Why Do We Defend Hunting The Way We Do?

October 7, 2013

My friend, Tovar Cerulli of the Mindful Carnivore blog recently posted a good column in the Missoula Independent.  The piece talked about the familiar “grip and grin” photo (also known as the “hero shot”), where successful hunters pose with their dead quarry.  In his column, Tovar applies his fairly unique perspective to the interpretation of these photos… particularly the interpretation of people who don’t like hunting.  He writes:

Such images, like words, are symbols to which we each ascribe significance. You and I can look at the same photograph, or read the same story, without perceiving the same meanings. If you are the hunter, the image will probably seem positive. But not necessarily.

And the point, of course, is that while a picture may be worth a thousand words, sometimes the only person who can supply those words is the person looking at it.  As someone who often takes and shares photos of my “prizes”,  I’m well aware that there are plenty of critics out there who don’t recognize the pride and happiness of a successful hunt, but instead see the cruel, brutishness of a killer gloating over his victim.

Of course, what I usually like about Tovar is that, instead of wrapping up his point with some one-size-fits-all answer, he puts the burden of understanding back on the reader.  It’s not about the right way to see a grip-and-grin picture, but about considering different ways to see it.  It’s about understanding that we don’t all share the same values, and that what I may see as perfectly normal, others may find abhorrent.  And vice versa.

That’s not the end of it, though.  It’s not even what I set out to write about, so consider most of the previous as a bonus… as a prequel to the main event.

In the comments to Tovar’s piece, I engaged in a sort of brief dialogue with Mary, a commenter with a clear animal rights bent.  The essence of her comments and responses was an effort to validate her preconceived notions of hunters’ motivations… namely, that we hunt because we get a thrill out of killing.  She consistently rejected suggestions that there’s more to the hunt than the kill, insisting that she only wanted to understand why or how we could justify that with ourselves.  She even offered assistance in the way of trotting out time-honored, enhanced psychobabble explanations such as the search for paternal acceptance, or sexual insecurity/gratification.  Of course, sticking so tightly to your prejudices is a general barrier to understanding, but that didn’t seem to deter her.

After our initial exchange, I recognized the old pattern and knew that the best I could hope for was to offer counterpoints for other readers.  There was never any hope of making inroads to her bias, and in fact, she finally put the truth right on the table… all she wanted was for someone to tell her what she wanted to hear… that hunters are emotionally handicapped, bloodthirsty brutes.  With that, I declared impasse, and exited the conversation.

Someone else picked it up though, and tried again to “explain” with a reasonable, personal perspective that seemed to challenge her premise.  In this person’s case, he (or she) is an adult-onset hunter (a Tovar term) who came to hunting late in life, ostensibly to take personal responsibility for the death of the animals that fed his family.  For him, the kill is an emotionally trying experience.  While I think that’s an essentially honest (albeit somewhat naive) rationale, it’s certainly widely shared, especially among the newer crop of hunting apologists.  Mary soundly rejects this position, though, with the inference that this is a dishonest justification used to displace the reality that he doesn’t have to do it (kill or eat meat), so on some subliminal level he actually enjoys killing.

But then she closes her comment with a statement that hit me with a flash of reason.

If it is a burden to do this killing, which for the morally conscious among you, it appears to be, why choose to do it when it is strictly a choice you have power over? I think the distaste for my comments here is the sense of discomfort that question raises.

That is a good point, and I think it’s more right than even Mary realizes.

I think that, for most hunters, the “rightness” or “wrongness” of hunting is never really a question.  It’s not true for all, of course, as folks like Tovar clearly illustrate, but; people like Tovar are really the outliers.  I believe that the majority of hunters just hunt, it’s what we do, and we don’t spend much time justifying it to ourselves or to anyone else.  And it is this thinking that challenges us when someone like Mary steps up and asks, “why?”  It makes anyone uncomfortable to have their basic values questioned.

There’s a fundamental problem with the challenge, though.  It’s predicated on commonality… on the notion that one hunter can answer for all.

The truth is, we hunt for all sorts of reasons.  I could spend all day laying out my personal rationalizations, but that doesn’t erase or change the reasons that other hunters are out there and my reality may or may not apply.  The tighter I weave my own story, the more I exclude anyone who doesn’t fit the narrative.

See where this goes?

Internet ArgumentsI’ve lost count over the years of people I’ve talked to who oppose hunting on various moral bases, but at the end of the conversation will say something like, “well, if more hunters were like you, I’d feel better about hunting.”

