“How are you doing?” Cath asked.
We were sitting at the kitchen table, having coffee.
I waggled one hand: so-so. “I’m in that zone.”
She nodded. She’d known before I answered.
Less than an hour after sunrise that November morning, she’d heard the shot. From the direction and distance, she’d known who squeezed the trigger.
I’d field-dressed the buck, then come back to the house to leave off my rifle and pack. Soon, I’d hike back into the woods and drag the deer home. But right then, I was just sitting, noticing the strange sensation that moves through me every time I kill a whitetail. If past experiences were any measure, it would last a day or two, ebbing slowly.
I’ve been thinking about that sensation over the past few weeks, ever since receiving an email from a Colorado hunter who’s been following my blog. He wrote to say how glad he was to read the words of a fellow hunter who, like him, finds the kill to be a tough moment—who, like him, experiences such strong feelings in response.
In the last few seconds before the kill, my mind is focused on nothing but the shot. The animal. The angles of body and bullet. The question of whether I have a clean shot and, if so, when.
The moment itself is unsettling. The shock of it. The prayer that my aim was true. The relief when the animal goes down fast.
That’s when that other sensation begins to build in me, cresting slowly like a great wave.
In the days to come, I feel gratitude for the venison. And I feel gratitude for my success, which I know is always against the odds—the woods thick, the deer few.
But in the background, that other feeling is there, too.
It isn’t the storm of uncertainty and grief that whirled through me when I killed my first deer. I’m clearer about my hunting now.
Nor is it the heart-wrenching remorse I know I’d feel if I wounded an animal, causing suffering. The few deer I’ve killed so far have all gone down quickly with a single shot, dead before shock could turn to pain.
No, it’s something else. Something I can’t ascribe to thought, belief or emotion.
Again and again, I replay the kill in memory, trying to sift out something elusive, some meaning that lives just below the visible surface of the event.
Yes, it’s something else. Some kind of soul-wrenching. Some altered state triggered by the encounter with animal and death. By my snipping of that thread of life.
© 2010 Tovar Cerulli
I truly believe if you hunt, and you don’t feel any remorse, that something is wrong with you. It is definitely an emotional experience, and something that stays with you forever. I hunt – I love hunting as a matter of fact – but I still feel remorseful after ever animal I kill.
There are some benefits that come with it, though. I think the entire experience, and especially the feelings associated with killing, help us to appreciate life, and everything that comes with it on a whole new level. It grounds us, and keeps us humble and aware.
If the feelings of remorse ever went away, I think I would start to wonder about myself.
Amen to that, Arthur. I feel much the same way. In his book Living Wild and Domestic, Robert Kimber writes, “I can’t untangle regret from celebration.”
For me, there’s something else there, too, some sensation that’s not quite the emotion of regret or remorse. Do you have a sense of what I’m talking about?
Is it, perhaps, a question? “Was this the right thing to do?”
I don’t think I feel it the way you do – which is saying a lot, because I let in a LOT of emotion when I hunt.
I don’t always ask myself that question, either. But I revisit it often, and the fact that the answer is always the same doesn’t seem to keep me from wanting to make sure, because the direct taking of a life IS such a significant act, way more front-of-mind than the indirect killing we all do every day.
I suppose it may, in part, be that kind of question. When I killed my first deer, I was definitely wondering if I’d done the right thing.
Like you, Holly, I do keep the question alive. But I think I’ve mostly answered it by the time I squeeze the trigger and—assuming the shot ends up being a clean kill—don’t return to it. You may actually feel more emotion than I do when hunting.
That’s why I’m intrigued by the experience and say it’s something “I can’t ascribe to thought, belief or emotion.” It feels different, though I obviously don’t know how to describe it!
After a successful shot I always feel a great sense of relief. The same feeling one might have after hitting a game winning free throw. I always thank God and then go about my work. While I may never understand the remorse that you and Arthur feel when taking your place in the food chain I am impressed with you writing. It is enthralling and has a pace to it that keeps you reading. I do not know why Arthur feels the need to be insulting or give credence to PETA that there is something wrong with killing an animal for food. I only feel remorse when I have done something wrong. I would like to know of other activities that Arthur takes part in that he thinks is a good thing but feels remorse when he does it. If you think you are doing the right thing then why have remorse. If I feel remorse for something I usually don’t do it anymore. Thanks for the thoughtful prose, Your pal the Envirocapitalist.
