The why of the hunt

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.

Photo credit: Robert Bryan

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.


  1. Arthur says:

    Oh, this is a deep subject, Tovar. Phillip, over at the Hog Blog, has touched on this one before too. And even I have written a couple posts trying to tackle this particular subject, but it’s a hard one to explain and define.

    I do agree, though, that we hunters need to get deeper with our reasoning when we are explaining why we hunt to non-hunters. Population control, disease control, and other similar reasons fall short of explaining why we hunt. Hunting has so many different ways of touching us, and taking us in that we struggle to put that into words; I do believe that we have to, though, because that is the only way we are ever going to reach those who are on the fence – by getting down to the nitty gritty of why we hunt, and trying to explain the experience that it is.

    It is definitely hard to put into words, though. I have given it a shot in the past, although I think it fell terribly short of conveying what hunting is all about.

    • Tovar says:

      True, Arthur, deep waters here and lots of places to get snagged, too!

      You describe the situation nicely here: there being “so many different ways” hunting has meaning, the challenge of describing it, and the need to do so. Thanks also for including the link to your excellent post from last May. I encourage folks to check it out, and also the link to NorCal’s related post.

  2. I believe we were created by God and were given the desire to hunt (I don’t believe we have the capability to understand his creation fully). I believe the deep seated need for the chase lays underneath the surface for all of us. Even people who hate hunting. If manifests itself in Sports, Shopping behavior, and even internet time. I think it is an instinct needed for our survival initially and for our souls now ( it is good to know you can do it yourself if need be). Your pal the Envirocapitalist.

    • Tovar says:

      Interesting. I think you’re right, there is an element of instinct involved, and I really like your phrasing “needed for our survival initially and for our souls now.”

      Whether we call it “natural instinct” or “God given” (I respect your beliefs, though personally I’m agnostic, leaning toward animist), I think we can run into trouble here, though, as has been discussed in recent days over at NorCal’s blog.

      Can’t anyone claim that “instinct” or “the Creator’s intentions” is at the root of whatever it is they feel like doing? That whatever they feel like doing is just an inherent part of us? Nature is rife with “instinctual” behaviors that we choose not to emulate. And history and current affairs are both rife with examples of terrible acts committed in the name of the divine.

      What do you think?

  3. And don’t forget that trophy hunters disdain meat hunters because we’ll shoot anything that comes along without regard for whether that animal might be a better trophy if left alone for another year!

    I agree that population control, albeit true, is an ineffective defense or explanation, because that’s not really why we hunt (though it is why I do feel the need to kill snow geese, even though they’re not my favorite to eat). Same goes for conservation. Yes, we put money – not lawsuits, bills and PR – into preserving and enlarging habitat, but that’s not why we do this.

    I’m still working on the why (you know this), but the closest I’ve come is that hunting is a skill that strenghens our species and ensure it’s propagation, so it’s a no-brainer that natural selection would favor humans who love to hunt. Other than that, it’s hard to put a rational explanation to why being on the hunt is so exhilarating, whether you get anything or not.

    • Tovar says:

      You know, when I started this post, I almost focused the whole thing on the labels (meat, trophy, etc, etc). I’ve read some interesting exchanges on this in a variety of forums and it’s amazing how folks get riled up about the categories, yet never really say much about why they hunt.

      So, for you, it seems like an instinct born of natural selection, right? If we exchange the concepts “God” and “evolution,” then your sense of why you hunt is akin to Envirocapitalist’s, yes?

      I can’t say I disagree. Like you, I’m still working on it though!

      • Yep, you’ve got it. And while I’m sure I wouldn’t define God the way Envirocapitalist does, I have a sneaking suspicion it’s the same God. But that’s another topic!

  4. Ingrid says:

    As a non-hunter, I must say the pragmatic arguments aren’t often convincing. They might be for those who aren’t too connected with wildlife issues and the numbers. But the population-control point is fallible, particularly when you look at how species will fill (or over-fill) niches after determined efforts to “control” them. Compounded by policies in some areas that actually contribute to population growth by changing natural social structures and ecosystem selection. (Look at the issue of juvenile, rogue coyotes, some of whom — yes “whom” 🙂 — may be rogue as a result of losing viable adult role models through human eradication. Of course, even if all of those debates were winnable on that level, there’s still the emotional component to which you allude — it exists on both sides — and is one that defies statistical justification.

    It’s probably easier for non-hunters to answer the question “Why don’t I hunt?” than it must be for hunters to explain a practice that, for many on the outside, seems unjustifiable. I realize you’re not speaking, here, to justifying your practice. I use that term to suggest the general opposition I believe you must encounter as hunters. Obviously, reducing the complexity of this debate to a numbers game avoids the inherent impossibility of fusing two divergent points on how we interact with and treat wild animals. Or even doing the hard work to engender understanding.

    • Tovar says:

      When I came into my hunter education course—as a longtime and skeptical non-hunter—I had a negative reaction to parts of the course manual, including those suggesting that wildlife needed to be hunted, for their own good or even for their own survival. It just sounds ridiculous, as if hunters hunt because they are duty-bound to do so.

      Yes, coyotes are an interesting case, for a number of reasons. When I say that hunting is needed in certain cases, I’m talking more about ungulates, as I mentioned. Given the fact that other large predators have been extirpated in so many places (another issue in its own right), animals like deer can “over-fill” their habitat very quickly, with serious consequences for other vertebrate species, forest regeneration, wildflowers and other plants, not to mention agriculture and—before long—for deer themselves.

      But, as you say, those pragmatic arguments aren’t very convincing. They might convince people that something needs to be done, but not that hunters hunt for these reasons. Though there are exceptions, very few hunters are compelled by those motives. To claim otherwise is, I think, dishonest.

      Yep, you’re right: explaining why one doesn’t hunt is simpler in today’s world, even if those reasons are, ultimately, rooted in places just as “metaphysical.”

      I, too, prefer to use “who” when talking about animals. 🙂

      • We really, really need to hunt snow geese. They’re destroying the arctic tundra – very serious overpopulation problem. I know many states have no-holds-barred spring seasons where the limits are enormous and you can use electronic calls, all to increase the number of snows you’ll kill. I would not mind taking advantage of that need to get some snow geese, and I would participate in such a hunt given the chance (unlikely – can’t travel that far when school is in session). But I don’t think I would enjoy a mass slaughter of them. There’s a difference between hunting and slaughter. No one enjoys slaughter, but hunting is a much broader set of experiences that appeal to all the senses.

        Ingrid, you’d be surprised how little opposition I encounter when I tell people I hunt. Most of my debates are on the net, where I actively seek out misperceptions about hunting and actively seek to correct them. In one-on-one situations, once non-hunters find out that hunting isn’t the stereotype that they imagine, that we all don’t just shoot animals for fun and leave their bodies out to rot, people are generally pretty positive about it – they respect that we’ve chosen a more participatory way to get most of our meat. I don’t lie about it either – I fully admit that I hunt because it’s an amazing, fun, exhilarating and deeply satisfying experience, not to control any populations, not to fund conservation (though both are important benefits of hunting). And I don’t pretend the death is always clean and perfect.

        Part of the reason I try to talk and write about hunting in such an unvarnished way is because of conversations I’ve had with people like you. I discovered very quickly that the pragmatic/numbers approach will never address the key – albeit slightly off-base – question: Why do you enjoy killing?

        • Ingrid says:

          Hi, Holly, I come at the issue from a different perspective than many non-hunters. That is, I have had quite a bit of immersion in hunting “culture,” realizing (of course) that hunters and hunting practices across the board are too varied to be construed as a single form of cultural understanding. Although I, myself, have never pulled the trigger (except on clay pigeons) and pray I never have to for any reason, my experience with hunting and slaughter is about as close as a non-hunter can get. I grew up overseas where many of the barriers between animal and meat simply didn’t exist, at least not in the 60s. My first real boyfriend was a hunter. I’ve known and grown close to several individual hunters in my life, one in particular, who taught me quite a bit about the ethics of hunting . . . well, ethics as he construed them. He was one who would be out there busting poachers, and became somewhat of a citizen’s army of one in his region. So, I was one of those non-hunters who — although I never embraced the deliberate harm of animals — felt that hunters were far less hypocritical than most, walking the talk of acquiring their own meat.

