Why?

As years advance and hair recedes, issues about which I held strong opinions in my youth increasingly bear re-examination.


Among those many questions is why I hunt and fish. After all, I do not need to harvest game to feed my family, so long as the American agriculture industry exists. This discussion initially arose from an evening stroll with my bride, who has a way of drawing out the deep thoughts long hidden in my soul.

My initial reply was that I feel a connection when I actively participate in nature that I do not get when I am simply an observer, as in hiking or camping. I love non-consumptive uses of nature as well, including camping, hiking, photography, etc.. However when I take on the role of the apex predator, something changes. There is a level of focus not experienced by merely observing nature. Those animals or fish that I pursue, I study. I know their habits, their needs, their prey and their place in the web of life. I will also be honest enough to say that I struggle with the lethality of hunting. I know it is part of the hunt, but taking an animal’s life to me is not something to celebrate. I am not one who fist pumps and whoops after taking a life of an animal. I still feel sadness from their death, even after all these years of hunting.

I recalled hearing of a book written by outdoor Ted Kerasote entitled “Bloodties, Nature, Culture and the Hunt”. The book explores some of the paradoxes of hunting by examining the simple question of why. In order to better re-examine my reasons for hunting, I bought the book to probe my own thoughts on the subject.

The author takes an interesting approach to this book. He divides the volume into three sections. In the first section, he retells of living with subsistence hunters in Greenland, going with them on hunts for seal, narwhal, and polar bear. For these native people, life has changed little for hundreds if not thousands of years. They hunt for food and sell hides or other artifacts for money. Men still use dogsleds to hunt on the ice.

In the second section, Kerasote travels to the opposite end of the hunting spectrum, with wealthy trophy hunters. These hunters need neither food nor money from the animals they pursue. They seek fame, and have fortunes. The specific hunters the author travelled with are on a quest to win the Weatherby Award, given each year to the best trophy hunter in the world. To qualify, one has to have taken a trophy animal from each species listed in the SCI (Safari Club International) book. The minimum number of animals is somewhere around 160, though most of the hunters have taken many more. These are international quests, so travelling to each continent is required. Registering your trophy in costs thousands of dollars; these hunters have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to have their name in the book, and to be in the running for the award. They justify their actions by revealing how all the fees they pay advance conservation for the species they pursue, and in some cases are the main cash flow for locals.

In the third section, Kerasote meets with Wayne Pacelle, founder of the anti hunting group “The Fund for Animals”, and explores where the radical animal rights activist position arises. He then examines his own life and reveals the wrestling he has done, and continues to do with choices he makes.

At one point in his life, Kerasote was so repulsed by the violence of hunting that he quit and became a vegetarian, wishing to do no harm to nature by his existence. However, he began to hunt again after a conversation with a Buddhist monk, who told him that simply by living we impact nature. That for one life to continue, another must end. Our goal should be to do as little harm as possible. Each death is significant, and therefore the death of a single large animal that feeds many is morally better than killing many small animals that feed few. Kerasote did some investigation on his own that showed that becoming a vegetarian in western culture had a much more detrimental impact on nature than being a hunter.


The issue with vegetarianism today is with what Kerasote calls fossil fuel vegetarians. The food they consume supports a huge agriculture industry that uses fossil fuels to power tractors, plows, combines, and pumps to produce the food. More fossil fuels are used for plastics for packaging and petrochemicals for fertilizer and pesticides. Then they use yet more fuel to move the food from the bioregion where it was grown to the grocery stores where it is purchased.
Add to that, the number of animals and native plants displaced and killed each year by farming practices, and in reality more animal lives are lost to a vegetarian culture than by one who consumes foods (including meat) from his own bioregion. He actually mentions that someone has designed a process for determining the fossil fuel impact of various food choices, and can express it numerically. The impact for hunting and consuming an elk that provided 150 pounds of meat is almost 1/4 the environmental impact of an equivalent caloric amount provided by a vegetarian diet that requires foods to be imported from outside the bioregion.

Is this a practical possibility for those living in urban environments? Probably not. And no, Kerasote isn’t naïve enough to think that his ruminations will change how our culture behaves. But do our individual choices have to be made on the basis that they make a difference to anyone but ourselves? Isn’t living according to our conscience one of the truest freedoms we can afford?
So where does that leave me? I probably and not going to take a Thoreauvian path and live in a cabin in the woods completely self sufficient, though some of that does appeal to me. But can I justify my hunting and fishing habits? Why do I participate in those activities?