I feel remorse, but I don’t feel like I’ve done something wrong. I completely know that killing is necessary, and I love knowing where my food comes from and how it was handled, but there is a certain sense of remorse that comes along with it – remorse for the end of a life.
I’m not sure how being remorseful about that fact insults or gives credence to PETA. I just truly think if you don’t feel some sort of sadness after a kill, that there is something wrong.
I’m not sure how that emboldens PETA whatsoever…..especially since I’m up front and honest about my feelings, and don’t hide behind a bunch of lies and misconstrued “facts”.
Killing is a part of life, and I will never apologize for it. I celebrate what it gives my family, and the experience that it brings to me. But there is also another side, and that is what I was trying to convey.
The insult was when you said “I truly believe if you hunt, and you don’t feel any remorse, that something is wrong with you.” I feel no remorse for the deer. I feel thankful for the gift God has given me. So I take someone saying that there is something wrong with me as an insult. Can I not have a different reaction to hunting due to a different up bringing and world view without something being wrong with me. and I have experienced a PETA representatives using video of hunters saying they feel remorse after killing an animal as proof that the hunter is admitting that what he is doing may be wrong. I like Tovar’s explanation however remorse means what it means now.
Thanks for your kind compliments on the writing, Gabe. I’m glad you’re enjoying it.
Despite my reply to Arthur above, for me “remorse” isn’t quite the right word. (In my post, I tried to choose the right words. Then in replying to comments I got sloppy. Sorry about that!) These days, “remorse” does mostly mean a sense of guilt for having done something wrong (which isn’t, I think, what Arthur meant). But I believe there’s an older, obsolete use of the word that means “compassion.” As I read Arthur’s words, I think he means a kind of sad compassion.
Like I said in my post, what I feel after a deer kill is not “the heart-wrenching remorse I know I’d feel if I wounded an animal.” There is a mix of relief and gratitude and something like sadness.
But mostly there is this other thing, this altered state that feels more soulful than emotional.
I think what you might be feeling is what psychoanalysts call Transference which could cause you to place human characteristics on the animals. which could tug at your heart strings with thoughts of the children (fawns) missing the deer, or it suffering and feeling alone. I do not believe animals feel pain in the same way humans do. The component of sorrow and fear does not manifest when they are wounded. They feel the sensation of pain and respond on instinct. Granted this belief of mine comes from my faith and that humans have souls and animals do not. So if you believe the only difference between a deer and man is evolution then I suppose killing one could be a confusing proposition. Your Pal the Envirocapitalist.
I suppose the word “remorse” was a bad choice. And I am completely not trying to accuse anyone of anything, or trying to insult anyone; I was simply stating something based on my own beliefs.
I guess I’m troubled by a person not feeling anything when taking a life. And I’m not saying anyone needs to apologize for it, and I am by no means saying it is wrong to kill. Far from it. I’m simply stating there should be feelings associated with killing something – feelings associated with taking a life.
We do have the same belief system, and I do not believe that animals have the same feelings that we humans do; nor do I believe that my “sadness” after a kill comes from associating human feelings with the animal. I just simply believe, with humans being the compassionate and responsible creatures they are, that there should be some sort of emotion associated with taking a life.
Maybe I’m wrong. If hunting wasn’t emotional, and if I had no feeling during it – whether killing or not – I would quit. Plain and simple.
I just definitely feel a sense of sadness and compassion after killing an animal. I suppose, after reading all the comments, that remorse was a poor choice of word. But there is definitely something there, and if I didn’t feel it wouldn’t I just be killing something, emotionally unattached from the whole experience?
There a couple different threads here now: what I feel after a deer kill, and what kind of creatures deer are in terms of sensation, emotion, and even soul.
The first thread: The feeling I’m describing isn’t about the deer’s pain. I experience the sensation even when the deer drops in its tracks, not moving a muscle, dead instantly. There was no pain for that deer. Nor am I thinking about other deer missing the buck I’ve just killed. The reverberations feel, as I say, more soulful than emotional. (A friend read the post and emailed me, noting that many traditional hunting cultures have used ritual to address these kinds of reverberations.)
