Thursday, October 22, 2009

Killing wild vs. domestic animals

Well, Autumn is in its full glory here in the Pacific N.W. One of my windows is glowing with gold from the leaves of Maples growing up from a ravine that runs behind our house. To the right, a large pasture stretches back to an evergreen forest that connects to the Black Hills, a low mountain range that I cannot see right now because mist rises up into low clouds. Shadowy silhouettes of trees fade into a gray background.

Every now and then, a truck or S.U.V. passes, and I see a flash of telltale neon orange in the cab. I hear occasional gunshots throughout the day, mostly echoing in the distance, but sometimes alarmingly close. The Porter Tavern, a small saloon that has been in business for something like 100 years here in our little town, has a large banner outside that says, "Welcome Hunters!" Every year at this time, I find myself revisiting my thoughts on the practice of hunting.

I grew up in the Northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan, a stone's throw from Ted Nugent. Hunting was a big part of the culture, so every Fall there were trucks driving around with deer carcasses in the back or cars with them strapped to the top, and it was common for antlers to be mounted to the grill. It seems like someone I knew got shot every year - one fatally, by his best friend. We dressed our dogs in bright colors in the Fall, making sure our Great Dane was covered in neon so he wouldn't be mistaken for a deer.

My uncle Bernie, one of the nicest guys you could meet, has always been a hunter. I loved visiting my cousins, but hated having to pass by the gutted deer hanging in the garage. I did, however, enjoy the venison they served that time of year, despite never being a big meat-eater.

In my early 20s, I lived in an army tent in a rural area not far from here, and when hunting season arrived, it was very scary. Hunters would drive out and park on our road, and just sit there in the cab and wait with their gun at the ready. When they left, there would be a pile of fast food packaging and alchohol containers left on the ground. When hunters describe this as a "sport", this is the image that comes to mind for me.

As a young woman, I became a quiet, but dogmatic, liberal. Becoming mostly vegetarian was no real sacrifice for me, as I had never cared for red meat at all. (Besides which, I was anorexic.) My social political opinions became more defined, and I was definitely against the barbaric practice of hunting.

Here I am at the very tail-end of my 30s, and I now eat poultry and fish, and occasional local buffalo. I try to eat only animals raised humanely, allowed to free-range and fed a natural diet. In fact, almost all of the meat we consume was raised on our land. I have always believed we should only eat animals if we can face the reality of its life and death. It continues to be a challenge for me. I have every respect for vegetarians, though I think meat has health benefits that are essential for many consitutions, and I black out less often now that I get occasional meat protein.

Barbara Kingsolver discusses this issue at length in "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" and she makes some very good points. The production of those meat-substitutes that so many vegetarians rely on is not without problems. I have always defended my non-meat eating by stating the fact that the resources used for raising meat could produce many times more vegetables and feed that many more people, which is very true. But it does not apply to those raising livestock on small farms. Also, there are regions and cultures that would starve if they did not eat meat, especially in very cold or desert climates.

Now, if I am justifying the killing of free-range animals for food, how is that different from hunting? Deer are flourishing, and venison is totally free range, organic, delicious, nutritious food. I think part of it is my own bias against hunting because of the negative impressions I described. Another aspect is the way I view wild animals. Deer are such peaceful, graceful, vulnerable animals. If you are not a threat, they will come right up to you - I've experienced this many times. The neighbor across from us has an orchard in his yard, which is well-fenced with "NO HUNTING" signs posted every few feet. (Despite this, hunters regularly stop to sit in front of his house, and they often ask if they can shoot the deer.) He whistles in the evenings, and the deer come to eat grain from his hand. During hunting season, they congregate here, sensing safety. Each spring, we see the does return with newborn fawns. We notice when one is missing, and when they are dead on the road. We watch them grow, see the antlers start, but the bucks don't return. I'm sure some are hunted and shot and others survive on their own. On a given evening, there can be 20-30 deer under those apple trees, and I just can't imagine killing one on purpose for food. However, I know this is a conceptual thing. I also couldn't kill a goat or a dog, but some cultures wouldn't think twice.

Which brings me to cute, furry bunnies. A few years ago, we were so overrun with rabbits (100 had escaped from a nearby farm and had taken over the neighborhood) that I was collecting and rehoming them. They were living and breeding in our barn, and man can they reproduce. They were a breed raised specifically for meat, and I thought a lot about how much more efficient this meat source is than any others. The meat is lean, reportedly very tasty, and plentiful. I think evolution resulted in the best natural defense of any for this animal: cuteness. Is there a more adorable creature? You just want to hold and cuddle them! I don't think I could ever bring myself to eat one.

So, I guess I've become slightly morally ambiguous on the subject of hunting. If an animal is endangered, it obviously should be protected. I still have a very hard time with the fact that these animals are often injured and left to suffer because the hunter couldn't complete the task, or even the stories of a hunter tracking a bleeding, limping deer for miles and miles before it finally collapses and slowly dies. This does not seem humane. I also think most hunters are out in the woods, drunk, with guns, jacked up on testosterone, and I am terrified of them. (The women are just as bad because they think they have something to prove.) I have many thoughts on the matter, but no clear conclusions, so I feel kind of silly posting it publicly. Oh well.

Did you know it is legal for blind people to hunt in Michigan?

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