I grew up in an area of western Pennsylvania where hunting was pervasive and an accepted way of life – and of putting food on the table. The first day of rifle season for deer is practically a state holiday. But I have found after living in a city environment for almost 10 years, hunting is still prevalent, but it’s not discussed as much – and thus, not as understood.
Mark hunts, and for the last two seasons we’ve had venison in our freezer. People often ask me why he hunts (and give me their very strong opinions on the practice), so I thought it would be interesting to ask him a few questions about hunting and what it is to him.
This is fair warning that he talks about killing and eating animals (because that’s what hunting is), so if you have strong predilections against eating animals, this isn’t the post for you. We respect people’s rights to eat what they want, but we don’t refrain from eating meat in our house that is in our opinion ethically raised or hunted in the wild.
The following are the questions I asked Mark and his answers, edited only for length.
I always wanted to get into big game (deer, turkey, bear, etc) when I lived in OH but didn’t know where or how to get started. So, I didn’t start big game hunting until I was 33 and living in PA.
Why did you start hunting?
I’ve always been fascinated with the outdoors, survival, hunting and self sufficiency. One of my favorite books as a child was My Side of the Mountain and, to this day, I would love to live a life of self sufficiency off-grid. My parents never nurtured any of this. I was never even allowed to be a Boy Scout. So, as an adult, I’ve tried to play catch up.
I started hunting for a number of reasons but probably my main reason for starting was the I liked the idea of being self sufficient and providing my own meat. There is a primal pride that comes with knowing that you supplied the meat you are eating through your own time and toil. There is a metaphysical difference to me between eating meat that I stalked and hunted and put on the table through my physical effort versus meat that I purchased from a faceless supply chain with money I earned sitting at a desk.
Why do you continue to hunt?
Aside from the reason I started, I continue to hunt for a number of reasons. I hunt because I believe in facing the truth of where our food comes from. This is kind of a big one as we are largely removed in modern society from the origins of our food. We see those sanitized packages of meat in the store and can, through looks, environment, and even calling it by a different name, ie. “meat”, remove ourselves from the reality of the situation, namely that we are consuming the muscle tissue of a dead animal. I think that, if a person can’t be OK with the reality of what they are consuming, then they should reexamine eating meat. Hunting gets you as close to the truth as you can get. You see that animal walking through the woods, living the most natural life it can live. You are there the moment its life is ended. You do the dirty work yourself of butchering or, depending on your situation, at least field dressing. There is blood and gore but there is also the cycle of life and a greater sense of gravity and thanks for the life that has been taken so that yours may continue. I’m a big believer in the whole idea of, with very few exceptions, eating what you kill. Life should not be taken lightly. All care should be given to be as humane as possible.
Conservation is another important reason I hunt. As humans have spread, there are far less natural predators for deer. Most people consider there being less wolves, coyotes, etc a good thing, as those species cause a more immediate threat to humans. However, in the absence of hunting, deer populations explode, spreading disease, causing agricultural damage (one farmer I know calls them Whitetailed Field Rats), and crowding out other species, not to mention that overpopulation leads to a scarcity of resources for all deer leading to slow death from starvation and eventually population collapse. Deer breed fairly rapidly. A sexually mature doe who is impregnated during the rut will give birth to one to three fawns come spring. Hunters help control the population so those animals that aren’t culled from the herd can be stronger and healthier and ensure a continued balanced population. Through maintaining wilderness habitat for wildlife, practicing ideals such as quality deer management (which seeks to ensure a healthy and balanced deer herd), and helping control the population, hunters ensure that we will have these natural resources to enjoy for years to come. A prime example of what can happen without hunters helping maintain the balance is that of the UK. This article from last year shows the dire situation they are in from a lack of hunting or predation of their deer.
Yet another reason to hunt is to enjoy the peacefulness and serenity of nature. It is calming to be out in the woods, away from the noise of society, listening to the sounds of nature and simply being present without distractions. It’s a hard feeling to describe for someone who hasn’t experienced it but the best way I can put it is to almost call it an awakening of the senses. You become aware of every small sound, every little bit of movement, every smell. It makes you realize how much you miss out on in the modern world.
Finally, you can’t get around the fact that wild game is simply delicious. There is nothing like a nice medium rare venison steak or some braised bear. Wild game has a complex flavor that far surpasses their farm raised cousins.
What do you hunt?