What did I resolve?  What about hunters who are not like me?  Did I just draw a line and push them over the cliff?

The truth is, these debates (especially online) are seldom productive.  Folks like Mary bring their entire premise on the basis of emotion and a core system of beliefs.  It’s not something that can be measured or quantified, much less successfully debated.  The analogy I’ve always relied on here is religion.    Laying out your own reasons for being a Catholic isn’t likely to make a Rabbi hang up his yarmulke.

And that is the true source of discomfort when hunters are confronted with arguments about the “rightness” of killing animals.  It’s an antithetical affront to our core beliefs.   It’s an argument in which, if you’re wrong, you’re absolutely wrong.  And few of us are honestly comfortable with absolutes.



17 Responses to “Why Do We Defend Hunting The Way We Do?”

  1. JAC on October 7th, 2013 17:22

    I can’t remember if I’m always comfortable with absolutes, or if I never am.

    I really like it when you tell stories, but these philosophy pieces are my favorites. Although, I can’t help but feel a little wounded that people with my philosophical bent are hung with the adjective “naive.”

    I understand that all meat is a dead animal and so, it’s naive in the sense that it’s all blood and death, to elevate one meal over another. But I nevertheless think that hunting is a sophisticated response to the animal and human suffering necessitated by the efficiencies of factory farms. Or maybe it’s a sophomoric response. I just erased a couple paragraphs because now that I think about it, I can’t absolutely say.

  2. Phillip on October 8th, 2013 08:27

    Thanks, John.

    Anytime I write something like this, I think of it sort of like a centerpiece. I stick it together and put it on the table for a while to see how it looks. Maybe it’s fine, and maybe it needs a little adjustment… add a couple of dried wildflowers here… a pine bough arranged just so… the comments are the busy fingers of the critic.

    I know anytime someone uses the word, “naive”, there’s an implied tone of patronization. (Or is it inferred?) Kind of puts one on the defensive to be referred to that way, and I get that. I won’t say it wasn’t intentional.

    The point was, however, not to insult but to suggest that while taking responsibility for killing one’s own meat is honorable enough, it’s not really that big a step. I won’t say this is always the case, but there’s a sense I get when I read this argument that the person is somehow absolving himself from responsibility… as if the meat industry alone is the source of our disconnection from nature and the blood-soaked cost of living on earth. The truth is that meat is only one of many ways that death is carried out in our name(citizens of the civilized society). If one really wanted to take that blood back onto his own hands, then it would mean absolute self-reliance… and a surrender of the modern luxuries that most of us so take for granted. Of course that’s hardly realistic. So killing your own meat is a symbolic gesture. That’s OK for what it is, but; let’s not make it out to be more than it is.

    But the reason I make this distinction is in the context of the bigger discussion with the Marys of the world. And Mary is certainly a prevalent archetype. The ideas have been around for centuries, if not longer. And the logic is sound enough if you can accept the basic precepts… that we should afford non-human animals equal status with ourselves, that they should have the same rights and freedoms to live without human-imposed harm or control. Hence, meat is murder. Etc.

    From that perspective, it’s certainly not hard to understand why industrialized slaughter is “bad”. All those animal lives reduced to commodities from birth to death and treated with a bare modicum of humanity… it’s a bitter pill even for the coldest heart to contemplate. It may be harder to see how your choice to kill your own meat, especially wild meat, is as bad or worse. But consider. The cattle, hogs, and chickens are still being killed for you anyway, so your choice to hunt doesn’t really absolve you of anything. And since the meat is already being provided by the commercial abbatoir, you don’t have to hunt for it. You do it voluntarily and (here’s the stinger) for recreation. You go out and try to kill animals for fun.

    The core component here is the death of the animal by human hands, for human uses. When you peel away all the layers, this is what’s left. You can construct degrees of “bad”, but the bottom line for Mary is the dead animals. If you don’t remove that constant from the equation, you can’t solve it. No amount of rationalization on our part can stand against it.

  3. Neil H on October 7th, 2013 22:07

    I’m not surprised. I looked back into her comment history, and her comments followed suit with a previous article. You are correct that her narrative is complete and does not require further input. The certainty with which people know the motivations and feelings of others pertaining to issues they have never experienced, feelings that are often ambivalent to the actual people in question, seems to be a prevalent in the majority of people. This is of course the source of a good many of the ills of humanity.

