How To Sell Hunting And Shoot It Down In One Simple Article

March 14, 2012

My friend, Dave, sent me a link yesterday to an article in Mother Earth News.  At first glance, it looked like a good piece, in which one hunter explains why he eats wild meat and finds it preferable to eating the factory-farmed stuff that makes the diet of most Americans.  As I skimmed through, I found myself nodding in agreement to some of the passages.

But then I read it closely.

First of all, I should have known what to expect from the author, David Petersen.  Petersen is a self-acclaimed “mountain man” who lives in the Rockies in a cabin he built himself, primarily eating foods from his own garden or meat he has hunted.  I’ve read some of his stuff before, and to be honest, I find him to be a pompous and self-righteous ass.  This article did not change that opinion.

Petersen’s article is an extended apologia, justifying his choice to hunt (and to enjoy hunting) based on most of the standard arguments.  Hunting is essential for game management.  Wild meat is healthier for us and the environment than factory-farmed meat.  Hunting is natural, and allows game animals to live and die “naturally”.  And so on…

Not a lot to grab hold of there.  I’ve made many of the same arguments myself, and they’re sound enough for what they are… an effort to explain the inexplicable.  Sure, they fall short in many cases, especially when challenged by the bigger, moral question… how can you continue to hunt when that behavior is no longer required for your survival?  But they do provide a quantifiable basis for debate.

But Petersen isn’t content to stop there.  He feels the need to set himself apart from the general mass of hunters, and to place himself and his ethics on some unassailable pedestal.  It’s not enough for him to argue that hunting is OK because it provides healthy meat and good excercise… he goes on to say that some hunting isn’t OK at all.

The doctrine of fair chase from the Boone and Crockett Club, founded by Teddy  Roosevelt, is a widely embraced sportsman’s rule of personal conduct afield that  mandates “the ethical, sportsman-like and lawful pursuit and taking of any  free-ranging wild, native North American big game animal in a manner that does  not give the hunter an improper advantage over such animals.” Clearly unethical  activities that nonetheless are legal in some states include baiting, driving  deer, and shooting bears or mountain lions from trees after they’ve been chased  there by hounds.

Specifically, he’s talking about hunting that doesn’t meld with his personal ethic.  And while he first seems to espouse the Boone and Crockett fair chase doctrine (which is a set of rules for acceptance into their record book… NOT for all hunters to live by), he goes even further.

Even so, many of the criticisms of contemporary hunting are valid. “Outdoor gear” catalogs clog our mail. Television is crowded with “outdoor” (I call them “outhouse”) channels and their plethora of heroes hungrily hawking flashy killing toys, skills-crutches and other cheater technologies accurately targeted at contemporary wannabe hunters who don’t wannabe real hunters badly enough to invest the time, energy, learning, sweat and heart required to do it right. To quote Abbey yet again: “Hunting is one of the hardest things even to think about.” Why learn to read a map and compass when I can buy a GPS? Why walk when I can buy an ATV? Why incorporate “the Zen of archery” into my life through regular practice so that I can kill humanely and consistently with a simple bow and arrows when I can buy an arrow-launching device complete with sights and pulleys to make drawing the “bow” easier; or when I could go all the way and buy a 21st-century crossbow that shoots steel bolts and has more in common with a rifle than with a real bow and arrow? Why bother to scout and learn how to follow tracks and to “read” wildlife signs when I can buy a digital “game cam” that will show me who is doing what out there and when, 24/7? Why and why and why?

I’m sorry, but those criticisms are decidely IN-valid and perpetuate dangerously inaccurate stereotypes.  The elitist attitude here oozes all over like pus from under the scab of a festering wound.

True, there are some hunters out there who rely on technological crutches more than they should… and for many, various reasons.  And true again, the hunting industry is doing its level best to sell us even more stuff guaranteed to “kill bigger bucks” or “fool the wiliest (creature of choice) in the woods.”

But for every one of the indolent, unskilled Nimrods out there, there’s a highly skilled counterpart who knows the game and the outdoors as intimately as his own bedroom (in fact, Petersen would like us to believe he is in this camp).  And in between the extremes fall the majority of hunters who use varying combinations of skill and technology as part of their hunting experience.

