Saturday, May 16, 2009

Mother's Day, death & the quest for insight

OK, I know I'm a week late for Mother's Day. I really did mean to write this post last weekend. But first there was target shooting, then there was blogging about target shooting, then there was the massive argument in the comments about target shooting...

All water under the bridge now. About a month ago, my uncle sent me the following video from a Mother's Day newscast that first aired who knows when. It was irresistible. Check it out and you'll see what I mean:

Cute, yes. But it also got me thinking.

Since I started hunting nearly three years ago, I've been on several quests. The first is to be good at it. The second is to combat misperceptions about hunting (many of which I used to hold myself). Both of those are relatively easy: One takes practice; the other takes effort.

But the third one is tougher.

It's my quest to understand my complex and sometimes baffling feelings toward animals. I kill them and eat them and I love them and respect them, and my respect and love for them has never been stronger than it is now.

How can that be?

Our resident anti in this blog's community - Hutchinson, who weighs in respectfully with comments from time to time - is deeply uncomfortable with hunting because he feels powerful empathy with animals, and he very easily slips into their minds and really feels the moment of being shot, and the suffering that follows if death is not instant.

Funny thing is, so do I.

The difference between me and Hutch is that I love eating meat, I believe it's good for my body, and I'm willing to do the hard work - and by that I mean the emotionally hard work - it takes to acquire meat. So I shut down my empathy during the hunt.

It doesn't always stay shut down, though. Last summer, I killed a Corsican sheep on my friend Michael's property down in Monterey County. It was Labor Day weekend, and Boyfriend was cooking a feast for Michael's guests, and we needed more meat, so I was sent out to get it.

My guide Ed got me about 75 yards from the sheep. We were on a hill, and they were on the opposite hillside. I calmed my heart, took the shot and watched alarmed as all the sheep ran up the hill.

"Did I hit it?" I asked Ed, baffled. Then the sheep stopped 20 yards from where they'd started. One staggered and dropped to its knees, then lurched up and ran back where it had been standing when I shot it, where it collapsed.

My heart was racing. It was down! The shot had gone through both lungs, and the sheep was dead inside of a minute.

But it was a heart-wrenching minute as I watched that animal in its final fight for life. I was in that sheep's head, my world spinning into blackness as blood filled my chest and suffocated me.

Dammit! My empathy had punched back to the surface, and it was awful.

Logic quickly rebounded and subdued empathy. Honestly, the only better death than what this animal had experienced would have been instant death. Having watched my Dad suffer for two years before his death, I can tell you my whole family believes it would've been far more merciful for him to have had a massive heart attack in his garden (which is how his father died). And I'm certainly well aware that dying of old age in your sleep is a fantasy out in nature.

Logic like this is your friend when you hunt and kill animals. To be consumed by empathy is just brutal.

But I know there are plenty of hunters who have moments just like this one, and it's certainly not just the women. When men open up, they'll talk in subdued tones about the awful moments of an animal's death.

And you can't travel far in the outdoors blogs without running into yet another post about animal killers becoming animal rescuers. Albert recently posted about the lengths he was going to to feed a baby mockingbird. And then there was me and my stunned-robin episode back in March.

So the questions Hutch might ask if he were here (I believe he's on an excursion now and won't see this post for a while) are these: How can you continue killing and eating animals if you feel that way? And how can you turn around and express compassion toward a robin that smacked into your window when you might well be willing to eat it on toast if it was killed instead of merely stunned?

And the answer is I don't know.

But the reason I can't get my mind off this Mother's Day video is that it gives me comfort: I am not alone in this paradoxical behavior.

If that Lab in the video were a wild dog, I'm guessing she wouldn't hesitate to kill wild kittens if she was hungry and the opportunity arose. That female cat, if she were bigger, would happily munch on that fawn. And that leopard ... well, obviously she did kill a baboon, but then she nurtured its orphan.

Apparently the animal kingdom is filled examples of this bizarre behavior that shows killing and nurturing instincts live side-by-side in our brains. The only difference between us and most of the other animals is that they probably don't give it a thought, and we big-brained homo sapiens can think it to death.

I still don't get it. But if I take anything away from this, it's that hunters are able to behave more like the rest of the animal kingdom and simply be what we are, rather than over analyze.

And truth be told, that's one of the things I appreciate most about being a hunter: Most of the time, hunting simply allows me to be.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009


Albert A Rasch said...


