In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Why is it that so many of my favorite subjects are conversation killers? Politics. Religion. Hunting. In my social circle the statement “I’m going hunting next week” tends to bring any discourse to a halt.
Though I grew up in Pennsylvania, the deer-hunting capital of North America, I never went hunting as a boy. Today I live in rural Tennessee — inside a national park, in fact — and I work at an environmental learning center. “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Henry David Thoreau said. But in the twenty-first century we relate to wild nature mostly as mere visitors to it. Several years ago, wanting a relationship with wilderness that was closer to the one Native Americans and early European settlers had, I went deer hunting for the first time. Two years ago I killed my first deer. I spent the next year eating the meat I’d hunted myself. In the process I deepened my connection with the land — land that hadn’t been cleared for crops but instead had remained wild.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the number of hunters in this country has been in gradual decline for the last two decades. In 2006 only 5 percent of the population identified themselves as hunters. This worries state fish-and-wildlife agencies, which depend on revenue from license fees to buy land and improve habitat. (Wildlife watchers and nature enthusiasts usually pay nothing for their enjoyment of these lands.) Fewer hunters means fewer memberships in organizations like Ducks Unlimited, which since 1937 has conserved more than 11 million acres of wetlands. But hunting entails picking up a weapon, aiming it at a living being, and sending a bullet or arrow through its heart. And many view this as cruel and barbaric.
David Petersen would like to change their perspective. His book Heartsblood: Hunting, Spirituality, and Wildness in America (Johnson Books) explained to me both the sadness and the powerful feeling of connectedness that I experienced when I killed a deer. “Nothing could be more in tune with nature,” he writes, “and thus more moral, than to follow our omnivorous instincts, needs, and ‘God-given’ talents as hunters, openly and gratefully acknowledging the deaths that go to nourish our lives.” He wades fearlessly into ethical debates with vegetarians and animal-rights advocates, and he lives what he believes.
Before giving up a conventional life in order to live closer to the wild, Petersen was a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Marines, the managing editor of a national motorcycle magazine, a mail carrier, a beach bum, and the western editor of Mother Earth News. He has written nine books (www.davidpetersenbooks.com), including Elkheart: A Personal Tribute to Wapiti and Their World (Johnson Books) and On the Wild Edge: In Search of a Natural Life (Holt). Petersen was a close friend of nature writer Edward Abbey, who died in 1989, and he has edited Abbey’s journals, poetry, and letters. He is currently the Colorado field director for Trout Unlimited’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project and co-chair of Colorado Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (www.coloradobackcountryhunters.org). Though Petersen has little use for what he calls “man-made” religion, he holds to a strong personal spirituality that he describes as a respect for all life on earth, rooted in ancient practices and informed by modern science.
I sat down with Petersen for several hours in the Strater Hotel in Durango, Colorado. Afterward he took me to the cabin he’d built in the San Juan Mountains. There he and his wife, Caroline, treated me to a delicious steak supper of elk and pronghorn antelope, both of which Petersen had shot with a simple longbow.
Lloyd: Other than food, what type of rewards does hunting bring: Physical? Spiritual? A sense of place?
Petersen: All of the above and more. But as with all “good work,” to use poet Gary Snyder’s term, hunting can open these doors only if we think about what we are doing and why; only if we work at it honestly, with no loutish shortcuts; and only if we intend it to be physically, spiritually, and even aesthetically rewarding. We take from hunting what we put into it, just as with the rest of life.
Not all hunting is the same, and not all hunters are the same. One hunter may walk up the mountain to hunt like a real human animal and carry the meat back down; another may ride up the mountain on an all-terrain vehicle [ATV] and haul the meat back effortlessly. Spiritually, hunters can study and internalize the natural histories not only of their prey but also of our own omnivorous species, at once empowering and restraining themselves with empathy. Or hunters can think of their prey merely as potential scores in the record book, stuffed heads on the den wall, which is the antithesis of spirituality and even basic human decency.
Growing up on the Great Plains, I hunted and ate cottontails, squirrels, and bobwhite quail, because that’s what was available there. For the twenty-nine years that I’ve lived in the Rockies, I’ve hunted elk, because it’s the most abundant and delicious wild game around. I do almost all of my hunting near my home. I walk up the mountain and kill an elk and have meat all winter. This is the norm for me, as it is for a majority of American hunters, if you replace the elk with white-tailed deer.
Lloyd: You’ve called hunting “our genetic dictum.” How so?
Petersen: Humans evolved as wild animals among other wild animals in a wholly wild world. Sociobiologist Paul Shepard is the father of the field of human ecology, and in his book Coming Home to the Pleistocene he says humans reached ecological perfection during the Pleistocene, from 1.6 million to about fourteen thousand years ago. Then the climate changed, and their megafaunal prey died out. (Subsistence hunting was certainly a factor in the extinctions, but not the primary cause.) After that humans went from seminomadic foragers to sedentary farmers. But until that point, every human alive had been a hunter-gatherer.