Due to circumstances of available time, location, mentoring, and finances, etc., every hunter cannot live off the land in the Rocky Mountains, or hunt solely for subsistence.  Sometimes “shortcuts” are simply pragmatic.  While the hunt is about more than just the kill, the truth is that most hunters do want to take the occasional animal.  Likewise, wildlife management depends on a level of success, so the laws and regulations must be designed to facilitate that success… hence, you have legal baiting, hound hunting, and even night shooting for destructive species.

There are also valid arguments that some technology improves the ability to consistently make clean, humane kills. Bow sights, laser rangefinders, and good rifle optics all have a place in the gear bag of the ethical hunter.  While Petersen may be living his dream in the Rocky Mountain backcountry, a great number of American hunters find themselves living in urban and suburban environments where you can’t always take for granted things like the opportunity to constantly hone your shooting and woodscraft skills.  And even the most experienced archers misjudge distance in the field… resulting not only in missing, but in wounded animals.

Coming back to the article, what Petersen has accomplished here is to sell HIS idea of hunting as good, all the while tearing down the reality that ethics and motivations run the gamut of variation.  While there’s certainly nothing wrong with living by his ethical standard (as long as he actually practices what he preaches), that level of ethical and moral commitment simply doesn’t apply universally… and more importantly, they shouldn’t!  It’s an unreasonable expectation to hold, and a crippling standard by which to hobble the hunting community (and the industry).  If much of Petersen’s audience buys what he’s selling, and believes that the only “good” hunting is hunting that aligns with his standard, then what happens to their support of hunting when the reality shows that very few hunters actually live up to that standard… or worse, that few actually want to?

The article, by the way, stands in particular contrast to my recent reading of Tovar Cerulli’s book, The Mindful Carnivore.  Cerulli also takes a deeply philosophical look at his personal hunting ethics, and makes some discoveries that guided his growth as a hunter.  In many ways, I think that he is pretty closely aligned with Petersen.  However, the big difference is that Cerulli doesn’t preach his own gospel or judge other hunters who don’t share his belief or approach.  Instead he teaches by example.  Even as he fully acknowledges that his motivations and values aren’t universal.  What’s more, they are constantly evolving.

Obviously, the article set me to thinking, even as it infuriated me.  Give it a read here, and if you’re really motivated, have a look at Tovar’s book as well.


12 Responses to “How To Sell Hunting And Shoot It Down In One Simple Article”

  1. Jim Tantillo on March 14th, 2012 04:59

    Excellent analysis, and I agree with you 100% about Petersen being a pompous and self-righteous ass . . . .

  2. Phillip on March 14th, 2012 07:03

    Thanks, Jim. And thanks as well for sharing over through Orion.

  3. Neil on March 14th, 2012 09:10

    I know we’ve been down this path before. One thing to think about, is that Mother Earth News news is tailored to a certain aesthetic, often people with a self imposed back to land, homeschooling, off-grid ideal, so most articles are going to play better with a serious independent, DIY ethic. A lot of their articles have a puritanical streak. I do think it’s super cool we’re actually seeing some hunting in this magazine, which is different than when I read it extensively a couple decades ago.

    Petersen doesn’t really say anything about gadgetry Aldo Leopold didn’t 70 years ago (actually he pillages Leopold quite liberally, even outside the quotations, but without the nuance and poetry of Leopold). But I cringe at phrases like “true hunters”, and his blanket derision of all outdoor products. Sure, if you bought every one of these items together it would be outlandish, but most people don’t, and the fact is everything including a self made bow is some step in technology. We came to be predators because of our tool making ability, not our claws or speed, after all. It’s just a matter of degree.