          I add this huge disclaimer because I actually followed a path opposite from the one you suggest. It sounds like your experience has been one of educating non-hunters in the same way I was educated as a non-hunter when I was younger. For many years, I accepted most of what I heard — and explained away (for my own conscience) much of what I’d seen.

          My model shifted when I began volunteering with wildlife. I think that happens to a lot of people because one of my fellow volunteers used to hunt before she started working at the hospital. Either that, or people who are about to change their minds, consciously come to this work. My significant other grew up in hunting country but he was one of those who pulled the trigger once and, to this day, gets pangs of remorse over killing that bird. I still see him tear up. I sometimes do think it’s a constitutional thing (constitutional, lower-case “c”).

          Most wildlife pros tend to be pragmatic about hunting, so I don’t want to in any way represent anyone but myself. But something happens when you literally nurse a wild animal from orphan to adult, or watch a miraculous recovery from a hopeless injury, months in the making. All hands on — animals normally inaccessible, that you have the privilege to interact with. It’s simply not a stretch to say that a bobcat resembles our own house cats much more than people who shoot bobcats would care to admit. They’re not pets, I’m not saying that. I’ve seen the tragedy of what happens to habituated wildlife. I’m just suggesting that when you close that emotional gap between yourself and the wild animal, it tends to open ones eyes and one’s heart to the various assaults we humans perpetrate. So, of course, all previously held notions come under question, including those about hunting — just as I’m sure your previously held notions about hunting were turned on angle when you began to hunt.

          I am, by no means, fully immersed in wildlife work as some of my co-workers are. I know people who are full-time, in the field, traveling primarily to address needs of wildlife habitat and rescue. Some of them flit through my life regularly, regaling me with incredible field stories. I hope to be that someday, but for the time being, my livelihood comes from other pursuits.

          Even my limited immersion by way of tagging along, showing up at the wildlife hospital, has forced me into scenarios I could have never imagined. I am astounded by how many hunting experiences I now have and wish I didn’t have — sadly, hunting in the hands of people I wish could never touch a gun or a bow. When you see the dark side of human character, [legally] acted out against animals and wildlife, it’s hard to come to terms with the wide berth given to hunters in terms of how they choose to treat an animal — and the discrepancy over how we legislate cruelty toward dogs and cats versus cruelty toward deer or, obviously, farm animals. Laws, to me, are woefully inadequate to police individual ethics. And, unfortunately, the realm of ethics is so littered with gray areas, it’s impossible to find any single line of thinking that would be embraced by all, short of legislating it.

          I think that’s why when a friend directed me to Tovar’s blog, it resonated with me. As I told Tovar, I don’t see myself changing my mind about hunting now, in the face of what I know is out there. But for me personally, it strengthens the faith in humanity to know that people like Tovar (and you) are taking these issues seriously. For all of my experience, I guarantee you that requests (or even pleas) to be humane, no matter how sensitively or diplomatically rendered, fall flat on ears that don’t want to hear it from an ‘animal nut’ or someone with ‘bambi mentality.’ But they probably listen to you. Frankly, if those same hunters could see what happens at a wildlife hospital, there’s not one hunter who would ever again see these proponents of animal welfare as uneducated, naive, out of touch or soft. It’s heartbreaking, resolve-building work.

          • Ingrid, I can’t reply at length because I have a ton of chores to do before company comes over for dinner, but I wanted to respond quickly to a couple points.

            I’m glad people like Tovar and me give you faith that there are hunters who care. In my experience, most hunters care a lot more than they let on. Conversely, I understand that there are more slob hunters, cruel hunters, careless hunters than I’d like to admit. They don’t tend to hunt in my circles, but I know they’re there.

            Interesting what you say about wildlife rehabbers. I know one hunter who’s a wildlife rehabber, that’s it. It’s something I’d like to add to my volunteer work some day, but I’m not sure it’ll be soon. But I had my own little exposure this year to the collateral damage of hunting – during my waterfowl season, I picked up an unusual number of ducks crippled but not downed or found by other hunters. Some of them were in a truly pitiful state, and I did grieve for them that they’d had to suffer so much. But it is an unfortunate aspect of bird hunting that we sometimes hit birds without knocking them down, and they suffer as a result. I actually just switched to a 12-gauge shotgun from a 20 because I believe it will help me knock down more birds, and by that I mean kill more of them that I hit, not just kill more more more.

            On the geese and the predator issue, I agree with you. You can see it playing out most vividly now with the reintroduced wolves, which are having serious impacts on a number of elk herds, which has utterly changed elk hunting in those areas, and yes, hunters are angry. For so long we’ve hunted in the absence of predators that their reintroduction is a shock, as is the fact that we now have to share.

            Personally, I’m not a predator hunter. I won’t kill something that I won’t eat. And I’m prepared to share the prey animals with all my fellow predators out there. It’s their world too.

            There’s probably more I could say, but work awaits me. Maybe tomorrow.

            Thanks for your thoughtful responses!

  5. Ingrid says:

    p.s. on the issue of over-abundance of snow geese . . . I feel there should be an understanding, then, for how predator eradication programs are affecting this balance. I know there are hunters who embrace the full cycle of life, including top-level predators in their conservation practices. Tovar mentioned Susan Morse as one of these individuals. And if, as many hunters have told me, hunting is simply us humans exercising our place in the food chain, then the non-hypocritical response would be to live in balance with other predators. But the typical response from hunting groups tends to be eradication when other predators take their share of the game. I think that, more than anything, reveals the fallacy of the population control meme. It seems to be true until another predator plays a significant part in controlling populations. (I realize this issue is more complex than one paragraph would suggest, and I know agricultural and ranching interests are a big part of predator eradication programs. So my analysis is simplistic at best.)

  6. Ingrid says:

    Holly, I genuinely respect your stance on all of these issues. I realize it puts hunters in a bind to address the problems inherent in hunting. On one level, you’re drawing attention to — as you call them — the slob hunters, thus exposing the worst of the sport. On the other hand, those people are out there and often quite visible anyway. And as long as those insidious practices remain, hunting will be a tough sell to the non-hunting public — well, at least that portion of the public like myself who sees the untoward aspects. I think there must be a fear, too, that even if the worst of the offenders are reigned in, that it will never be enough. Because the opposition sees hunting as inherently bad. I get all of that.

    There’s a paradox on my end as well. And that’s the acceptance of predation in nature. If one accepts that a wolf has a right to kill an elk, then it stands to reason that humans do as well — if one abides by the incisor theory. Without getting into free choice, determinism, existentialism, animism, materialism — all of the isms — the issues are just too nuanced to brush away with an absolute. I think the way we humans have chosen to deal with uncertainties is by staking a claim to one certainty or another. “I won’t kill animals, I don’t believe in it.” Or, “we’re omnivores, and I choose to kill my own food.” Or perhaps, most murky, “I’m an omnivore but I don’t want to know where it comes from.”

    In a way, we’re in a constant state of creating a modern mythology, much as our ancestors did, to bring clarity to a hopelessly chaotic and unclear existence. I can’t say that I personally enjoy slogging through the loopholes in my own philosophy. It’s tough and vulnerable work. But it’s a challenge to engage here with people who are willing to acknowledge the mercurial nature of their own beliefs and pursuits. As I maintain on my own blog, my three favorite words are “entertain the possibility.” That’s not to say you need to believe in the alternatives or ever change your mind, merely to accept that they exist for ostensibly valid reasons. And it’s kind of interesting to explore that.

    And yes, the wolf issue. I won’t even get into that. I know a few people connected with wolf efforts and I have some strong feelings about what I like to call the “extinction mentality.” Eradication as solution, much as solution by dilution used to be the norm in industrial dumping. That, to me, is a dead end. We need a major shift in world view.