A thoughtful and thought provoking essay as usual. I would like to give it more thought and perhaps write something along a similar vein.

I get Hutch's empathy. I feel it to. All good hunters do too. Whether they acknowledge it with thought, or quickly bury it or brush it aside, is an individual response. Personally, I give it a respectful moment to acknowledge what has transpired, then put it away.

Hubert has commented on it to over at Rabbit Stew. I think most of us have mentioned it before.

Again, a fantastic thought provoking essay.

The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles.
The Range Reviews: Tactical.
Proud Member of Outdoor Bloggers Summit.

Josh said...

Great post. I often think about this, too, which may be a part of my hesitance when I shoot (ask boyfriend), but it isn't a hesitance borne of the consciousness, it comes from the awe I feel when I first see prey; call it buck fever (or snipe fever, or duck fever, etc.).

The "logic" behind comparing deaths and trying to understand it in relation to the rest of life is also borne of empathy and awe. In humility there is an unworthiness, and in taking game there is humility, an understanding that luck was a part, and blessing, and also luck and blessing to be able to acquire skill. The reasoning is a reasoning arising from the empathic response to not want to do harm. It's not cold, hard logic.

Hubert Hubert said...

All of us bloggers are humans who suffer and think and write and love and do all the stuff that humans do (or aspire to, at any rate). I think it's a human thing to empathise - when it's lacking you have the short recipe for a bloodbath-ready sociopath.

I do think, however, that we can fall into a rather limiting contradiction when we extend to animals the care that it is only really right to offer to other humans. I do think we have a duty to offer stewardship to the earth and to its creatures but this stewardship errs, I believe, when we make the mistake of treating animals with the love and respect that is only due to other humans.

This is an unpopular notion but I'll state it: only humans suffer; I do not believe that animals suffer. I say this becasue I understand 'suffering' to be the effect of pain on a thinking (which is to say 'speaking') being. Suffering is thinking about pain. Animals are not - nor can they ever be - under the yoke of language as humans are. Animals do suffer pain - and we become, ourselves, inhuman if we seek to cause unnecessary pain in animals, but I do not believe that even the most committed sadist could make an animal suffer. Suffering is the province of humans - and humans only.

We make ourselves less human if we seek to cause pain to animals - but in hunting we do not seek this (unless we are sadists, of course) - we seek food for the table, not the pain of the animal we pursue.

I think that - pushed to an extreme - the more we confuse the distinction between humans and animals the more our own respect for each other as humans diminishes. If we seek to treat animals as fellow humans we debase not only our understanding of what a human is but open the door to making terrible errors in treating humans without the respect - the enormous, infinite respect called love - that they deserve.

The 'animals rights activists' in the U.K who desecrated the grave of someone whose relatives were linked to an activity they disapproved of confirmed this tendency in the most sacrilegious and appalling way way imaginable.

Josh said...

Hubert, though I'll disagree with you on the notion of suffering, I completely believe and agree with you about the notion of seeking to cause pain and also the notion of the distinction between humans and other animals. Great stuff.

hodgeman said...

Wonderful stuff Holly.

We don't often write about the emotions hunting brings up from within. I know that I go to great lengths to keep from causing suffering- even within the act of killing game. Funny I can hunt without much qualm but a cattle slaughterhouse fills me with all kinds of ill feelings.

Very compelling and thought provoking piece.

Anonymous said...

Those of us who have come to hunting as you and I have, need to remember that we killed and ate animals before. It's just that we paid other people to do it for us, in part so we didn't have to deal with the GREAT SADNESS of death.

Here we embrace the grief and loss of sweet life with the joy of success and the food that is life. They are one. Sometimes my spirit seems too small to grasp the enormity and ordinaryness.

I try to see it like the conflict between the ocean waves and the cliffs.

I hope I am expressing this in a way that makes some small bit of sense.


P.S. Costco meat dept. makes me sad.

Ken and Joanne said...

I think I have to question Hubert Hubert's position a little bit. To me it has always seemed that theologians, philosophers and scientists make a conceptual error when they try so hard to separate humans from the rest of nature. Man is the only animal who yada yada yada. How do we know that? We don't. It's an assumption.

We live, and to sustain this, we must kill other things that also live. A vegan friend once told me that he only ate garden fresh vegetables because he wanted all of his food alive, not dead. I've been told that carrots don't feel a thing when you eat them. I've also been told that lobsters don't mind being boiled alive, and may even enjoy it. But that's only what people say. I haven't had any reports from the carrots or lobsters.