Natural inclinations and aversions evolve over a very long time. Since we began farming, there’s been just enough genetic change in our gut to allow us to better digest grains, but behaviorally, physically, and nutritionally we haven’t changed one iota from our Pleistocene forebears. Ten thousand years of agriculture cannot supplant 6 million years of evolution. We are still the same human animals. So, though this inclination to hunt may be a disturbing mystery to some of us, and though it doesn’t make logical sense as a means of feeding all of us, it remains an urgent biological imperative in many humans today, though often sublimated because of the culture and lack of wild surroundings.
Lloyd: Some people believe we have evolved enough by now that killing meat for food is obsolete.
Petersen: It depends what type of “evolution” you’re speaking of. Certainly, from a cultural-evolution point of view, modern, well-nourished First World citizens have no need to hunt or raise our own meat. But the majority of us still eat meat. Is it a moral gain or loss to relegate the bloody task of making meat to slaughterhouse professionals doing their unpleasant work behind closed doors and off camera? As an alternative we can become vegetarians, but even vegans must accept responsibility for the deaths of the plants that nourish them. Life is eat-and-be-eaten. Unless you can acquire all your nutrients from the air, killing for food can never be avoided.
We human animals split from a common ancestor with chimps and reached our present form of mind and body millions of years later, only after having perfected hunting and meat eating. None of the several prehuman Homo branches that were strict vegetarians lasted. Our large brain developed thanks to the specific combination of fatty acids found only in meat. Without hunting and meat eating, we’d still be fruit-and-berry-eating apes. The world, in many ways, would be better off.
Lloyd: Why, in a culture that glorifies violence, do some recoil at the notion of killing an animal to feed oneself?
Petersen: I don’t know that I can answer that to anyone’s satisfaction, especially my own. As a culture, we glorify fictional violence to escape from and harden our hearts against the reality of a truly violent world. And some hunters hunt from a comic-book mentality, trying to enact violent fantasy in a legalized and somewhat culturally acceptable fashion. The end result is the objectification of all nonhuman life. Modern humans are strange, deracinated animals living in an increasingly unreal “reality.” But hunting is as real as the red blood on my hands after hauling home an elk.
Lloyd: What’s your opinion of veganism as a philosophy and way of life?
Petersen: Veganism is a morally valid, albeit nutritionally extreme, attempt to live ethically in an overcrowded world of finite material resources and seemingly infinite cruelty. But is it worth the bother in the big picture of life and death on earth? Biologically speaking, the human animal, like our brother the bear, is an opportunistic omnivore. We have a predator’s front-set eyes and an omnivore’s gut, teeth, and nutritional needs. But at least vegans are thinking about life’s problems and experimenting with theoretical solutions, which is more than I can say for most people, including most hunters.
There are many hidden ecological and economic costs of veganism and vegetarianism. Ted Kerasote, in his well-researched book Bloodties, coined the term “fossil-fuel vegetarianism” to describe what’s going on today. If someone wishes to forgo meat — either for moral reasons or because they believe eating meat is unhealthy — I say more power to them. But how many vegetarians grow or gather all their own food? Practically no one falls into that category, which means you’re buying farmed products. Somebody has cleared land, costing many birds and animals their homes. Maybe that land was cleared a hundred years before you were born, but you’re a direct beneficiary of that destruction of the wild. Then there are all the chemical fertilizers. Even if you’re using organic fertilizer, it has to be shipped using fossil fuels. Every spring a big diesel tractor will be used to till the soil and will smash burrows and kill countless moles and mice and burrowing owls and even deer fawns. This considerable carnage is all conveniently invisible.
Lloyd: Is predation ethical?
Petersen: Absolutely! But civilization has a broad bias against hunters and predators of every stripe: The Big, Bad Wolf. Jaws. Elmer Fudd. The list goes on. Remember, we didn’t evolve only as hunters but as prey too. Before we learned to pick up a stick or rock and throw it at something good to eat, we were being chased, killed, and eaten by an impressive assortment of megapredators. It’s no surprise that many of us tend to think of the predator as the bad guy, and to side with the underdog, the weak, the “helpless” and preyed-upon. What a wonderful world this would be if only the lamb could lie down with the lion. But what are the lion’s choices at dinnertime?
One of my favorite cult movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Predator, plays on this theme of the hunter as pure evil. It’s dismissed by most as a stupid, macho divertissement, but this testosterone-drenched flick is also a surprisingly subtle sendup of trophy hunting.
My point is that, in our culture, in order to even entertain the idea of an ethical predator, the observer must approach the subject with an open mind. Ethical hunting is predicated on dignity and respect: Dignity in our private thoughts and public words as well as in our actions afield when, as hunter Aldo Leopold pointed out, nobody is watching us. And respect, not only for the animals we hunt, their habitats, and the greater natural world, but also for ourselves as hunters and human animals. Carry those two blessed burdens in your heart, and you will do no moral wrong as a predator.
Lloyd: What are the cultural origins of this bias against hunters in America?
Petersen: It depends on which America you are speaking of: Madison Avenue or Madison River, Montana; or, for that matter, New York City or upstate New York. Hunting is not looked upon as a cruel activity in most rural regions of the U.S. Whereas people in the city discuss the size of their financial investments, people in the country ask about the size of your winter woodpile and whether you’ve got your elk or deer in yet.