The second thread: What kind of creatures are deer? I’ll take this up in response to Ingrid’s comment below.
Quoting Envirocapitalist: “I do not believe animals feel pain in the same way humans do. The component of sorrow and fear does not manifest when they are wounded.”
That’s simply not true. I work at an animal hospital where we accession wild animals, and they most certainly experience great fear. Across species. Some species can literally drop dead from the stress of human contact. There are areas of the hospital where even human voices can create unbearable distress for the recovering animals.
Vertebrates — I’m assuming they are your primary prey — share many traits in common with us in terms of nervous system structure. There’s a reason there are strict veterinary guidelines for humane euthanasia when necessary. They experience pain, distress, and suffering.
To dismiss this idea is to embrace a cold and calculated Cartesian view of non-human animals — machines for us to engage as we see fit. Suggesting that animals don’t feel things, certainly helps rationalize the harm we inflict on other species. But it’s not a supposition based in fact or even reasonable conjecture, based on what we know.
It seems to me that one must have a real sense of an animal’s vulnerability, emotional and physiological, to exercise utmost compassion toward that animal. I suspect your treatment of the animals in the field isn’t based on reducing those elements of pain and suffering –because you don’t believe they exist. That saddens me deeply. For the animals and also for us, as a species, that we would perpetuate these types of misguided ideas at the expense of other animals.
Tovar, I digressed there. Couldn’t help myself. A friend directed me to your blog after a discussion we had about hunting. Interesting piece. In response to your post, I’m not a hunter and I don’t eat meat, so I obviously cannot offer a suitable explanation for those nebulous feelings. Is it possible those sensations are, in part, physiological? There’s obviously a surge of chemicals in an excitatory state. The corresponding release of hormones and chemicals can instigate the type of contemplative soulfulness you describe, even depression in some.
I’m not saying that to diminish the emotional component, because I realize there’s also a huge, complex load involved in taking a life. Even in my situation — in cases where a life can’t be saved. My response to those feelings is a rationalization all its own — that we provided comfort in the animal’s last hours and gave it a humane ending. (The word euthanasia means “beautiful death.”) But I still lose sleep over situations where I was part of a euthanasia scenario, or about incidents where the animal was so badly harmed, there was nothing I could do . Even in what could be construed as compassionate, clinical environment, I’ll be permanently conflicted over any power I exercise over someone else’s life. And yes, for me, that “someone” includes animals beyond us.
Welcome, Ingrid! Thanks for joining the conversation. I appreciate having your voice here. Thanks, too, for your honest reflections on the conflicts and rationalizations that arise even as you do work that you feel is right and good.
You suggested that my feelings in response to killing might, in part, be physiological. I think you’re probably right. They may, in part, be physical. And this brings up two further questions for me. First, what puts me into that physically “excitatory state?” Are its origins purely physical, or is it triggered at the level of heart or soul?
Second, to what extent are there really divisions among physiology, mind, emotion, and soul, and to what extent are these simply separations that we’ve imposed, artificially divvying up whole beings and experiences into supposed parts? How would we understand and talk about ourselves and our experiences if our language and concepts were different?
I agree with you that animals feel much more than our modern worldview usually acknowledges. Without projecting Disneyfied “human” patterns of emotion and thought onto animals and without claiming to know exactly what they’re feeling, we can observe—as you have in your work at the animal hospital—that they feel a great deal. That’s a big part of why I was a vegetarian for so long, and of why I’m now so concerned with killing as quickly as possible, before an animal’s initial shock can turn to pain (just as it does for wounded humans).
Consider, for example, hunter Ted Kerasote’s essay A Killing at Dawn. Does the elk mother’s apparent mourning make it wrong for the wolves to have killed her calf, or wrong for humans to hunt? No, I don’t think so. Does it mean we should take animal suffering—and even emotion—seriously? Yes, I think it does.
We could, I think, learn a lot by being more open-minded in our observations of animals. Likewise, we could learn a lot by being more open-minded in considering how other cultures view animals: for example, as “animal-people” who must be treated respectfully even—or, perhaps, especially—as they are hunted.
Tovar, you’ve expressed my sentiments very well here. I often wonder whether I’m in the minority among modern American hunters for feeling this way – and also for feeling that humans and animals are all part of the same family, much closer to one another than we like to admit. (And it’s hunting that’s brought me to this conclusion.)