Just the wanderings of an old man, but I think we shouldn't be too anxious to separate ourselves from nature or the rest of the universe. If you want to delete this, I'll understand. It really has nothing to do with hunting.

Holly Heyser said...

I'm of two minds about the issue that Hubert Hubert brought up.

On the one hand, hunting has brought me to the understanding that we are animals, albeit animals with really big brains. When animals do something clever, I don't think, "Wow, they're just like us." I realize, "Wow, all of us animals have that thing in common."

On the other hand, I have zero problem having different standards for how I treat my own species. For example, unless it is really my only way to survive, I will not kill and eat humans.

And don't worry, Ken - I only delete comments that are really offensive (which I've done once) or spam (which I've done maybe three times). I actually really enjoy the differences of opinion here - it's how I learn.

Josh said...

Ken, I know this is cliche', but Aldo Leopold really convinced me to consider the distinctions. He said, in effect, that there is something new under the Sun, that is: Our compassion for entire species. Humans didn't mourn the passing of the dodo when it happened, but by the time of the passenger pigeon, we were saddened by the loss of an entire species. Leopold saw this as a part of our evolution, a development of a 'land ethic'. He also said that, had we been the ones on the brink of extinction, the passenger pigeon wouldn't have cared.
That, to me, illuminated both our distinction and our responsibility. That is why I do not believe in animal rights, for instance, in that this distinction means that I cannot, therefore should not, expect or require another species to sign a social contract with me. And yet, I have a great responsibility towards alleviating suffering, towards treating well and not neglecting.

We are animals, yes, but our consciousness gives us new responsibilities as well as benefits. It is also a great distinction from other animals. And, if they are as conscious as we, then they are real jerks, far more often than we (Holly's video examples notwithstanding)... I'd rather believe they just don't know, it isn't a part of them, or their experiences.

Hubert Hubert said...

I think that to say, of humans, 'we are animals' is to make a statement that comes in a parcel with a large pile of unstated presuppositions bundled in there as well. Personally, I think that if an effort is made to unpick the additional extras to this kind of idea then it starts to look rather less solid than it might at first appear. It appears unarguable, of course. But I think it leaves out - to be frank - almost everything that's essential in making even the most cursory summary of a what a human being actually is.

You'll hear people sometimes say 'the free market is the basic way of understanding human inter-relatedness'. But in the same way that the image - the analogy - of the trade of goods by itself offers a staggeringly poor and limited description of the richness of human society, so - to my mind - does the story 'we are animals' offer an equally narrow view of our bodily and spiritual life as humans.

Forgive me but I have to include this: "You are worth more than many sparrows". I think if we accept too readily the idea that 'we are animals' - that we are not worth more than many sparrows - we can drift towards the idea that there's some kind of equivalence between a human life and the life of an animal - that one is worth much the same as another. To my mind, this is the way that leads to the frank insanity of the 'Deep Ecology' position that sees human life as nothing but a stain on the face of the planet.

This is by no means to say animals are worthless and inflicting needless pain on them is a matter of no concern - not at all: we become inhuman if we are cruel to animals and it is our duty to keep trying to become human.

If I was asked to choose between the life of one child and, say, the entire world population of Polar Bears, I should grieve bitterly that future generations should be denied the glory of God that is the Polar Bear - but I would choose the child.

SimplyOutdoors said...

I was just having this same conversation with a co-worker yesterday. She was asking he how hunting differs from punching the gas to run over a squirrel. She isn't against hunting. She, along with many other people, including myself, was just trying to grasp how we can kill one minute, and help an animal the next. It really is hard to explain.

I think you did an excellent job at conveying what a lot of hunters go through after a "successful" hunt. I think if you don't feel remorse after the kill, that something is definitely wrong with you.

Man, this is such a hard topic to put into words, but we just have to keep trying; it's the only way people will truly understand what is inside the heart of a hunter.

Holly Heyser said...

Oh, how far hunting has fallen that someone wouldn't understand the difference between punching it to hit a squirrel (meanness, sadism, cruelty) and shooting an animal to eat it (feeding your family). I believe that really is at the root of our image problem - people are so removed from food acquisition that they can ask a question like in all innocence.