Where a bias against hunting does exist in this country today — essentially in the large population centers — it’s a perfectly understandable phenomenon. Put people in an environment where hunting has not been a part of their families or culture for generations; where almost every visible aspect of wild nature has been erased and paved over; where hunting is no longer necessary to satisfy our natural cravings for meat; where guns are used only to commit crimes and enforce laws; where nothing about hunting’s essential role in human evolution is to be found in any schoolbook below the university-graduate level — and naturally those people won’t know or care about hunting. And what we don’t understand or care about, we tend to distrust and dislike. It’s a form of xenophobia.
On top of this, within the last generation or so, out-of-touch hunters and the burgeoning hunting industry have begun to supply the nonhunting public with a bounty of justifiable reasons to distrust and dislike them. Those pitiful clowns on the Outdoor Channel — I call it the “Outhouse Channel” — and similar “sportsman” channels and programs couldn’t portray hunting in a worse light if they tried. I refuse to watch such soulless garbage, and I boycott its advertisers. That isn’t hunting; it’s “horn porn,” and it nauseates real hunters and anglers even more than it does the unsuspecting nonhunter who has the misfortune to stumble upon it while channel surfing. At worst, these purely profit-driven programs glorify acts that are illegal almost everywhere except Texas, commonly executing fenced-in, pen-raised deer lured in by bait, using motorized waterfowl decoys, and glorifying the gleeful killing of so-called trophy animals and “varmints” whose bodies, and lives, go to waste. At best, these shows blatantly hawk cheater-technology products and send out wrongheaded ideas, attracting the wrong kind of people to hunting and fishing. I, for one, don’t want such losers and cheaters out there staining hunting’s reputation. Let them go bowling or golfing.
Modern humans are strange, deracinated animals living in an increasingly unreal “reality.” But hunting is as real as the red blood on my hands after hauling home an elk.
Lloyd: Many hunters belong to the National Rifle Association [NRA]. What has it done for hunting’s reputation?
Petersen: I own a few guns, but I do not belong to the NRA and am appalled at their anticonservation, antiwilderness posturing. The NRA does not represent hunters or hunting in the U.S. — certainly not my kind of hunting. It’s a right-wing extremist group that uses fear and lies to dupe politically gullible hunters into helping it achieve its own hateful ends. In fact legitimate hunters’ groups spend much time and energy battling the NRA, which sides with the off-road-vehicles industry and attempts, at times successfully, to block wilderness-preservation and conservation bills.
Lloyd: Carl Sagan said, “A sharp distinction between humans and ‘animals’ is essential if we are to bend them to our will — wear them, eat them — without any disquieting tinges of guilt and regret.” How do you respond to that?
Petersen: Hunting has been around longer than the distinction he’s referring to. For hundreds of millennia prior to the advent of agriculture — which reduced wild animals, via domestication, to soulless “property” — our human forebears hunted, killed, and ate animals, just as animals hunted, killed, and ate them. Throughout all that formative time — a time that made us what we are now, both good and bad — humans everywhere on earth had an animistic spirituality in which animals were not lesser beings but equals. The only difference was in “job description.” Hunter-gatherers believed — and the few tribal societies that survive unblemished by agriculture or missionary invasion still believe — that prey “willingly” give themselves to right-minded predators for consumption. But they just as strongly believed that our duty, our debt of reciprocity, was to honor and respect the animals who give their lives and whose lives are taken. This animistic spirituality, in my view, provides the highest moral guidance as to how we should relate to animals. But with the spread of agriculture and domestication, animism was replaced by increasingly human-centered dogmas that conveniently put us on a higher plane than “soulless” animals.
Lloyd: Is it reasonable to suggest that people who want to eat meat should, at least once in their lives, kill an animal they plan to eat?
Petersen: Utterly reasonable and, I believe, a path to soul-searching and moral growth. Most of us reside in a make-believe world of “live and let live.” I’m sixty-three and was raised in Oklahoma. My elementary-school class spent a day at the local slaughterhouse and came home with the bellowing moans of dying cattle and the screams of hook-hung swine ringing horrifically in our ears. Even now I’m a little queasy about eating bacon, because when I do, I can hear those screams and visualize the suffering. In today’s politically correct times such shockingly real education is almost extinct. In my parents’ generation many young Americans participated in the raising and slaughtering of a 4-H Club steer; the raising, killing, and eating of Easter chickens and bunnies; the gutting of a perch or catfish; and so on. Today most parents would go to great lengths to shield their children from such “dark” truths of living and dying.
Lloyd: Until recently hunting and fishing were traditional ways that fathers and sons spent time outdoors together, but kids today are spending less time out in nature.
Petersen: The more youthful time that is spent outdoors without adult supervision, the better. I’m sure many readers have fond memories of building hide-outs and forts as children. We’re not talking about the Nature Channel or petting zoos here, but good old-fashioned digging in dirt, catching and handling frogs and snakes and bugs, getting stung by insects or sprayed by a skunk — the real stuff of nature. Though hunting and fishing are hardly necessary for children to have such rites of passage in wild nature, they certainly provide a direct route.