Ingrid, you remind me of Hutch, someone who shares many of your concerns and visits my blog from time to time. I second Tovar in welcoming your opinion and appreciate that you seem open discussion. I find this much more gratifying than tangling with some ninny who tells me I hunt to make up for feelings of sexual inadequacy (despite the fact that as a female hunter, I can’t be accused of suffering from ED) and to exercise control and power over defenseless beings. That stereotypical crap is a non-starter for me. Intelligent conversation, though, is always a breath of fresh air.
Excellent points, Tovar, and thank you for the generous response. I’m often reticent to engage topics of animal welfare with people who share Envirocapitalist’s POV because I realize how polarized these discussions can become. I imagine all of us at this discussion board have experienced those philosophical extremes.
In my position, it would be impossible to persuade me toward Envirocapitalist’s viewpoint on an animal’s physiology. We may not know precisely how animals feel, but that they feel at all was established for me many years ago, way beyond a reasonable doubt. I agree with you about our worldview, and would probably even go a step further in suggesting that our understanding of their lives, every facet, is in its most rudimentary stages.
Even if we cannot know how they experience pain and suffering, most humane animal workers will tell you that you err on the side of assuming that similar responses are, in fact, indicative of pain sensations. When you step on a dog’s toe in heavy work boots and it whelps, I’m sorry, but the dog is feeling pain. Animal testing wouldn’t be viable if the nervous system models didn’t have enough similarities to be predictive of human reactions. (Yes, I understand the inherent flaws with transferring data from animal models to humans. But the fact remains that any number of species are used as models precisely because many physiological elements are similar enough to be reasonably prognostic.)
In answer to your question: “…to what extent are there really divisions among physiology, mind, emotion, and soul, and to what extent are these simply separations that we’ve imposed, artificially divvying up whole beings and experiences into supposed parts? How would we understand and talk about ourselves and our experiences if our language and concepts were different?”
Alas, that is the crux of the problem, isn’t it? And, I’ll add, the bane of my existence. We do, indeed, lack understanding, having very little language in common with, say, a cottontail rabbit. It’s sad to me that one’s inability to express that pain in human form, is so often used as a determining factor for how we treat other species. Because, let’s face it — unless deer learn English, or cry as we do — there’s very little chance that those who use the absence of expression as an excuse to harm, will stop doing so. I’m admittedly more sensitive to animal suffering, given my lifelong passion for helping them. But when you observe the effects of inflicted injury (which, by the way, in any human, even a mute human, would be immediately construed as suffering), I just cannot abide, again, by that cold, mechanistic stance.
I think where I differ from most of the people who would comment here, is that I don’t need 100 percent proof that an animal experiences great suffering to dissuade me from harming that animal. I’ve seen enough that, for me, reasonable doubt has been exceeded. How I act toward animals is formed, fundamentally, by this belief. (I wish I could say “truth” because “belief” doesn’t seem a strong enough word when it comes to assessing pain in another. But again, until deer learn to speak . . .)
Hey Ingred I hope you come back to see this post and realize you should always enter conversations with people like me. I enjoy hearing from people who believe differently. I think it is what makes us different from the animals. All wolves eat meat. all humans do not. We have hunters having emotions for their meal. Animals do not. I never wish to say someones feelings are wrong and I hope you do not have the view that all that don’t share your feelings toward animals are bad people. I do believe animals feel pain but I believe that animals are so different from humans ( as shown by our conversations) that it is ok to eat them without feeling bad about it. I do not know if you are a vegetarian but with your beliefs about animal suffering how do you wear leather or eat chickens (Have you seen how they are raised for restaurants). I feel that hunting and doing the dirty work yourself whether it be picking berries or killing a bunny rabbit is the most honest way to feed yourself not by paying someone else to slaughter and then casting stones at anyone who is percieved to be cruel to animals. Your pal the Envirocapitalist. PS If you are a vegan please share some of your experiences in avoiding animal products, it must be tough even lipstick has whale blubber in it.
Holly: I’m glad to hear these things resonate for you. I, too, wonder whether these views put me in the minority among American hunters. Despite surveys that have been done over the years, it’s hard to accurately measure and quantify these things!