Interestingly enough, I was thinking about this Saturday night when Hank and I went to see the new Star Trek movie. There was a scene in which the young Capt. Kirk was chased by some beast that seemed to be a cross between an insect and a T-Rex, and I was struck by how vicious the animal appeared. And then I realized that movie portrayals of a predator hunting prey almost always infuse the predator with viciousness - how often have we seen the snarling, salivating wolf?

No wonder people associate hunting with anger toward animals. Nobody realizes anymore that predators are hunting with about the same hostility that most people feel pouring their cereal into a bowl each morning.

Phillip said...

You guys have taken this to a new and interesting realm...

Personally, while I recognize that us humans have this ridiculously over-developed sense of empathy, at the same time we have an amazing ability to rationalize our behavior, I still think we are nothing more than animals... we are NOT worth more than many sparrows. We are worth exactly the same.

The difference is in the inference that I'm denying our empathy, or devaluing the lives of either the sparrows or humans... and I'm not. To me, I'd save my child before I'd save a sparrow. But who would the sparrow save?

Our sense of value, humans versus wild nature (for lack of a better term), has cost the world dearly. This isn't meant as a cliche indictment of our species, but as a logical fact. Through our technological advances, we've practically conquered "nature", displacing innumerable species to further our own manifest destiny. But of course, any other creature, given the same advantages, would do the same.

One of the reasons that hunting reverberates so strongly within me is the fact that at least on some level, I am acting on my basest instincts. I am a beast again, albeit a beast with a high-powered rifle and variable scope. Then again, when it comes to killing "technology", the lion is superior to the gazelle. So maybe I'm not so different there, either.

It's not so much opposable thumbs that sets us apart from the "lower" animals... it's the ability to rationalize and justify our actions. Beyond that, we are the same. Let's not fool ourselves.

Anonymous said...

Blessed said...

I'm late to the discussion here so I'll just stop for a moment to say - excellent post and discussion following. That's one reason I like your blog so much Holly - it encourages me to really think, not just to do.

hutchinson said...

PART 1 . . .

I can't fully quantify the disparity in how you might feel versus how I feel (and believe) without engaging a treatise. And the time for discussion on this post has long past, I realize.

I will just say that what you describe as empathy doesn't go far enough to encapsulate the depth of what people like me feel and know about the non-humans with whom we've worked. You describe the physiological sensations you imagine that animal might feel at the moment of injury and death. Valid to be sure.

But my paradigm extends far beyond that, into the realm of animal behavior, emotion and social structure that I realize most hunters or others who use animals (for food or otherwise) are loathe to address. To acknowledge what I have learned and experienced over the years of working with animals would make it impossible to compartmentalize them in the way that must be done when someone chooses to kill for food or for fun or both.

Between myself, my co-workers and the dedicated people and volunteers I've met throughout the course of my work and life, we've rescued, rehabilitated, observed, and nurtured untold individuals and groups of animals (wild and otherwise) who've, sadly, been harmed in the path of human technology, malice or accident. In the context of that work, you come to genuinely know these animals -- beyond what they can offer us as humans. You see them as individuals with inherent value -- with societal structures and complex communications, and as animals who can love, fear, experience joy, and also exhibit what can only be construed as compassion toward others of their species or outside their species. The lines between the "us" and the "them" start to disappear in terms of the respect and privilege we're willing to extend.

Understanding other animals in this way renders what I would characterize as a world view separate from the primarily utilitarian one that most humans abide by. Perhaps what separates me and mine from a hunter most of all is a philosophical divide. I tend to see the world and its inhabitants in a more holistic web rather than from an anthropocentric core of human superiority. I don't believe animals are here for our use. Irrespective of what you might say about being part of the cycle of life, the type of hunting most modern hunters do is anything but natural in terms of the technology, the methodology and the numbers of animals taken or injured. I'm not the first nor will I be the last to suggest that we are not a natural predator in most ecosystems where homo sapien is a radical newcomer. As such, probably controversially, I hold humans to a higher standard of how we engage an environment that (for the most part) we don't belong in (save, perhaps, for our earliest origins on the African continent.)

cont'd . . .

hutchinson said...


