“Why do you want to hunt?” It is a question that I have been asked more than a few times by friends and family. While it’s a completely reasonable question considering no one in my family hunts, I know what they really are asking is “why do you want to go out and kill an animal yourself?” No doubt about it, I will be heading into the woods this fall with the with the intention of using a combination of woodsmanship skills, instinct, and technology to fire an arrow into the vitals of a sentient creature. There will be blood. There will be gore. I can only hope the animal will not suffer.
But why? Blood and guts aside there are numerous other obstacles to consider: Hunter safety training; license fees; a myriad of expensive equipment; finding legal places to hunt; and what to do when the season actually starts. Why am I willing to deal with all these things? My fundamental reason for getting into hunting is to obtain high quality organic meat for my family.
While I wouldn’t consider myself an expert, my education and career has provided me the opportunity to examine food and food systems in the United States. I have also had the opportunity to visit chicken farms and processing centers; grassfed cattle ranches in the west; and even industrial scale chicken egg factories. These and other experiences, along with my childhood growing up on a small farm (raising sheep and turkey for meat) have made me aware of the environmental impacts of food production even at the smallest level of scale.
Over the past 30 years, farmers have been able to produce meat with less environmental impact, largely the result of more effective use of GMO’s, hormones, and antibiotics. While science continues to explore whether or not there are risks associated with these things, I am fortunate enough to have the means to buy organic food for my family. Even if I buy organic, as a meat eater, I still have to accept that my ecological footprint will be larger than that of someone who eats less meat (or no meat at all – only 5% of Americans consider themselves to be vegetarian). Add beef to the diet and the gap widens significantly. One recent study examined the environmental impacts of various types of livestock and it showed that even grass fed cattle have a significantly higher carbon footprint than any other type of livestock examined. Therefore, a successful deer season will provide my family with high quality protein free of the environmental considerations associated with modern meat production.
Besides the environmental benefit, I am also attracted to the greater connection I will have to the meat I consume. While our modern food system has been successful in providing us with an abundant supply of safe and relatively inexpensive food, it has profoundly disconnected people from the organisms they eat. The vegetables, fruits, grains, meats, and other foods we buy at the grocery store have gone through an extraordinarily complicated system before landing in our shopping carts (average American meal travels 1500 miles!). In most cases, the food has been processed and packaged in such a manner that it no longer even closely resembles its natural form. In the case of meat, there are little to no traces of “animal” left. Viscera, blood, fur, and feather are never present in the tightly cellophaned package we pick up in the store. Preparing meals for my family, I have more than once caught myself all but forgetting the meat was once part of a living and breathing creature. While it will serve to nourish my family just fine, I’ve never had to consider the animal’s life and death. In fact, my first acknowledgement of that creature’s existence was at the grocery store when I wondered, “how much does this cost?”. Success for the hunter comes as a result of their intimate understanding of the biology and the behavior of their quarry. In a sense, a relationship is formed at the time of the hunt, one that is still in its early stages at the time of the shot. Upon the death of the animal that relationship deepens as the hunter breaks down the animal with knife in hand, cares for the meat, and ultimately feeds their friends and family with it. At every step in the process, the hunter is compelled to not only acknowledge the life of the animal, but to celebrate it as well.
Despite having what I feel are sound motives for hunting this fall, it won’t make the act of killing an animal any easier. Honestly, I suspect I will have very mixed emotions the first time I kill a deer. I will have to take comfort in the fact that I will be providing food for my family and that it will come out of a process far more meaningful than any trip to the grocery store.
Capper, J. L. “The Environmental Impact of Beef Production in the United States: 1977 Compared with 2007.” Journal of Animal Science 89.12 (2011): 4249–4261. Web.
Eshel, G. et al. “Land, Irrigation Water, Greenhouse Gas, and Reactive Nitrogen Burdens of Meat, Eggs, and Dairy Production in the United States.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111.33 (2014): 11996–12001. Web.
“Food, Fuel, And Freeways: An Iowa Perspective on How Far Food Travels, Fuel Usage, and Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” Food, Fuel, and Freeways: An Iowa perspective on how far food travels, fuel usage, and greenhouse gas emissions. Web. 12 Sep. 2015. <http://www.leopold.iastate.edu/pubs-and-papers/2001-06-food-fuel-freeways>
“In U.S., 5% Consider Themselves Vegetarians.” Gallup.com. Web. 8 Sep. 2015. <http://www.gallup.com/poll/156215/consider-themselves-vegetarians.aspx?utm_source=vegetarianism&utm_medium=search&utm_campaign=tiles>