It’s been demonstrated over and over again that children who have hands-on experiences with wild nature in the years just before puberty fare better in every aspect of adult life — education, income, duration of marriages, health, happiness, longevity, and on and on. But fewer and fewer parents have maintained the skills and desire to hunt, eroding the tradition. For urban and suburban kids there is no handy place to hunt and no time. How do you teach the important skills and values and life lessons embodied in the term “woodsmanship” to a kid who has never even seen a cow?
Lack of opportunity. Lack of access. Lack of unspoiled, undeveloped wild country. Lack of knowledgeable and wise mentors. Lack of peer approval, especially among the young. These are the true enemies of hunting. The antihunting activists can relax. Hunting may die on its own.
Lloyd: Why should a resident of Manhattan or Chicago care if hunting were to die out?
Petersen: Frankly, if someone chooses to hate hunting, that’s their business. But logic and fairness demand that all intelligent people possess at least a modicum of understanding of a subject before we judge. Otherwise it’s merely another us-versus-them game that diminishes the judge even more than the judged. Hate me for my words and actions as an individual, not as an invisible part of a generalized group.
Lloyd: How old were you when you hunted for the first time?
Petersen: Tagging along unarmed with an older cousin: maybe eight. Armed with a .22 and shooting squirrels and rabbits with the same older cousin, who was the closest I ever had to a hunting mentor: perhaps ten or twelve. My first deer hunt and true backcountry experience came at fourteen, when I was left alone with a school pal at Camp Gruber on the Oklahoma-Arkansas border for five glorious days of getting lost and finding ourselves. That remains one of my fondest memories of my father — both the sacrifice he made to take us to that distant place and pick us up a week later, and the trust he and my mother granted me. I finally killed my first deer at eighteen, with a bow and arrow. I’ve been primarily a bowhunter ever since.
Lloyd: Why hunt by bow? Isn’t a rifle faster and more merciful?
Petersen: Faster, indeed. We bowhunters have a saying: “Where a rifle hunt ends, a bow hunt just begins.” To be a devoted bowhunter means that you enjoy process over product. It takes longer and requires more work, and we want it that way. The odds of making meat are far lower. You have to be in better physical condition and a more competent woodsman all around. You have to know the habits, habitats, and personality of your game. And you have to get close. Whereas rifle hunters — and modern pseudo-bowhunters using space-age arrow-launching devices — boast about how far they can make accurate shots, traditional bowhunters boast about how close we can get before we shoot. I killed my elk this year with a longbow from two yards. Earlier in the season I got to within three yards of another bull elk but had no ethical shot opportunity.
But even bowhunting has largely been co-opted by our capitalist paradigm of “the faster and easier, the better.” And a greedy hunting industry is peddling products that help take the “hunt” out of bowhunting while increasing the ease and assurance of making consistent kills. This is amoral at best. Here again, I point you to the Outhouse Channel for copious gag-worthy examples.
But you asked if a rifle is more merciful: It depends. A well-placed arrow adequate to the game can drop even an animal as huge as an elk — which range from five hundred to eight hundred pounds — virtually in its tracks. But going in underequipped and having poor aim can lead to the tragedy of wounded and unrecovered animals. The same can be said of rifles. The equalizing factor between the two is distance. Whereas bowhunters speak of shot distances in yards, rifle hunters speak in hundreds of yards. There are no studies to confirm this, but my experience as a lifelong hunter who has used both bow and rifle says that wounding rates are about the same and have far less to do with the weapon than with the judgment and skill of the shooter.
The goal of every conscientious hunter, no matter the weapon, is to kill the prey as quickly and cleanly as possible, preferably in a “never-knew-what-hit-it” manner, so that it experiences neither pain nor conscious fear, which, aside from being a form of suffering, floods the body with adrenaline that can taint the taste of the meat. So far as which method hurts more: evidence suggests that neither bullet nor arrow is initially felt much by the animal, if at all, due to the instant shock from bullet impact and the painless nature of a well-designed, scalpel-sharp broad-head. If the shot is well placed, the animal dies too quickly to suffer. Most experienced bowhunters have stories about heart-shooting a deer and seeing the animal flinch at impact as if it had been stung by a wasp, look around, and then return to feeding before dropping dead seconds later. Talk to anyone who has been shot or stabbed, and you hear every time, “I didn’t feel a thing — until later.” So again, the “merciful” kill doesn’t depend on weaponry nearly as much as on the skill and judgment of the shooter.
Once I decide to kill an animal, I think of nothing other than doing it right. The moment after the arrow is released or the trigger squeezed is the most unsettling for the ethical hunter. . . . Please fall down! Die fast! These are the thoughts running through my mind.
Lloyd: What are some thoughts and feelings you experience when you kill an animal at the end of a successful hunt?
Petersen: I have strong mixed emotions. To love animals as I do — or, for that matter, as do the best small farmers — you have to be able to flip a mental switch in order to commit the bloody act. I don’t think I could execute farm animals I had raised and cared for, but the challenge and effort and time involved in the hunt are sufficient to flip the switch for me. Once I decide to kill an animal, I think of nothing other than doing it right. The moment after the arrow is released or the trigger squeezed is the most unsettling for the ethical hunter. Your heart is banging like a big brass gong, both from the excitement and from the anxiety about the outcome. Please fall down! Die fast! These are the thoughts running through my mind at that crucial moment. What I want is to see that animal fall over dead.
