The salt marsh of which I sit is blanketed in smooth cordgrass, at an eastward bend giving way to a steady breeze and as the grass points, a gentle orange horizon is saturating the landscape. The sun is rising, and as it peaks over the marsh the ducks are advised to leave their overnight roosts, what hunters call “prime time”. The bare of my neck struggles to retain heat as the wind aches to my back and my decoys turn slightly in the pond, hopefully a persuading sight to any passerby. I sit motionless, watching the aeronautic silhouettes against the orange sky and listening to characteristic fowl chatter even nearer. Mallard hen up, fifty-yards out and coming close. My chin meets my chest as I slump down further into my kayak substitute for a pond box. Muttered response leaves my call as the hen’s wings lock-in cupped, descending at the perfect angle for a shot. The stock of my Remington meets my shoulder and the bead is placed at her front, dropping her in the water and rocking my decoys slightly.
After a few nerve’s death kicks, her lifeless body falls to the whim of the breeze and floats in the direction of the cordgrass’ bend. The warmth of her body attests to her forgone life as I scoop her out of frigid saltwater. I tuck her under my coat jacket and row back to shore. Her heat dissipates into mine as I recognize her life was taken to furnish that of my own. That is the way of hunting.
But in a society where the struggle for life is no longer a hurdle to necessary to conquer, where food is stored by the tens of pounds in artificial refrigerators and the average American hunter models fabricated material that can comfort him or her in the coldest of weather and goes home to a soft bed and heated home, what right did I have to go out and take an innocent life on my own measure, for my own benefit?
This is the question posed by anti-hunting advocates and often rhetorically. Many of those who oppose hunting will be quick to call hunting nothing more than an embodiment of archaic machoism, and its participants nothing more than boasters of blood lust. Writers and scholars on both sides have joined the fight, with vicious claims on the topic of ethics, debates on hunting’s flimsy necessity, and the humanity of ‘blood sport’. The schism between hunter and anti-hunter is too deep-seated and will likely be an everlasting disagreement. However, each the hunter and anti-hunter represents only a small segment of the population, and in the middle lies a large number of people on the fence, either lacking enough exposure or knowledge to derive their own opinion. As for hunters like myself, we are often represented by an even smaller portion of the hunting population, a segment who have the ability to turn the uncertain masses into anti-hunting advocates on some very real and plausible bases. These are the dishonest hunters.
Let me illustrate this idea. I was listening to a deer hunting podcast on my way to work one day. It was a very reputable podcast and hosted by some of the most influential names in the outdoor industry. The question of ethics came up, and with it came the issue of animal suffering as it pertains to bow hunting. The guest speaker for this episode scoffed that animal suffering at the hands of bow hunter’s arrow is a ludicrous idea. After all, pain, he went on to elaborate, is not felt by deer. The shock and scare of the arrow hitting their body is what sends them crashing through the woods, they die and bleed out painlessly.
The guest speaker, to my guessing, was probably a well-intended hunter who believed his claim. But he failed to recognize some key aspects of anatomy and evolutionary biology. All vertebrates possess a complex nervous system, the result of 600 million years of evolution dating back to a biological ‘arms race’ when predators hit the scene. As a defense mechanism, nervous systems evolved as a relationship between nerve endings, neurotransmitters, and the brain to be able to feel and perceive the environment. Pain, like touch, is a perception. Scholars find that pain varies little among vertebrates like humans and deer who have a high-capacity for perceiving information from the world around them. The integrity of hunting, as a pursuit fit to be in modern society, is and always will be questioned if hunters hide behind fraudulent claims and justifications. Recognizing the actual consequence of pulling a trigger or releasing an arrow, and being empathetic towards those actions, is a prerequisite for the honest hunter.
But this begs the question: why even do it? There are a couple well-rehearsed ploys that hunters use in their defense. The foremost being, self-reliant and ethical meat eating. After all, buying meat from a supermarket instead of going out and killing your own doesn’t equate to blood-free hands. The cattle industry, besides slaughtering 6.6 million cows each year, most of which are confined to just a few acres per individual their whole life, needs ample livestock feed to maintain their herds. Of that feed, most is produced as corn, which in America alone has taken 90 million acres of land, displacing whitetails to the east and elk to the west, eviscerating game birds and rabbits in windrowers, and poisoning our airs and soils, birds and insects, with pesticides and herbicides.
But sometimes the meat argument rolls off the tongue too smooth. I have first-handedly met people who use the meat argument but at the same time will let a diver duck float, steel pellet filled, down the river. “A junk duck” they call them. Or the whitetail slayers who, after stripping off the luscious back straps, lay their quarry to waste.
In the ranks of men, hunters have historically been regarded as prestigious, stewards of the land, translators of foreign wilderness, and connected to the earth in a way that only a hunter could. Hunting was so essential to the human condition that it welded the earliest form of language, artistic expression, and religion. To disrespect or lay waste to the hunted animal is to disgrace the roots of humanity, and the people who do so are not hunters at all.
On the same token of laying game to waste and shooting for the sake of killing, there is a disease of equal detriment among the hunting community in the form of tournament hunting. In a tournament shoot, contestants are usually judge on measures of weight or quantity. Whoever bags the most, or whoever bags the heaviest, wins, and usually the prize is big money. These tournaments target less regarded game species such as squirrels and ‘varmints’ and the justifications are exhausted by their organizers. Coyote tournaments are fueled by the false belief that they dramatically impede deer populations. Woodchuck tournaments are held due to their disdain as a crop varmint. And squirrel contests are held because, well, who cares about squirrels? They are everywhere!
Barring the nonsensical rationales as to why these species are deserving of tournament hunts, the events set an unacceptable precedent for the treatment of our wildlife. The idea of removing hunting from monetary gains isn’t new. Under 200 years ago most of our landscape was stripped of whitetail, turkey, elk, and bison for the sake of sport and finance. Some recovered greatly like the whitetail deer, some have recovered only to encompass a fraction of their historical native range like bison and elk, and some haven’t come back at all, like the passenger pigeon. Although hunting tournaments are constrained by regulations at the state and federal level and will not permanently imperil our wildlife populations, they go directly against the set of ethics that led to our present-day wildlife management system.
Not only do tournaments traverse against 200 years of building wildlife litigation and ethics, but they also reduce the sanctity of the animal’s life, reducing it no more than a platform for pride and boasting. It’s an issue of becoming callous to the kill. As Thomas McGuane said, thinking to himself after gutting out an antelope on the Montana sage flats, “This is goddamned serious and you had better always remember that.”
Many additional rogue facets of the hunting world need addressing, including certain cases of trophy hunting, the prohibition of wanton waste (which increasingly being enforced in state law but need to be held as a personal standard), the misrepresentation of the shot being the climax of a hunt in outdoor media, and the topic of hunter participation environmental activism. Under the worst cases of scenarios, which are often the most publicized, the anti-hunting movement holds strong footing.
A lot of talk in the hunting community focuses on uniting hunters against the antihunting threat, trending on social media with the slogan “never apologize for being a hunter”. To stay united, they say we need to abolish threats and skirmishes coming from the inside. I do not agree.
I do not stand with the subset of hunters whose actions and publicity send those on the fence fleeing for anti-hunting organizations, with the false notion that all hunters have an utter disregard for life. I also do not stand with the hunter who is willing to let his human instinct to conquer direct his hunting ambitions, where the shot and kill climax the hunt and where high-fence operations seat the most anticipated adventures.
We need to emphasize the distinction between ethical hunts and bullshit pursuits. And I do apologize for the people who blur that line. They are not ambassadors for the hunting tradition. That is not the way of hunting.