On the Hunt
Although I was a vegetarian for years, my family’s attempt to eat more locally raised and sustainable food led us toward occasional meat-eating—chicken, beef, bison and pork raised on our farm or by neighbors. As part of this omnivory, I have spent several years contemplating whether I might also take up deer hunting.
In theory at least, hunting is a skill I want to cultivate in order to keep my family (and others) fed, especially if any link in the complex and vulnerable food supply chain should ever falter. I suppose some primal “provider” instinct still abides deep in my DNA. From a broader ecological perspective, without wolves as natural predators, deer become so populous that both the local ecosystem and the herd suffer in the absence of human harvesting. And in terms of global energy economics, eating venison shot on our farm is about as low-carbon as food gets, compared to the expense, labor and energy required to raise domesticated livestock, even with humane and organic methods.
Despite my convictions about the value of hunting, my inner vegetarian was ambivalent, even after I set aside the stereotypical parody of hunters as testosterone-fueled, big-truck-driving, red-state rural rednecks. Although I have butchered our farm-raised chickens, I still have qualms about taking the life of any animal. Most important, our young daughters lamented the idea of Papa shooting Bambi, and I hesitated to become in their eyes a man capable of such violence, even in the name of providing family sustenance. But with fear and trembling, this year I finally decided to hunt.
Over the dozen years I have lived on this farm, I have spent much time in the woods. Normally, I go there to work: cutting timber or firewood, gathering nuts, clearing trails. I am in charge of the task and the time frame. When I came to hunt, however, the equation changed completely. I had to be still and quiet and utterly aware of any noise or movement. I paid attention to game trails, buck scrapes and other signs of which I had been oblivious for years. I became mindful of how the wind carried my own creaturely scent. I watched the sun rise or fall through the leafless trees. Twice I witnessed great horned owls kite silently from their perch in a shadowy flap of wings. I watched, I listened, and I waited, senses on full alert.
After a few early morning and late afternoon hunts, I finally saw a doe, feeding alone near dusk on the red clover in one of our hayfields. My heart pounding, I clicked off the safety and held the deer in the scope crosshairs until I had a clear, 60-yard broadside shot: a clean kill, I hoped. Almost overwhelmed by the difficulty of extinguishing another life, I gave thanks, asked forgiveness and pulled the trigger. The shot hit home. The doe ran 20 yards and fell.
In The Second Coming, the Catholic writer Walker Percy describes his novel’s protagonist, Will Barrett, stumbling around in a fog of wealth and social convention. He is alienated and distracted, unable to be present to himself or others. I can relate to Will Barrett; I often feel similarly insulated and anesthetized. Whether from stress, self-absorption or the endless allure of technology, consumer goods and packaged entertainment, I tend to forget my physical reality as a creature of nature and my spiritual reality as beloved of God—and in both, my deep connection to the world and to others. I know I am not alone in this, and I likewise know that such abstraction makes possible much of the abuse and atrocities committed against people and the planet.
Hunting, however, showed me one way to tear away the scrim between myself and the wonderful, ambiguous, God-soaked world around me. Feeling part of the utter aliveness of the woods and its creatures, and even dealing death within that aliveness—both felt compellingly real.
I rarely encounter the sacred as vividly when sitting in a church pew as I do when sitting in the woods. I have often blamed the church for this, and not without reason, considering its checkered history (and present) and its sometimes lackluster liturgies. But I suspect that Gandhi was right, that the change I want to see must begin in my own heart and habits. I experienced the woods differently only when I came to them in a new way. What if I attended Mass with similar watchfulness and expectation, longing for God as the deer longs for running streams?
The Lord permitted eating meat, while mandating specific, humane guidelines in how the animal is killed (Leviticus and Deuteronomy). This is the law of Kashrus or Jewish dietary law. A Kosher animal may become non-Kosher (and therefore, forbidden) by the way it is killed. Kosher means of killing animals include trapping the animal followed by rapid and painless dispatch of slitting the throat.
Sport-hunting is strictly forbidden in the world in which Jesus grew up because it is both cruel and wasteful. Knowing this, can you justify shooting a deer that is gentle, not a threat to your life, not needed to stave off starvation nor for its pelt to keep you from freezing?
Hunting for food is entirely reasonable. At least a wild animal has a chance to get away, unlike one in a pen. The stereotypical hunter in a big pickup, drinking beer and shooting badly does exist, and that is unfortunate. But ethical hunters also exist, and they provide habitat and management for game animals so that game animals have a place to exist.
I don't hunt anymore because I am reluctant to kill animals. But I don't eat a lot of meat either because meat comes from animals. Just because I didn't kill the animal doesn't mean that an animal didn't die to provide the meat. If you eat meat, you have no reason to object to hunting ethically. And this description of hunting sounds ethical to me.
Kyle, as you said, with fear and trembling you decided to hunt, then after pulling the trigger you asked forgiveness. I can understand your feelings of regret at having killed a creature, even if in your case it was for food, making the killing morally acceptable, even virtuous under certain conditions, as in, “I was hungry and you gave me to eat.”
You didn’t kill the deer just for fun, as I did as a boy with a BBGun, shoot dead a Thrush through its head! Having done it still bothers me seventy years later!
Strangely we can go fishing, feeling no remorse at letting a hooked fish die, an animal as much as a deer, or a wild boar, which one of our NYC sons, now a transplanted Georgian does for food, sharing with neighbors, boasting at how delicious wild boar is!
Obviously the Lord Jesus, saw no problem with killing an animal for food, which the following lines from one of my poems speaks about – “In the Galilean Sea beneath its crest, A Mother Fish with pride confessed, To many of her sons and daughter, Who swan with joy within the waters, That one day not too far away, The Resurrected Lord would say, “Have you anything to eat?” Then Mother Fish continued saying, In tones akin to solemn praying, One of you my dears will be, The meal your Maker makes of thee. To Him they’ll give a piece of fish, Baked and eaten at His wish, The purpose of YOUR life complete!”
If killing an animal for a proper reason is criminal as PETA people say, then Jesus not only condoned crime, but put a criminal (Peter the Fisherman) in charge of his church! Obviously people who think that way are no friends of truth. So, although it’s said confession is good for the soul, you don’t have to feel sorry for the animals killed for food or clothing, asking “for forgiveness after pulling the trigger.” Think as “Mother Fish” did in my poem, “The purpose of your life complete.”