Ex-Vegan Turned Hunter

Former vegan Tovar Cerulli talks about pursuing wild meat in the spirit of vegetarianism.

Hunters Are People Too

I needed to take responsibility for at least a few of the deaths that sustained me, to confront that emotional and moral difficulty. I needed to look directly at living, breathing creatures. I couldn’t have all the killing done by proxy.

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Watching hunters headed to the woods each autumn, I used to shake my head. As a vegan who abhorred violence and suffering, I wondered what possessed such people. That they ate flesh was bad enough. That they spent time and money in pursuit of the chance to deal death to fellow creatures was incomprehensible.

From where I stood in our organic vegetable garden, I saw hunting as a barbaric relic of humanity’s pre-agricultural past, the antithesis of our gentle efforts to coax sustenance from the soil. I couldn’t possibly have pictured myself a decade later, mapping deer trails all summer in hopes of dragging home venison come November.


Like many vegans and vegetarians, I abstained from animal-derived foods because I cared about the consequences of my eating, for the planet and for the beings who inhabit it. I sought a kind of responsible dietary citizenship, a respectful, holistic way of living as a member of the larger-than-human world. My turn toward hunting was an unexpected extension of that same search.

By the time my fiancée and I returned to eating eggs and dairy due to health concerns, I had realized that everything I ate took a toll on animals. I knew that clearing crop land wipes out wildlife habitat, that grain harvesters mince birds and mammals, and that farmers kill to protect virtually every crop grown in North America. Even local, organic greens and strawberries came to us courtesy of missing forests, smoke-bombed woodchucks, and rifle-shot deer. If farmers had had their way in the late 19th century, deer populations here in the Northeast would have remained at the near-extinction levels to which they had been driven by overhunting and the clearing of forests for agriculture.

Our return to eating local chicken and wild fish was even more unsettling. These creatures had not died as a side effect of agriculture. They had been killed specifically so I could eat them.

So I took up hunting. I needed to take responsibility for at least a few of the deaths that sustained me, to confront that emotional and moral difficulty. I needed to look directly at living, breathing creatures. I couldn’t have all the killing done by proxy.

As in my vegan years, I sought a respectful, holistic way of living as a member of the larger-than-human world. Ecologically, venison from local woods made more sense than anything shipped cross-country. Ethically, a truly wild animal made more sense than any creature raised in confinement.


Hunting, of course, is hard for many Americans to swallow.

In part, that’s a matter of history. From the Puritans, who saw hunting as a sign of degeneracy in both European nobles and American Indians, to lionized hunters like Daniel Boone and Theodore Roosevelt to our modern stereotype of hunters as reckless rednecks, we have inherited a wildly conflicted legacy.

In part, it’s a matter of current events. Some hunters take dangerous shots at unidentified flashes of movement, occasionally resulting in tragedy. Some take marginal shots at animals, with little care for the suffering inflicted or the risk of a slow, painful death.

We are—and should be—troubled by such behavior. But we should also see it for what it is: the dark side not just of hunting but of our culture as a whole.

As writer and hunter Ted Kerasote pointed out years ago, recklessness and disrespect are hardly unique to thoughtless hunters. As a society, we engage in all kinds of gratuitously harmful behavior, from drunk driving and factory farming to rapacious development and agricultural practices that cause soil erosion and poison birds by the tens of millions. Poor hunter conduct—attributable to the willful actions of individual members of a minority—serves as a lightning rod for disapproval, but it is not particularly unusual.

In great part, our difficulty with hunting stems from the simple fact that we are disturbed by the killing of animals. Most burger-wolfing Americans don’t want to know what happens in slaughter-houses. Most yogurt-scooping vegetarians don’t want to know that dairy farming depends on the constant butchering of male calves for veal. As a salad-munching vegan, I didn’t want to know about the impacts of agriculture.

Unlike going to the grocery store, the idea of hunting brings us face to face with animal death. Though hunters may go days, weeks, and even years without shooting an animal or bird, we all know that they intend to kill eventually.

Fifteen years ago, I found such voluntary participation unfathomable. In my imagination, I painted hunters with a dark brush. At best, I thought, they must be callous and ignorant. Now, after nearly a decade as a hunter, I think hunting deserves a fair hearing.