I don't know (and neither does anyone else, if they're to be honest) what level of consciousness most non-human animals possess. Given that ideas formerly held as scientific "truths" are disproved regularly as the time continuum progresses, I will err on the side of assuming some semblance of consciousness. But even if that weren't true, I cannot separate my ideas of animals from what I've observed in terms of their intimate lives outside of what we would consider useful for our purposes. Their lives as they live unto themselves. And as animals who do have consciousness (us, well -- most of us) I believe it's incumbent upon us to exercise the highest form of compassion and empathy we can muster, given that we have the capacity to understand this. Whether or not a non-human animal has similar consciousness doesn't absolve us of our own responsibility toward a recognized consciousness in our species.

Some things I've seen in my work with animals. Coyotes and wolves, for instance, develop deep coupling and family bonds. To be a part of their family group (in as much as humans can) I cannot relay to you the heartbreak of what it's like to then witness humans harm them -- those who have no frame of reference for these animals and how they live in their own societal structures. To see our species come alone and reduce a mother coyote or her young to vermin -- and (in the case of one county where I worked) collect a bounty for each tail. It's simply unfathomable. The same is true of Prairie Dogs. Have you ever lived among these groups and studied their societies? They are far more complex and involve a family dynamic that I've yet to hear acknowledged from a varmint hunter who exterminates without much thought for these aspects.

Birds, such as Sandhill Cranes and some geese and ducks mate for life. Aside from the issues discussed in this blog and elsewhere about reducing an animal's suffering which are significant issues, to be sure -- there's the overlooked aspect hunters don't see, and that's what's left behind in the aftermath of the shot. A hunter is concerned with the quarry and the collection, provided that animal was killed and tracked.

But have you ever been on the other side? Have you ever seen the grief experienced by certain mammals or marine mammals when the mate is lost? What happens to the herd or the group when a maternal figure is killed? Have you watched the surviving animals in the aftermath of a shot? Or watched a duck mourn its mate, refuse to eat? Some may disparage this as unscientific, but increasingly, scientists like Marc Bekoff are beginning to acknowledge the flaw in this psychological divide, one that has allowed us to retain these qualities for ourselves alone.

cont'd . . .

hutchinson said...


I regularly visit a rehabilitated wood duck who, sadly, was injured and too habituated to return to the wild. She talks to you. She responds. She understands many words and recognizes certain individuals whom she approaches. She has nurtured other injured ducks who've been brought into her enclosure. I can give you countless examples of the animals I've held, fed, released -- knowing them in one way, and yet understanding they are not mine to know or own.

What I'm saying in a very roundabout way is that why I don't eat meat, why I don't hunt transcends any superficial explanation. It's a conscious choice born of living among entities who, in the end, aren't so different from us. And feeling so utterly burdened by what I see happen to them, that I simply cannot inflict more pain on them than human development and other man-made assaults already do. I come from a family of refugees that was victimized by human predation of sorts. My own philosophical stance undoubtedly arises from being intimately tied to the outcome and the pain of violent human actions -- and, as a result, wishing to do as little harm as possible while I'm here. And, to (as the Hippocratic Oath says) first do no harm. I feel that's the least I can give the non-humans who barely stand a chance of surviving our encroachment as it is. I can't enforce it on anyone else, but that's a more accurate depiction of what might separate one who can pull the trigger, and one who can't.


Holly Heyser said...

Hey Hutch, welcome back!

I knew I could count on you to come back and portray more accurately your thoughts and your positions. I hope it didn't pain you too much to see yourself used in absentia as a foil.

I agree with much of what you say - especially about the intelligence, social structure and emotions of animals. What I keep coming back to, though, is that many of those intelligent, social, emotional animals take lives to feed themselves without worrying about the mourning or wounded survivors because that is the natural order of affairs.

Yes, human hunters are unnaturally armed - but arming ourselves to gain advantage is one of the things that has made us human. And remember, the great advantage my rifle affords me is matched by the myriad restraints imposed by laws, ethics and common sense.

You say "Do no harm," which for you means harming no animals. (Of course, we all know it's impossible to do no harm at all, but I'll skip that argument here because I'm sure we've all seen it.)

I say, "Minimize the inescapable harm," which for me means foresaking, to the extent possible, factory-farmed meat; supporting sustainable, humane animal agriculture; supporting or restoring wildlife habitat that will support populations sufficient to provide me with food without any detriment to any species as a whole; and being as responsible as I can be when I am hunting, in terms of avoiding risky shots with high likelihood of nonfatal wounding.

And then there are a whole bunch of people in the middle who don't say anything about this at all. They just eat. For what it's worth, I'd rather have dinner with you, Hutch, than with them.