Gabe (Envirocapitalist): Thanks for your welcoming of diverse beliefs, feelings, and opinions. Like you, I hunt in part as an “honest way” of “doing dirty work” myself.
Ingrid: I hope you’ll keep coming back to the blog and chiming in. A big part of why I’m running this blog is to provide a place for the non-polarized exchange of diverse views—not so much to convert one another, but to listen and gain some new insights into ourselves, each other, and our relationships with animals and nature.
Gabe and I differ, for example, in our beliefs about how different animals are from humans and about whether humans (including hunters) need to take animal pain and suffering into account. Yet, in exchanging comments here, I’ve learned that he’s a pretty rare animal himself (joke intended)—a modern-day subsistence hunter who, at virtually no monetary cost, feeds his family on deer he’s killed and on venison from deer killed by trophy hunters, whose motives Gabe doesn’t resonate with. Put together with the intensive gardening he does, this suggests to me that his family, in terms of diet at least, probably has a much smaller ecological impact than most American families.
Like you, Ingrid—and like Holly and Arthur, too, I think—I don’t need absolute proof of, or perfect understanding of, animal suffering to make me take it seriously and to avoid doing unnecessary harm. If I felt that continuing to be a vegan (as I was for 10 years) could (1) give me full bodily health and (2) truly avoid causing harm to animals or their habitats, I don’t think I’d be eating animals or hunting today. In a sense, my hunting is underpinned by the same values that made me a vegetarian.
I was fascinated by where you took my question about the reality of “divisions among physiology, mind, emotion, and soul.” I was talking about the divisions we impose on ourselves (human body, mind, heart, soul). But the direction you took is important, too. It sounds like it ties back into the potential represented by other cultures’ understandings of animals as “animal-people” or “other-than-human-persons”. Many of those same cultures say either that animals and humans did once speak to each other, or that they still can.
Tovar, In a nutshell here is the difference between you and me. You did not grow up raising a spring pig to kill in the winter for food. You did not grow up being told to catch a chicken in the yard and ring its neck so you could have supper. I did grow up this way. Animals are food to me just like they are entities to you. I killed a chicken a week with my bare hands for most of my youth because we needed to eat and chickens were cheap to raise. My Dad was a single father who worked hard and we fed ourselves by killing animals that we raised. I named many pigs and calves and then killed them 8 months later. It is just how it is. Somebody is killing all the animals that we use everyday I just don’t get that emotional about it because I have been the one doing it. You are confusing the sport of hunting with slaughter. I hike and camp because I love the outdoors, I kill deer because I eat them. I just don’t want you to misunderstand where I am coming from I see no difference between a deer and a cow, some people do. I actually work for the Tennessee department of environment and conservation and dedicate my life to the conservation of nature and love wildlife. I watch wildlife alot but I also eat animals. I find that the fact that I kill animals not for sport or for challenge but for food keeps me from having these sorrowful feelings. I am just taking my place in the food chain not using an animals life as entertainment or to test myself. Who knows maybe a black bear will eat me one day. I hope he will not feel bad about it. I have always respected vegans because they back up what they think. How can anyone hunt who puts animals on a similar field as humans when it comes to right to life. I was raised surrounded by animals which were our food and animals who were our pets. I was sad when a dog died because I lost a dog not because a dog died If a person dies I am sad for the suffering. If you actually participate in the ecosystem and not just occasionally but to the point to were if you do not wring that chickens neck you will only have green beans to eat tonight the feelings of remorse quickly go away. Your pal the Envirocapitalist.
I agree that you and I have different views of animals, Gabe. But I don’t think that’s entirely due to our different biographies. True, when I was a kid, I didn’t kill as much as you did. But when I did kill, I did it without thought or apology—maybe not so different from you. My shift in perspective came later.
Some people grow up around animal-killing and, like Ingrid, end up abhorring it. Some, like you, end up thinking of animals like deer and cows purely as food-on-the-hoof.
What intrigues me is that other people kill animals (sometimes throughout their entire lives) but retain a sense of animals as complex beings and a conviction that animal suffering must be minimized. Some small-scale livestock farmers are like that. Some modern American hunters—Holly and me, for example—are like that, though we’re both fairly new hunters. My uncle has been hunting all his life and feels something similar. And there are entire hunting cultures where people kill animals constantly and depend on them for food, yet insist that animals are “other-than-human-persons” who must be respected and not harmed unnecessarily.