Other Americans are concluding the same. As the local food movement grows, vegetarians and omnivores alike are seeking paths to responsible dietary citizenship. Disturbed by the industrialized food system’s impacts on humans, other animals, and the wider natural world, many of us are supporting local farmers. Many are planting gardens or raising backyard chickens. And some are taking up rifles, shotguns, and bows.


Though hunting will never provide a substantial portion of our national food supply—deer hunting, for instance, yields roughly 300 million pounds of venison per year, less than one pound per American—it can be significant for individual families. Four of the past five autumns, I have hiked into the woods with a rifle, waited patiently, killed swiftly, and dragged home 70-100 pounds of healthy, local, sustainable, free-range meat.

Over the past two years, articles on hunting for food have appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country. From New York and Virginia to Arizona and Wisconsin, people are enrolling in classes designed for what I call “adult-onset hunters.” Others are learning on their own or getting guidance from lifelong hunters they know personally.

Even if this surge of interest in hunting proves to be a passing trend, it has already begun the important work of busting stereotypes. As more Americans find that hunters exist within their circles of family and friends, hunters are getting harder to pigeonhole. Shattered stereotypes offer us a chance to think and see with greater clarity. As we continue to reassess our relationships with food and nature, hunting—like agriculture—should be examined with a discerning eye. Approached with hubris, it can perpetuate the worst of who we are: humans at our greediest and most careless. Approached with humility, it can encourage the best of who we are: humans at our wisest and most mindful.

Tovar Cerulli is the author of The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance. He is also a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts, where his research focuses on food, hunting, and human relationships with nature. This essay was originally published at The Atlantic (Feb. 15, 2012). 

bobby caldwell
7/20/2013 7:00:25 PM

" hunting will never provide a substantial portion of our national food supply" -- end of conversation

7/19/2013 3:24:40 AM

Yet another "ex-vegan" who has chosen to conveniently ignore the fundamental moral distinction between "incidental" and "intentional" harm and wears his ignorance like a badge of honor. Is causing some suffering unavoidable? Of course! But there is a significant moral difference between the unintentional killing of animals as a consequence of growing vegetables, on the one hand, and marching armed into the woods to intentionally kill an animal, on the other. This faulty line of reasoning is morally and logically indistinguishable from the notion that because we cannot avoid at least some complicity in exploiting laborers in developing countries as a byproduct of our consumption habits, it follows that we can intentionally seek out individuals to exploit, because at least we're "taking responsibility" for the suffering that sustains our market demands. Self-serving silliness.

sue kidder
7/8/2013 5:19:39 AM

How detached we've become from the ecological underpinnings that define life on the planet. In the present day, and only relatively recently, can so many of us even have such a conversation, or fail to see the absurdity in it. “Veganism is a way of life, a philosophy, that says that exploiting animals is unnecessary and wrong…” “…veganism extends far beyond your diet--veganism defines your soul.” Also quite fascinating to hear such fundamentalist gibberish –a belief that mere belief can sustain all human bodies, and comfortably prescribe to others. Another example of the left brain’s Interpreter trying to run the show; where our rampant disconnect stems I suppose. Ignorance must indeed bring some sort of bliss, as long as you can stay ensconced in the philosophical box you built around yourself.

jeff melton
7/6/2013 10:52:20 PM

"Eating dairy and eggs due to health concerns"?? Yet another ex-"vegan" who understood nothing about nutrition and had no motivation to look into how to eat a healthier vegan diet. And Rachel is right, another thing that many who claim to be vegan and then give it up never seem to understand is that it's about far more than diet. Veganism is a way of life, a philosophy, that says that exploiting animals is unnecessary and wrong for the exact same reasons that exploiting other humans is unnecessary and wrong. And the fact that humans can't avoid doing harm to animals entirely is a very poor excuse for increasing the amount of harm one does.

rachel a
6/22/2013 1:53:05 PM

For people who believe they must eat a dead animal to sustain their own life, I would certainly rather they hunt and kill their own in the wild rather than buying factory-farmed animals. That being said, one fact I want to make clear: you were never a vegan. You may have engaged in vegan behavior, eating a vegan diet, but veganism extends far beyond your diet--veganism defines your soul.