Killing and grinning

Most hunters really do understand the significance of killing a wild animal.


The image is familiar: A hunter crouches beside a dead deer or elk, grinning into the camera. What do we make of this picture?

We all see the hunter’s smile. We all see the beautiful animal, now dead. And we all recognize some connection between the two. From there, though, interpretations can diverge wildly.

Critics of hunting are apt to see mindless brutality. The hunter has killed, appears to have enjoyed killing, and now gloats over a carcass. Veteran hunters are apt to see celebration. Through skill, effort and luck, the hunter has succeeded and is justifiably proud.

Perhaps the chasm is too wide to be bridged. Yet, as our national conversation about food draws the public eye to hunting, I hope we can pause to reflect on our own perceptions.

In my twenties, as a vegan, I was repulsed by the pleasure hunters apparently took in killing. Two decades later, as a hunter, I understand that people enjoy hunting for reasons that have nothing to do with killing. I also understand that hunters experience a wide variety of emotions when they do kill.

“I feel very excited, but I always feel sad,” one deer hunter told me during an interview conducted as part of my master’s thesis research. “It’s a mixture of awe and sadness. It’s a bunch of things.” Such an emotional jumble may sound contradictory. But each feeling was about something different: excitement at her success and the intensity of the hunt, sadness at the deer’s death, awe at mortality and the beauty of the animal.

For those who deplore all hunting, as I once did, it’s tempting to dismiss such distinctions. When we are certain an act is evil, explanations sound like subterfuge. Hunters can blather all they want, we tell ourselves. They still grin at us hideously from beside dead animals. Their talk of complex feelings is mere camouflage for their murderous lust.

For those who hunt, as I now do, it’s tempting to dismiss such hostility. When we are certain we have been misjudged, criticisms sound like nonsense. Anti-hunters can blather all they want, we tell ourselves; they condemn us without making any real effort to understand what we do or why.

As hunters, though, we share a basic belief with our critics: There is moral meaning in how one feels about killing.

Among the deer hunters I know, some say that feelings of sadness and reverence are important. All — even the least sentimental — say that killing should not be treated lightly. “It’s powerful,” one hunter-education instructor told me. “You’ve taken an animal’s life. It needs to be done with respect.” They may express joy when they succeed in a hunt. But experiencing glee in the killing itself? That, they find disturbing.

In 2007, Field & Stream columnist Bill Heavey slammed a hunter who, in an online forum, described his sadistic longing to taunt a dying deer with a touchdown-style dance. Everyone I know, hunter and non-hunter alike, agreed with Heavey. We were all disgusted by the idea of someone — hunter, farmer, or otherwise — feeling such obscene glee about killing.

That glee is what many critics see in pictures of hunters grinning beside deer and elk. They see it even more readily in videos of hunters whooping and high-fiving after a kill.

Such images, like words, are symbols to which we each ascribe significance. You and I can look at the same photograph, or read the same story, without perceiving the same meanings. If you are the hunter, the image will probably seem positive. But not necessarily.

When the writer Michael Pollan saw a picture of himself with the wild pig he had killed, he said he felt ashamed — not of the killing but of his joyful grin. Such images, he observed, “are a jolting dispatch from the deep interior of an experience that does not easily travel across the borders of modern life.”

Living along those borders as I do these days, I am still sometimes jarred by such pictures. Yet a photo tells me little about a hunter’s feelings, let alone his morals. A friend once sent me a picture of himself crouching beside a dead deer. The image did not tell me how many years of persistence led to the killing of this first buck. It did not tell me how my friend felt, kneeling on land his grandparents had worked. It did not tell me how grateful he was for the luck, the instant kill, and the venison for his family.

His e-mail told me these things, though, and I understood his smile. He was saying grace.

Tovar Cerulli is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is the author of “The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance.”