Simple questions often are unanswerable. Or perhaps it is that the answers continue to change with our experiences. I used to hunt as a way to spend time with my dad, trying to earn a commission as a man. It was my connection to the land and to my ancestors. I didn’t question the morality of it. It was seen as an honorable pastime by everyone I knew.

Today I hunt for many reasons…a connection to the past, the love of nature, camaraderie of friends, and as a way to test my skill. The procurement of high quality protein is certainly a welcome benefit of a successful hunt. But the connection is deeper than that. It is spiritual.

Are those enough reasons to justify taking an animal’s life? As Kerasote ponders…”Can a cultural being ethically participate in these natural cycles, cycles that may entail taking the lives of individual animals who are as bright, as bold, and tenderly aware of sunshine and storms as we are? Can one be both cultural and natural?” A good question…and one I will continue to ponder.

Tight Lines

7 Comments

Filed under ethics, hunting

7 Responses to Why?

  1. And I thought all along that fishing and hunting were just your excuse for all the camoflage you own and your desire to keep punching the man-card. You mean it’s not?

  2. In part, maybe 😉

    I think it would be interesting for your vegetarian daughter to read the book and see what she thinks. Interesting to consider that vegetarianism in the western cultures is more damaging to animals than eating meat of animals raised in that bioregion because of the fossil fuel and collateral damage issues.
    For those who are vegetarians for dietary or religious reasons, it probably is a moot point. But for those who do it out of a sense that they are helping preserve nature…it is somewhat counter intuitive.

  3. Have you read Wild at Heart by John Eldredge? He talks about how Adam was created in the wilderness, in contrast to Eve, who was created in the garden. You blogs always remind me of that 🙂

  4. Anna, yes I read it years ago, but forgot that line. the booke overall resonated with me though. Perhaps its time for a re-read.
    Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  5. When asked what the Sioux will do when the buffalo are gone, Sitting Bull reportedly said, “When the buffalo are gone we will hunt mice, for we are hunters.”

    Many of us who hunt can strongly relate to those words. Mark pegged it correctly. It’s a spiritual thing – something that is deep down in our souls.

    Certainly, we can be conditioned to behave in a manner that is contrary to our natures and I will not deny that fathers, uncles, brothers, cousins, and neighbors can strongly influence a boy and what he becomes. However, I for one grew up in a family that didn’t hunt. No one pressured me to become what God intended me to be. It came naturally and inevitably.

    Unlike Mr. Kerasote, I do not regret what I am and run from it. Instead, I accept it without remorse. Nor do I regret that I am the one who gets up in the middle of the night to investigate strange noises or let the dog out. It is just simply another one of the roles that God intended for me.

    I hunt not to kill, provide my family with food, experience God’s creation, or to put trophies on the wall. I hunt because I am a hunter.

  6. When asked what the Sioux will do when the buffalo are gone, Sitting Bull reportedly said, “When the buffalo are gone we will hunt mice, for we are hunters.”

    Many of us who hunt can strongly relate to those words. Mark pegged it correctly. It’s a spiritual thing – something that is deep down in our souls.

    Certainly, we can be conditioned to behave in a manner that is contrary to our natures and I will not deny that fathers, uncles, brothers, cousins, and neighbors can strongly influence a boy and what he becomes. However, I for one grew up in a family that didn’t hunt. No one pressured me to become what God intended me to be. It came naturally and inevitably.

    Unlike Mr. Kerasote, I do not regret what I am and run from it. Instead, I accept it without remorse. Nor do I regret that I am the one who gets up in the middle of the night to investigate strange noises or let the dog out. It is just simply another one of the roles that God intended for me.

    I hunt because I am a hunter.

  7. Read the book first, then decide is Kerasote is running from who he is.

    On the contrary, rather than defaulting to the “I am who I am” position, he asked the question “why am I who I am?” His answer may not be the same as yours, and that’s OK.

    He also asked himself why he became a vegetarian, and when he did, and did the research, he found that vegatatianism was the wrong choice for him because it is more detrimental to the eco system than being a hunter.

    My point is, we should ask ourselves why we are hunters, vegatarians, Democrats, Republicans, Christians, or Atheists, or whatever because I think too many of us live lives that are on auto-pilot, and we adopt positions without examining them first.

    As a hunter, I believe my ethics come from knowing why I hunt. To me, that is critical.

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