My hunting ethics & values

Hunting is inherently controversial because it involves killing. When I tell non-hunters that I hunt, they always ask further questions that help them determine whether what I do is acceptable to them: What do you hunt? How do you hunt? Do you eat what you kill?

I've written about these things in great detail in various posts throughout the history of this blog, but I thought it would be worthwhile to have a synopsis in one place. So here's what I do, and why, and how I feel about others who do differently.

What I hunt: I hunt for food. I will not kill any animal that I am not willing to eat, unless it is threatening to harm me, other humans, or my extended family (which includes pets now, and possibly livestock someday). I have set these boundaries because I believe there must be a good reason to take a life. To that end, I won't even kill bugs that aren't harming me - I usher spiders out of the bathtub, and moths out of the house. Black widows, however, die. So do rattlesnakes that venture into human territory (like my mom's porch).

The specific types of animals I hunt include ducks, pigs, deer, turkeys, doves, pigeons and rabbits. Generally, the animals I love to hunt are the ones I love to eat, and the intensity with which I love to hunt them is directly proportional to how much I love to eat them.

How do I feel about people who hunt animals they don't eat? Honestly, I'm not sure. I try not to judge others, nor hold them to my values, particularly if I don't know anything about what they do. Example: I'm not remotely interested in hunting wolves. Some people do want to hunt wolves, and there may be situations in which wolves need to be hunted to bring their populations back into balance with other wildlife species. While I wouldn't want to pull the trigger, I may have to accept in some situations that it needs to be done.

I do think it's harder to justify hunting animals you won't eat, which means there is a tremendous burden on people who do so to have good reasons for what they do, and to be able to articulate those reasons to the non-hunting public.

Also worth noting: I think it's important to eat as much of the animal as possible. This means I never "breast out" a bird - at my house, we pluck and dress them whole. We also use as much offal (heart/liver/gizzards) as possible, though we can't hold a candle to hunter-gatherers in this respect. I think many hunters breast out birds and toss offal because that's what they were taught to do; I would like to encourage them to stretch their wings a bit, pun intended, because killing an animal to eat just one muscle group seems wasteful. I think we can and should do better.

I'm also slightly insane about sharing my kill: Whenever possible, I leave discarded innards outdoors for scavengers, such as the vultures that hang out in my neighborhood. I'd rather feed them than the maggots in my trash can. If nothing else, there's less odor that way.

My core ethic: This is the one by which I judge myself, and I do judge others: My goal is always the cleanest kill possible. In the event I have not made a clean kill, my goal is to do everything possible to find that animal and end its suffering. While I know nothing goes to waste in nature, I'd prefer that animals not suffer wounding by me just to become vulture food. To that end, I try to avoid shots in which there is a substantial likelihood of merely wounding and/or losing - the animal. This ethic is important to me because it is what I would hope for myself, were I to become prey.

While we all make mistakes, hunters who consistently take careless shots do a disservice to hunting.

That said, I love duck hunting above all, and wing shooting is a sport in which we know many birds escape us with injuries that may produce slow death or crippling. I don't know how to eliminate this, but I do work hard to improve my shooting and increase the likelihood that any bird I hit will not get away. My loss rate in the 2010-11 season was about 10 percent, and while this compares favorably with an average (self-reported) loss ratio of about 18 percent nationwide, I'd like to see that number go much lower.

What about "fair chase" hunting? "Fair chase" is hunting in which the animal has a chance to evade the hunter. I am not a fan of fair chase dogma for a number of reasons:

1) It feels arbitrary: High-fence hunting is not considered fair chase, but put-and-take hunting (e.g., planted pheasants) is, because technically the birds are not bound by a fence, even though they are bound by their inexperience in the wild.

2) Fair chase is all about how we feel, or how we appear to others, when we hunt. It has absolutely nothing to do with whether an animal is afforded the quickest death possible (see "My core ethic").

3) Fair chase is religion by which we anoint those who choose more challenging hunting conditions while we excoriate those who choose easier options. We loathe the hunter who acquires a magnificent trophy in the easiest of conditions, yet mounts it on his wall and brags about it as if he endured great challenge to get it. To that, I say go ahead and loathe him, but don't judge others who may behave perfectly honorably in non-"fair chase" situations.

How I hunt: I'm a relatively new hunter, and while I eagerly took every opportunity available to me in my first couple years of hunting, I now find myself hungry for more challenging hunts. This is not to impress anyone else, but to push myself to become a better hunter. To me, the best hunter is one who could hunt successfully in utterly primitive conditions - one who could make his own blades, bows and arrows and use them effectively. In short, meeting tougher challenges is a measure of my skills, not my ethics.

What does this mean specifically? I'm not interested in hunting planted birds. While there are many legitimate reasons to hunt them, it's not for me. I'm not interested in hunting fenced animals, though in principle, I am fine with other people doing so - one can have a perfectly challenging and rigorous hunt inside a fence. I would like to hunt with a bow someday, which I know requires tremendous skill, but I'm not there yet, so it's merely a goal at this point.