    I do think there is a sliding-scale hierarchy of ethic and aesthetic, but it’s not a clear, straight line. Your point about how technology can aid a cleaner, more humane (and perhaps more ethical) kill illustrates this. While most people would find a guided, baited, fenced elk hunt on 100 acres sub-par, this is a pretty far extreme that’s no more relevant to the average hunter than the guy with the self-made bow. Somewhere between them, we’re going to sort our our personal ethic, and somewhere (hopefully) below that, we make laws to support a bare minimum ethic, which is going to vary depending on conditions. It’s silly for a guy like Peterson to move up that minimum bar to negate anything “below” his own aesthetic. It’s equally unproductive to for any of us say the minimum (legal) bar doesn’t need to be set somewhere. I think he’s just confusing the two. I think you’re totally right in thinking his personal grandstanding can skew the perceptions of the non-hunting public to fit his model, without the knowledge to understand the difference.

  4. NorCal Cazadora on March 14th, 2012 12:11

    The minute you said “David Petersen” I knew where this was going, and agreed before I read what you have to say. (I read anyway, of course.)

    I’ve read Petersen’s work and really appreciate a lot of what he has to say. But I loathe his contention that anyone who doesn’t hunt like he does – like he has the luxury of doing – is morally flawed.

    I’m glad his live-off-the-land schtick worked for him, but many of the rest of us have mortgages, which take a fair amount of time away from hunting as we’d like to.

  5. The Suburban Bushwhacker on March 14th, 2012 12:36


    Tovar really smashed it up didn’t he? I’ve just finished his book and yep its the book all hunting philosophy books are going to be judged by for a long long time.

    “While most people would find a guided, baited, fenced elk hunt on 100 acres sub-par, this is a pretty far extreme that’s no more relevant to the average hunter than the guy with the self-made bow.”
    Well said that man

  6. David on March 14th, 2012 14:39

    Phillip –

    As always your expert analysis give us pause to read, re-read and think about the article. I appreciate your view point and could not agree more with you.

    The attitude of the author is reminiscent of Ted Nugent. Makes many good points but then takes it too far and, in my opinion, ruins the message.

    I would also like to comment on some of the technologies he mentions. I realize the point he is trying to make but being a disabled hunter requires me to use some of these technologies. I need tools like shooting sticks not just to balance my rifle but just to hold it up so I can even get a chance at a shot. So while I realize his comments probably aren’t target at folks like me, it sure makes you wonder when he doesn’t make any distinction.

    At any rate, thanks for the analysis and break down of the article. I appreciate your viewpoint.

  7. JAC on March 14th, 2012 21:52

    Meh. Petersen’s article is so boring I could scarcely bring myself to finish it. He’s a Zen master and we’re all troglodytes. Who cares? Note: if you are a “self-described philosopher,” you’re not.

    On the subject of writers of unsubstantiated pronouncement, I guess I’m the only one to find Tovar Cerulli’s book just about unreadable. I started out wanting to like the book, and did, but it was a chore to finish. I think he should have written a book called “I just really wanted to go hunting” and left Charles Dickens and the citation to uncountable eco-feminists out of it. It feels like he couldn’t decide whether to write a memoir or an academic survey, so just did both.

    Here’s what I mean: Wille, the quasi-mystical, supernaturally-prescient character who so dominates Cerulli’s personal novella, reads like Bagger Vance. That’s distracting. I don’t believe in Willie. More distracting is the manner in which Cerulli salted his book with hundreds of thin references to other people’s thoughts on hunting, sprirituality and just about everything. Pythagoras advocated vegetariainism? That’s fascinating, but Cerulli gives just one paragraph. Ghandi, Bentham,the Dali Lama, and pretty well everyone he cites, famous and obscure, receive the same whispy treatment.

    I could have looked past the flashbulb pops of historical analysis, but I hit the wall in the summation where he talks about a Buddhist meditation on the whole life of food, and proceeds to conflate all sorts of unlikely (to say the least) effects of agriculture with hunting. For instance, in tofu, he sees deer shot in soybean fields. Why does he see that? Does anyone else see that? How are deer being “plugged,” as he writes, integral to tofu? In salad greens he saw a whitetail cut open and dragged as a dark sign to other deer. First, what?? Second, same questions as to tofu. Even in his garden vegetables he sees chopped earthworms, victimized by his shovel. Not integral, not necessary, not an argument.

