My neighbor, who moved up from New York City a few years ago, caught me outside letting an inchworm go. He was walking down to get his mail and saw me kneeling in the pachysandra outside my office. I laughed and explained that an inchworm had gotten on my shirt as I mowed my lawn.
“But aren’t you a hunter?” he said as he pointed at my office. He recently saw all the taxidermy I have inside and his expression at the time was one of absolute shock.
“There is no contradiction,” I said as I stood up.
He looked perplexed. “But why kill one and not the other?”
“Not much meat on an inchworm,” I said laughing, but I didn’t want to leave the question there. I liked that he asked. Most would just keep their tongues as they judged me by their worldview, such as it is.
“We’ve never talked religion,” I said. “I don’t know if you’re a Christian, a Jew or maybe an atheist. But I am assuming you live according to a moral code of some kind.”
Now I had his full attention.
“So do I.”
He looked puzzled.
I walked closer to him and nodded at the woods behind his house. “When you walk into the woods,” I said, “do you drop your moral code and become a wild animal?”
“Neither do I. Nature is neither moral nor immoral. Animals can be territorial and they’ll protect their young, but basically it is the survival of the fittest out there. But when a moral human beings enter the wild we don’t become beasts,” I said. “Hunters are human beings, too. We are following a deep moral code. We obey game laws set by wildlife biologists who are managing game populations and protecting habitat from being over-browsed and so much more.”
He nodded. “Yes, I get that.”
“What you might not get is there is an ethical way to treat wildlife that hunters adhere to,” I explained. “We hunt them according to rules. There are bag limits and many other regulations to follow. Hunters are used as a tool by state wildlife departments to manage wildlife populations. We kill animals as cleanly as we can and we eat what we kill. And it’s good, free-range, lean and healthy meat.”
“I get that, too,” he said, “but I still don’t know why you didn’t kill the insect you found on your shirt, but that you will kill a deer.”
“Fair question,” I said. “Again, there is no contradiction. And it’s not arbitrary. I also don’t kill deer out of season or at night or with a rifle during archery season. Nor do I kill every game animal I can. I respect the game I hunt very deeply. I also respect the regulations. And I respect myself. I don’t want to be a poacher. I don’t want to torture wild animals or to kill animals or even insects indiscriminately. I want wildlife to flourish within the constraints of their habitat. I’ve also come to understand that hunting helps me understand myself and our role in nature.”
“Our role in nature?”
“We are not separate like the preservationist movement tells us,” I said. “Many environmentalists tell us that when we enter nature we harm it. They believe we are separate and dangerous to ecosystems. They treat humans as if they are pathogens to the natural world. That’s wrongheaded. We can do bad or good. Most of human history had each of us closely entwined in nature. When we became agrarian we learned to control, to some extent, some of nature. Now we’re so successful that most of us don’t have to raise our own vegetables or meat. So we’re beginning to forget our real relationship with the wild. We’re forgetting where our sustenance comes from and that we’re all really still linked to the earth. Every farmer and rancher who raises produce or livestock for us has to deal with coyotes eating their sheep, deer eating their soybeans or with insects and disease. Sometimes farmers have to control wildlife so all of their crops or livestock aren’t eaten. So someone is killing for you even if you don’t directly have any part in it.”
“I see what you mean.”
“Right, so here I found an inchworm. I’ve now let it go,” I said. “I will kill a mouse that invades my house, because it gives me no choice. Mice bring disease. I kill deer and turkeys and more because I enjoy playing an active part in the natural world and because I like the meat. I do so ethically. When I see a deer, even one I am not going to shoot, I am happy. I like watching them and I am glad there are wild deer here. In fact, hunters advocate on behalf of wildlife. You might say, yes—but just because they want to hunt them. To that I would say go and really talk to hunters. Many won’t talk to you about this at first, but really listen and watch and you’ll find out that they love the game they hunt. Many are also bird watchers, as I am, and even amateur naturalists. I can name most of the flora in this forest.”
“Hmm,” he said. “I guess there is more to it than I thought.”