    As far as wildlife work, I hadn’t thought of this until you mentioned it, but the ex-hunters I know make exceptional advocates for wildlife. I don’t mean to say that non-ex-hunters can’t advocate for conservation. But there’s a powerful understanding that seems to come from being on both sides of the issue. In a way, it’s like Tovar’s perspective, having been both a vegan and a hunter. Or yours? Non-hunter to hunter? I’ll be candid and say that I love the ex-hunters. I’m sure that doesn’t surprise you. I imagine that hunters love the ex-vegans. 🙂

    I personally would love to see more hunters engaged in wildlife volunteer work. I keep hoping for some collusion of purpose, some world where the mutual understanding is visceral, not just intellectual. At bare minimum, I wish that hunter education courses would include some hours at a wildlife hospital or in the field with wildlife rescuers, so that young hunters or new hunters could understand the repercussions of questionable actions and shots. I’m not one of those who has any delusions about hunting being eliminated, even if that were deemed ideal. As with farming practices, if — in my lifetime — we could simply root out the worst and come to a more humane understanding across the board, I feel that’s probably the most I can ask. And compared to what I see now, yes, I’d be very happy with that outcome . . . indeed.

    • I really like the idea of incorporating something in hunter ed about wounded animals. A trip to a rehab facility may not be practical. But footage of wounded and sick animals might make a difference. It certainly made an impression on me this season.

      And (I know, I should really be cleaning house), it’s a pleasure to slog through the loopholes in our philosophy together.

    • Tovar says:

      Great discussion, Ingrid and Holly!

      Ingrid, you wrote that “hunters and hunting practices across the board are too varied to be construed as a single form of cultural understanding.” That’s really true. It serves as a good reminder for me: the fact that I hunt doesn’t put me in league with someone who does X (fill in your favorite brutish hunter behavior here) in the field, anymore than the fact that I drive a car and have the occasional drink puts me in league with someone who drives drunk. That doesn’t ease my heart any when I see nasty things hunters have done, and in no way does it explain away or excuse X.

      Whenever I find injured animals—be it a deer hit by a car, or a bird who has ricocheted off a house window—I do what I can to either give (or get) them the help they need, whether that’s warmth and healing or a mercifully quick end. I’ve considered training as a wildlife rehabilitator myself, particularly in raptor programs. More so, I’ve contributed time and money to habitat conservation. There are other hunters like that, too. I think there’s huge value in “closing the emotional gap,” as you put it.

      Like Holly, I’m happy to have non-human predators also hunting what humans hunt (deer, geese, etc). I think how we deal with other predators—psychologically, politically, ecologically—is a telling measure of how willing and able we are to accept animals and nature and co-inhabit their world. I’ve been thinking a lot about the dynamics between hunters and other predators (coyotes here in Vermont, wolves in the West, etc). There are a lot of hunters out there whose sentiments resonate with mine. And a lot whose sentiments don’t.

      Yes, the fact of predation in nature is a tough one from the vegan/anti-hunting perspective. When I was coming from that angle, I wasn’t one of those extremists who wanted to try to change nature and make everyone get along. I just drew the line at human participation in predation. Now I don’t. But I do draw the line at unnecessary suffering and senseless killing.

      I like hunting, but I frankly don’t like killing. I kill, at least in part, as a way of confronting the fact of my existence—the fact that I take a toll on other lives no matter what I eat, as deer take a toll on hardwood seedlings and vegetable fields, as wolves and farmers take a toll on deer. I do it when I feel there is meaning and/or purpose in it. I try to avoid it the rest of the time.

      In short, Ingrid, I think your aims regarding hunting and farming probably aren’t that different from Holly’s and mine. But you already know that!

      Holly, I agree about the potential value of giving hunter ed students a sense of what wounding can do to animals. I’m thinking about driver ed, where (as I recall from all those years ago) you get an eyeful of what accidents look like. You are after all, being handed the keys to a lethal weapon. Why not the same for a rifle, shotgun, or bow? Not just talking about hunting accidents or showing lightweight, cheesy enactments of such accidents, but really showing what can happen, both to other humans and to animals?

      Hmmmmm….yes, ought to be cooking dinner here, too. No guests, though, so I can leave a few things strewn about.

  7. Ingrid says:

    re: hunter’s education. I should take a course to see what’s offered. I’ve only heard through others. Cheesy reenactments, really? Sounds like the whole program could use updating. Your comparison, Tovar, to drivers ed reminds me of that horror film we all saw back in the 70s . . . those of us who learned to drive then, that is. Do they still show that? I’ll have to ask my nieces and nephews.

    And Holly, you’re right about the practicality of incorporating a wildlife rehab trip. In fact, educational groups couldn’t even tour the working portion of a wildlife hospital, let alone volunteer there temporarily. I carry a transport license just have a wild animal in my vehicle. CA Fish & Game has some stringent rules about access to wildlife facilities. But . . . since Fish & Game oversees both hunting endeavors and wildlife rehab endeavors (at least in California), it seems like a logical progression to blend the two in some form.

    Films would be easy. There are also captive animals in educational institutions that are there because their wing was shot off, or some other travesty befell the animal that prevented its release. Some hospitals/institutions use those animals as traveling, educational emissaries. Many animals in such condition, sadly, are euthanized, because even the difficulty of getting an educational niche for a captive wild animal is tough. As with all animal rescues, there are never enough people, and there is never enough space. And, no wildlife hospital will release an animal that can’t fully fend for itself in its natural habitat. That’s why it’s so heartbreaking to see wanton and deliberate injury. The inadvertent suffering is bad enough. Tovar and I are in complete synch on this, and I imagine you feel the same way, based on what you’ve written.

    Tovar, I like your comments about how relationships to other predators are indicative of our ability to coexist. I think our relationship to nature in general suggests, more often than not, how unwilling our species is to bend for the common good. You wouldn’t believe what a chore it is to get people to stop using poisons on rodents, for instance. Even if they don’t care about the prolonged suffering of a ‘nuisance’ animal like a rat, how do you explain (without showing) what it’s like to watch a Barn Owl die slowly from rodenticide because it ingested a poisoned mouse? There’s a short, animated film online called “The Story of Stuff” which talks about the chain of events that leads from our consumptive choices to the waste produced by those choices. Everything we do is like that, but how many of us carry the repercussions through to their logical conclusions?

    • Tovar says:

      “Cheesy” might not be the right word. I was thinking of a film we watched in class that felt out of date (like it had been made some 20 years earlier), depicting careless firearm-handling and a kid accidentally killing his best friend. It was sobering, but only if you put your imagination to work a bit. There was no real blood shown, none of the wreckage I recall seeing in driver ed. This was seven years ago, so the materials may be different now.

      I should add here that the hunter ed people I know (both volunteer instructors and state coordinators) are extraordinarily dedicated folks. They’re serious about safety, which the course focuses on a good deal. The instructor I had did his best to augment the course materials with descriptions of various fatal incidents he’d heard and read about over the years, hammering home the message.

      The hunter ed folks I know are also serious about ethics, which the course touches on far more lightly. They find it very upsetting to know that some hunters (including some of their young students) are going to ignore ethics and do whatever they please, often guided by the actions of the role models closest to them.

      For hunters who care, the “unnecessary suffering” piece is a tough one, as Holly can attest. Though I’ve been fortunate so far, I know that even the most careful hunters do sometimes wound animals, even when striving for a quick, clean kill. Predation among animals can be messy, too, of course; but that doesn’t make me feel okay about inflicting suffering myself. Where I “draw the line” is at the intentional or careless infliction of that suffering.

      On predators, I should add the caveat that I don’t think it’s a great idea for large predators to get too cozy around humans. Having them out there in genetically healthy, interconnected meta-populations is great, in my view. Having mountain lions and bears and coyotes in suburban neighborhoods, though, too often leads to tragedy. This brings up larger questions, of course: who is encroaching on whose habitat, etc.

      Yes, I agree: “The Story of Stuff” is a good reminder of how interconnected everything is.

