A veteran hunter and nature writer shares his belief that traditional hunting of wild meat draws us closer to nature and is a physical and intellectual challenge that fulfills one of our fundamental instincts.
Self-described "campfire philosopher" David Petersen is a former editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS. He is the author of nine books, including the 20th anniversary edition of "Racks: A Natural History of Antlersand the Animals That Wear Them." David and his wife, Caroline, live in a self-built cabin in the Rocky Mountains, where they grow and hunt their food.
PHOTO: DAVID PETERSEN
David Petersen has a long history with MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. He is the former Western Editor, and built his Colorado cabin from an early set of our building plans for a pole barn. He first met Edward Abbey when he interviewed him for the magazine. Check out his 9 wonderful books at David Petersen Books.
The out-of-doors is our true ancestral estate. For a mere five thousand years we have grubbed in the soil and laid brick upon brick to build the cities; but for a million years before that we lived the leisurely, free and adventurous life of hunters and gatherers. How can we pluck that deep root of feeling from the racial consciousness? Impossible!
— Edward Abbey
As one who makes no secret of his life preferences, I am often asked why I prefer to eat wild meat almost to the exclusion of domestic. It’s a fair question, to which I hope I have fair answers — beginning with health and nutrition.
By any comparison with the factory-produced, chemical-drenched, fat-laden pseudo-meat that too many Americans grow obese and sick from eating today, wild meat — fish, fowl or red — is brilliantly natural, inimitably healthy and morally superior. Wild game is the meat that made us human. Best of all, we must hunt in order to have it. The alleged “wild game” sold in some restaurants is in fact the comparatively flaccid flesh of captive wild animals and has the same culinary relationship to true wild meat as farmed salmon does to the genuine free-swimming creature.
And — this is my apologia — if we hunt with gratitude and reverence, we gradually acquire a personally meaningful love not only for the act of traditional hunting and the meat it procures, but for the animals we hunt as well.
Baloney, say hunting’s harshest critics. How can one who kills for “fun” feel compassion for his prey, the victims of the hunt?
To this emotionally charged yet seemingly reasonable criticism, I respond with a question of my own. Which would you rather be: a factory pig in a wire-floored cage whose neighbor in the next-door cage chews off your tail in frustration (for these are sentient beings), and you his; a castrated steer standing knee-deep in feedlot manure, being artificially fattened for undignified and panicked mass slaughter; a production-line chicken whose beak has been burned off to keep you from pecking your mates to death ... or a deer, elk, turkey, or anything truly wild: born free, living and eventually dying where and as you lived, taken down by tooth and claw or winter’s cold white fangs or, yes, given a swift wild death by a well-placed arrow or bullet sent by a true hunter, one who cares about wildlife and its dwindling wild world and who isn’t merely killing for ego and antlers and who gratefully and humbly consumes your flesh? Forced to the choice — domestic or wild — which would you rather be, in death as well as life? Speaking to my fellow carnivores, I ask which is the greater “cruelty”: production-line domestication and mass slaughter, or wildness and fair-chase hunting?
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.
Truth is, neither nature nor evolution is motivated — much less guided — by a sense of “kindness to animals.” Life on Earth could not exist without predation, and predation is not pretty. Given today’s absence of large predators from most of North America, if hunting were banned or unwisely restricted, rather than improving the welfare of wildlife as some imagine, we would see rapid overpopulation and its horrific effects, including epidemics of contagious diseases, overgrazing of habitat, destruction of agricultural crops and, in the bitter end, mass starvation.
For those unfamiliar with the classic Aldo Leopold essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” in it the famous conservationist examined nature’s fundamental “what goes around comes around” ethic. The essay is included in his must-read memoir, A Sand County Almanac. In the essay, Leopold recalls an experiment conducted in the early 20th century at Grand Canyon National Park, in which wildlife managers reasoned that if all the large predators were eliminated, the local deer population would become more abundant, to the delight of hunters and other humans. A Draconian predator-control campaign was launched, and the deer population expanded as predicted. Before long, there were so many deer that they “ate themselves out of house and home,” resulting not only in a population crash but in long-term habitat destruction through overgrazing. The point being: Predation is necessary for the maintenance of a balanced and healthy ecosystem.
Done right, the traditional hunting and killing of wild game is as natural and moral as having sex (also an unpopular activity in some circles). Because the dying is visible and the blood is literally on the hunter’s hands, hunting demands an incomparably greater connection to the reality of the lives and deaths of food animals than does a thoughtless trip to the supermarket for “meat products.”
“Daddy,” a friend’s young son recently asked, “where did this chicken we’re eating come from?”
“Uh …” my bushwhacked friend stuttered, “from a farm, I guess,” though he knew that was a cop-out. “As soon as he’s old enough to understand,” my friend assured me, “I’ll set the boy straight on how food works these days.”