When I approach an animal I’ve just killed — it doesn’t matter if it’s a fish or a grouse or an elk — I touch it gently and apologize, thanking it for its life: meaningless to the animal’s corpse, I’m sure, but beneficial to my own spirit and humility. Then I get right to work converting the body to portions of meat not unlike the bloodless, neatly wrapped animal flesh we buy at the supermarket. As we discussed earlier, it’s a moral obligation for meat eaters to remind ourselves where meat comes from.
From what I’ve seen, my feelings are shared by most thoughtful hunters. The whooping and jumping in triumph you see on the Outhouse Channel is pretty much limited to pretend hunters with juvenile, egocentric attitudes.
© Lauren Blalock
Lloyd: White-tailed-deer populations are too high in many parts of the country, yet there seems to be reluctance on the part of hunters to shoot the female does, a more effective means of population control than killing the male bucks.
Petersen: To keep a burgeoning deer population in check, it’s necessary to aggressively hunt reproducing females. Unfortunately for wildlife managers, a great many older hunters still harbor the “protect-the-females” ethic they were taught when young, and they find it morally objectionable to kill does or their fawns. I call it the “Bambi syndrome,” and I’m trying to convince my fellow hunters that the opposite is true: that killing females and young is not ignoble but rather the best thing to do in an ecological sense, because it takes pressure off the increasingly rare mature breeding males, repositories of proven successful genes. By gunning for the male deer with the largest antlers generation after generation, we are culling the cream of the crop among breeding stock and thus monkey-wrenching natural selection.
Another consideration is that, on average, half of all deer fawns and elk calves will die within their first year due to genetic flaws, natural predation, disease, starvation, accident, harsh weather, and so on. Interestingly studies show that hunting fawns hardly alters total-fatality figures. And Bambis provide excellent, veal-quality meat, if not very much of it.
Lloyd: Since the beginning of regulated hunting, no game species has become extinct, endangered, or threatened. As paradoxical as it may sound, can a case be made for hunting certain endangered species?
Petersen: Not in today’s world. There’s a huge difference between the historical American hunting-conservation community, which brought back many game fish, birds, and mammals from the brink of extinction, and trophy hunting for endangered species such as polar bears and certain “exotic” species of sheep and goats, which is championed by the most morally bankrupt of hunting groups, Safari Club International. You don’t save a species by killing its survivors, no matter how much money it brings to “conservation” efforts. Certainly hunting programs in parts of Africa give the lie to what I just said, but that’s a geographically unique and maddeningly complex political situation.
Lloyd: Is there a place at all for trophy hunters?
Petersen: What Safari Club International does — trophy hunting purely for ego gratification — is childish and shameful. These wealthy fat cats trot the globe, spending fortunes to hire the best guides and often hunting on private “preserves,” all in order to get their names in some meaningless record book and fill their ostentatious trophy rooms with full-body mounts.
In dramatic contrast there are some conscientious hunters who set themselves a challenge and insist on doing everything themselves, and when they succeed they would never disrespect their prey by entering it in a trophy book for “recognition” or wasting its flesh. I’m not sure whether to call that “trophy hunting” or not. But from an ecological point of view it’s difficult to make a case for the concentrated culling of prime breeding males we see glorified today.
Lloyd: How do you feel about the sport hunting of predators likes bears and wolves?
Petersen: Back in the early 1990s I campaigned hard for a state ballot initiative outlawing the spring hunting, baiting, and hounding of bears. We won overwhelmingly. Though I have a special relationship with bears and don’t hunt them no matter what the method, they are overpopulated in places, and their meat is delicious. I have no problem with folks who hunt them if it’s done “fair chase.” That’s my position. There are plenty of ethical and upstanding hunters, mostly in eastern states like New Jersey, who will argue that with me. Due to the shy nature of bears and the dense woods there, they say, the only way they can effectively hunt bears is using bait. Further, they argue that bears in New Jersey and other places are burgeoning in number and need to be hunted for reasons of public safety. I try to stay out of those “foreign” arguments, but in general I don’t consider the baiting of anything to be hunting.
As far as wolves go, my personal hunting ethic demands that I not kill anything I don’t want to eat. That most certainly includes wolves. But from a game-management point of view, wolf populations sometimes need to be controlled in specific places and situations, so the closely regulated hunting of wolves is perhaps essential. Without it, no long-term reintroduction of wolves to the wild will get the political blessing of hunters. Sure, we could let the federal wildlife professionals trap, poison, or shoot problem wolves. That would sit better with the animal-rights activists, who detest the idea of humans finding pleasure in killing. But it would anger and alienate many hunters — and which group has more political pull in such cases? I view the hunting of wolves for sport as an unpleasant matter of practicality, even though I personally would rather hear a live wolf howl than have its hide as a rug.
When she was still governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin initiated a focused pogrom against wolves and bears, including grizzly bears. Her idea was that fewer predators would mean more moose and caribou, which she hoped would attract nonresident hunters — and their tourism dollars — to her state. This sort of practice is an abomination by any sane standards. Of course, Palin has God on her side.
