When I was a vegetarian, I had no clue why modern people hunted.
Now that I hunt, I still puzzle over it. Every hunter has his or her own reasons, of course. I wonder mostly about my own, and even there it’s often hard to lay claim to certainty.
Of two things, though, I feel sure.
First, the labels we ascribe to ourselves say very little about why we hunt.
When, a few years ago, a local hunter told me he was a “meat” hunter, he wasn’t saying that “meat” explained his hunting; he only gets a deer once every few years, and enjoys his time in the woods for its own sake. He was saying that he was perfectly willing to shoot a doe if he got the chance. In other words, he was telling me what kind of hunter he isn’t. He’s not a trophy hunter. He doesn’t hunt for antlers.
This way of defining ourselves—by marking the boundary between “us” and “them”—is a human habit long studied by anthropologists. “Identity,” after all, comes from the Latin idem, meaning “the same.” We say who we are by saying who’s different: who we are not.
At times, labels serve an important function. They help us denounce the intolerable. In the mid- and late-1800s, American “sport” hunters defined themselves in part by pointing to what they were not: “market” hunters, who were pushing the continent’s wildlife to the brink of extinction. (Less helpfully, these middle and upper-class hunters also denigrated backwoods “pot” hunters, the meat hunters of the day.) Today, whatever we call ourselves, many of us decry the “slob” hunter, whose disrespect—for animals, people, and land—leaves a deep stain on the image of the American hunter.
When wildlife populations and real ethics are at stake, it’s important to say who we are not. Even then, though, labels fail to convey why we hunt.
Second, I feel sure that it’s worth making the effort to understand and explain why we hunt.
Some hunters, of course, feel that explaining such things is part of “being on the defensive.” They don’t want to go there. They hunt because (1) it’s legal and (2) they want to. And they leave it at that. Fair enough.
But I think the effort can be more positive than that. As a non-hunter (and sometimes anti-hunter), talking with respectful hunters and reading words written by respectful hunters helped me see past my negative stereotypes, opening my eyes to what hunting could be. And at least a few acquaintances have, in turn, had their views of the pursuit improved by talking with me about my hunting.
I think we need to continue the effort to understand and explain what hunting means to us. If, that is, we want hunting to be accepted by the non-hunting majority—and supported at the polls when related ballots are cast.
We need to go beyond the tired argument that hunting is needed to keep wildlife populations in balance with habitat. It happens to be true, at least where ungulates are abundant and no longer hunted by other large predators. But, as Thomas Baumeister argued in his essay “Heart of the Hunt,” it “falls pitifully short” as a way of explaining hunting.
The challenge, as I suggested above—“now that I hunt, I still puzzle over it”—seems to be understanding the “why” of our own hunting. Some parts of my hunting I can name and explain: how it helps me confront the impacts of my own eating, how it puts wonderful, local, organic, wild meat on my table, how it heightens my appreciation for everything I ingest (animal and vegetable), how it gives me a sense of participation in nature, and so on.
Other parts are harder to pin down: that sense of mystery, that call for which I still have no good name. Those pieces may be—as the late John Madson put it in “Why We Hunt”—“too deeply rooted in the metaphysical to allow clinical examination.” But I’ll keep on trying. Not for the clinical—which would, I fear, kill the mystery—but for the moderately comprehensible.
Now and then, though, I do wish that we were more like other animals. That we could, like dog or wolf, sniff at the places others have labeled, marking boundaries, and actually learn something useful.
© 2010 Tovar Cerulli
Note: Thanks to Montana Outdoors magazine for making both of the above-mentioned essays available online.