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).