Lloyd: The number of hunters in the U.S. is in decline. What does this spell for the future of land conservation?
Petersen: Certainly hunters are an aging subculture, and many worry at the lack of vigorous recruitment. The greatest concern comes from the outdoor industry, which wants to assure itself an ever-growing customer base. But we don’t need more hunters to ensure the conservation of public lands; we need more informed and engaged hunters. Frankly I’d love to see fewer hunters in my patch of woods, especially if they’re riding ATVs instead of walking.
Hunters and anglers are the original conservationists. Teddy Roosevelt and his “group of one hundred” influential sportsmen imposed laws that restricted their own activities just in time to prevent the annihilation in the wild of many game species in North America, if too late for others. It was sportsmen who saw what we were losing and stopped it. It’s been sportsmen and -women over the century since then who, through their license fees, have allowed us to restore our wildlife-rich continent, despite a booming, land-devouring human population explosion. But it’s always been a minority of hunters and anglers who’ve pulled the real political weight, while the majority crow about how their license fees fund conservation efforts but never lift a finger to help. For every hunter who’s been actively involved in conservation, there are probably ten more who have been co-opted by the NRA, the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance (a right-wing Chicken Little anti-antihunter outfit), or their misguided ilk into thinking that environmentalism is a liberal sin. What percentage of nonresident Colorado hunters, if they were told they didn’t have to pay five hundred dollars for a license to hunt elk, would still give money to support conservation?
Amid all the hype about decreasing numbers of hunters, we are currently experiencing an unprecedented rise in true sportsman-conservation groups who stand in common cause with traditional conservation groups on such critical public-lands issues as sensible energy development, roadless-area protection, and wilderness designation. They’re also fighting what’s arguably the greatest threat that hunting and wild nature have ever known: the all-terrain vehicle. Numerous studies have shown that big-game animals such as elk are scared to death of engine sounds. The presence of four-wheel-drive vehicles, ATVs, and dirt bikes in the backcountry is disturbing to wildlife in general and causes ecological damage. And the easier it is to get into the backcountry, the more people will go there. Areas with easy access can become wildlife deserts, the animals either frightened away or killed off. That is not good for responsible hunting. I also detest motorized hunting because, as I said before, it’s just too damn easy. It reduces a noble art to a level where any couch potato can get into the backcountry, dumbing down the great mystery and personal challenge nature and hunting should be.
Lloyd: It seems hunters and environmentalists are often on opposite sides of the table politically, even though they may share many values. How did this schism develop?
Petersen: Mutual suspicion, lack of communication, and good old cultural xenophobia. Hunters have been gullible and easily co-opted. Politicians and interest groups have played on their lack of political sophistication. I’m amazed how fast hunters will mobilize and send in money and write Congress every time some charlatan yells, “The liberals are coming to take your guns away!” And yet they won’t raise a finger, decade after decade, while the one thing they need most if they want to keep hunting is being taken away: A place to hunt. A place for wild animals to live. Wildlife habitat.
Hunting-conservation groups like Trout Unlimited and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers — both of which I’m proud to be involved with — are working successfully to get hunters every bit as fired up about our threatened and abused public lands as they are about gun ownership, and to educate them on why wilderness is important. Even if a hunter doesn’t personally go into deep wilderness to hunt, that’s where game animals live long enough to become trophy animals, and sooner or later some of those animals are going to drift into more-accessible areas, making them available to the everyman hunter. Wilderness, in other words, serves as a wildlife-production area and “trophy pump.” This is the sort of “What’s in it for me?” angle that speaks to some hunters.
It’s a hard sell, though. How do you convince a bunch of people who all own ATVs that they should protect wilderness and keep it roadless, meaning they can’t ride their ATVs on it? But if you present your case right, with complete honesty, it can be done — not with spin, but with facts.
Lloyd: Is it possible that city-dwelling liberals will ever overcome their prejudices and grant respect to a sport that mostly rural conservatives pursue?
Petersen: I’d say the outcome is in our hands as hunters. Although our critics may cast stones of derision at us, it’s our inappropriate actions and the public image broadcast by the Outhouse Channel and the NRA that provide them with their most powerful ammunition. In fact, I hope critics will continue to hold hunters’ feet to the fire. All I ask is that their criticisms be informed, fair, and specific.
I’ll put my efforts to benefit the welfare of wild animals up against any antihunting activist’s. The important distinction here is between animal rights, a mentality wherein proponents haven’t really sorted out the difference between humans and animals, and animal welfare — that is, empathizing with animals, caring about animals, identifying with animals as an animal yourself. I am a hard-core animal-welfare advocate. That’s what’s motivated my life’s work. Sadly the hunting industry and its media minions have far greater reach and resources, and their efforts serve to objectify game animals and create an army of gadget-laden quasi-hunters whose only goal is the kill, preferably a trophy male. I feel sorry for these misguided hunters, as they’re missing the best of what real hunting has to offer.
Lloyd: What would you suggest someone do who’s never hunted and wants to try?
