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What’s the Harm in Hunting?

It’s an expression of our most fundamental relationship with nature, but can you really be moral and be a hunter, too? Our intern headed into the wild to find out.

Before the crack of dawn on a Sunday, I got into  a truck with two guns and two dogs in the back. My friend Ken Reid was driving. His hunting buddy Rone Brewer sat in the backseat with my dad, Allen Ballinger, who also hunts, but came along as photographer this time. We were on our way to kill some quail.

When we at YES! Magazine started working on our Spring 2011 issue on animals, I thought of Ken immediately. Ken hunts, but also gathers and grows as much food as possible for his family of four, while still holding a day job in the city. He has an extensive garden in his average-sized yard, a worm bin, five chickens, and four honey bee colonies on his garage roof. He gathers mushrooms, fishes, and hunts whenever he can find the time.

Ken—who takes death more seriously than anyone I know—told me not to bring a gun unless I was really ready to take a life.

It was the hunting that interested me. Hunting is part of our most primitive relationship with animals. But with access to modern agriculture, it seems like murder—unnecessarily carried out for pleasure at another’s expense. Modern agriculture has freed us to be better than that, right?

But Ken is a “thinker.” When he does anything, he does it for a good reason, and he will tell you why at the slightest provocation. If he hunts, I thought, it must make good moral sense. Can you be a moral hunter? I wanted to find out.

Alyssa Hunting play button

Photos: Follow Alyssa on her first hunting trip. Click to play.

Ken agreed to take me hunting and I envisioned shooting a Bambi’s-mom-type doe. She would stagger tragically and collapse in a pool of blood. I pictured either crying over her beautiful carcass, or feeling my heart turn to stone and becoming a hardened killer. Maybe both.

Ken thought we should start by hunting quail, and pheasant if we came across any. I was a little relieved: Birds don’t have doe eyes. Ken—who takes death more seriously than anyone I know—told me not to bring a gun unless I was really ready to take a life. I wasn’t, so I didn’t.

Three hours of driving brought us to “Quail Heaven,” snow-covered basaltic wetlands east of the Columbia River near Royal City, Washington. Upon our arrival I surveyed the land and didn’t see any wildlife, but as we hiked further, there were plenty of traces: tunnels dug by mice, deer scat, coyotes howling in the distance, and the snow tracks of our chosen prey, quail and pheasant. The landscape seemed barren, with only sagebrush and short Russian Olive trees, which have loads of skinny branches exploding with greenish brown fruits the size of capers. But the land isn’t as barren as it looks—the birds there are fattened on these fruits.

The first wild animal we saw was a porcupine sitting on its haunches with paws tucked into its chest. The porcupine wasn’t scared; they’re generally left alone. Predators learn quickly that attacking will get them a face full of spines. Ken’s dog, Scout, has had the unfortunate experience three times—this time he kept his distance. A hunter won’t bother them either, unless “you were really hungry”, says Ken. Then “if you needed to you could walk right up to it and kill it with a stick.”

Per acre, vegan agriculture kills more animals than raising livestock, because field animals such as mice and bunnies are regularly killed by harvesting equipment.

As long as Ken and his family aren’t starving, he’s no threat to porcupines. The porcupine represents the kind of cute critters who are threatened less by direct threats, and more by indirect actions—for example, when humans take their land for agriculture. Or a golf course. Or a shopping mall.

There is no escaping the effect modern life has on our fellow creatures. Raccoons feed off our compost in the night. Bats are dying in the air flux around wind turbines. Entire ecosystems have been displaced by factories producing various products: toilet paper, flu vaccine, plastic trinkets. And then there’s our food system. Even vegans can’t claim they don’t kill animals.

In 2002, Oregon State University professor Steven Davis calculated that, per acre, vegan agriculture kills more animals than raising livestock, because field animals such as mice and bunnies are regularly killed by harvesting equipment. Of course, this equates one rat to one cow. Also, it is per acre—and vegan agriculture could feed the world with far fewer acres.

No one, regardless of their food choices, is completely innocent of the harm caused by our current food system. Vegan, organic, or not—pesticide and fertilizer runoff damage habitat. That’s after the initial ecosystem displacement, of course. The nature of agriculture means no matter how we grow our food, we will cause the deaths of animals—if not by machinery or chemicals, then by starvation from disappearing habitat. For us to live, others will die.

In fact, “Quail Heaven” was threatened, by a proposed irrigation reservoir that would have flooded thousands of acres of Eastern Washington wetland habitat. But hunters like Ken joined with nearby residents and environmental groups to protest. They succeeded in delaying the construction indefinitely.

The porcupine is safe for now.

Scout, along with Rone’s dog, Cork, ran around sniffing everything, excited to show off his ability to “see” birds by smelling them. The quail aren’t prancing around in open meadows like I envisioned when I heard “Quail Heaven,” at least not when we’re around. They were taking shelter under the brush; we needed the dogs to find them. It’s a unique evolutionary partnership: Man uses dog for his keen sense of smell, dog uses man for his intellect and firearms.

When the dogs smell a bird, they stand stiff and still, “on point,” with their noses pointing directly at the bird. Someone scares the bird out, and then the guns take over.

Several minutes after the porcupine incident, Scout went on point. We were near a crowded grove of Russian Olive trees with overgrown brush and branches underneath— lots of hiding places for quail. My dad and I pushed through the branches and kicked around, but no bird came out. Scout didn’t move—insisting a bird was there. We kept kicking around, walking all over the branches, and I wondered how this works. Where are the birds? Where will they go? Aren’t we in the line of fire?

Finally my dad found a quail. The bird, peeking out from the brush, had been tromped on as we were kicking around.

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Ken held the bird. It wasn’t struggling, just looking around—stunned or maybe scared. It was hurt, and we weren’t going to nurse it back to health. Ken bashed the quail’s head against a rock as hard as he could, three times. The bird opened and closed its beak twice, shuddered from head to toe, then lay still. “This reminds me of that grouse,” he called out to Rone as he joined us from over the hill.

Ken had talked to Rone many times about a grouse that he killed when he was fourteen. Just like this quail, he had held it in his hand while its pulse waned and it shuddered into death. It was a sobering experience, and for Ken it set off a lifetime of scientific moral contemplation that led him to a very strict stance. “Many vegans and omnivorous people consider their conscience clear because they did not willfully commit the killing act," Ken told me. "For me it is the opposite."

This quail was the first cute-animal death I had witnessed (insects don’t count), but I felt strangely okay. I was sad for the bird, but after hours of conversation and pages-long emails from Ken and Rone, I had come to understand how I could feel compassion and still be okay with killing for food. I was participating in the process of life and death—a process that would happen whether I liked it or not.

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