I recently completed my first elk hunt. Actually, it was my first hunt ever. Miraculously, I ended up being part of a two man team that bagged a bull elk.
The experience taught me a lot. This essay is a brief re-telling of the hunt, why I decided to do it, and a discussion of the ethics of modern hunting.
I think it’s a fair question. A pastime which may once have served as a necessity for our ancestors has become, for the majority of the modern world, a hobby.
My decision to hunt elk was driven by my desire to source my own animal protein. I love animals. I also love eating them. While on the surface this may seem contradictory, I hope by the end of this essay you understand how I am able to simultaneously care about animals while also participating in their death.
Factory farms are animal processing plants that operate on huge economies of scale. While some are undoubtedly more humane than others, I think it’s safe to say that even the best industrial animal farms are responsible for unacceptable amounts of animals suffering. As a meat eater in a capitalistic society, I am complicit in this suffering.
There are so many problems with the world it is daunting trying to decide how to make an impact. In the end I’ve found the best solution is to educate yourself on the issues most important to you and then, and this is the crucial part, adjust your personal behavior so that it is in alignment with your values.
Because I know factory farming to be an unethical practice, I am forced to seek more ethical means of sourcing animal protein.
While I could source ethically raised, grass fed beef from a local farm, I think hunting has additional benefits, which I’ll delve into below.
An Ethical Carnivore
I would urge anyone who has a knee-jerk reaction to hunting and hunters to take a closer look at animal behavior in a natural environment. Death and death by predation is an obvious fact of nature.
Predators in the wild regularly kill for their own sustenance and survival. Is the eagle a monster for slinging a goat off a cliff? Is the wolf pack that takes down a sick and straggling deer evil? Of course not. These are the natural behaviors of natural predators.
Human beings are also predators. Of course, in our case the issue is undoubtedly more complex. First off, we are omnivores, not carnivores. Second, not only do we possess the biological capability to survive from calories other than animal protein, we have the ingenuity to develop alternative means of cultivating them through agriculture.
I am obviously not, nor do I have any interest in ever becoming, a vegan. While I’m sure there are those who will disagree with me, I believe animal protein to be a vital ingredient to my personal health. That being said, I do respect the decision of those individuals who, after becoming aware of the horrific realities of factory farming, decide to abstain from eating any meat whatsoever. Actually, as a hunter, I believe I have more in common with someone who has decided to become a vegan out of ethical concerns for animal welfare than the vast majority of omnivores who do not hunt.
For me, the carnivore’s ethical dilemma is not in whether or not to eat meat, but in whether or not the animal which provided it lived a wild and free life before its death.
It is my position that if you choose to eat animal protein, you should be willing and able to personally undertake the uncomfortable act of taking the life of the animal you are going to eat.
The real injustice to animal welfare is caused by the modern sanitation of animal slaughter. I would even go so far as to say that if you are not a vegan but are not willing to harvest your own meat, you are a hypocrite and a coward.
You Don’t Kill, You Don’t Eat
For the vast majority of the world’s omnivores, their animal protein is procured from a supermarket in a plastic wrapped styrofoam tray. This consumer ritual is effectively divorced from the reality of the meat’s origins as a living creature. The meat we buy, ground and chopped and dyed red, doesn’t resemble the animal from which it came. This trick enables us to forget it came from an animal at all. I mean, we know intellectually that meat comes from an animal, but we’re not forced to confront the brutal truth of its death, let alone participate in it.
Modern meat consumption is engineered to be convenient both physically and psychically. We procure our meat in the same way we procure any of the other commodities of modern life: through a routine consumer transaction. We swipe plastic cards to put plastic-wrapped food in plastic bags and we don’t feel the slightest bit of sadness or remorse from the act. Why would we? When we purchase meat it’s in discrete parts. Parts that allow us to remain willfully ignorant of the animal from which they came. The animal that gave its life to provide that protein. There is less psychic toll on the modern protein consumer than at any other time in human history. This is not a good thing.
To view a more healthy relationship between human predators and their prey we can turn to cultures like those of the Native Americans. After a successful kill in many such traditional hunting cultures, it was standard practice to thank the animal for its sacrifice. This is an important ritual that unfortunately has been lost for the vast majority of modern carnivores.
Not only do native cultures express ritual gratitude for the animals which they harvest, they express gratitude through the method by which they secure that protein.
If, like me prior to this hunt, you are unsure of the difficulty of finding and successfully killing your own prey, allow me to assure you: hunting is hard.
To give you some idea of how hard I’ll share a few hunting statistics. In my home state of Utah the Division of Wildlife Resources releases annual hunting stats. One stat is hunting success rate. To do this, they divide the total number of hunting permits allotted by the amount of tags filled. Success rates obviously vary by permit type and unit, but the average success rate for an over-the-counter elk hunt in Utah from 2014 – 2016 was about 17%. That means that less than one in five hunters successfully punched their elk tag for those years.
My personal experience on my first hunt showed me just how hard a task filling an over-the-counter tag really is. Myself and my partner spent five days tracking, spotting, and stalking our prey before the fateful shot was fired. For the first two days we didn’t see any elk at all, though we did see plenty of elk sign in the form of hoof prints and droppings. Before we finally stumbled into a bull and his harem of 5-7 cows on the third day, I was beginning to doubt elk even existed.
We came upon that first group of elk walking down a wooded hillside at dusk. Elk have an incredible sense of smell. Because of the time of day and the direction of the wind, our scent was carried downhill from us to the group, and they smelled us before we were able to identify a target and take a shot.