  8. Ingrid says:

    Tovar, I was being a little flippant about your ‘cheesy’ comment. But I could envision the reenactment you described. I love cheesy old educational films for entertainment value. You know, the “Reefer Madness” genre. But reenactments, as you say, would have little impact — especially in a culture already so inured to violence in its many forms. From your description, I understand that many components of the classes are great. But the impact of carelessness on the animals themselves seems to be a lacking component? I guess I can safely assume that hunters’ ed is entirely anthropocentric?

    I wonder how a hunter education program could, in fact, reach kids surrounded by ‘bad’ role models? A friend of mine who teaches in some rough school districts talks about the sometime futility of instilling social and educational ethics when the kids’ entire environment, outside of school, reinforces the precise opposite.

    I always run into arguments when I bring this up, but I do think hunting ethics is like any human “moral” condition. It’s tough to legislate, but at the same time, if you don’t set limits, you end up in a situation where living entities are subject to various whims, across the board. So, I know I’ll never win any points with hunters by suggesting some of these regulations should be tighter, but I just don’t know how one can gently impress upon someone, “please don’t torture that deer.” It’s only when the society at large starts to view things differently that ethics tend to change. And those views generally aren’t formed voluntarily.

    I won’t begin to tell you what I’ve seen in the way of injury. There are cases, especially with archery, where the acts perpetrated on animals — again, I stress legally — would be horrifying to us if a dog or cat were treated the same way. And yet the people involved, the ones I’ve met, anyway, rationalize away the harm they’ve done because it is, in fact, legal. I wish there were more practices that fell under the auspices of poaching. And that poaching penalties were, in turn, greater. But, of course, I’m speaking through the non-hunting filter you’re quite familiar with.

    The disparity between how we legislate domestic pet cruelty laws versus wild animal or farm animal laws is sometimes appalling, everyone knows that. And, of course, pest or varmint animals carry no such protections. At the root of many of these legislative puzzles is the issue of money and who stands to benefit or gain from a great sense of humane responsibility to the totally disenfranchised.

    So, there I go starting a whole new topic thread that had nothing whatsoever to do with “why I hunt.” But I guess when you touch on the subject of ethics, the conversational opens into a nebula of issues.

    • Tovar, I know the exact film you’re talking about – probably from the 1970s, two teenage boys, and one slips when they’re running down a hill and shoots his friend? Yes, they do a good job scaring the crap out of you about what you can accidentally do to other humans with a gun. But I’d love to see more about how poor marksmanship and judgment can hurt animals without killing them. (Though I must say that the single phrase I remember most from my class is “clean, sportsmanlike kill” – the instructor said it over and over and over again, and it rings in my ears to this day.)

      Ingrid, I have a question. You used the term, “wanton and deliberate injury.” Have you actually witnessed such events as they’ve happened, or merely dealt with the fallout? I suspect there some people who will wound animals without concern, but most of us try so hard to kill and retrieve what we shoot. I know when you find an injured animal that it may look wanton and deliberate, but I think that’s often because you don’t know the circumstances.

      Here’s a perfect example: This year, I was duck hunting with my friend Charlie when his buddy Don came up to us and offered us a drake pintail his dog had found. I said yes. He was still alive, but I broke his neck and took him home with the rest of the day’s take. When I gutted him, I was horrified at the mess I’d found – shot had torn up his innards, and the smell when I opened him up was horrendous. I actually had to throw him away, which I don’t do lightly, because the meat was totally spoiled.

      Now, it would be easy to be angry at the hunter who left that bird in such shape. But I’ve shot a few pintails this year, and sometimes you’ll fire the shot and you just KNOW you hit them, but they keep motoring away – they’re very tough birds. Or, you shoot and drop them, but they land in thick cover where you or even a dog can’t find them. That doesn’t mean it was wanton and deliberate injury. It means the bird didn’t drop where you shot him, so you couldn’t get him.

      Perhaps you’ve seen the acts you’re describing, and believe me, I know the kind of people who commit them – usually young men, pretty callous and in love with shooting anything that moves. They typically grow out of it. But I would be cautious about ascribing motives to events you didn’t see.

      On another note, I find the discrepancies in our laws appalling too, but probably in a different way than you do. For example, in California, it’s illegal to slaughter and sell horses for meat. Why should horses get protection that deer don’t? It’s all sentimentality. I personally have lines I won’t cross for reasons of personal choice: I’m not interested in shooting elephants. I would, however, shoot coyotes if we’d eat them, but coyotes are taboo for my boyfriend, because of the similarity to domestic dogs, so he won’t eat them, so I won’t shoot them. But if eating animals is fair game, they should all be fair game, to the extent that their species can tolerate hunting pressure.

      As for abuse, I’m curious about whether laws might already cover abuse of wildlife. The type of abuse that I believe should be illegal is neglect or physical abuse. People who go on animal killing sprees that are just all about shooting and hurting (what I’d consider abuse) actually do get in big trouble with the law. In California, “wanton waste” – leaving part or all of a carcass in the field – is illegal in most circumstance.

      Finally: Tovar, great discussion here! And Ingrid, feel free to come on over to my blog to join some of these conversations as well. I’m sure my vegan comment-friend Hutch would welcome the company 🙂

    • Tovar says:

      Ingrid: Yes, the potential impact on animals was, as I recall, only referenced indirectly, in discussing the code of ethics that includes a “clean kill.” Nothing detailed or graphic. No problem with the topic thread morphing! That’s the nature of conversations, yes?

      NorCal: Yep, that’s the film! And yes, I’d definitely support an emphasis on what poor marksmanship and carelessness can do to animals. For that matter, I’d support an emphasis on marksmanship period. To pass the course I took, one only had to fire a few .22 rounds, keeping the gun pointed safely downrange; one didn’t have to hit the target.

  9. Ingrid says:

    Holly, you make a great point and it’s a precarious endeavor to ever ascribe motives to people, unless you know for certain what that motivation was. So much is subject to interpretation, particularly when emotions are involved. I have to add the disclaimer that I speak to these issues as a volunteer and life-long shelter/sanctuary worker, not as a certified tech or vet. The staff and medical personnel with whom I work would be much more precise in any perceptions they applied to a case.

    I’ll give you just a fraction of the types of injuries I’ve personally seen, both inside and outside a medical context. These are not hunting-specific, so when I say deliberate, I speak to the greater whole of humanity. These are incidents that I personally construed as deliberate or wanton, even if erroneously so: gun shot wounds in protected species like raptors or migrating songbirds; a bluejay nearly beaten to death because it became caught in bird netting on someone’s lawn; upland bird shot out of season, impaled with a hunting arrow; kids hitting red-winged blackbirds with air guns in a park; same with squirrels, prairie dogs and other animals I’ve personally seen used for target practice; ducks with severe head injuries that seem to be from projectile objects like rocks; animals with gangrenous legs from careless trappers, legal or illegal; game birds escaped live markets or home “farms” with hooks and other implements through their beaks, feet, etc.

    The list is much longer than that, and when you add to it the accidental or inadvertent, it’s a pretty wretched mix of stuff. With the exception of non-native species, yes, many of these types of offenses can be punished, even if they rarely are. For instance, a hawk that comes in riddled with shot — how on earth is that traceable? Most incidents aren’t. And the perpetrators know that. It’s a huge frustration.

    You talk about personal preferences for what you will or will not shoot. I understand that. For instance, I have worked with people who have very strong feelings about native versus non-native species. They make pretty sharp delineations, based on pragmatic data. I personally don’t feel that’s a distinction for me to make. I became involved to help or to heal and my personal ethic doesn’t discriminate that way when faced with a horribly injured animal. But again, even in a field like this, where you’d think the mission would be unified, the perspectives are as diverse as the ones you describe in hunting.

    At the same time, allowing people to have such freedom in how they kill seems to bring with it a great propensity for cruelty — even if that is inadvertent. There are some provisions for abuse they way you construe it, absolutely. But is it not abusive, for instance, to shoot a deer in the gut or in the face with a slow-killing arrow, and allow it to languish until expiration, which can be hours later? The fact is, the hunter knew some injury would occur by virtue of drawing that bow. So in my mind, it’s a bit different than accidental harm — and thus carries with it a greater degree of ownership. I’ve seen some arrow-related scenarios that will leave me with sorrow to the end of my days. If someone treated a dog that way, it would be unfathomable in our culture.

