Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Why I'm Not a Hunter

Yesterday, I added the blog Tundra Medicine Dreams to my blogroll. I have been reading more of it and came upon this description of the killing of a moose. It seemed quite sad to me and inspired me to share some of my views on hunting.

Please understand, that the Tundra PA's post in no way changes the way I view her excellent writing, her passion towards her patients and her community or the frequency with which I plan to continue reading her outstanding blog.

Though I'll never be able to justify for the needless killing of an animal for sport, I am in no way deriding her. I don't believe that my feelings represent a personal failing on my part nor that that lack of acceptance is based on a narrow-minded world view. I do sense however, from what I've read of her, that the Tundra PA, though not embracing my opinion, would not believe so either. I merely wish to reflect personally on how her post affected me.

As an urbanite who has never experienced hunting as a part of my culture her description was chilling. It also struck me as inexplicable.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a confirmed carnivore and harbor no illusions of where my meat comes from. I also understand the need for hunting for food. But hunting for recreation? I'll never "get" that. I'd never interfere with anyone's right to engage in this legal pastime and I thoroughly accept the enormous historical and cultural significance hunting plays in the measure of just who we are as Americans. I also understand and accept the importance that guns play in the psyche of American values. I'm not one to seek limitations on the populace's right to keep weapons for hunting or for the protection of oneself and one's family.

But killing animals for some type of aesthetic rush will always be an alien notion to me. I found the explanation of the Yupik Eskimo's approach to hunting convincing given the context in which it undoubtedly arose. However to invoke it now, in this modern age, to justify purely recreational hunting strikes me as both self-serving and even self-deluding:
When the animal stands facing the hunter, it is offering itself to be taken for the hunter’s needs; it knows this and makes the offer willingly. The hunter must be worthy of the offer, seeking the animal with an attitude of respect and gratitude.
To believe this explanation is to project one's internalizing of desires upon a less than sentient being. This is no more rational than Ahab's attribution of towering malevolence to Moby Dick.

"...makes the offer willingly"? How can the moose's behavior be explained in any conceivable manner other than that it simply didn't perceive the threat before it? To imagine that it was in some way offering up its life is fanciful and even repulsive. Do modern students of nature find the notion of an animal committing suicide while assisting the hunter to realize some aesthetic ideal in any way plausible?

Moreover, my sense is that the apparently self-evident notion (at least to those other than myself) that "the hunter must be worthy of the offer," is equally self-serving. To me, this is a concept that is derived mainly from the desire to avoid cognitive dissonance. In other words, 'if my mind and heart are pure, then the commission of this otherwise questionable act will maintain its moral basis.'

Again, I'm not trying to take away anyone's right to hunt. Nor am I even seeking to discourage those inclined towards this activity from continuing to pursue it. I only wish to portray my personal response to an act that I find incomprehensible.

This excerpt made me particularly queasy:
...she felt deeply the respect and gratitude that were the animal’s due; but even these were surmounted completely by her awe at the magnificent beauty of the animal. He stood facing her head on, six feet tall at the shoulder, displaying the full width of his chest and his mighty eight-point rack, calmly chewing on young willow shoots. Perfectly still, he looked at her.

“Thank you,” she whispered, as she gently pulled the trigger.
I can't believe that the "thanks" her friend uttered before her kill were for a gift willingly surrendered.


Blogger The Tundra PA said...

I respect completely what you are saying. What I tried to convey here was the difference in the Yupik attitude towards hunting compared to the average American's. Certainly it is fanciful and anthropomorphic to think that an animal is capable of and willing to offer its life; but in the Yupik cosmology, people and animals share the earth equally and from the same plane. Humans are not "in dominion" over the animals. Animals are respected in a way that the "specie-ism" of Western culture does not recognize.

In this culture, hunting is not a sport. It is survival. One moose will feed a family for an entire winter. The moose my friend killed on that trip was distributed among a dozen families, both in Stony River and in Bethel, and was gratefully received by each one, as not many hunters were successful that fall.

What I tried to convey in this story, perhaps not well enough, is that attitude and approach are crucially different. I despise hunting as sport, as trophy-gathering. The lower 48 mentality of hunting is all too often "lets go out in the woods and get drunk and have a male bonding ritual and kill anything that moves with our high-powered rifles with their high-powered scopes and jump around high-fiving and beating our chests while we cut the animal's head off to mount on the den wall and leave the animal's body to rot where it falls and aren't we great and powerful hunters." Yeah. Makes me sick. Right up there with the wholesale slaughter of buffalo by white men crossing the plains on a train.

