Thursday, January 15, 2009

Digging deep for answers: Why do I hunt?

When I'm not busy spending every free moment hunting - you know, like when I've just had my appendix removed - I spend a fair bit of time marveling at how much I love hunting. And wondering why.

I didn't grow up hunting, but once I started, it was as if a piece of me had been missing all my life without me realizing it, but now that piece was finally in place. I realized very, very quickly that all my outdoor play as a child (except for maybe the Tonka trucks) was geared toward preparing me for this: making me alert, observant and intrigued by my surroundings.

Now I can't imagine not hunting. Getting all my food merely by going to the grocery store, tossing stuff in the cart and standing in the checkout line seems unsatisfying.

During my recovery from surgery this week, I found what may be a clue to why I love hunting so much (and no, it wasn't in a codeine reverie - but good guess). I found it in an unexpected place: a book called "Animals Make Us Human," by Temple Grandin.

If you don't know the name, you've probably heard of her. Grandin is an autistic woman with a PhD in animal science who helps slaughterhouses and stockyards design systems that keep animals calm and content. Her autism has given her unusual insights to animal behavior - she can spot things that terrify animals, but that most of us wouldn't notice.

When her new book came out last week, she was all over the radio, and I found her discussion of animal behavior fascinating, so I ordered the book. It's a good read, a real mixed bag of intriguing information about everything from cat and dog behavior to issues with wildlife and zoos.

Much of the book deals with what one scientist calls "Blue-Ribbon Emotions" that drive animal behavior. The four key ones are SEEKING (learning/exploring), RAGE, FEAR and PANIC, and three others that periodically become important are LUST, CARE (as in maternal nurturing) and PLAY.

As I read the book, I began thinking about how these emotions don't just drive animals, but people as well. I'm a firm believer that people are animals too - just a little smarter, and blessed with opposable thumbs.

In the chapter on zoos, Grandin writes about what some zoos have done to counteract the extreme boredom that causes abnormal behavior in some animals, particularly the large predators and primates. In one case, the San Francisco Zoo developed a system in which an African leopard named Sabrina had to follow a series of speaker-generated bird sounds around her enclosure until her actions finally triggered the release of food. Sabrina loved it, and she found novel ways to trigger the food release, not following the same pattern every time.

The same guy who designed that system created another one for Diana monkeys: A light would go on, and if monkeys pulled a lever, the system would release food at the opposite end of the cage and they could hopscotch over a series of platforms to get to it. A newer version of the system gave them not food, but plastic tokens they could use literally to buy food out of a machine. The monkeys loved it, and they all used it differently: some spent their tokens right away, others saved them and one figured out how to keep his mother from stealing the food he bought with his tokens.

OK, Holly, what's this got to do with hunting?

In all of these cases, the animals did not have to work to get their food - the zoos still put food out for them to ensure they had adequate nutrition. But the animals loved these systems.

"Many, many studies have found that captive animals will choose to work for food instead of just having it handed to them," Grandin writes. "Wild animals don't want a free lunch. The reason they like working for their food is that it feels good. That's because in all of the studies, 'working' actually means SEEKING. The animal has to forage for hidden food in its enclosure, or manipulate a puzzle feeder (a kind of container with food inside), or chase acoustic prey. All of these activities activate the SEEKING system. They let the animal hunt."

Ah ha!

I can't tell you how often I read or hear - whether it's from an anti-hunter or just a perplexed non-hunter, "Why would you hunt when you can just get food at the grocery store?" In fact, I remember asking Boyfriend a similar question before he got me out hunting: "If you want to eat rabbits, why don't we just raise some in the back yard? Why do you need to hunt them?"

It's a good question, because hunting - for most of us - is not cheap or easy.

Yes, there are logical reasons for hunting: It provides food that is healthier - no hormones, antibiotics or pesticides - than factory-farmed meat. It provides food that is tastier, because the animals have had a varied, natural diet. It does not require animals to have lived their entire lives in captivity, sometimes under conditions most people would consider extremely cruel.

Such obvious logic still doesn't explain why we're so driven to hunt. But perhaps the ideas in Grandin's book do: Hunting engages one of the core emotions that drive all animals - SEEKING. It is deeply, deeply satisfying.

Like a zoo animal raised in captivity, I didn't know what I'd been missing. But once the option of hunting was given to me, I discovered it was a part of my natural state of being. Who cares that it's expensive, time-consuming and difficult? It's what I'm meant to do.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008


Tom Sorenson said...

Interesting, Holly. I might want to try this with my dog - he doesn't eat his food very well...maybe if I make him work for it? It's worth a shot - and a very interesting correlation with why we as humans hunt for food. Yer such a thinker! :)

Jon Roth said...

Very interesting and true. For me the pursuit is as satisfying - if not more so - than the harvest.

Holly Heyser said...

Tom: Buy (or borrow) the book - you may get lots of fantastic insights about your dog.

And LTH, agreed. It's the entire act. I hear about people who shoot their limits in 15-30 minutes, and that doesn't appeal to me at all.

Terry Scoville said...

Quite true. We are all hunters and it is the pursuit of the quarry that drives me and most hunters, not the kill. The ability to overcome challenges and match wits with the wild ones. Knowing we are only visitors in their habitat and waiting for their one elusive mistake to benefit us. Such a passion and I am glad it is not easy. That would take all the fun out of it.
Sounds like a great book, thanks !