It's worth noting that my attitudes toward challenge here stem in no small part from my growing admiration for animals that elude me. I laugh when the clever duck flies so close to me that I could touch him without me even getting off a shot. I admire the pig that can leave a wake of destruction that can be seen from outer space, yet never appear at a time and place where I can shoot him.

That said, it is important for my hunting to be successful at least some of the time, because this is how we put meat in our freezer. I don't see myself raising the challenge bar so high that I rarely bring home meat. That just seems silly.

To that end, I also think some traditional measures of what's "sporting" or "fair" are silly. If I have a chance to kill a bird on the ground or the water, cleanly and without destroying the meat, I'll take it. Hunting is about bringing home food. However, I think it's generally easier to kill a duck on the wing than on the water, because you have a better chance of your shot breaking a wing or penetrating a vital area (heart/lung) when the bird is in the air.

What about hunting over bait? For almost every animal I hunt in California, hunting over bait is illegal, so this is a moot point. If it weren't illegal, I believe I still wouldn't do it for the reasons mentioned above: I prefer to be challenged. But if civilization came to a sudden end and there was no grocery store as a back-up source of meat, would I hunt over bait? Hell yes. I'd do whatever it takes to feed myself. If I lived in a place where baiting was not only legal, but the norm, I'd have to consider it, because not baiting under those circumstances might mean going without. A lot. But I'm glad I don't have to make that choice.

It's also worth noting that while the non-hunting public has a pretty visceral negative reaction to hunting over bait, doing so can actually afford the opportunity for cleaner kills (see "My core ethic") because animals will come in close and hold relatively still because they're eating.

My ammo: I have recently (spring 2010) made the decision to do all of my hunting with non-lead ammunition.

Part of this stemmed from the state's 2008 ban on using non-lead centerfire ammunition in the California condor zone, which covers about one-fifth of the state. Once I sighted in my rifle for hunting in that zone, I decided I didn't want to re-sight it for lead every time I hunt outside of that zone. It was a matter of convenience.

I do not believe most species are harmed by the risk of ingesting lead shot, either via direct consumption, as doves may do, or via scavenging the gut piles or remains of hunter-shot animals.The bald eagle, for example, is doing incredibly well now.  As such, I don't see compelling justification for a wider ban on lead ammunition - our decisions regarding wildlife should be based on the health of species.

However, I do believe individual animals may suffer poisoning from ingesting lead ammunition, and after watching a heartbreaking video of lead-poisoned bald eagles last spring, I decided to switch to non-lead altogether (except where required at shooting ranges). It is a personal choice, and where lead ammunition is still allowed, I urge other hunters to do their own research and come to their own conclusions.

Catch and release? I'm very uneasy about it - hooking an animal's mouth and wrestling him out of the water for my entertainment alone isn't my cup of tea. If I'm going to put a fish through that, it's going to be for good reason: so I can eat him. (And not surprisingly, as with hunting, my fishing propensities mirror what I like to eat: Spring run Trinity River salmon? Awesome. Love it. Tasty fish. Sturgeon fishing? Don't love the meat. Not interested in spending a lot of time trying to catch them.)

I have little experience with deliberate catch-and-release (only with releasing undersized fish), so I can't profess to know much about it. However, I would hope that catch-and-release anglers take the greatest care with the fish to ensure that they don't die of injury, exhaustion or whatever after being released.

I recognize that catch-and-release fishing allows an entire industry to thrive, and that the health of that industry translates directly to support for fish species we are trying to preserve. For that reason, I wouldn't ban catch-and-release fishing, nor would I condemn its practitioners (though I do reserve the right to make fun of them from time to time).

Celebrating the hunt: Yes, I do this. Sometimes I will shout with joy when I've made a good shot. Sometimes I will pose for pictures with the animal(s) I've shot. I realize both of these things are a turnoff to many non-hunters, but the reality is this: Hunting is hard. Success is rarely guaranteed (see "How I hunt"). When I am successful, it means everything I've worked hard for has paid off. This makes me happy.

Rest assured that this does not mean I'm not aware of what it means to take a life. I am constantly aware. When I watch an animal I've shot struggle in his last moments of consciousness, I put myself in his shoes. It makes me queasy. I almost always apologize to animals I've shot, whether they're dead when I reach them or not.

Why I hunt:This could be the subject of a book, not an item on an ethics page on my blog. But it's worth noting here that I am deeply drawn to hunting because it connects me to what we humans have been for the vast majority of our time on earth. In a world gone mad with our perilous drive to "improve" on nature, hunting connects me to a life in which we lived in balance with the other denizens of this planet.

I believe our departure from a hunting-gathering lifestyle is the biggest mistake our species has ever made - that it isn't just bad for all the other denizens of this planet (which it is), but it's bad for us as well. I know that, realistically, there's no escaping the way we live now. But when I hunt, I feel like I'm doing what I was meant to do. One way or another, I have to eat, and I feel a hell of a lot better about my food when I've worked for it than I do when I've bought it at the grocery store.

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Updated 3/24/11

© Holly A. Heyser 2011