    I do understand why your boyfriend wouldn’t want to shoot coyotes, since their similarities to domestic dogs is unquestionable. I would just take it a step further and suggest that most wild animals have enough similarities to the animals we tend to call our own, that treating them in the way they’re sometimes treated would be as unacceptable if people truly understood these animals more intimately. Ultimately, though, you’re right. Either you treat all animals as the hunted are treated, or you adopt a more humane standard across the board, for wild and farm animals as well. Otherwise it’s all hypocrisy.

    The legal right to kill has always seemed, to me, one that bears a level of responsibility that should require some greater proof of intent and skill. It doesn’t, I realize that. Could one even enforce that? And where does one draw the line? I’ve seen hopelessly roundabout arguments about one person’s ethics versus another’s. It’s as muddy as you suggest. But these are the types of issues that make it hard for people like me to see the sport as a whole from a more new-agey, loving place. 🙂 The best I’ve been able to do is limit my scope to what I can or can’t control (how very AA of a booze lover, huh?). See. Duck. Capture. Help it. You know, it ultimately comes down to that for any of us. And then — in spite of some deep dismay over what I see — I do my best to stay open to the idea that there are people like you and Tovar out there, genuinely doing your best to address these issues from your own points of view and in the context of your own actions. I’m the first to lay claim to fallibility in my actions, and thus appreciate anyone who’s at least endeavoring toward that same, imperfect philosophical resolution. Thank you for caring enough to not only ponder these things, but to take matters into your own hands when you’ve witnessed your own forms of suffering out there.

  10. I agree that on the whole, we as a species can treat other animals pretty wretchedly. I’m thinking of people who swerve to actually try to hit animals with their cars, people who throw projectiles – rocks, arrows, bullets – at anything that moves, people who refuse to spay cats and instead dump litters of kittens on the roadside.

    And while hunters’ bad shots can be, as you say, considered deliberate because of the decision to pull the trigger or release the arrow, I don’t know how many are wanton, as in, “I’m going to do this and I don’t care what the unintended consequences might be.”

    But I think consideration of intent does matter, because the assumption of ill-intent tends to lead to villification. When you start your car and drive someplace, or get on the train to get to work, you have no intention of killing animals on the journey. But you are well aware that your vehicle may indeed hit and wound or kill some animals. Does that mean you wantonly kill animals with your car, or was it a really unfortunate accident when your windshield collided with a bird at 65 mph? Yes, the bird’s dead (or maimed) either way, but in one scenario the driver is guilty of malice or negligence and in another s/he’s not.

  11. Ingrid says:

    Agreed. I appreciate the Buddhist line of thinking when it comes to intent. I will say, though, that there are things people can do to reduce the probability of outcome. In the case of driving a car, I see people who don’t slow for deer crossing the road, or who assume a flock of birds will rise up ahead of their car, or who insist on going 10 miles above the speed limit on rural roads where the chance of a collision with an animal is extraordinarily high. So even in the case of inadvertent killing, I think there can be blame laid for the reckless judgment which led to that death. And then, further, if you know you caused injury and don’t stop to do something about it.

    I believe the same can be said of a lot practices that involve animals. A court of law would suggest similar considerations when pondering malice aforethought in a murder case. In reading this thread, I have to wonder how many people are as focused and intent-driven as you are — in terms of doing the least amount of damage. I think you’re a rarity, Holly, but I have no way of knowing for sure. I will just say that I haven’t much experienced the deep sense of responsibility you exhibit. Even my previously-alluded to boyfriend in college, a reasonable hunter, went hunting with guys who sometimes took potshots at stray animals from the car. (There’s really no mystery as to why that relationship didn’t last.) My police-the-bad-guys hunting friend felt very alone in his efforts to bring greater scrutiny to the practices in his area. He wasn’t always popular with other hunters, in fact.

    I think the issue of intent becomes problematic for a hunter in the sense that there is no other publicly perceived outcome to hunting other than to kill — as contrasted with driving a car. That’s not to say that hunters are focused exclusively on the kill, I don’t mean that. I realize there’s a broader scope to the experience. But to head into the wilderness with a weapon, to acquire meat or a trophy, does imply an intent of causing injury. So it could be argued there is intent implied in the unintended consequences. Believe me, I realize a lot of hunters are devastated when a shot isn’t placed as planned. My comment here is a battle of semantics and even as I write it, I’m thinking I should stop because the psychological spirals could be endless.

    My personal concern has to do with minimizing cruelty, in whatever form it takes. I long ago stopped thinking in absolutes — except in my weakest moments. It distresses me that so much is allowed, as you say, in terms of treatment toward other species.

  12. Eric Nuse says:

    As a former game warden and hunter education coordinator, I thought I’d chime in on the discussion. Hunter education is only a start to the true education of a hunter. It was started 60 years ago as a firearms safety class and has expanded considerably to a basic hunter education course. But it is a compromise between content, time and outcomes. You can only get so much across to new hunters before you are wasting time. People need to get into the field and get some experience before they are able to learn more.
    My feeling is HE should be part of a series of events in a lifetime of learning about hunting, conservation and ecology. Unfortunately, most agencies lose interest after they offer the basics and get the license money. A survey done years ago showed that more than 90% of the general public felt hunters should be required to take a refresher HE class, with about 50% of hunters agreeing. Several states have strong advanced HE training that uses incentives to get hunters to attend. This is where things like hunter ethics, marksmanship and wildlife management can be presented in a meaningful way.
    Part of the problem is the over reliance by Fish and Wildlife Departments on the sale of licenses. They get confused over their mission and making money. If they had access to broader based funding, pressure would be off to dumb down hunter requirements, allow violators to continue to hunt, and keep laws from being passed to raise the bar of hunter behavior. I am a firm believer in education, but I also know from my enforcement days that a fair percent of the population thinks that if it is legal it must be OK.
    On the wounding/wanton waste issue the best thing we could do would be to have people understand their limits in delivering a fatal shot, then offer training to improve their shooting. If you never have shot at a moving target, how can you ethically take a shot at a running deer? You can’t – yet it happens all the time. I don’t think you can legislate things like this but you can certainly require testing and offer training. This is required in Germany with excellent results.

    • I like the idea of advanced courses – particularly for youth. (If I recall correctly, the 14-year-old boy in Washington state who shot a hiker in a blue jacket thinking she was a bear had passed hunter safety at age 9. Clearly, he’d forgotten about the “identify your target” part.)

      But they’d be great for adults too, because you’re right: There’s some learning you’re not ready for until you’ve had some experience. But I still think the addition of a few more words and images to the existing curriculum would make an impression on at least some soon-to-be hunters.

  13. Joshua says:

    Good, good post. I haven’t yet read through the comments, but I will. I, too, am working on a couple of posts about the why.

    One thing I’d like to point out is that hunting is one of the few endeavours we pursue that is pre-historic, and even probably pre-conscious. It is as natural as breathing, as natural as dreaming. Like rhythm, it is probably unknowable, in one sense, why we are moved by it.

    But it is still important to consider why, indeed. Thanks for the post.

  14. Tovar says:

    Ingrid: “A pretty wretched mix of stuff,” indeed. The suffering, both intentionally and inadvertently caused, is heart-wrenching. Though I know they exist, I think there are very few hunters who intentionally do as you suggest—shooting deer in the gut or face with an arrow. But I also think there are a good number who, whatever the weapon, take shots they should not take. Carelessness, whether born of poor judgment or just not caring, can cause a lot of pain. (The first two shots I ever took at deer were, in hindsight, ones I shouldn’t have taken; thankfully, both were clean misses, but they shook me deeply. I’ve been even more careful since then and each of the deer I’ve killed has dropped with a single shot. I pray it continues that way.)

