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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.
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Participation made moral sense to me. When we don’t take part in the lives (and deaths) of the animals we eat, when we pass responsibility from consumer to farmer to CEO to stockholder, animals are disrespected, as evidenced by the horrific conditions in concentrated animal feeding operations. Some choose to absolve themselves of the responsibility by becoming a vegetarian or vegan. But short of living in the woods and foraging for edibles—a lifestyle that most climates would not support—they too must claim some complicity in the deaths of animals.

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.

Hunting is brutal, but so are the indirect environmental effects of building cities of skyscrapers, mining rare earth metals for electronics, and building wind turbines. We are killing animals either way—hunting is just more direct. Ken would say, more honest.

Ken and Rone recognize that to live on this earth requires causing harm, and participating through hunting creates a deep connection to nature that is very fulfilling. But it’s about more than human feelings; it’s about preserving a natural way of life, for us and  for the animals we hunt. Hunting leaves them in their natural homes. Sustainably harvesting wildlands for meat, mushrooms, and other living things fosters a beneficial and respectful relationship with the ecosystems we are harvesting. Gathering all the food sources we can naturally allows us, to some degree, to plow down less habitat for agriculture. Hunting goes a long way toward protecting and improving animal life.

In Photos
: Alyssa's first hunting trip.

The next time Scout points, my dad is able to flush out a bird. Rone shoots and misses. The next one Rone shoots falls. Cork brings it back.

Later, Rone shoots another but the bird doesn’t drop—it flies off and lands on a nearby knoll. Cork finds it and brings it back, chomping just a little until the bird lies still. This isn’t killing out of compassion, Ken explains. The birds have a defense mechanism—they have sharp claws, and release poofs of feathers when they’re caught.

Ken shoots one bird at close enough range that the expanding shot could have pulverized the bird, making it inedible—a wasted death. But when Scout brings it back, only the head is bloody. “Oh good,” Ken says, “That’s what I was going for.”  Twenty years of hunting make it look easy, even though he says it’s not.

I wonder aloud whether a new hunter, maybe me someday, would spend all her time wounding and pulverizing, causing suffering and wasting birds’ lives. Ken has me point at the top of a telephone poll in the distance. Since my right eye is dominant, Ken says, “Now close your left eye.” My finger is right on top of the pole. “You see, aim comes naturally,” he says. I’m a natural killer. Rone shows me how he holds his gun at the ready, with his index finger pointed down the side of the barrel. Point and shoot. We’re all killers.

By the end of the day, Ken and Scout have killed four quail, and Rone and Cork have killed six quail and two pheasant.

A couple weeks later, I had dinner at the Reids’ to make sure it was for a good cause.

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Ken’s wife, Rebecca, cooked us a beautiful meal with as much local food as possible: fried razor clams they dug themselves, homegrown, homemade grape juice sweetened with the honey from their own bees, and of course quail and pheasant, cooked in a tomato-based sauce and served on risotto. The wild bird  tasted like they had had rich lives, and a homeland full of Russian Olive.

I haven’t killed yet, but I will. I want to participate, because even the little I have done thus far has given me a much greater respect for life. The experience connected me to nature in a way hiking and camping never did. I understand why Ken feels accountable for owning a house on land that used to be woods, or why he gets so angry about developments lying on top of what used to be prime Seattle farmland.

No one is suggesting that we get all our food from hunting and foraging—there are too many of us now—but we need to gather all the food sources we can naturally to reduce our need for agriculture.

We can protect the land by using it. We can ensure that life is respected by participating in the dirty work.  Rather than hiding in our cities and vilifying those who intrude on “pristine” wildlands, we should bravely accept our place as a predator, a natural participant in the cycle of life and death.

Alyssa JohnsonAlyssa B. Johnson wrote this article for Can Animals Save Us?, the Spring 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Alyssa is a former editorial intern at YES!


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