That’s crucial for me: the bringing-together of (1) being a hunter who’s part of the food web and (2) my ethical and emotional care for animals. For me, denying either one would make me feel dishonest and less-than-whole.
I’m curious: If you had enough money to buy all the beef your family could eat, would you lose all interest in hunting? Or is there something besides sheer necessity that draws you to the hunt?
Tovar, you say, “If I felt that continuing to be a vegan (as I was for 10 years) could (1) give me full bodily health and (2) truly avoid causing harm to animals or their habitats, I don’t think I’d be eating animals or hunting today. In a sense, my hunting is underpinned by the same values that made me a vegetarian.”
I do understand that we all vary in our physiological capacities. In spite of my strong convictions about animals, I too trample upon a land that’s undeniably damaged by our massive presence. I don’t mean to be a self-hating human (even though I kind of am) but I mean to suggest that the quantity of humans and our exponential expansion makes it nearly impossible to be a saint on this earth.
Personally, though, I couldn’t kill without feeling such conflict, I would be paralyzed by it. I know this because I’ve been in situations where the remorse I suffer — to this day — is so extreme, I still have nightmares after years and years. I’ve always been that way, and I’d have to say I was probably born with an over-active, dysfunctional conscience, or conditioned at such a young age, I have little recollection of the mechanism. I simply cannot remember ever feeling differently. And I’ve had more pressing things to work through in “group.” Besides, animals benefit from my guilt. 😉
It’s personal, though, and I can relate somewhat to Envirocapitalist’s story of his childhood. I also wasn’t shielded from the realities of life and death as a child. Where I lived and traipsed, I was exposed to many forms of malaise. Awful, awful malaise. In as much as Envirocapitalist became inured to slaughter through exposure, I never could. I suffered greatly. I’ve stopped trying to explain that division in spirit. I have my own hypotheses, but most of those would require 8 hours, a bottle of Don Julio, and a defibrillator.
In response to the “correct” interpretation of your comment 🙂 . . . “to what extent are there really divisions among physiology, mind, emotion, and soul, and to what extent are these simply separations that we’ve imposed, artificially divvying up whole beings and experiences into supposed parts? How would we understand and talk about ourselves and our experiences if our language and concepts were different?”
How utterly not surprising that I read this through my own self-imposed, self-limiting filter. Well, putting aside the rhetorical nature of that question for a moment, I will just say that me, myself and I buy into the wholistic approach to life, believing, as you may be suggesting in your comment, that we can’t really separate those things. Although I’m a writer and paid hack by profession, how does one verbally encapsulate that which transcends the tangible and the verbal? To this day, I have an archive of profound transformations and understandings that elude language. I’m sure we all do, which makes explaining or defending our beliefs an exercise in genuine exasperation.
Tying that in with my misinterpretation of your comment, my own belief system embraces a holism that includes animals in that hazy fusion of boundaries. I don’t believe I stop at the bounds of my hair or my fingertips — or at the delimiting line of my species. Quantum physics would suggest molecular collusion across all life, further breaking down those separations between us . . . and, say, a wood rot fungus. Frankly, I wish I had the sense of the ancients who could speak their truth across species. So far, I’ve been able clicker train a Japanese Quail. I other words, I have a ways to go.
Be that as it may, I always hope that even those who don’t share my sensitive disposition toward these things and toward our animal companions, will at least entertain the ideas you present here, which relate to respect, diligence, compassion and — I hope I’m not taking out of context — acknowledgement of what we all stand to lose and gain in ignoring those associations.
Well said Ingrid, I was trying to say what you said in your last paragraph to Author earlier but I am an ecologist not a writer.
I hear you, Ingrid. Humans are causing a lot of damage. It’s not easy to come to terms with.
Hunting, for me, has partly been about confronting the harm I inevitably do just by being alive. Here I mean localized, immediate harm to individual creatures, not global, long-term harm to ecologies. Even the small-scale organic farmer down the road is killing woodchucks and deer to keep greens and berries in local food co-op. I needed to come face to face with that. (Other things drew me to hunting, too, but that’s more complex than I can tackle in this comment!)