    Mr. Cerulli is gifted with a talent for introspection and honesty. He clearly has studied a long time and has great breadth of knowledge. He’d have been better off playing to those strengths.

  8. JAC on March 14th, 2012 22:07

    At the risk of saying too much, I just want to support David’s note. Petersen says that, first, animals are owed freedom, and second, they are owed “a quick, humane end, as free as possible from panicked fear and physical suffering.” Unless we can buy great swaths of land, we individually can’t do much to achieve Petersen’s first goal. But, as David does, each of us can avail ourselves of the technology to achieve Petersen’s second goal of a sure shot and the quickest, most humane kill.

  9. Steve on March 15th, 2012 06:58

    Great analysis and I read the article yesterday and didn’t think much of it since I didnt’ get past the first paragraph before I was bored stiff. But now that you brought this up I paid closer attention and I am glad you exposed this ass for what he is. Thanks Phillip!!

  10. Phillip on March 15th, 2012 12:41

    Great comments, all… even you, John. We don’t have to agree on everything.

    Neil, I think you hit on something that sort of bugged me. Petersen is obviously writing to the target audience, so he’s selling a bill of goods that he thinks they’ll appreciate. Home gardens, log cabins, living off the grid, and hunting with a self-bow… fits the demographic fairly well. And maybe he’s judged them right, but in the process he throws the majority of hunters under the bus by “validating” a host of negative stereotypes.

    David, I’m not sure there’s anything particularly “expert” about my analysis. Just spouting opinion. But glad it resonated for you. As far as the use of tools like shooting sticks, I think it would behoove all hunters to use that sort of shooting aid. And honestly, I don’t think it should matter if you have a physical limitation or not… if a tool makes you a more efficient and effective killer (tools won’t make you a better hunter… that’s a behavioral thing), then it has an ethical place.

    While the idea of a predator “owing” its prey any consideration is a little anthropomorphic for my tastes, I don’t think it’s wrong as a human to want to provide the cleanest, quickest, most painless kill possible. Why cause pain if we don’t have to? (Contrary to what some folks may believe, I am human and I do share some of the basic human sensibilities.)

    John, I replied in brief to your comments offline in our email exchange, so I won’t go there now. Overall, for a strongly negative critique, your review is still pretty damned cogent… even if I disagree with pretty much every point you make. But that’s the nature and joy of literary criticism, no? Everybody looks at a thing with different eyes and diverse expectations. I do thank you for sharing your perspective.

  11. Joshua on March 15th, 2012 13:23

    I like him, just like I like all evangelicals. They remind me that there are principles out there, there are universal truths. They also remind me just why I love this country. I may not always agree with them, but I love the fire, I love the desire to live as close to the razor as possible. I also love the reflection they cause within the community, and I love that they make that reflection public.

    Phillip, I’ve got one thing to point out from what you write here. You say: “But for every one of the indolent, unskilled Nimrods out there, there’s a highly skilled counterpart who knows the game and the outdoors as intimately as his own bedroom”.

    By your math, half of the good ones are evened out by half of the bad ones. That doesn’t paint a good picture for hunting, either (not to mention that oftentimes the most malevolent among us, the serial poachers, fit your latter description there).

    I get your point, though. I think the universal ethical truth is out there, I don’t think it’s a personal choice. However, I don’t think any of us know it; I know I don’t. Also, I think a bunch of us are afraid that Mr. Petersen is right, and we doth protest too much.

  12. Phillip on March 15th, 2012 15:31

    Josh, there’s a danger in taking one sentence out of a paragraph. I think I saw some ads for that speedreading class, but I don’t recommend it.

    I didn’t say hunters were equally divided between “indolent nimrods” and skilled hunters. I actually wrote that the extremes offset each other, while the vast majority of hunters fall between those extremes.

    As far as Petersen being “right”. He is. He is right for himself. I expect there are some other people who also feel the same as he does. Nothing wrong with that, unless, as he does, you choose to judge the entire hunting community against your own mores. The argument that one can only be a responsible, respectable hunter by hunting wilderness with a self-bow is simply elitist bullshit.