Why I Hunt
Back in February at my own blog I wrote a review of The Wild Within, a new Travel channel show featuring Steve Rinella. The series is based on his interest in sustaining his family on food he kills himself. Since then and with a memorable turkey season now behind me I have found myself thinking about the specific reasons why I hunt. It has been an unexpected internal conversation because I thought I had settled this question long ago.
Since I first started writing persuasive papers back in English 101 I have been talking about why I hunt and what it means to me. Because I was a bit of a hippy in college trying to explain to my other hippy friends why I hunted was a tall order. At the time it seemed necessary to jump through a lot of philosophical hoops about how hunting connected me with nature and with the ‘circle of life’. This was all true of course. I really did feel like I was accessing something deep in my DNA, left there by ancestors who had to hunt to survive. I also knew that animal populations benefit from controlled culling. Much like Rinella does on his show I talked about the ethics of eating what I killed and how this was more humane than buying faceless meat processed by factory farms. I still feel that way, but my maturing ego has allowed me to think more multi-dimensionally about what I do.
Because a decade ago I was staking out and rabidly defending the moral high-ground in the ‘why do I hunt’ conversation I was building a wall between myself and the reality of my choices. Looking back I think part of the reason I identified more with the spiritual and ethical aspects of hunting is because I just wasn’t having much luck. I would bring home a couple of squirrels per year, a dozen doves and maybe a duck. Not a big haul. Because I was spending most of my time NOT killing things I often felt more like a naturalist rather than a hunter. I always brag about my ability to find joy in an unsuccessful hunt but I realize now that this trait may have been borne out of necessity as much as personal nobility.
In the past few years some things have changed for me that have made hunting different. The most obvious change is success. I’ve been blessed with friends and family who now own land and who allow me to hunt in great spots that produce game. I leave the house with much more confidence that I will actually see wild game and usually I do. I can also afford more range time so I shoot better. The other factor that has changed is time. I’m out in the field a LOT these days, partially because I have a fantastic wife who indulges my one true obsession and also because my kids are teenagers now and don’t need constant attention. What is interesting is that because I am hunting more it now feels less like an occasional pursuit and more like a vocation. I have more time to simply enjoy hunting and the pressure I once felt to deliver has disappeared. This leads to my latest realization…these days I hunt for the sport of it.
Because hunting has become less and less popular in the last few decades there has been a quiet yet growing trend of hunters secretly embarrassed to admit that in addition to being outdoorsmen and conservationists we are also sportsmen. We sometimes find ourselves ashamed to admit in mixed company (i.e. hunters and non-hunters) that we take pride in the perfect wing shot or an arrow that hits the mark. We still swap stories about our shining moments but only with other hunters. What is worse is that we have become so fearful of condemnation that when we reveal to someone that we are a hunter we then brace ourselves for the inevitable interrogation that follows. We get weird questions about whether or not we eat what we kill or if we hunt outside of approved seasons. Hunters tired of these ambushes arm ourselves with statistics about the need to control wild animal populations and how healthy deer meat is.
What we really want to say is that hunting is complicated. It’s a sport where a successful day means that something died. This means that on a moral level our pursuit transcends other sports. Additionally, the PETA folks are right. Hunting isn’t something we have to do. It’s something we choose. Or maybe it chooses us. But no one forces us to pull the trigger. Our families won’t starve if we take up golf instead. We’re pursuing a sport that has a unique moral impact and limited social approval but it still appeals to some of us at the very core of our being.
This year I can try to compartmentalize my feelings and go back to pretending hunting is a purely spiritual pursuit…or I can embrace the sport of it. I can proudly admit that I get a thrill from matching wits with the creatures of the forest. I can pump my fist after I drop a bird with a difficult shot and not feel embarrassed about it afterwards. Maybe after a season of embracing this idea I will be disappointed with myself. Or maybe I will feel like I’ve added another layer of complexity to an ever-involving personal philosophy. We’ll see. In the meantime, I’m an outdoorsman and a conservationist…but dammit I’m also a sportsman.