Our hunting trip was as opposite of that as it is possible to be. My friend loves animals, and was awed by the strength and beauty of the moose she killed. She felt the deepest gratitude to that moose for what he provided to many people. Her thank-you was sincere.

The moose, for his part, was simply doing what moose do. Walking around alone, eating willow shoots, drinking from the river, perhaps starting to feel the stirrings of the coming rut. Living his moose-life precisely as he wanted. And he died in an instant, without fear, and--because she was a good shot--hopefully with very little pain.

He didn't spend his life in a tiny stall, or crammed into a feedlot with thousands of other animals; he wasn't shot full of steroids or antibiotics; he wasn't fed a high-fat diet so his meat would be well marbled; he didn't die bellowing in a slaughterhouse, out of his mind with fear, and adrenaline pumping through his veins. He lived a good life, and he died a good death. His life had value and was taken with great respect. His death was not mindless or senseless. And his head is not hanging on a wall somewhere.

Personally, I know it would be very difficult for me to look down a rifle sight and kill an animal unless my family or I were starving. But I am a carnivore; I love a good steak grilled medium rare. I just can't think for long on what happened to that steer between the pasture and the meat counter in the grocery store. I feel a lot better about sharing moose soup with the man who ended that moose's life in the blink of an eye and with great respect.

Thank you very much for the time you have spent reading my writings and thinking about the things I have described. And for taking the time and energy to comment here on your blog about them. I am deeply honored by the appreciation for my work that you have expressed.

October 25, 2006 1:02 PM  
Blogger Kay Wotton said...

Those of us who are far removed from our hunter gatherer origins shape our values differently from those still close to them.

Your post is an exquisitely written testimonial to your belief about hunting and animals as well as a well developed argument in support.

For me there is no right or wrong side but I can't help noticing that those hunter gatherers were and are more in balance and harmony with their environment than we could even hope to be if we started trying at this late date. So for me, in this as in other things, there is a pressing need to be practical and opt for sustainability.

When we lose the trappers, seal hunters and moose hunters especially those who hunt for subsistence, we lose a huge body of practical knowledge about the animals. Then they die out and we have them in zoos or Disney-like parks.

Thanks, I enjoyed your post.

October 25, 2006 1:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

WE ARE ALL HUNTERS AND GATHERS, YOU SEEM TO HUNT ONLY FOR THE WORD OF OTHER TO GIVE YOU THE verificatin that your views are ones that all should have. Some of us who hunt, trap do so for the love of the sport, in trapping or hunting we make sure that the species have a good supplies for otherwise we you cut our on throats. Do you see that you kill animals by living in the house, city or town, as the forest are gone,habitate is lost forever. The natives of north thank the god and leave gifts at the site of their kills, as to thank the gods and pray that the next year there will be hunters agian. Do you not thank the Gods you get to work on those lovely highways, that use to be the trails of the animals that once trod on them. Wow, if one has no true understanding or knowledge of something, one doesn't make statments that attempt to discredit that which one knows little about. Keep an open mind. IF f you are close minded before you actually investigate then you are unethical and unprofessional. Engage in true research on hunting, before you open your mouth, enlighten yourself and get bushed.

October 28, 2006 3:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post and the comments that follow comprise the reason why blogging can be useful to express differing points of view. There are many ways to view the wilderness, but one definition for which we should all be sensitive is the wilderness within the heart of man. Let hunters continually assess their motivations and understand the utilitarian and cultural beliefs that underlie their methods. Let critics examine their beliefs and remember that to paraphrase one more famous than us, we may hold truths to be self-evident, but they are often conflicting truths.

November 21, 2006 2:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a native living in Fairbanks Alaska. I just got back from moose camp. You don't understand sentient I don't think. by the way, I grew up in a hunting/subsistance family and we know that there are no animals that are not sentient. all life is sentient. this is a dumb part of you arguement. Saying that, I can say that they (animals) feel everything that we feel and that YOU are using the "less than" equation to justify your eating of meat- The animals are not less than in any way. I could never hunt or trap- especially. but my family does hunt for food meat. You should not judge something you have no knowledge of or experience of. I am working toward helping people realize that trapping is against nature. That there is a differance between an animal that feeds our bodies and one used for commercial reasons. I beleive that trapping is cruel and very inhumane. But many people up here need to hunt to eat. And a moose will give itself to you, its an ancient interaction that many don't undertsand- you couldnt if you were using a "less than" mentality. All Life is Sacred. The feed lots that give you your meat are certainly not. ther eis much up here that is awfull, and bares reproach- but not a moose giving itself.

