"Why do you have to come out here to kill?” said this hiker to me as I took my bow out of the back seat of my truck. He was walking into this dirt parking lot an hour’s drive from New York City. I was about to carry a climbing treestand into the woods. He was an older man with his wife and they were just coming back from a hike on a blue-sky afternoon. She looked embarrassed. He looked angry, as if my presence had splattered blood over the autumn forest.
He didn’t wait for an answer. To him the question was rhetorical. I answered anyway.
“Because I love the animals I hunt.”
He glared at me and I was hoping he’d debate the point. Too often politeness allows ignorance like his to pretend to be the nuanced views of an educated individual. I wanted to give him a point of view he couldn’t imagine. I chose the word “love” on purpose. Sure, because it is true, but also because beginning there would flummox him. He thought he was on the high moral ground, when he was really just ignorant of nature and our role in it.
He didn’t get that hunters don’t go into the fall woods driven by cold calculation, but with a love of the outdoors and the game they hunt and consume.
Those who don’t hunt can have trouble understanding this. The contradictions seem too obvious. How can you kill what you love?
Partly this misunderstanding is our fault as hunters. Though we are seduced by the natural splendor and lobby for wildlife conservation and pay taxes that fund much of the conservation in the United States, we’re careful how much we talk about this. Articulating Aldo Leopold’s brand of environmental ethics openly and with our hearts on our sleeves just isn’t manly. We can’t tell people, even other hunters, we love the game we hunt. They would think us effeminate, soft-headed or something. And that’s part of our weakness.
Still, I’ve seen hunters tear up when their sons or daughters tag their first pheasant or deer. I’ve seen similar emotion shown by hunters in hunting camps, at state game department meetings, at meat processors and taxidermists. I once saw the toughest guy I ever knew kneeling down, balling like a child when he found one of his hounds dead on a road.
Explaining the emotional connection to the outdoors and the game we hunt is to fall headlong into something the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset came closest to articulating when he wrote, “One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.”
I live along a rural-urban cultural divide in New York State and so see people misunderstanding each other on this topic whenever it comes up in mixed company.
I have neighbors who moved north from Brooklyn who are frightened of hunters. They called the police when they first moved upstate. A neighbor who lives a half-mile away likes shooting clay birds and built his own sporting clays course on his property. My neighbors thought there was a shootout happening. The cop who responded told them, “Oh, that’s just Bill. Welcome to the country.”
They were shocked when they learned I hunt. I shop at the same farm stands they do. I understand and respect their perspective and environmental ethic. In my view, they simply have a few things to learn about what is really good for the environment in the forest around their home.
I showed them the browse line—where the deer have eaten away the understory of the forest—on the acres they own and explained how important it is for the sake of biodiversity to control the deer population.
They’ve been polite and neighborly, but we still talk past each other on environmental topics.
When I told them that I have hunted all over the Lower 48 and in many Canadian provinces, and that, wherever I travel, I always find that hunters love what they hunt, they looked baffled.
I told them when they see a pickup truck parked in autumn along a rural road, realize that a man or a woman (more women are now hunting than ever before) is out there trying to earn his or her own meat and this isn’t a bad thing. If hunters are following game laws—as the vast majority do—then they are being used as a tool by wildlife biologists to control deer and other game populations and to pay as they go.
I’ve told them that the meat hunters bring home is eaten, and I offered them some venison. I invited them to go to the local meat processor I use on or after opening day of deer season to see all the hunters coming in to drop off their deer and to tell the butcher how they want the meat cut up for their table. The wild meat is “green,” I told them, as it is free-range, hormone-free and hasn’t been genetically messed with by man.
I’ve told my neighbors that each year I toy with restricting myself to only eating meat I actually kill, as I almost do that anyway. I don’t because, like most, I enjoy variety; still, we must respect where our sustenance comes from and securing meat with our own hands and wits does engender deep respect. As I said, it also spawns love.
When we chat about such things I see in them an ignorance made possible by the mainstream media’s treatment of the millions of Americans who hunt. The media has mocked President Donald J. Trump’s sons for being hunters and has even treated them, and other hunters, as if they are bloodthirsty killers.
The reason some in the mainstream media push this view of hunters is purely political. The progressive Left won’t treat hunters as the conservationists they are because they see hunters as a political constituency that more often votes for Republicans.
That’s small-minded and sad. People like that man I met in the parking lot in that public forest are pawns to this politically motivated misinformation. That’s not good for him and it’s not good for the environment, as the best environmental policy must be based on honest analysis, not blind, political hatred.
As for my neighbors, I haven’t lost hope they’ll come around regarding the critical role of hunting in wildlife conservation. Hate is easy when the person you dislike is someone you don’t know and so you can form a simpleminded bias against. It is harder to maintain this bias when he is your neighbor who raises his own vegetables in his garden and kills his own meat and who keeps telling you how much he loves what he hunts.