Sunday, April 13, 2008

How can hunters love animals?

One of the things I love about hunting is how it's made me think a lot about some fairly deep questions about life, death and nature.

If I'd been raised as a huntress, I think there's much I would take for granted, but converting to the hunting lifestyle at the age of 41 really forced me to confront these issues head-on. I had to, because I was making a conscious decision to kill in a society where anti-hunting sentiments are ubiquitous.

Slowly but surely, the answers have come.
I choose to kill because animals are already being killed for me, and I'd rather take personal responsibility for their deaths than entrust both their lives and deaths to industrial agriculture. Hunting is acceptable because the predator-prey relationship is an essential part of the natural world, a pattern that repeats itself from the smallest creatures to the largest. Hunters enjoy and appreciate nature in ways that hikers can't because hunting makes you a participant, not an observer.

But the answer to one question had eluded me, until recently. Anti-hunters think we hunters are cruel, heartless animal haters, but most hunters I know love and respect animals in a way that borders on worship. How can this be? How can we explain this to the non-hunting public?

A couple weeks ago, I went on a spending spree on, buying half a dozen books about women hunters and hunting in general. One of them was Woman the Hunter by Mary Zeiss Stange. I'm normally too exhausted to do much pleasure reading while school is in session - the incessant stream of grading hurts my brain. But this book I couldn't resist, and I chipped away at it a little bit every night. My reward came on my third night of reading.

Stange wrote something that I already knew, but hadn't connected to modern-day hunting. It came at me in waves.

First, she quoted anthropologist Susan Kent saying that in hunter-gatherer societies, mammals and birds "are classified as intellectual beings. They are placed in the same macro-category as humans, whereas plants and fish are not."

Next, Stange noted that "the human-non-human animal dichotomy so sharp in Western civilizations is not at all as clear or even present in all societies."

And then: "It is only when larger-scale agriculture enters the scene, and with it the differentiation between 'wild' and 'domesticated' animals, that people begin to make meaningfully sharp distinctions between the intellectual capacities of human and non-human animals. ... (I)n societies in which people hunt regularly and also raise domestic animals, only the latter are denied status as intelligent beings. ... It is the farmer, not the hunter, who approaches the world of nature as something over which he must seize control."

Wow. I'd never thought about that before. I knew "primitive" societies viewed animals differently than we do, but I'd viewed it as a sign of their intellectual inferiority, not as a natural and logical state of being. I'd never considered that modern civilization's view of animals as inferiors might have just been a rationalization for their confinement - much as those notions have been used in the past to justify slavery and the subjugation of women.

Suddenly all these feelings I've had on the hunt started making sense. I view my prey as a competitor, my skills versus his or hers. When I went on a dog-training pheasant hunt with my friend Dana recently, I actually talked to the pheasants while they were in their crate before Dana released them, telling them, "Here's your chance to get away, buddy. Good luck." Two of them did.

Sometimes when ducks speed away unscathed by a poorly aimed shot, I salute them (after cursing profusely, of course). When I hit them, I often apologize to their limp bodies.

When I wrote a commentary for The Sacramento Bee last month about why I hunt, it was the subject of discussion in several hunting forums, and one guy said something on the California Predators Club forum that really stuck with me: "I still can't believe I hunt considering I've got to be one of the biggest animal freaks out there."

Now it seems all these thoughts and feelings add up to something really significant: Society as a whole takes a patronizing view of animals; hunters view them on an entirely different plane. Hunting makes you see animals differently, and not in they way PETA and HSUS would like the public to believe.

Hunting fills you with profound respect for animals. It is civilization that has taken this away from us.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008


Blessed said...

Good points - I have a lot of respect and admiration for animals in the wild that survive without any intervention from man - without that admiration and respect, I wouldn't have the feeling of having accomplished something when I'm able to go home from a hunt with something I was able to kill for my dinner table. I don't kill animals for the thrill of it, I kill them as the result of beating them at their own game - survival.

Holly Heyser said...

Well said, Blessed!

The Hunter's Wife said...

Holly, being the non-hunter I have to say it is women like you that I hold a high regard for. This is another one of your writings that speaks volumes to what you believe and the respect you have for your hunt.

Anonymous said...

Oh, wow, this gave me the shivers. Such a good article and such a good point. People who are apatheic (at best) hunting supporters really need to read this. Those who support hunting fully also need to read this, if only so they can use the last two lines as their answer next time someone asks them how they can be hunters.

Wonderful post.

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks, to both of you. I was so excited when I found that section of the book. There's so much about hunting that's hard to explain, and telling non-hunters "You have to do it to understand" just isn't enough.

SimplyOutdoors said...

This is an excellent piece of writing. I don't think I have seen this particular point, about hunting and hunters, explained any better.

I am such an animal lover and spoil the crap out my dog and yet I still hunt.

I also feel remorse after every kill and to try and explain that to people is so hard to do. I've tried, but I have never explained it as well as you just did.

Great, great article.

Windyridge said...

Wonderful post, I don't know how I missed it. I will subscribe to your blog.

Anonymous said...

Nicely done, Holly! You've found some great stuff... texts I wish I'd been armed with back in the days of collegiate debate.

I could go on ad nauseum about the impact of our specie's shift from hunter/gatherer to agrarian society, but I'll save that for some time when there's the spirits are flowing and philosophy seems more appropriate. But the key point is that it changed our fundamental relationship with nature, and began the idea of man's dominance over nature.

Othmar Vohringer said...

Great article. I am born into a hunting family that made a living as meat processors. Yet despite being surrounded by death, in the slaughterhouse and in the woods, I never took it lightly to take a life of an animal. After what must have been hundreds of thousand cows that I have processed I still feel that little sting in me. The same is true when I shoot a deer, turkey, duck or any other animal, even a fish.

As a boy I once asked my father why we kill animals to eat and why we can’t avoid getting a little emotional about it. I will answer with the same answer he gave me. “We kill animals for food because by our very nature we’re carnivores and need meat in our diet. Unlike animal predators we humans have a consciousness. If we would loose that sting in our hearts for taking a life we also would cease to be responsible, loving and caring humans.

Holly Heyser said...

That's fantastic. What a great dad.

Mike Shimniok said...

Wow, brilliant article. I've been struggling with these questions too. This perspective will be food for much thought. Thanks! -Michael

Anonymous said...

Hi Holly! I just discovered your blog and am so excited to see all the blogging and comments by other women hunters! My boyfriend and I started hunting just a year ago, after moving from Southern California to Wisconsin. I haven't actually taken any prey yet, but I was with my boyfriend last year when he killed a small doe, and I helped him clean it, haul it out, butcher it, and eat it! Now I am collecting gear, trying to become a better shot, and getting ready for this fall. You probably have heard of the Becoming an Outdoors-Woman program? I went to one of their workshops and found it really exciting. A comment from a bowhuntress there still stays with me, she said that when she discovered bowhunting it was "like I found part of my soul that I never knew existed." As a long time nature-lover (and animal-lover!) I find that hunting has given me a whole new way of being in nature--I feel like I have a place in it, rather than just being an observer. And that is a tremendous gift.

Holly Heyser said...

Welcome, and amen! Hunting awakens this part of you and it's exhilarating. My boyfriend and I went wine tasting with some colleagues last fall, and it was funny: Everywhere we went, he and I were spotting game from the back seat of the car that our friends in the front seat couldn't see. What used to be weed-filled fields now looks like habitat to me. And my connection to animals is deeper.

Good luck with your hunting! And please come back and tell us how you're doing - or even start your own blog and let us all know so we can link to you. We have quite a community going here.