Petersen: The best way is to find a wise mentor. Women in the Outdoors is an excellent program. In recent years women have been the fastest-growing segment of the hunting community, and they are better hunters than the average macho male. Unfortunately I don’t know of any comparable program for men.
Truthfully I’m uncomfortable encouraging people to take up hunting. There are too many hunters out there already who aren’t grounded in nature. I would prefer to see people become steeped in the values of hunting before getting introduced to the actuality of it.
Lloyd: You have lived in the same wild area for nearly thirty years. What does this place mean to you?
Petersen: It’s my life, my heart, my spiritual home. My wife, Caroline, and I have lived here long enough to see trees die, become snags, fall, and slowly rot back to earth, leaving only “tree ghosts” that few would even notice. But to us those mossy shadows across the forest floor are books of local natural history. I can remember specific birds doing specific things in specific places twenty or more years ago. If you work at it, and if you care about it, you can gain an incredible intimacy with a natural place, but it takes a long, long time, and you have to stay tuned in to what’s going on there. My wife spends hours on the mountain every day, year-round, no matter the weather, and she comes back and tells me what’s going on. Similarly, in preliterate foraging cultures, young men who’d been out on a hunt would always come back with a story to share. If Caroline comes back and doesn’t tell me right away what she saw, I’ll say, “So?” And she’s the same way when I’ve been out.
Now, is the way my wife and I live preferable to, say, the life of someone who travels constantly and can tell you stories from all around the world? I don’t know. I’m envious of them at times, but I haven’t chosen to go that route. It doesn’t have to be wild nature for everyone, but wild nature is what speaks to me. And hunting is what started that happy ball rolling for me and keeps it moving today. I never feel more attuned, more balanced, more right with myself and the world than when I’m out there alone, being a good predator.
I am a thirty-five-year-old vegan and haven’t worn leather, wool, or silk since I was a teenager. The sense of entitlement of many hunters, who plunder the natural world with little thought to the cost, angers me.
David Petersen is clearly a different kind of hunter. He is bothered by the irreverent attitude of the above-mentioned “outdoorsmen.” I am a different kind of vegan. Although I believe in nearly every principle they stand for and share their sense of urgency, I am embarrassed by animal-rights advocates who use extreme tactics that only alienate the people they hope to convert.
Animal-welfare and conservation issues are complex. We need independent and progressive critical thinkers on both sides of the fence. In Petersen I see someone who, like me, cares about nature, feels an intense spiritual connection to it, and is fiercely protective of the dwindling unadulterated parts of our world.
Sometimes vegans aren’t flaky kooks. Sometimes hunters are reverent and philosophical. Sometimes we’re even on the same side.
I’ve just finished reading “The Good Hunter.” The timing is appropriate, as it is deer-hunting season in southwest Wisconsin. My husband and two older sons are sitting in the woods right now, hoping to get a deer. The younger ones wait to be old enough for the ritual of rising at 4 A.M. to head out into the woods with Dad and bring home the meat that will feed us all winter. We have two bucks hanging from the tree in our backyard right now; one more will see us through till spring. Then fishing starts, and Dad and the boys will head to the trout-springs every Saturday morning.
I used to be one of those obnoxious antihunting, anti-meat-eating people. Then I met my husband, who had no time for that. We proceeded to raise and butcher all our own meat: chickens, pigs, goats, and cows. Our children have been a part of this and are wiser for it.
Hunting is one of the last rites of passage for young men, as fathers teach their sons how to sit quietly for hours in the cold with a gun and wait, and also how to gut a deer and drag it out of the woods, cut out the tenderloins, and marinate the meat in olive oil and garlic for an excellent, fresh, locally produced meal.
I assign David Petersen’s writings on ethical hunting to my students alongside other works critical of hunting. In general I find his views considered, respectful, and thoughtful, but I take issue with a few of his misleading comments.
First, if every family in the U.S. were to follow Petersen’s lead and kill their “deer for the year,” we would exterminate the species before the year was out. Hunting, ethical or otherwise, is not sustainable for 300 million Americans, let alone the 6 billion-plus people on the planet.
Second, Petersen believes that veganism is “nutritionally extreme,” but numerous epidemiological studies reveal that vegans are generally healthier: they are far less likely to be overweight and have much lower rates of heart disease, cancer, and type-II diabetes, three of the biggest killers in the West. Several large studies have shown that vegans live longer than meat eaters.
Petersen asks whether veganism is “worth the bother in the big picture of life and death on earth.” To those of us who are ethical vegans, it is not a “bother.” We choose not to participate in the egregious torture and suffering of farmed animals because we want to minimize the harm we cause. That Petersen eats bacon, knowing, as he must, the ways in which pigs are raised and slaughtered in the U.S., surprises me. Would it be a bother for him to choose pancakes or oatmeal for breakfast in order to stay true to his principles?