    When I think about the idea that there’s “hypocrisy” in humans hunting certain species while having very different relationships with other species—such as dogs, with whom we’ve had a many-millennia partnership—I sometimes wonder how it would look if we turned it around. In other words, the dog makes a partnership with this odd, nearly hairless biped. But the dog keeps hunting other species. No hypocrisy on the dog’s part, right? Just musing…

    You commented that “there is no other publicly perceived outcome to hunting other than to kill.” I think that’s right on the mark (if you’ll pardon the archery metaphor). And it’s a big part of the problem facing hunting in the modern American context.

    Eric: Thanks for chiming in, and for posting the link to this discussion on your blog. I’m all for advanced hunter ed, refresher courses, and more serious requirements in terms of marksmanship and knowledge about animals and their ecology. And, of course I support broader-based funding of F&W agencies. As you and I both know, the sales-tax based funding models adopted in places like Missouri and Arkansas have made huge positive differences in many ways.

    NorCal: Thanks for your continued, wonderful input. The conversation wouldn’t be the same without you!

    Joshua: Thanks for stopping by. Perhaps the draw to hunting is, as you say, unknowable at some level. In that sense—as with rhythm—perhaps the “metaphysical” (as I put it, quoting Madson) and the deeply physical become indistinguishable. As I said in my reply to Envirocapitalist, though, I think the notion of it being inherently in us only gets us just so far as an explanation, especially since the vast majority of our fellow modern humans don’t hunt. (They may, however, perform other hunting-like activities, as Envirocapitalist suggested.)

  15. Eric Nuse says:

    Back to the humane, one shot kill – I’m reading an excellent book by Ron Rau, “Sage Lake Road”. In the story titled, “A Hunting Fantasy”, Rau writes about imagining a bow hunt in his old stomping grounds in Michigan. It turns out to be a re-write of a hunt gone bad 10 years before. He writes “thinking of the deer I mutilated ten years ago still makes me want to throw up.” He goes on to say, “Thinking about it is necessary so that it doesn’t happen again. Heart and lungs. Heart and lungs. Heart and lungs. That’s the only shot I’ll take. Screw those neck shots.” Later in his fantasy three deer come by his blind, he hesitates, thinking the buck is too far. “Ok, it is too far, I do not want to go through that again ever, or put an animal through that, if he continues up the hill like the does he will be a perfect shot, the best I could hope for.
    “… I am short of breath, what should I do?
    After he shoots: “I feel rinsed and empty. I am not yet elated, not yet. How do I feel?
    “I am anxious and concerned. I want to do the right thing this time. Have I done the right things already?
    “…Well, you know you struck him. You saw how he ran. Why do you feel such shame? You wanted this.”
    The story ends with- “this is my fantasy so I will find him just at the edge [of a cedar swamp], stone dead.”

    I’ve wounded and not recovered 2 deer in my life. Both while bow hunting with shots well within my self imposed limit of 25 yards. I felt a lot like Rau, sick with what I had done, that I hadn’t shot as well as nearly all my 100’s of practice arrows, vowing to never screw up again. But, I’m not perfect, so you deal with the mess you’ve gotten yourself into. After hours of tracking, bring in the trained deer tracking dogs and getting permission to go on posted land I was convinced that in both cases the deer would survive. But it is humbling and feels bad. Enough to stop bow hunting? Not yet. I guess hope springs eternal, and hopefully I’ll learn from my mistakes and never make them again…

  16. Ingrid says:

    Eric, really appreciated your post with insight about hunters’ ed programs. I’ve love to see a broader funding base myself. I know plenty of people who would also be supportive of fees/taxes levied against non-hunting wildlife activities, in the same way hunting revenue is acquired. As a non-hunter, I’d love to be able to purchase something other than a duck stamp, that would give my money (what little I have of it) more weight in non-lethal wildlife decisions. I suspect hunters wouldn’t embrace that, though. Even with the public trough that plays a part in wildlife funding, most of us feel hopelessly disenfranchised when it comes to shaping wildlife policy.

    Based on your experience, could you ever envision a wildlife facility or rehabber’s group having any success in making wildlife ed part of hunters’ ed? What would be the obstacles to such a project?

    You bring up some difficult points with respect to archery, and, as I mentioned over at Holly’s blog, I think it’s courageous when hunters speak candidly to the less palatable aspects of hunting. So thank you for the candor . . . she says as she’s about to make a controversial point about archery. It’s tough not to address it though, I hope you understand. Given how much distress you felt about your own mishaps, you can imagine what it’s like from a rehabber’s perspective (that would be mine, personally). Bowhunting is among the most difficult sports to grapple with philosophically. Mostly because of the extent of the injury, the slowness of death, and the assumed reasons for using a bow over a potentially more humane shot. I base that assessment on things I’ve personally heard — that bowhunters appreciate the challenge, the close-up experience with the animals and so forth. Please feel free to address the “why” of bowhunting if you feel so inclined, because frankly, I’d like to hear a reason more convincing than human satisfaction.

    From the wildlife rescuer’s end, animals that do live, impaled with an arrow (sometimes for weeks) often end up euthanized after all of that suffering. It’s difficult to remove arrows without creating a mess of internal injury. It is done sometimes, and those successes are testament to diligent rescuers and vets. But even capturing a bow-stricken animal is tricky because of the danger in moving the arrow by virtue of capture method.

    I did a training last year with a group of wildlife experts who were involved in a well-known turkey rescue here in the Bay Area. The turkey had an arrow through its leg that so badly injured the bone, the arrow was the only thing keeping the leg stable at that point. You can imagine the complexity of capturing a wily turkey and then operating on it and rehabbing it to a point where it could be released. Even if it were rehabbed, the chances of a full recovery are slim, and placements in wildlife facilities for animals like captive turkeys are tough.

    And then, when you take into consideration the costs of rehabbing just one animal, particularly when surgery is involved — in a field where there’s never enough money but where the obligation is, in fact, to help those who are injured — you can probably understand the antipathy some of us feel about those types of injuries for sport.

    Do you know if any hunting revenue is channeled toward recovery efforts and local wildlife hospitals? I am not familiar enough with the funding structure and really should make myself more aware of how those funds are dispersed. My understanding is that most revenue acquired through hunting licenses and so forth, goes to fund hunting-specific projects, classes, etc. Am I incorrect on that?

    • Ingrid, I know you were addressing Eric, but I was interested in what you said about archery.

      I’m not a bowhunter. I’d like to learn, because deep down I believe it’s important to have some skills that are useful if you find yourself (or civilization) in a situation where modern conveniences aren’t available. But other than that, I’d rather use a rifle because of what I perceive as the better chance of a clean, fast kill. If civilization were to collapse, I’d keep using my rifle until the ammo ran out.

      All that said, I’ll have to take up archery at some point because pretty much the only way I’ll get to hunt some of the animals I’d like to hunt – elk and antelope – is if I can hunt them during my summer break, when I have time to travel out of state. And the only way to hunt anything in summer (generally) is with archery, because that’s how state laws are structured.

      I’m not really sure yet how I feel about that. I like that laws respect archery as a different and more challenging way to hunt by giving archers their own season when they don’t have to compete with gun hunters. But I’m not sure I like the heavy incentive to take up a different weapon that brings with it some of the risks you describe.

      On the subject of the influence of hunter money: I almost commented on another blog about that yesterday until I realized the onslaught I’d endure wouldn’t be worth it (it was a wolf-defense blog). But I would welcome more money that goes into maintaining and adding habitat for wild animals, not to mention game law enforcement.

      My only fear would be that the new spenders would want to take away what few hunting opportunities I get on public land, or even private land, and I would fight that. Hunter money has done an incredible amount of good for wildlife – species have come back from the brink of extinction that market hunting wrought in huge part due to hunters’ license fees and excise taxes, and the money we give to species-specific organizations like Pheasants Forever, Rocky Mountain Elk foundation, California Waterfowl.

      I don’t want anyone to forget that the reason animals have what they have now in terms of habitat is thanks in large part to the incredibly dedicated constituency of hunters – and yes, we’re dedicated because we want the right to hunt and eat them, but that does not diminish the sincerity of our desire to see healthy wildlife populations.

      I know some non-hunters and anti-hunters want a bigger financial role specifically because they’re tired of hearing that. But if you lose hunter money, trust me, the loss will be enormous.