November 24, 2006 10:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No one tries to justify the “needless killing of an animal for sport.” Not even hunters. Not even modern hunting ethics. One problem is the term “sport” and “recreational” that we use as qualifiers. Calling modern hunting “sport hunting” or “recreational hunting”, there is this association of hunting as a sport and, in turn, because hunting involves killing as well, linking killing with sport. So we have an unfortunate equating of hunting with killing for mere sport and recreation. Modern hunting (the total experience of which involves a lot of things besides the kill) is the sport, but killing is not and never should be. There is quite a lot of literature concerning the use of the term “sport” when talking about hunting. In our local paper, the Outdoors section, which included hunting, used to be included in the Sports section. It was removed and placed into the regional news section of the paper.

Of course modern Western hunting is recreation. Though we depend on animals, plants, and the soil for our food, we are more fortunate, in some ways, than our ancestors whose lives were tied so directly to the earth, plants and animals and so activities such as hunting and gathering, animal and crop agriculture were not means of recreation, but a means of survival. Nature used to kill us, now we can sit back a bit and romanticize about it and enjoy it while we do it, because if we don’t down that deer for the pot or lose a crop, there is always the grocery store to fall back on. Though in exchange for security and dependence on others to provide for us, there is an important experiential gap that makes us less able to properly understand animals and nature and our connection to them and, as such, also less able to make the right decisions about stewardship and proper management of the natural environment. We no longer engage in a living relationship with animals, plants, and soil the way our ancestors did. But, I think modern hunting enables the hunter to go back in time and learn or re-learn and practice the many lessons about nature and our human selves that only hunting (and taking responsibility for ones food, animal and plant) can teach, provided one is willing to listen, observe and learn from the animals, the plants, the elements and the many old-time and ancestral hunting and gathering wisdoms. The point is, however, that yes, the modern hunting is a recreation as well. But the killing of the animals in hunting is not done for recreation. Hopefully, you can understand this.

You question the Yupik Eskimo’s approach to hunting in the context of hunting as something that is “unnecessary” and done for pure aesthetics, recreation, and sport. Also, you deny to the Yupik Eskimos, and other indigenous peoples as well as modern hunters, that there can be something deeply spiritual, philosophical, and religious about taking innocent animal lives. Or maybe you agree that there is spiritual element to taking animal life, but it’s mainly an excuse or a way to expiate guilt and uneasiness that comes with taking innocent animal life.

Nonhuman animals have historically and continue to figure in many societies’ religion, mythologies and belief systems, as totemic icons, spirit guides, teachers, gods and goddesses. In American Native peoples of old and today - though there is much variety of spiritual belief, ceremonies and customs that differ from tribe to tribe - there is a common profound belief that there is deep unity between humans, animals, plants, and all the elements of the earth and the universe. Hunting was and is necessary, for food and so hunters and community lives were closely tied to that of the animals and other elements of nonhuman nature. Some animals are relatives to the tribes people and have human physical form as well as possessing spiritual and other human qualities - of ensoulment, wisdom, and intelligence, e.g. Herd animals were and are still referred as a "tribe" or "nation." Because or this close spirituality of animals being kin with humans, the inevitable conflict between the attitude of mutuality/kinship and killing/eating them had to be resolved through special ceremony and ritual to bring about symbolic reconciliation. Some animals are raised to special sacred status, and ceremony/ritual would both mitigate the killing and feeding on them ritual, as well as deepen even more the sense of kinship. The spirituality of hunting tribes includes this close relationship between humans and animals. Story-telling, art, religious rituals and ceremonies are performed before and after hunting, in order to assure hunting success, to appease the animal's spirit, and to "convince" other animals to be willing to offer themselves to be killed in the future, thus ensuring the survival of the animals as a species and the human tribe. When an animal is sacrificed or killed in the hunt, death is never really final, for the animal's spirit lives on.