Josh said...

I've hunted since something moved in front of me, I'm sure.

I've also asked people if they wanted food, and when they said, "no, thanks", I often then make it move in front of them. Some change their mind, but not all.

This is a great post Holly. It made me think (tangentially) of another study I'd heard about, that primates have an intrinsic desire for equity, too.

I must admit, shooting a limit in 15-30 minutes appeals to me from time to time, though.

I hope you are feeling better, too!

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks, Josh. And I'm gettin' there - day at a time - trying not to freak out about all the work that's not getting done.

Anonymous said...

I. Want. That. Book. What a moving review!
Tom Sorenson, I do urge you to try to make your dog work for his food. My mom's dog, always a light eater, recently passed away following a long, sad bout with cancer. Toward the end, the only thing that spurred her to eat was my mom's daily ritual of hiding small pieces of food in various spots around the house.
Maybe dogs like the feeling of working for their food, just like y'all seem to.
And perhaps Boyfriend should do that for you until you feel better, Cazadora!

SimplyOutdoors said...

Well after my post yesterday - that dealt with finding good books about the outdoors - I'm definitely going to have to add this one to the list. I would love more insight into my dog because he's a little crazy:)

As for the seeking part, I can completely understand that. It makes perfect sense. I know I tend to get a little cranky when I can't be outdoors, or when I can't hunt, and I am certain that what you are speaking of definitely has something to do with that.

What a good read today.

Anonymous said...

Hoo boy! When I saw the title of this one, all I could think is that Holly's been taking a little too much advantage of her meds... images of Kublai Khan and Xanadu come to mind.

But, instead it turned out to be slighly introspective but a great review of the book from the practical perspective. Good stuff!

Holly Heyser said...

Flanhammer, it's a really neat book, even though I really reviewed it here from a narrow perspective. There are tons of other neat insights. Interestingly enough, she disagrees with (swoon!) Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer: He believes dogs need pack leaders and the person is it; Grandin believes dogs need parents, and people are it (an interesting female-male divide as well). If you can wrest the book from Hank, who's up next, you're welcome to borrow it. We need to get together anyway.

Simply, I'd thought about adding this book to that list, but most people wouldn't think of this as a hunting book. Grandin makes very few references to hunting, and states clearly that she does not like Africa big game hunting, though she knows it's been good for the species there and the local economies. Not sure whether it's the pursuit of trophies that bugs her or what. She's a big proponent of instant, painless death, which we all know hunting can't promise.

And Phillip: Ha! Let me tell you, these meds do have interesting effects. But not that interesting. For me, it was just a race to write this post. I took a happy pill and told Boyfriend, "All right, I've got 40 minutes to write." Didn't beat the drugs to the finish line, so I'm just glad y'all seem to think it's coherent.

mdmnm said...

Nice essay- interesting thoughts. Thanks, too, for the pointer to the book.

Anonymous said...

Nobody said they thought it was coherent.


You should've been at SHOT today, by the way... not to mention that I don't have a photographer OR even a decent camera with me.

Fancy said...

Oh, and as far as pack leaders or parenting dogs is concerned, I don't know what the difference is. Aren't parents pack

Guess I'll have to read the book. Very interesting to me.

Holly Heyser said...

Good question - perhaps it's a difference of nuance. I think some of it goes to the notion that dogs/wolves, in a natural state, live in families of related animals where both parents are authority figures, not big mixtures of unrelated animals where one is the undisputed boss. Packs are apparently an unnatural state that results from the conditions we place on them. Kind of like how gangs can replace families in bad environments.

I don't know if I'm doing justice to Temple Grandin's ideas on this, so it's definitely worth reading the book to take what you can from it.

Fancy said...

Thanks for the answer. It does sound like a delicate nuance. I ordered the book.

I enjoy your site and H,A,G a great deal. I'm glad you make the effort.

Ken and Joanne said...

I'm a big fan of Temple Grandin's, too. But I'm not sure we're smarter than our prey. We filter out details so that we can make room for abstract thought. Much good that might do. If we are genuinely smarter than our prey, who tend to live totally in the moment, then perhaps we have too much knowledge and not enough wisdom.


Holly Heyser said...

Oooh, well said!

oldfatslow said...

I'm not so sure about ducks
being healthier food. I had
one cost me a molar - steel
pellets are very unforgiving.


Albert A Rasch said...

Hey Holly,

Sorry I'm late!

Fascinating what insights come to us when pharmacopoeia dull the exterior world. Reminds me of when my leg was torn off, and the doctors had me all doped up on Demerol. Do you know that...

Ahh... I digress. You have verbalized what I have been mulling over recently, on why I say: It's the hunt I love, the killing is just the culmination of the hunt.

I appreciate your insightful commentaries, they are always illuminating.

Albert A Rasch
The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles
Proud Member of Outdoor Bloggers Summit
Southeast Regional OBS Coordinator

Holly Heyser said...

Codeine products rarely enhance my thinking. Surgery, on the other hand, required me to rest - a concept I remember blissfully now that the hurricane of school has enveloped me - and rest allowed me to read and think. I really wasn't capable of doing much more than that.

Now I just need to figure out how to make that time in my life without surgery as an impetus...