  4. Holly Heyser on October 8th, 2013 07:46

    I don’t argue to change the minds of the Marys out there – I argue for the benefit of the wobblers who may not even be commenting, and I can honestly say I’ve personally changed a lot of those minds (some online, some in person).

    If you know anything about politics, you know those are the minds that matter on election day, despite the fact that each side spends much of its time keeping its fanatical base engaged and active.

    Your comments on that thread, Phillip, did their job – you put the ideas of a moderate, thoughtful hunter out there, where they will now stand for quite some time in contrast to Mary’s absolutes.

  5. Josh on October 8th, 2013 07:57

    To Mary’s objection: there is a difference between something being sad and something being morally wrong. Death is sad, but because it cannot be avoided, it cannot be wrong.

    Our inappropriate muddling of sad and wrong just might be a cornerstone of modern society.

    Your point about the hunt is spot-on. We may analyze or reflect on”hunting”, but much less so on the hunt. Of course, not everybody…

  6. ian on October 8th, 2013 15:30

    ‘newer crop of hunting apologists’ — great term, Phillip!

    My good friend sent me a ‘grip-and-grin’ photo of a gorgeous blacktail he got in the B zone in CA this weekend. He has hunted 20 days in the last 2 seasons, and worked himself silly for that buck. I see on his face such a wide range of emotions; relief, gratitude, excitement, joy. But when I showed it to someone at work I’m pretty sure they just saw the camo and ‘that grin.’ I tried to explain — he’s only eating meat he kills himself these days so it was a big deal to add this to his freezer. Still, that camo + smile turned em off, I could tell.

    One of the first things I did after I got news of this buck was scour maps of the Covelo area, researching the roads, land ownership, etc. Just trying to ‘be there’ in my mind’s eye. Came across several posts about the declining number of deer in the area, and I have to say I’ve been thinking about that all day. About 3 weeks ago Tom Stienstra wrote about the issue (in the Chron I think) and it made everything complicated in my mind. There are definitely more cougars with the hunting ban, apparently more bears, and then pigs that will eat a fawn. Plus a shit ton of hunters (maybe it just seems that way now that I can see all the Instagrams of the blacktails flooding in).

    I guess I’m left with the hope that the DFG is doing a good job managing this finite resource — deer. And an appreciation from what a complex computation it must be. My guess is that they aren’t working with a huge budget these days. And my role in taking a deer out of the A zone this year contributes one number.

    I thought I was pretty ok with letting the lions run free in Cali, but now the picture seems muddier. But what’s clear is that a mountain lion and I definitely want the same thing. Well 5,000 mountain lions and hundreds of thousands of hunters.

    Anyway, just wanted to drop by to appreciate the post, and to offer my thoughts about killing an animal that’s: native, desired by many creatures, and from what I know — not doing so well. For me the moral issue is more about the health of the overall ecosystem. And I don’t know how anyone can really calculate it.

  7. Neil on October 8th, 2013 22:10

    I think it’s pretty normal to have a multitude of overlapping feelings about killing an animal. Exactly in what proportions is likely to vary. Feelings I don’t need to explain to most here. Which is why I always find it amusing when they are completely clear to people who have no such experience. Still, within their absolutist values, there isn’t really an argument.

    As Holly said, responding to such people in a public forum isn’t necessarily about them. There are a good many people in the world who either haven’t thought of hunting at all, or have a cartoon character version of it, and could be nudged either way by either a persuasive argument by one of us- or by ‘Mary’. I’ve also had a large amount of success changing people’s views about hunting. I’ve even had a pretty good number interested in starting. But short of that it couldn’t hurt to have a few more allies or at least open minded people when the next ballot initiative rolls around.

    Ian, in my opinion the mountain lion issue demonstrates the flaws in management by ballot or legislation versus biologists and science. We’ve developed quite a habit of having the legislature do an end run around the fish and game commission here in California lately. It’s not a good precedent and is likely to continue to have less that desirable results. Any effort to combat that is worthwhile.

  8. ian on October 8th, 2013 22:11

    Upon further consideration I think I’m struggliing a little with the pig v deer thing. Whenever I’ve killed a pig (many in the last 5 yrs) I’ve felt like I was doing the planet a favor. Can’t say I feelthe same about the blacktail deer. Maybe if I were hunting whitetails in the suburbs of Philadelphia I wouldn’t over think on this

  9. ian on October 8th, 2013 22:16

    And yes, totally, Neil, you put it well. Science should be before the ballot (aka people standing I n front of Safeway)!

  10. Phillip on October 9th, 2013 07:57

    Great conversation, guys.