Similarly, for the Eskimos of Canada, Greenland and northern Alaska, there is a spiritual bond between Native hunter and animals. Again, hunting was and is necessary, for the lives of Inuit hunters are so intimately tied to that of the animals which whom they share the environment. Just like the animals, Inuit must kill other animals to live, and they are also vulnerable to the vagaries of the natural world, including weather and shifting physical landscape, animal movements, low points in biological cycles, etc. In this way, there is an equality between the hunter and the hunted, for animals, too, depend upon the hunt. According to Eskimos, animals, like Eskimo communities, are renewed through hunting. Hunting is seen as a contract between partners. Hunting is not just a means of food, but also the critical medium through which the human and animal communities are joined together. Among Eskimo hunters, spirituality concerns the belief of equal and joint roles of humans and animals in the ecosystem. For many Inuit, animals - walrus, seals, polar bears, caribou, whales - are to be respected because, as sentient and intelligent being, animals are aware of the thoughts, speech, and actions of hunters. This awareness provides animals with information so that they may choose to participate or not in encounters with hunters. The beliefs and spirituality of Eskimo hunting and everyday living and culture must be seen and understood in the context of the hunter's relationship with the animal.

Hence, the hunted animal offers itself willingly to be taken for the hunter’s needs, and hence the hunter must be worthy of the offer, seeking the animal with an attitude of respect and thanks and once having killed the animal respectfully gives gratitude for its sacrifice. This is neither self-serving nor self-deluding on the part of the hunter. It is a cosmology and a relationship between hunter/native hunting communities and animal hunted that is different from Western cosmology and hunting culture. By all means disagree with the reasoning from your modern Western point of view, but, by saying it is self-serving and self-deluding and so implying there can be no spirituality in hunting, no sacralization or ensoulment of animal life, with no equality and mutual dependence and spiritual communication between hunter and animal, and so impossible for the animal to willingly sacrifice itself and a hunter to show reverence in the taking of hunted animal life, you are denying a vital part of such people's inner thoughts, identity, and culture.

As regards modern sport hunting, it is not unnecessary killing. Some animal populations need to be managed by acute means and the best way is nature’s provided example of predation, or hunting which best simulates predation. Other times these animal and other animal populations can be managed by nonlethal means. Other animal populations can just be left alone. True some animals, like the white-tailed deer, e.g., are present in large numbers largely because of the way we humans have shaped the natural landscapes by eliminating predators that would be a danger to humans, livestock and pets, by clearing the land, by residential and road development, etc. We have created an ecological vacuum in which the deer are certain to multiply. Having created this situation we have little choice but to intervene in order to salvage the forest and its inhabitants from the ruinous activity of unchecked, invigorated deer populations. That is, if we want to continue seeing deer and if we want to continue having healthy wildlands. Thus, acute management of certain animal populations via hunting is not unnecessary killing.

Moreover, the death of these “surplus” animals are a source of food for hunters, their family, and the community. Killing animals for food is not needless killing.

For nonhunters, like myself (and a vegetarian and reformed animal rights defender at that) it can seem a paradox when modern Western hunters rhapsodize about their reverential feelings of love for animals and nature, yet have no problem with killing what they claim to love and respect. I don’t see how it is uncaring and not compassionate to maintain certain animal populations via nature’s example of her best management tool – predation, which modern scientifically-based regulated hunting replicates, more humanely than mother nature - that would otherwise flourish to the point that their numbers threaten the very ecosystem that sustains them and other animals. Nonhunters may find the idea of managing animals by killing them repellent and inconsistent with awe and deference, but hunters find the damage from certain wild animals of unchecked populations even more intolerable and wholly incompatible with respect for nature. That hunters are willing to commit time, money and energy to learn about wild animals, help to preserve habitats and restore species, enhance conservation and law enforcement efforts in service to animals and the habitats that sustain them, their motivation must come from a deep, abiding love and respect for those animals and nature.

Ethical hunting teaches respect. Respect of the land, respect for the capacity, maintenance and use of objects of the hunt (weapons and other gear), respect for the elements, respect of the animals and their environment. Some hunters learn and think about animals and environment and conservation aspects year round. To be an effective hunter, one must learn as much as possible about the animal’s physiology, population dynamics and how they interact within their environment. There is respect and awe for the animal’s natural endowments such as sense of smell, skittish nature, wide field of vision, speed, etc., for regardless of the hunter’s arsenal of weapons, lures, and such, it’s still difficult to track and overcome a free-ranging wild animal’s excellent natural defenses. The more one learns about animals and nature, often the more one develops a love and reverence for them. And to use this knowledge and regard in the hunt for food and maintain sustainable animal-habitat ration is, for the hunter, the ultimate respect and tribute one can give to an animal that did not spend its existence on a “factory farm” that one honourably kills by a humane dispatch – not wounded and irresponsibly left untracked to suffer and die, or hit by a car, or shot by farmers and left to rot somewhere, not starved or malnourished and diseased to death due to over population, or killed by poachers, or killed without individual regard for in a slaughterhouse - to nourish one and one’s family and ensure a healthy ecosystem for other animals and plants.