Principally, I hunt deer, more than anything for the fact that it provides the biggest amount of meat to effort ration for commonly available game. I’ve also been known to hunt squirrel, rabbit, bear and turkey. If anyone wants to take me elk hunting, I wouldn’t say no either.
How do you respond to people who feel that hunting is barbaric?
There are really three types of people who are anti-hunting (as opposed to just uninterested in doing it). I will offer my personal rebuttal to each.
The first type is meat eaters who somehow have this romanticized Disney lie in their heads about going out and killing cute little Bambi or Thumper. For a lot of these folks, you have the whole issue of “X animal is too cute to kill.” This group is probably the most hypocritical because they will tell you that hunting is mean and evil while eating a hamburger made from a cow that came from a CAFO, was force fed corn, antibiotics and antacids, and then brutally put down. To these folks, I would ask them which is truly more humane, their CAFO meat or an animal that was able to live according to its natural instincts up to the last few moments of its life?
The second type are those who insist on pushing their values on others. I make this qualification because I know plenty of vegetarians who, through examination of their own conscience, won’t eat meat but don’t judge those who do. To me, the simple fact is that humans are omnivores. We evolved to eat meat as well as vegetables. Recent scientific studies even suggest that it was the ability to cook and eat meat that gave Man an evolutionary advantage and allowed us to develop bigger brains. These folks are often also hypocritical because they never think of the insects killed by the pesticides sprayed on their vegetables, the small field mammals caught up in threshers and harvesters, or the aforementioned affects of overpopulation being bad for entire populations of species. From my religious standpoint, mankind has been given dominion over the animals and while we have the duty to be responsible stewards and humane, we also have the right to use them for food.
The last type is that of people who have this idea of the hunter going into the woods, bristling with weaponry and technology, and gunning deer down left and right. These people have some “fair fight” idea in their heads that makes them think that hunting is like shooting fish in a barrel and all too easy. While such opportunities exist and can only loosely be really called hunting in my opinion, for the vast majority of hunters, you are pitting your gun/bow/etc against millennia of evolution of prey species that have adapted quite well to not getting caught. Turkeys will see you and be gone LONG before you ever see them. Deer have insanely good senses of sight, smell and hearing. Anyone who thinks hunting is easy is welcome to join me and find out what it’s really like. It makes me think of the joke “Chuck Norris doesn’t go hunting because hunting implies the possibility of failure. Chuck Norris goes killing.” For those of us who aren’t Chuck Norris, you fail FAR more often than you succeed.
To all these groups, I would suggest that, instead of taking someone else’s word for it, get to know a hunter, talk to him or her about why they do what they do. You’ll find that the vast majority of us are incredibly respectful and in awe of the animals we hunt and grateful for the bounty they provide. I, for example, say a prayer of thanksgiving over the body of any animal I kill. This is a practice that you will find across many centuries, cultures and faiths.
Do you hunt for trophy or for food? How much food does a deer produce?
I am primarily a food hunter. I don’t begrudge people who hunt for trophies as long as they make sure that the meat from the animals they kill is still put to use, whether by them or via donation. PA, for example, has a program called Hunters Sharing the Harvest where a hunter can take his/her deer to certain processors who will process it for free and donate the meat to the local food bank. When a person goes on safari, that meat is often donated to local villages.
A deer will produce about 60% of its body weight in edible meat. If you think about it, it’s a tremendous value and the ultimate locavore sourcing of your meat. Farm raised venison goes for about $20/lb around here. Even with paying a processor, I can get my venison for the cost of about $1/lb and the cost of a bullet and some time in the woods. The initial costs associated with hunting are rapidly recouped with the first couple of deer.
What are the ethical considerations that you take into account when hunting?
I’d say your two primary rules are that you eat what you kill and that you only take clean, humane shots. From a practical standpoint, your meat will taste better the less that the animal runs/suffers. If you get off a bad shot, just like with any other mammal, adrenaline will dump into the blood and can affect taste if you have to track the deer for a long time. Also, you never want to leave a wounded animal out there if you can help it. It’s cruel and a bad shot consigns that animal to starvation, predation or some other unhappy demise. I would add onto this that there are hunters who act like getting that kill is akin to scoring a touchdown and will do their victory dances and other stupid rituals. They are a small minority, but make us all look bad. Life should never be taken easily and one should treat the situation with the gravity it deserves.
Are there environmental concerns?
It can be daunting to get started in hunting but it is a rewarding pursuit, literally and figuratively.