    Ian, it is a little complex when we start to think, really think, about our role in wildlife management. For ages there’s been this rote argument that hunting is necessary because it keeps wildlife from becoming overpopulated. But that’s only partially true. In some places, like CA, it’s probably got more to do with funding the DFW than it does with managing the herds (still a justifiable cause, as those fees go a long way in protection and conservation of natural resources). There’s a balancing act between providing hunting opportunity to keep the fees coming in and managing a struggling resource. Real wildlife management in CA is practically a lost cause, in large part (as you mentioned) because the state’s game laws are largely driven by the ballot box. A core example is the lack of much-needed antlerless deer hunts in some zones. The biologists recommend them, but because local jurisdictions get the veto power, they don’t happen… and that’s all because of a fear of public backlash (a story that goes all the way back to the 1950s). As a result, the buck:doe ratio is seriously out of balance.

    Lions are another issue altogether, although the root cause is the same… management by public opinion (emotion) rather than biology. There is a sound argument that lions were never “endangered” in CA. That myth came out of a well-orchestrated PR campaign that succeeded as much because the research was underfunded (they never actually completed an accurate count of CA mountain lions) and because of the threat of litigation under the ESA. Reagan didn’t sign the lion hunting moratorium because he loved the big kitties… he signed it to save the state a costly legal battle. Now I’d say it was probably good to end the bounty hunting program, but to pass a law that completely keeps the state’s wildlife management agency from managing lions where they need to be managed (e.g. the bighorn sheep near Tahoe) was a damned serious mistake.

    As far as that more personal perspective about taking out a native species that might not be doing so well… I think I share that with you. I also share the general idea that, if it comes down to competition between me and a native predator for resources, I tend to give the nod to the predator. So if deer populations are down and a healthy (keyword) population of lions and bears needs it to stay healthy, then cut my seasons or my limits and let the predators eat. But that needs to be tempered with the pragmatic knowledge that there’s no longer any such thing as “natural balance”. You can’t just let the predators go unchecked, or we’ll see a new set of problems… beginning with a decline of prey species and ending with an increase in human/predator conflicts.

    There was a bill floated in CA a little while back that would have taken some of the wildlife management decision-making away from the public/elected officials, and put it squarely in the hands of the state’s wildlife management agency. It didn’t get a lot of notice in the public, and I don’t think it ever even got out of committee. But that’s exactly the kind of thing that CA and several other states needs to put in place. And the hunting community should be vocally and actively pushing for it. Especially in CA, I think this is going to prove to be far more critical than fighting the lead ammo bans.

  11. The Suburban Bushwacker on October 10th, 2013 07:35


    “well, if more hunters were like you, I’d feel better about hunting.”

    yep been there and had that conversation. Its recently occurred to me that we’ve got this whole debate arse over elbow, Anti’s don’t dislike ‘hunting’ they dislike ‘hunters’ and not actually knowing any hunters they have to settle for disliking the ‘hunter’ they imagine.
    At the end of a prolonged wildlife management debate with my aunt she said ‘ well as long as you’re not out there just blasting away’ and it hit me that’s what she imagines hunting to be, she has no idea of the actual mechanics of it all, she thinks its exciting, all action stuff like a shoot-out in the movies. She has no idea about the freezing hours in the highseat, the way we have all the time in the world to survey the scene and chose an animal to shoot or choose not to shoot, to her its all ‘blasting away’.

  12. Phillip on October 11th, 2013 10:34

    Sten, you hit on something I’ve tried to capture and write about so many times… but it never quite comes out.

    There is this image that non-hunters have, in which hunters kill piles of animals everytime we go into the field. Coupled with the image is the misapprehension that we often just kill and leave them, hence the surprise when they find out that we eat the dead animals. It’s a tough nut to crack, and it’s something that we should all keep in mind whenever we discuss hunting with non-hunters, and moreso when we debate with antis. They don’t really know what’s going on out there, but they’ve got some pretty solidly formed ideas. (Maybe there’s a post forming in the muddy recesses of my mind right now…)

    It’s not that the impression is completely misplaced, which is something else we should keep in mind. For every quiet deer hunt that no one but the deer hunter witnesses, there’s someone out there shooting prairie dogs, pigeons, or rats. Over in your part of the world are the driven hunts and the aptly-named, shooting parties. My mom, despite several generations of hunting tradition in our family, still thinks of it that way. The only hunts she’s ever really witnessed have been dove hunts out in the pasture, during which we do, truly, “blast away”. So there’s a specific reality to support the general preconception. For years I think she was convinced that the only reason we usually came home empty-handed from deer hunts was because they were really just an excuse for my dad to go drink and play cards with his buddies. She reasoned that if he actually hunted, he’d bring home deer on every trip. She simply didn’t know any better.