      If you personally want to have a bigger role financially, why don’t you send a check to California Waterfowl or volunteer on some of their habitat or banding projects? I recognize you would not enjoy yourself at a duck fundraising dinner, where hunting is the dominant theme. But there are plenty of non-hunters and even vegetarians who are active in that organization.

  17. Tovar says:

    Eric: Thanks for the quotes from Rau’s book, and for the honest account of your experiences.

    Ingrid: Great questions about hunter ed. On bow hunting, my impression is that clean-kill-versus-wounding rates aren’t that different between bows and guns. In both cases, what matters is the skill and judgment of the hunter; a person can do stupid things with either weapon. But I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the wounding-and-loss rate actually is higher for archery, as hunters might be more likely to misjudge there. For that reason, I have mixed feelings about bow hunting, though I’ve explored it myself.

    Did you see the interview with David Petersen in The Sun late last year? He talked about this very thing, mentioning that experienced bow hunters sometimes see a animal flinch (as if at a wasp sting) as a well-placed arrow passes through them, go back to feeding, then drop dead a few moments later. That’s the opposite extreme of what you’ve seen, I realize. But a well-placed arrow will, as I understand it, lead to a very quick death. I’ll be interested to hear Eric’s perspective.

    Holly: That fear, on the part of hunters, that non-hunting funding sources will dilute hunters’ political clout in wildlife management is a big problem. We’ve faced that fear here in Vermont, in our attempt to create a broad-based funding structure. I believe the record shows—in places like Missouri and Arkansas—that broad-based funding has been a huge win for everyone: hunters, non-hunters, and wildlife.

  18. Ingrid says:

    Hi, Tovar and Holly. That archery-versus-guns point is one I’ll definitely have to explore further, even though the “research” is always hard to stomach for me. If Peterson’s anecdote is true — not calling into question his statement, just never experienced it myself — I wonder how often that occurs. I have no doubt that conscientious bowhunters, like conscientious hunters overall, strive for nothing but a clean kill. But in the hands of the less adept, the results are simply brutal. Case in point is that recent elk incident up in Snohomish County in Washington, documented, I’m sure, to the chagrin of those shooting at the elk. Definitely not good PR for death by bow.

    Add to that the relative ease with which one can arm oneself with a bow. And then, when you consider that people often take up the bow, as Holly suggested, to be able to hunt earlier in the season, it certainly seems to a non-hunter that the reasons for this type of hunting — with such potential for lingering death — isn’t really justifiable beyond human gratification. Am I wrong in saying that? Would any fish and game official suggest that archery is actually preferred in some way, from the standpoint of animal well-being and welfare? It seems early, too in terms of shooting does with young. I realize most people think that fawns are self-reliant at that point, but I would argue that point based on what I’ve learned.

    Is archery that much worse than hunting by gun, if, as you say, the numbers aren’t any different? Are you saying, for instance, that in general, it would take an animal as long to die by a gunshot wound as it would by arrow? Or merely that as many wounded animals get away from hunters with guns as they do from hunters with bows? I’m going to ask some of the people I work with what they think about this issue, in terms of the years they’ve spent treating such animals. From a statistical standpoint, I wouldn’t expect genuine candor in terms of wounding rates among hunters, particularly when those types of numbers and anecdotes could be used to demonize the sport (even if people like you and Holly are very forthcoming about such things).

    Beyond the end result injuries I’ve seen, I’ve witnessed a number of bowhunting deaths personally. And then have seen countless more filmed. I can’t think of one that I could regard as humane. And the waiting time for death is simply excruciating. I’ve seen animals flailing in agony for more than an hour, something that would never be permitted in the context of hospital euthanasia. I know that’s not uncommon — that animals are often tracked after many hours of living with a mortal wound. If you watch hunting shows (I shouldn’t but I have, to educate myself) there’s an incomprehensible disconnect between the detached commentary of the hunter, as the animal dies in the background. This obviously adds to the perceptions us non-hunters have, where it’s very easy to construe the practice as pragmatic and devoid of concern over the suffering that animal is enduring while the humans sit and wait for it to die. With an ungulate I watched die in a similar fashion, it was inconceivable to me that the hunter and his friends stood around laughing (not at the animal, but conversationally) while the animal next to them cried out and desperately tried to get up for the hour or more that he lived with the arrow in his side. For someone who cares deeply about suffering and someone trained in rescue, the perceived lack of mercy shown in a situation like that is unbearable, frankly. I want to leap out of my skin and put an end to it. But I have no power to do so, and would, in fact, be arrested if I did.If I witnessed someone doing that to a dog on the street, I could have them arrested and rescue the dog. So the disconnect is hard to live with.

    I don’t think I could bear to voluntarily watch one more such kill, selfishly speaking, I have enough trauma from the ones I’ve seen. But if you have footage of clean-kill archery, I’d consider watching it, just to add perspective to my experience. I say “consider” because I’d have to have a stiff drink and steel myself for it.

    • Ingrid, I’m with you on the disturbing aspects of much of hunting TV. I think much of it is produced by people who only associate with other hunters and therefore have ZERO reference point for how non-hunters see what we do.

      I don’t have any statistics or personal experience on wounding with rifle vs. archery. I have wounded only one of the four big game animals I’ve shot with a rifle, and we found him and ended it within five minutes. And of course, I don’t do archery yet.

      It might be a mistake to read too much into my comments about why people take up bowhunting – you might be able to extrapolate, but I don’t know that. I do know there are a lot of people who genuinely prefer archery because it forces you to get much closer and feels like a more honest way to hunt – firearms have so much power. (And ironically, I’ve come across a lot of anti-hunters/animal rights activists who sneer at hunters for hiding behind “high-powered rifles” and make snotty little statements like, “Why don’t you try doing that with a knife, Big Man?” Well, yeah, we could, but it’d be a lot uglier.)

      And deep down, I really like the idea of hunting with a tool that I could theoretically make from natural items around me – wood, sinew, bone, stone. But I harbor no illusions about what that hunting would be like. When it comes down to it, I hunt for two reasons: 1) I love the deep connection to what we used to be before we made things so much better with civilization, and 2) it puts meat in my freezer. A gun is the most efficient way to do that, so that’s what I use. If I had the luxury of unlimited time, I’d bowhunt.

      How’s that for a rambling, non-helpful reply? 🙂

      • Ingrid says:

        No, actually, Holly, that’s a very kind and thoughtful reply . . . given some of the strong feelings I expressed. Yes, I know what you mean about the high-powered rifles versus primitive weapons argument. I’ve thought that myself at times, particularly when I’m photographing moving birds and nailing focus on the eye of super-fast-flying Bufflehead. I’ve thought, okay, if these were optics on a rifle, I’d have no trouble nailing this bird. Maybe that’s why I was a decent skeet shooter. I liked that aspect of it. I just couldn’t (or never intended) to make the next step toward actually killing. My hunter boyfriend was teaching me how to shoot in the hopes that he would convert me.

        Nowadays, I think back to the lead we left behind which, when you see a lead-poisoned raptor, probably distresses me even more.

        Of course, the “why can’t you be a big man/woman and use a knife” argument is a self-made rhetorical trap. I guess, ultimately, animal-loving non-hunters would prefer hunters didn’t hunt.That’s no secret. Often times, it does seem unfair, no matter how you slice it. So, advocating for primitive weapons would, indeed, level the playing field — if humans were left to tooth and claw like other predators. But the end result, as you say, isn’t pretty.

        I’m going on a bit of a limb saying this — other anti-hunters would probably have words with me. But honestly, I could live with hunting back in the day when I had a more idealized version of it. I didn’t like it. I could never do it. And I would have preferred it didn’t exist, sure. Particularly when I had the misfortune of witnessing the outcomes. But when I thought most hunters were like the hunters I personally knew, I had less issue with it.