Perhaps the most disingenuous part of the interview comes when Petersen describes the environmental costs of “fossil-fuel vegetarianism.” In study after study a plant-based diet, as locally and organically grown as possible, is the clear winner, leaving the smallest carbon footprint by far. Many pounds of feed must be fed to farmed animals to produce a single pound of flesh, and these grains are grown on deforested land, fertilized with massive amounts of chemical fertilizer, sprayed with toxic pesticides (which show up in the meat or milk), and irrigated with huge quantities of water (far more than is required for a plant-based diet). It is dishonest to point the fossil-fuel finger at vegans when Americans’ meat-based diet is responsible for the lion’s share of the harm. Even the UN has cited animal husbandry and meat eating as a bigger contributor to global warming than all forms of transportation combined.
Finally, Petersen points to our origins as a species to justify hunting. First, it is unclear what percentage of our food was meat in our earliest history. Given our lack of claws and fangs and our inability to kill large animals without weapons, our most distant ancestors probably acquired most of their calories from plants, nuts, fruits, seeds, and perhaps insects, like our closest ape relatives do today. But what if they didn’t? Why must we point to our early ancestors to justify our behavior today? If we discovered that rape was commonplace among the early humans, would we argue that it’s OK to rape someone now?
One of the best things about being human in the twenty-first century is our huge array of choices. Wouldn’t it be nice if more people did “bother” to make choices that do the least harm not only to themselves but to other people, other species, and the environment?
Never one for censorship, I support your right to publish “The Good Hunter: David Petersen on the Ethics of Killing Animals for Food” [interview by Jeremy Lloyd, December 2009]. I refuse, however, to support publications that diminish truth rather than build it. Please cancel my subscription.
In the April 2010 Correspondence Zoe Weil mentions the UN report saying that animal husbandry contributes more to global warming than all forms of transportation combined. New information about that study reveals that the comparison was not apples to apples.
According to environmental scientist Frank Mitloehner at the University of California, Davis, that report calculated livestock’s contribution to greenhouse gases by adding up the input from fertilizers, feed, machinery, processing, and packaging. In calculations for the transport sector, the report used only tailpipe emissions.
David Petersen can rhapsodize to his heart’s content about being centered in nature and the spiritual experience of killing big-game animals with gun and bow, but the fact of the matter is that he’s trying to rationalize his lust for blood and death. He’s a wannabe Hemingway suffering from profound feelings of inadequacy and impotency. And I doubt that being killed with an arrow is almost “painless.” I would bet that most bowhunters are not highly skilled, and that most animals killed suffer grievously.
I agree with David Petersen that if we eat, we kill. Still, I chose vegetarianism because killing a plant feels far less violent than killing a creature. Both choices — to avoid eating animals and to eat them respectfully — are earnest steps away from violence and toward peace.
As a vegan and animal-rights (not “animal-welfare”) activist, I wish to affirm many of David Petersen’s observations and also to correct several serious misconceptions.
Petersen says that a vegan diet is “nutritionally extreme.” Wrong. Vegan diets are repeatedly endorsed by the American Dietetic Association and are increasingly employed by world-class elite athletes, including endurance athletes. I have been an avid backpacker, climber, and competitive tennis player on a vegan diet. Vegan cuisine is endlessly creative, delicious, cheaper than a meat-based diet, and avoids food products linked with stroke, heart disease, and cancer.
I agree with Petersen that many animal-rights activists haven’t sorted out the difference between humans and animals. But by the same token, the “animal-welfare” advocates like him have failed to sort out what considerations are ethically relevant. My position on animal rights precludes me from eating bacon, unlike Petersen, because I refuse to view the pig as a commodity that humans confine in cruel conditions, castrate, tail dock, mutilate, and kill just for gustatory pleasure.
Petersen makes a valid point that veganism has environmental impacts too, and we should understand what they are so we can minimize them. But veganism has fewer adverse impacts on the environment than meat eating does. Factory-farming operations — which kill 10 billion chickens yearly in the U.S. and millions more goats, sheep, cows, and pigs — require millions of acres of forested land to be converted into crops to feed the animals, spreading desertification and reducing biodiversity. Factory farming is a major source of global warming and a leading cause of water pollution and soil depletion.
This society’s addiction to eating animals at any cost is sinking us and the environment. The answer is not to send everyone into the woods with a gun to find their own food. Evolution toward a vegan existence will minimize suffering and holds the potential for true sustainability.
It sounds like David Petersen lives and hunts with the mentality of some Native American tribes in past centuries, which is admirable, but his statement that all humans were hunter-gatherers at one point is just speculation. There is no nutrient the human body needs that is found only in animal products. Nor do we have a “natural craving” for flesh. Hunting has been a choice, not a necessity, for all of human existence.
I am a conservative, old, fat, rural white man in my sixties, and I have been reading The Sun for well over fifteen years. More often than not I disagree with the political and social sentiments expressed in your magazine, but I read it because I love the fine writing and the passion. Literature — liberal or conservative — seems to be growing less and less common these days and should be cherished wherever it’s found.
I was fascinated by the interview with David Petersen. I have, in the past, hunted deer and other animals, and I made it a point to eat what I killed. Like Petersen, I was prone to killing does rather than bucks — largely because I think they taste better.
The fact that your “la-la, foo-foo, hippy-dippy, far-left rag” (as a friend of mine once characterized The Sun) would publish such an interview leaves me with a happy feeling. I bet you’ll get a lot of angry letters, though.