And I’m with you: on the likely inaccuracy of the boundaries our culture insists on, and on the limitations of our language, both on what we can express and on what we can conceptualize in the first place.
Like Gabe, I resonate with your last paragraph. I, too, hope folks will entertain the ideas and questions being raised here, by me and by other people’s comments. Yes, I do think that both we and the animals around us stand to gain or lose a great deal, depending on how we understand our relationships with them: as food and as fellow beings who, by their presence, make this planet feel like home.
Ingrid, a question for you: Is it overactive conscience, or overactive empathy, or both? I’ve found this – and the self-hating – to be common themes among vegans.
And it’s interesting, because I have pretty strong empathy myself. When I watch an animal that I’ve shot in its last moments of life, I find myself in that animal, which is pretty overwhelming. But it doesn’t stop me from killing for meat.
I rationalize it intellectually with the obvious biological fact that life sustains life, and we’re omnivores, and all of us are meant to become food one way or another. But I don’t really believe it’s the intellect that allows us to take this serious step. There’s something in my constitution that allows me to be practical and accept the tradeoffs of my diet. Not callous, but still practical.
BTW, I love the line that animals benefit from your guilt. I love that whole species benefit from my hunting them. I know that the whole money-hunters-put-into-conservation thing never sways anyone, so I don’t make that argument in debates, and I’m not making it here. But it does make me smile knowing that habitat and conservation programs have benefited quantifiably since I joined the ranks of hunters three and a half years ago.
It’s a good question, Cazadora. I have my own theories, but you’re probably most accurate in suggesting overactive empathy. I can’t speak for others who share a similar constitution. The spectrum of beliefs and intents is as wide with us non-hunters, vegetarians, pacifists as it is with hunters. But for me, I think the fact that my life was riddled with significant and cruel events, both experienced and witnessed (toward humans and non-humans both) well, that probably formed this particular facet of my identity. I think those experiences at a young age either harden one’s heart or cause the heart to bleed wide open in what could be construed as acute and pathological empathy.
The empathy that I and many others experience goes beyond what you describe as the physical sensations of a dying animal. The only way I can characterize what I feel is as an embodiment of the experience as a whole. It’s that visceral empathy you feel, combined with the intellectual revulsion for cruelty, fused with a psychological and emotional connection to that state of vulnerability — where one is, essentially, at the mercy of another and then shown no mercy. And I think it’s that latter part of the experience — the vulnerability — that makes witnessing harm to others nearly unbearable. Where you, yourself, having been vulnerable, cannot conceive of exercising anything but mercy in those moments where the gavel comes down on another. I think that might be why hunting, particularly in the hands of the less ethical or even outrightly cruel, is such a tough issue for many vegans or vegetarians. It’s perceived — sometimes rightly so, sometimes unfairly — as an act where there is, indeed, a choice between mercy and no mercy. But, obviously, this whole issue is far more complex than that, on both sides. That was a thoughtful and insightful question on your part, thank you for that.
Even though I can’t fully embrace the state of mind you describe in terms of pragmatism, I do at least appreciate that you and Tovar and others see those wasteful, callous hunters in the same way I do (in reference to Tovar’s latest post, which I just read). Unfortunately, our collective perspectives as non-hunters tend to fall on deaf ears when it comes to discourse with these very people. I continue to hope that upstanding hunters and the more conscientious hunters’ groups to can try to change this model (to paraphrase Marshall Crenshaw), someday, someway.
Thanks for your further comments and honesty, Ingrid.
Your words—and the vulnerability and gift/curse of highly sensitive empathy you describe—challenge us to consider all forms of harm more deeply.
As I mentioned in a comment on another post some weeks ago, my transitions from vegetarianism back to flesh-eating and on to hunting have come, in part, from painful confrontations with the inevitability of some degree of harm. With the fact that death sustains life. With the dilemma Barry Lopez raised in Arctic Dreams: “how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life.”
How can we eat, feel compassion, and celebrate life? How can we fully inhabit both our bodies and our hearts?
That we can make hunting more respectful and conscientious “someday, someway”—that is one of my prayers.
Hunting needs a man like Tovar (loosely adapted quote from “Risky Business”).
Thanks for the kind sentiment, Ingrid, despite the quote’s provenance. 😉
Thankfully, other men (and women) are already out there singing a similar tune.
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