Even killing animals can be respect, when the killing is within the laws and ethics of hunting. Like when the killing is to help keep a population, that has become invigorated by our behavior and that is virtually without natural predators, from exploding and causing damage to itself, its habitat and other animals who depend on the same habitat; when the killing is done with the obligation to cause no preventable suffering; when hunting is never in excess and so the animals are not overharvested; when the animals’ remains are treated with respect, that there is no waste in meat, hide, bones, etc., the sharing of excess meat with the poor; and when other conservation techniques are properly practiced. In all this one is respecting the animals killed and their surviving fellow animals. The well-being of the future of hunting and procuring game meat is dependent upon respect for animals by ensuring their welfare or ability to survive within the limitations of their habitat.

For the ethical hunter, taking animal life is not a frivolous matter. The ethical hunter is very conscious of the great sacrifice involved to the animal and the gravity or seriousness of taking animal life. It touches deep emotions in their human "soul" when they take the animal's life. If a hunter can let that bullet or arrow go into an innocent animal, then they should be willing and able to experience and embrace the reality of the killing and the least they can do is treat the animal with respect. Some hunters give thanks to their creator for having honored them with gift of the animal, they may give thanks for the help received in allowing them to make a clean and humane dispatch, and even pray for forgiveness for the taking of animal life - not in the sense because they feel they have done wrong, but because of the necessity of having to take animate life to nourish them and their family, as well as the necessity to kill some animals so that other animals may live in a given habitat that mankind has unfortunately encroached upon and fragmented.

The spiritual elements of even modern hunting can be difficult to describe by even hunters themselves, because just talking and trying to explain it does not do justice to the conception of animals and the environment for hunters. But, just like within older and modern indigenous hunter and gatherer traditions, for modern hunters there is a deep awareness that taking animal and plant life is the only way we can survive. It is a very serious responsibility to take life to feed life, but whether one eats meat or plant, something must die to feed one. One recognizes and honors this dependence by behaving respectfully, compassionately, and with love towards those organisms. Unlike buying food, hunting involves the physical and mental responsibility one must take for the death that shall nourish one’s life.

Some nonhunters will only be able to see animal killing in hunting as mere killing that cannot have a spiritual element or anything much to do with love, compassion and reverence for the one being killed. How can you kill the one you love? There are even hunters who see hunting just as sport and trophy gathering. There are also former hunters who stopped hunting because, as they thought about it, for them, the animal was just a target and so they got sick of the killing. They lost that profound spiritual connection with animals and nature. It is a shame that for many of us who do not hunt and who are so removed from taking responsibility for our own food (domestic meat or plant foods), there is such an emotional distance and disconnect that one’s values are one of the belief that one cannot have awe, respect, and gratitude in taking an animal's life for something so necessary as food and maintaining a healthy habitat. The ability and degree to which one can understand and accept that one can be both hunter and respect animals may depend on one’s connection and understanding of the nature of nature, animal-habitat dynamics, as well as our role in nature and towards animals.

November 26, 2006 3:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've known times up in N. Dakota when the deer would bunch up and wait to be fed by farmers in the dead of winter. They would starve to death otherwise. It would be worse if they weren't hunted for meat and trophies. On the other hand, having killed and eaten many ducks, pheasants, geese, squirrels and some deer, I find it repulsive that someone would kill a buck simply for his antlers. I have a colleague who has a family lined up to receive the carcass of a dead buck, after he takes the antlers. He won't hunt unless someone is wanting to take the carcass. I've probably killed and eaten 70 squirrels in my time. I use a single-shot shotgun and won't shoot unless I have a clear, close shot that will bring the animal down. For every squirrel I've eaten, I have passed by at least 2 shots on others because I felt I might wound the animal and not drop it. Recently, the trees in the woods produced almost no nuts and squirrels by the thousands were migrating out of hunger and coming into towns and cities. Many were killed on powerlines via electricity and many were hit on the streets by cars. They were out of their element and didn't know how to act.

November 27, 2006 5:40 AM  

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