When I was in grade school, back mid-century, a normal part of elementary education was a field trip to a slaughterhouse. Although an ugly and emotional experience, it was pregnant with life lessons. By comparison, today’s lawsuit-shy schools don’t want our tender kinder to experience such a gory reality check. And commercial stockyards and slaughterhouses have learned better than to spill their bloody guts in public.
In making honest, moral judgments about the getting of our daily meat, the first question we must ask ourselves is, “What do we owe to the animals we eat, if anything?” Many Americans today, responding with their purchases, reply with disinterest. At the opposite extreme, many animal-rights zealots howl, “Leave the animals entirely alone; they are exactly like us!”
As I see it, the disinterested response of most consumers is willfully ignorant and immoral — an entire society with its collective head buried in the sand — while the extreme animal-rights activist is biologically ignorant and, like most extremists, emotionally clouded and intellectually inept.
To both extremes, here is what I say: First, we owe the animals we consume, at the least, the freedom to exercise their bodies and basic natural instincts. Pigs need to root and wallow in dirt and mud. Poultry need to peck for bugs in the dust and stretch their wings at will. Cattle need to graze freely and then lie in the shade and chew their cud. Game-farm elk and deer need to be set free, as they suffer greatly from captivity, as would we.
Both eating and “hunting” (in fact, executions of disoriented animals) farmed wildlife are ethically indefensible.
Second, we owe the animals we eat a quick, humane end, as free as possible from panicked fear and physical suffering, both of which, in addition to their cruelty, can biochemically taint the meat. It is common knowledge among hunters that if an animal is wounded and does not die promptly, its meat will be tainted, more or less, with adrenaline. The more the animal runs and panics, the stronger the resultant whang.
In both of these foundational measures of our moral duty to sentient food sources — the exercise of basic natural instincts and a humane death — fair-chase hunting of free-roaming wild game is hands-down superior to the industrial flesh factories and gory charnel houses where animal blood runs so deep that workers must wear rubber boots.
None of this is to imply that contemporary hunting, across the board, is morally lily-white. Much is revealed about individual hunters by the tools they choose to carry afield and the strategies they employ. Hunters differ according to the ethics we embrace or ignore, how we define hunting “success,” how we think and feel about the creatures we hunt, and how we talk about it all to others. Hunters are just people, bad as well as good. Consequently, it’s entirely logical to ask why any feeling person hunts today given that it’s no longer necessary for our physical survival. Put this question to the average well-intentioned hunter, and he predictably will trot out such pragmatic motivations as meat for the table, but also such ancillary benefits as mental and physical challenge, adventure, trophies and the companionship of other hunters.
In my mind, such “reasons” as these for hunting are merely enjoyable byproducts of the hunt, which, taken collectively, make it “fun.” But let’s take it another step to ask why we find wild meat, big antlers, personal challenge, outdoor adventure, campfire companionship, crisp autumn sunrises and stinky elk wallows so viscerally exciting as to compel some 15 percent of the (largely urban) American population to re-experience them year after year, often at considerable cost in money, time and energy.
As Edward Abbey — who was not a hunter — noted, the tenacious human urge to hunt is positive instinct, both physical and cultural, arising from the deepest primitive core of our species’ collective memory — a genetic predisposition often sublimated by civilized life yet still alive within the collective omnivorous heart of humanity.
And the flip side of this coin — a biological fact that some of hunting’s critics fail to acknowledge — is that a complementary need to be hunted is built into prey species. Without the continuation of the physical and mental exercise necessitated by predation and evasion, our spectacular prey species, so beautifully sculpted by the artful knife of natural selection, would soon devolve into mere shadows of their exquisite wild selves.
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?
In the end, I eat wild meat because I believe it’s the healthy choice for a natural omnivore, spiritually as well as physically. And I am proud of procuring that wild meat myself, no middlemen needed or wanted, thank you — keeping alive ancient skills that were part of the evolution of our unique species through thousands of generations, relying on personal effort and knowledge (the good old-fashioned term here is “woodsmanship”) and our evolved predatory instincts rather than on the store-bought, space-age technology so popular with misguided hunters today.
Today, as it has been always, true hunting remains among the most physically and intellectually challenging, viscerally engaging adventures most of us will ever know. The clean, healthful flesh of wild, free-roaming animals is the product of a dietary diversity and physical regimen so exacting that not even the most conscientious organic farmers can approximate it for their animals. It contains no antibiotics, growth hormones or other poisons, and is among the most nutritionally perfect of all foods. Wild venison is lower in fat than the white meat of factory-raised turkey, much less beef and pork. Nobody has ever died of clogged arteries from eating too much venison, rabbit or walleye. There were no obese hunter-gatherers.
I also hunt because — whether it’s building my own cabin or raising a garden or determining a personal spirituality — I prefer doing for myself.
I eat wild meat because I find it philosophically, culinarily and morally agreeable.
And I eat wild meat because I want to assume personal responsibility for at least some of the lives that end to continue my own.