Nonetheless, that first elk sighting bolstered our spirits. Actually seeing elk got me excited and gave me the motivation to continue our hunt.
While the difficulty of modern hunting has somewhat lessened with advances in firearm and transportation tech, these factors are mitigated by smaller game populations and animals who have been forced to adapt to increased hunting pressure. I suspect hunting has always been a difficult endeavor, and while we may have better guns than ever before, it continues to be an incredibly difficult task. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Of course, I am speaking about a hunt on a public land by two amateurs. This was my first hunt and I knew next to nothing about the process before this year. To give some perspective, my hunting partner has over ten years of elk hunting experience under his belt, but our success on this hunt was still only the second elk he’s ever shot.
There are other, far easier hunts available to the hunter with more time in the game and greater resources. Most states operate their hunts on a point lottery system, granting hunters ‘points’ every year they apply for a special permit and are denied. The idea is that after several years of applying for a special tag, you accumulate enough points to cash in for a hunt on a premium hunting unit.
I’ve heard of private private land hunts where the hunters don’t step ten feet from their vehicle, if they even disembark at all. I mention this only to demonstrate that I’m aware not all hunts are equally difficult. While I would still rank this kind of hunt above factory farming from an ethical point of view, it’s certainly less difficult.
Nevertheless, for the hunter of modest means hunting remains difficult. This is as it should be. I believe struggle, suffering, and hard work are a crucial part of the price one should pay to take the life of another living being. This toll should be paid not in the collective and imaginary value ascribed to green pieces of paper, but with pre-dawn makeups in cold tents, suffering through seasonal allergies, hiking countless miles through wild terrain, and leaving the comfort of your home to go find and stalk your prey on its own turf.
The sort of privation modern hunters endure no doubt pales in comparison to what humans went through to procure meat for most of human history, but it is better than nothing. While one could persuasively argue that modern hunting is nothing but a superfluous and artificial anachronism for the modern man, I think it’s better than nothing. In the same way going to the gym simulates manual labor for an individual living in the 21st century information economy, modern hunting is an elective activity, not a necessity–yet I believe both of them important to anyone trying to live a healthy and ethical lifestyle in the modern era.
No one disputes the positive benefits of rigorous physical exercise, whether or not that exercise is undertaken out of election or necessity. Those of us lucky enough to have been born in one of the wealthiest countries of the modern world find ourselves in the interesting position of having to create difficulty where none exists naturally. While our situation may be unique, the results are roughly the same. We cannot change the era we were born in, but we can choose how to live in it.
Most do not even realize the ease and decadence of our modern lifestyles are slowly killing us. Everywhere I turn I see a physical rot and turpitude enabled by the ease and abundance of modern life. We have it too easy. The physical decline of modern man is accompanied by a spiritual one–the two have always been inextricably linked. We’ve successfully engineered away many of the difficulties which forced us to become virtuous. The obesity and diabetes wrought by the ubiquitous processed sugars, seed oils, and preservatives of the modern diet are accompanied by a moral decrepitude that corrodes our very spirit. We are victims of comfort and convenience.
In a world in which everything comes easy, nothing has value. We must volunteer for the fight. Nothing less than our physical and spiritual health is at stake.
I see hunting as a way to regain what we’ve lost. To develop a closer connection with our food and to nurture a sense of responsibility for ourselves and our environment.
I Felt And Feel Bad About Killing A Wild Animal
The first thing my mom asked me when I returned home at 3AM after spending all night quartering and packing out our elk was if I felt bad about killing him. My answer was a simple yes.
I felt a terrible sorrow and overwhelming sympathy for that majestic animal while I listened to his labored death breaths, and later as he lay dead with a bloody tongue sticking out of his mouth. I feel bad and I don’t want to not feel bad. This is the appropriate response to being responsible for ending the life of such a creature. Would I do it again? Yes. Because I believe that if you decide to eat meat, there is a physical and psychic toll you must pay.
A wild animal struck down by a predator is the sad reality of nature. It’s tragic, but it isn’t evil. Evil is a factory farming. Evil is a food economy so sanitized and divorced from reality that you don’t feel an ounce of guilt when you purchase that plastic wrapped beef or chicken from the supermarket.
There are certain aspects of this experience that I think will stay with me forever. The sight of the elk as he peered down at us in curiosity from the hillside above. The unforgettable musky smell of that king of the forest. The heat that escaped his body as I pulled back his skin and cut away the fat that held his hide to muscle. While I didn’t take the fatal shot that ended his life, I consider myself every bit as complicit in his death. I shared the burden of hiking the 175 pounds of elk meat out of the kill site to the truck. A mile long uphill slog that took two trips to complete. I got my hands dirty, and I came away from the experience with a greater concern and respect for the natural environment and the wildlife that inhabits it.
Unfortunately, not everyone can possibly source their protein through wild game. There are simply too many people and an ever diminishing wildlife population. The public relies on government agencies to ensure game populations are properly managed. The inherent difficulty of hunting provides a further barrier to entry.
I don’t know what the solution is. Maybe we’ll develop a lab-grown protein that will solve the problem of animal suffering in factory farms. Maybe insect protein will become a viable source of protein. Neither of these solutions possess the tertiary benefits of hunting I believe crucial to connecting with the savage side of our evolutionary past.
Among the many traits that separate us from other animals species, human beings have a unique propensity for devising and inflicting cruelty on a scale matched only by its ingenuity. It’s only by engaging with and being responsible for this savagery on an individual level that the modern man can become an ethical carnivore.