’t hunting; I’m not sure. I didn’t start hunting with any expectation of experiencing that particular feeling—and have gone many days and weeks without encountering game at all, and thus not feeling it!—but I can see how the feeling itself could become addictive for some folks, or nearly so.

      One curious thing for me is that it happens even when I know from early on in the encounter that I will not shoot. If, as in the scene described above, I see a doe but only have a buck tag, the feeling still grows as the deer gets closer. The same is true if I simply decide early on that I won’t shoot—for instance, if I have an antlerless tag but see a doe accompanied by a fawn or two.

  4. Hello Tovar,
    Food for thought indeed, you certainly have a gifted way of putting into words feelings and emotions that I have experienced but would have no idea of how to describe to another person.

  5. Phillip says:

    I don’t know that it has anything to do with sentience or “rational thought”. The big differentiator here is the pragmatic reality of living in a non-human world, as a prey animal.

    I doubt that deer have a clear concept of their role as food for predators, but there’s no doubt there’s a very definite understanding of danger. There’s a thought process going on there and it ranges from the deepest subconscious defensive wariness to the day-to-day search for food, water, and shelter. I also believe that they do experience some sort of emotional range (joy, comfort, loss), although it’s probably not as much a factor in their behavior as it is for humans.

    I’ve never liked the idea of denying animals a “consciousness”. That perspective is nothing more than an intentionally ignorant, self-delusion used to justify killing or mistreating them… “it’s just a dumb animal.”

    • Tovar says:

      Nicely put, Phillip.

      We’re talking about much the same thing. I’m using “sentience” broadly here, including the ability to feel (physically and otherwise), awareness, and what you’re calling “consciousness.” Like you, I’m troubled by the idea of denying those things in animals.

  6. I am also a thinking hunter. I was raised by a hunting father, had my first gun when I was 10, and used to go hunting with him in my teen years. However, I had a conscience, and at one time, quit eating meat, hunting, and grew my hair long (in the 60s). After a period of consideration, I decided I was definitely an omnivore, and went back to hunting, eventually going out to hunt with my father again.

    As years passed, I raised my own beef, which I slaughtered and butchered myself, as well as raising and consuming turkeys, ducks, and rabbits.

    Now, after another hiatus, I’ve taken up shooting again, having my first gun in about 15 years. I’m reading up on hunting in California, and found your blog to be very interesting, due to our commonalities. Thanks for writing about these hunting topics from a philosophical/moral standpoint, since the sport has long been seen as a refuge for politically conservative, rednecks with a blood lust…and I did meet plenty of those, but that doesn’t mean it’s an exclusive categorization, merely a prejudice.

    One of the other ways in which I deal with the dilemma of hunting when speaking to friends is that I say, “Consuming meat without feeling responsible for causing the death of the animal is a major disconnect from the natural world.” I have read, over and over again, of hunters who have experienced remorse at that moment. I have also seen some yahoos who thrill at the kill, talk about the steam coming from a wounded animal at the moment of impact, and that really turns me off. I am more inclined to feel the moment is a linking to life/death dichotomies, and I’m reminded of the opening moments of “Last of the Mohicans,” when Daniel Day Lewis and Russell Means take down an elk. Respect for the process of hunting is the same as living a life of consciousness and responsibility for your actions.

    So, very much having decided to live and die to the fullest extent, I’ve come to embrace the idea of taking responsibility for this action while I’m alive. After all, I could fall prey to many of the hazards, or even my prey if I’m hunting a bear. A few days ago, I was in a small boat that capsized off the coast of Long Beach, and spent 25 minutes hanging on to the side, while my fishing partner lay on the hull, around midnight under a full moon. Calm heads, and the headlamp I was wearing at the moment, prevailed, and we were able to flag down a tugboat, and eventually get rescued. After all of the fish I harvested from that area, I figured it would have been appropriate to be recycled there, but it didn’t happen. Next time, it might. As you might imagine, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this since the boat rolled over, and it’s good to have a place to talk about it with like minds.

    • Tovar says:

      Hello, Richard! Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying the blog.

      The questions you’ve wrestled with over the years, your experience of hunting, and your philosophy are certainly resonant for me. And, I think, for a number of others who discuss these things here on a regular basis.

      Some of these good folks are from California, including Phillip above and Holly (NorCal Cazadora). If you want more CA-related info or contacts, I imagine they may be able to help.

      Your commitment to living fully and taking respectful responsibility is admirable. I’m glad to hear it didn’t lead to you getting recycled off the coast of Long Beach the other day! Those close brushes with death have a way of getting our attention, don’t they? I’m looking forward to hearing your voice here when you have the time and inclination.

  7. Thanks for your response, Tovar. I’ve read Norcal Cazadora’s blog extensively, in the past week since I found it, although I haven’t commented. I’m still digging through Jesse’s Outdoors and a couple of others, as well as all of the Youtube videos. I’m looking forward to this summer season, and to the fall. I live in Southern California, but I travel North a lot, as I have a brother-in-law in the Bay area. My last fishing trip there was to Indian Valley Reservoir, and I have hunting and fishing connections to Sacramento and Marysville.
    I may just start voicing my opinions on blogs like this, in order to connect with like-minded hunters.

    • Tovar says:

      Glad to hear you found Holly’s blog. Another fine member of the California contingent is Josh, who blogs at several locations, including “Ethics and the Environment” and “Lands on the Margin.”

  8. Tovar, I am loving your blog. A year ago I had no idea about the problems with our industrial meat system. Now I feel it necessary to either be present or butcher all the meat my family consumes. My husband doesn’t understand this need at all, nor do I completely. I’m so glad you and your readers are able to so eloquently put these emotions into words because it’s helping me to make sense of what I am going through. Thank you all! And I love the Last of the Mohicans reference, I thought of that as I went up to butcher my first pig. I know it wasn’t much of a hunt but it was a huge step for me, a mom in my early middles fresh from teeball practice.

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks, Annette! I’m glad that you’re enjoying the blog and that it’s proving helpful to you. I learn a lot as I write the posts, and as I consider everyone’s responses.

      It seems that many of us are considering these things: the ethics of our relationships to animals and also the emotions that get stirred by those relationships. Those feelings can run deep. I appreciated your recent post on the subject, and also Jess’s at OpenlyBalanced.

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