        I guess that’s why I tend to advocate not so much for a middle ground, but for a stronger push toward SOMETHING — anything — that would make the sport a bit more respectable as a whole. I respect you, from what I’ve learned about you. And I respect Tovar. Individual hunters, absolutely. But as a whole, there is just too much variation from what I would deem humane and conscientious, that I can’t condone it. I actually wish that I could say, in all earnestness, yes, I respect hunters because I know how much care they take to do the right thing — and would be about the best I could ask. But my reality just hasn’t been that. And in the absence of that faith, many of us turn to a rather despondent and possibly more vehement point of view than we would otherwise have. I think change has to come from within hunting. But there’s so much resistance to any suggested limits. I understand why. But I envision stasis on this issue.

  19. Ingrid says:

    p.s. to Holly, as far as financial roles, although I know California Waterfowl works at various beneficial projects, because of my personal proclivities, it’s hard for me to support an organization that includes strong support of hunting in its mission statement. I know non-hunters who’ve even supported Ducks Unlimited because of habitat issues. I just have to vote my personal ideas of compassion, with my dollars. My SO and I are engaged, however, in habitat restoration projects around the Bay. And when I have extra cash, I support orgs that have the health of our global ecosystems and wildlife as a primary motivation. I’d still like to see, as Tovar suggested, a broader base of funding for our state wildlife endeavors. Just as I’ve signed the petition putting the State Parks funding initiative on the ballot, I’d be in favor of broader public support for wilderness endeavors across the board. I’d like to think that Tovar’s experience suggests that it benefits all, even when funding isn’t confined to hunting-specific interests.

  20. Tovar says:

    I’m afraid I’m no expert on bowhunting, Ingrid. I’ve never even shot a deer with an arrow. So I don’t know how often the kind of scene described by Petersen actually happens.

    There are studies out there. The numbers aren’t reassuring, in my view. In one 2008 study in Maryland, 104 “bowhunters using modern (compound bow and crossbow) archery equipment…were required to pass the International Bowhunter Education Program and an annual pre-season shooting proficiency test” and they still only recovered 82% of the deer they shot from 1989-2006. For bowhunters whose skills aren’t tested in that way, the rates may be worse.

    I’m also not a good source for video footage; in general I’m not fond of hunting videos, for a bunch of reasons. I have seen a few where the deer leaps at the moment of the shot, calmly walks a few yards, then drops dead. In a case like that, I imagine that (just like a human who is shot or stabbed or, presumably, hit with an arrow) the deer hasn’t had time to feel “pain,” only shock. The deer may jump because of the shock, because of the sound of bow string, or both. But it clearly isn’t running in agony. How often does that happen? I don’t know.

    The bullet versus arrow question. I don’t know how graphic we want to get here. In theory, they kill differently—the bullet by shock, transferring its kinetic energy to the body of the animal and shutting the nervous system down, and the arrow by cutting vital organs (heart and/or lungs). In practice, if a bullet doesn’t hit a major bone or result in hydrostatic shock, it can travel right through a deer—acting not exactly like, but a bit more like, an arrow.

    My sense (again, not an expert opinion) is that a bad hit with either weapon is going to lead to either a slow death (e.g. a gut shot) or a wound (more or less serious) which the deer survives. And a good hit with either weapon is going to kill swiftly, even if the deer runs 75 yards in those seconds.

    Undoubtedly, the bow requires much greater patience and judgment: to get close and to pass on all kinds of shots (especially where the angle puts bone between arrow and heart/lungs) that would be appropriate for a firearm.

  21. Ingrid says:

    I think that’s a good and fair explanation, Tovar. And again, it comes down to wishful thinking on my part . . . wishing it wasn’t so easy to get out there and shoot at living animals (using any weapon) without proper judgment, experience and skill. It happens too often and that’s always my biggest sorrow and frustration. It would be a genuine improvement if a considerable degree of aptitude had to be proven before live targets were allowed. Some hunters would agree with me on that, many others would not. Even though I realize hunting is conducted primarily for the sustenance or enjoyment of the human hunter, it seems we should be evolved enough by now to at least consider more deeply the ramifications on the animals themselves. Alas, this is almost always where the discussion ends because I don’t know of any resolution, short of hard-fought external mandates against powerful lobbies, or a true movement from within the ranks of hunters, to change not just the perception of hunting, but the practices that lead to those often valid perceptions.

    On a related note, I had a conversation the other day with a bird rehab specialist who had taken in two domestic birds for injuries. One bird had swallowed a sharp, foreign object, another, a pigeon, had a dart shot through its leg. Immediately upon arrival at the avian vet’s office, the birds were supplemented with extra painkillers, even though they’d been given painkillers at the shelter where they were received. The specialist asked the vet about this, and he said they were now administering more painkiller than previously thought necessary — since recent studies had shown birds feel even more pain than previously thought. (You don’t even want to know what those “studies” entailed.)

    Anyway, I make that point to suggest that our scientific understanding of animals is ever-evolving . . . and I think our cultural practices toward them should change with our growing consciousness of these issues.

    Okay, and after all this, I do recognize that all you wanted to do is write about why you hunt. Thank you for hosting this discussion, and my counterpoints, in your comments section. 🙂

    • Tovar says:

      Thoughtful and heartfelt discussion is always welcome here.

      You and I both want a world where humans inflict far less unnecessary pain on animals, whether in the woods, in the laboratory, on the farm, or in the house. I think a lot of people—including both hunters and non-hunters—would agree on the basic point that animal welfare and suffering matter, even if they find it hard to talk about the issues, let alone agree on what to do about them.

      Our common ground here brings another thought to mind, planting seeds for a future post. Thanks for that!

    • Re ” wishing it wasn’t so easy to get out there and shoot at living animals (using any weapon) without proper judgment, experience and skill”

      Unfortunately, judgment, experience and skill come with practice on the real thing, not just practice on targets. There are some things you can learn from books and classes, but a paper target doesn’t get your heart pounding, and a clay flies far more predictably than a duck or a dove.

      I know you’re thinking about the people who NEVER seem to practice or get better or care about bad shots. I’m sure there out there. But given the human propensity and hunger for learning, I think most of us do improve.

      • Tovar says:

        True, Holly.

        Though I think you and I would both strongly support Eric’s suggestion: “the best thing we could do would be to have people understand their limits in delivering a fatal shot, then offer training to improve their shooting. If you never have shot at a moving target, how can you ethically take a shot at a running deer? You can’t – yet it happens all the time.”

        As it is, you can hunt birds without ever having gotten even the most rudimentary sense of your own limits by shooting at clay pigeons—or hunt deer without ever having shot at and hit a standing target, let alone a moving one.

  22. Ingrid says:

    Hi, again, Tovar and Holly. Thanks to you both for engaging my comments so openly. Yes to Tovar’s comment “you can hunt birds without ever having gotten even the most rudimentary sense of your own limits.”

    That part is incredibly disturbing. If all hunters were like you two, I’d have less to grapple with intellectually and emotionally, even if I’m still not that keen on hunting. But when you see what can only be described as target practice — on birds, tree squirrels, non-protected, non-native species — it just turns the stomach.

    It would be one thing if young (and new) hunters were forced into guided hunting situations before they ever took a shot at anything. Particularly, since in many modern cultures, hunting is not an imperative — it’s often undertaken voluntarily for reasons beyond subsistence. But I’m a frustrated idealistic mixed with despondent pragmatist, so I know that’s not going to happen. Still, when you consider that suffering is at stake, wouldn’t a civil society at least push for more consensus on that idea?

    This is, I realize, where we non-hunters and hunters run into complex discussions and arguments because those lines are incredibly difficult to draw. Maybe that’s why we tend to revert to our absolutist corners: hunting, in all its forms, in this corner — no hunting in this corner. Gray areas are a bear to navigate in this world but I believe they ought to be hashed out to greater compromise.

    The fact is, the crux of this discussion actually lies in a super-ideology that transcends hunting. Holly touched on it earlier, too — the disparity in how we view and treat different species in this world. That’s really the heart of the matter. In the U.S., anyway, a dog has a lot more protection than a deer does. But a deer has more protection than a coyote, who resembles very, very closely, a dog. For my money, it’s an outdated and utilitarian framework that simply doesn’t match what we’ve come to know in recent times.

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