    We have to remember, when we have the hunting discussion, that we should really get it down to the ground level first, before we start tossing in the esoterica.

  13. JAC on October 10th, 2013 09:40

    Glad to see this thread is still rolling. Phillip: I don’t know if the animals are, in fact, already being killed for me, for the same reason that I don’t think ocean trawlers are damaging the ocean ecosystems for me. This is because I don’t create the hole in the supermarket display that needs to be refilled. If I won’t buy the product, am I complicit in its creation? I suppose there is some gelatin in something I buy, so I am in some way participating in the human and animal suffering caused by factory farming. But there isn’t, and I submit, shouldn’t be a bright line rule around this. There ought to be a continuum and by hunting, I am striving to reach one end, the end I am morally okay with.

    Matthey Scully has an article up at NRO arguing against factory farms. He’s whole-heartedly religious so, for me, parts of the article were hard not to skim, but it’s an extraordinary read. His solution is veganism. He is, in many ways, the platonic form of Mary.

  14. Phillip on October 11th, 2013 11:33

    John, when I speak of the perspective in which the animals are still being killed for you, I’m speaking of “you” as the nameless, faceless public… not the individual who has decided to make some ethical point. The meat industry isn’t going to differentiate whether you eat hamburgers or not. You have money in your pocket so you are a potential consumer.

    It doesn’t invalidate your ethical choice… for you as an individual. It’s obviously important to you, and I think we should definitely live according to our convictions (a conviction I generally share). But the relevance of your choice decays with every point of separation between you and the segment of society that doesn’t see as you do.

    Of course, the bigger point is that while you may try to use your own example to enhance a Mary’s view of YOU as one individual hunter, how does it impact the bigger picture of all hunters? What about the guys who love the hunt but aren’t about to forego their fat beefsteaks, or tender chicken?

    Almost every single time I read or listen to debates about hunting, the arguments invariably drill down to the individual participant’s practices, ethics, or point of view. The conversations become increasingly exclusive, both of other hunters’ ethics and methods, and even of the specific game (as if no one in these debates hunts less cuddly stuff like predators, varmints, or birds). It’s concentric, exclusive rings… narrowing down to the individual. And at that point, the debate is lost isn’t it? You’re no longer defending the hunt, you’re defending yourself.

    At the end, the basis of the Marys philosophy is that it is wrong for us to kill animals for our own uses… regardless of our ethical rationalizations. In your eyes, your choice to hunt instead of feeding the industrial abbatoir absolves you of a greater evil, but in Mary’s eyes you are no different than the guy with the captive bolt gun, or for that matter, the executive who profits from the killing floor.

    Naive (Adj.): Unaffected simplicity of nature. Absence of artificiality.

    It’s not an insult.

  15. Suburban Bushwacker on October 11th, 2013 10:41

    It had only just occurred to me that that’s what’s happening, now the whole debate looks totally different.

  16. JAC on October 12th, 2013 08:25

    Sometimes the internet’s imprecision is my favorite part. Or maybe it’s my imprecision.

    I had a girlfriend a long time ago who thought she could argue from the specific to the general. She was the specific. Personal pronouns were her toys. It was maddening. And it looks like I did the same thing. I didn’t mean to.

    Like your use of “you”, I was using “I” to demonstrate, not what I do, which is necessarily doomed to mediocrity, but to articulate what a set of the population is doing. That is to say that I am not the only person who read Bottomfeeder or Mad Cowboy or Omnivore’s Dilema. Lots of people did. And by making the choice to eat less meat, or no meat, or to hunt their meat, people can opt out of an economic system geared entirely to fill holes in supermarket displays.

    I will endeavor to abandon the royal “we” and the indiscriminate “I” when what I really mean is the universal you. The same as you when you use you.

  17. Phillip on October 13th, 2013 14:30

    I’m OK with that, as long as you (John) recognize that you are part of that universal you, and not apart from it.

    But more seriously, the bigger point is that none of this is supposed to be personal. If we’re debating a Mary, or if we’re debating one another, we have to remember that there is a bigger picture, and our little piece of it really isn’t the most relevant component… unless, of course, you (generic you) believe your way is the only right way.