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Larry Korkowski
Larry Korkowski
Oct 07, 2013 08:16 PM
Thoughtful, intelligent writing like this is why I subscribe to HCN. Though no longer a hunter, I remember, and bow my head.
Walt Foutz
Walt Foutz
Oct 08, 2013 02:35 PM
The planning, anticipation, work, excitement and keen awareness of nature are the cake that is hunting. Success is only the frosting on the cake and not necessary to savor the cake.
Scott L Smith
Scott L Smith Subscriber
Oct 08, 2013 02:50 PM
Very interesting article...I grew up in NE Montana where hunting was as much a part of our way of life as the weather. Over the years I hunted extensively, and traveled and eventually killed hundreds and hundreds of members of most species of hunt-able animals in North America. Many I also ate, including some trophies, but not the varmints and pests. After about 50 years of this ingrained lifestyle, and while I was living in Alaska, I just stopped and have not hunted for 15 years now. I have witnessed AND experienced a big chunk of the gamut of the emotions and thoughts associated with the killing of an animal. Now I add to those the feelings of one who is so much more educated, one who understands so much more about those killings, one who really has gone around the circle and chooses not to participate.
James Moore
James Moore Subscriber
Oct 08, 2013 03:36 PM
As a former hunter when I was a kid growing up in Texas I learned that hunting is as much a cultural tradition usually passed from father to sons that is not questioned - much as following your town's football team or ascribing to the family's religion. This type of cultural genetics usually persists until something from the outside jolts the believers into questioning why they do what they do. For me it was my diminutive Peruvian aunt who asked me "why do you kill those rabbits and possums and birds - they've done nothing to you and you don't have to eat them?" I hadn't thought of that before and suddenly found the whole experience somehow obscene - yet culturally blessed. I couldn't kid myself into saying I respected the animals I killed since I had made the decision to end their lives for my enjoyment. Is a deerhunter any different than a sniper? Same tools, different motivation, same end result. The animals really don't stand a chance against our technology. Want a challenge that pits you against the skills of the animal? Chase it down and wrestle it, fight it hand to claw or horn or teeth, admire its strength and stamina against yours - then tell me you respect that animal's spirit and the thrill of the kill. Show me your scars from those battles and the meat in your cooler feeding your family. Otherwise its all a game - a reason to get out in the wilds for a week or weekend with your buddies, drink, smoke, and pretend you are what we used to be - true predators with skills.
Charles Schulz
Charles Schulz
Oct 08, 2013 04:31 PM
I hunted with my air rifle that I saved money to buy for what seemed like years on end. My Father had hunted with his Father. But my Father never shared that desire with me. In fact, he didn't want me to have the air rifle. He hoped I would never save enough money. I saved the money, I bought the gun and then I made first and only kill - a sparrow. An inocent bird. I have hiked and trekked throughout the world and have seen and stalked numerous different animals but all I have ever needed to get that satisfied smile was a great photo.
Tom Fitch
Tom Fitch Subscriber
Oct 08, 2013 07:44 PM
Tovar, you were never really vegan. You might have thought you were but you weren't. It seems to have been just a fad for you. I hope that now your interest in killing is also just a fad. You need to find out who you really are.
Gordon Lyons
Gordon Lyons Subscriber
Oct 08, 2013 08:22 PM
Words and phrases such as "Conservation Ethic", "Respect", "Stewards of the Land" come to mind when I think of ethical hunting. I am no writer, but I think Mr. Cerulli wrote an eloquent, yet brief, essay regarding hunting. The great writers, in my opinion, delve deeply into the human race's responsibility to "The Commons" and how we are truly an integral part of our immediate and small, or rather extensive environment. Read "The Tragedy of the Commons" for some perspective...
I would suggest not slamming Mr. Cerulli for being brave enough to go out on a limb and write from his heart about his thoughts on hunting, and relishing the gift of wild game for the table. I would suggest, when one has the time, to consider reading from a list that may/may not include works such as "A Sand County Almanac"-Aldo Leopold; "An Outside Chance" or "The Longest Silence"-Tom McGuane; "Dark Waters"-Russ Chatham; "Meditations on Hunting"-Ortega y Gassett;"Where We Live"-Jack Curtis; any of Ed Gray's, Stephen Bodio's, or Jim Harrison's writings-be the subject hunting, fishing, or paying respect by creating the finest meals with nature's gifts of wild duck breast or venison/elk/antelope tenderloins.
To paraphrase Leopold, the harder the physical and mental challenge in a successful hunt, the deeper the appreciation and respect from an ethical hunter. Hunting is but one part of an emotional connection between humans and wild lands. There are always "grandstanders" and shallow minds in any group, but I dare to say that those who think hard about taking life, and then taking care not to waste any of the meat, organic at its finest, are at least as 'connected' as the most ardent hikers, trekkers, and birdwatching enthusiasts. We as humans are becoming more and more insulated from the ebb and flow (Read 'Seam' by Ed Gray) of the environment, and in a sense we are always an invader into the realm of wildlife. Respect it, and if you take a life, respect it by proper preparation and ritual,such as sharing the meals with friends. I continue to hunt, hike, photograph, and journal...not because of an emotional committment to the local Interstate or WalMart, but to maintain the connection with those wild places as close as the nearest National Forest or as far as the Northern Canadian peaks.
The topic of hunting will always bring spirited discussion. May enough ethical sportsmen/sportswomen continue to follow the philosophy of "Fair Chase", measuring their success by the physical and mental effort put into the experience, matching their effort with the equally intense respect for the life taken. No, we are not Ishi, nor Lakota Sioux warriors, but still somewhere in our DNA the ethical hunter resides. The provider resides also, for many of us assist with local Game and Fish Depts by (yes) killing game such as whitetail deer, then out of own pockets having the meat processd and then donated to local homeless shelters. It's done all over the country. Not for "beating our chest-look at me!" but to give a local mission the extra food to those who need it. For those of us who continue to hunt ethically and do our best to contribute to conservation, please allow us without derision. If you have the time, try to read some of the books/essays I've mentioned above. Not to convert anyone, but to help understand.
Gordon Lyons
Richard Johnson
Richard Johnson Subscriber
Oct 08, 2013 10:48 PM
The mark of mankind is self delusion.
Matthew Clark
Matthew Clark
Oct 11, 2013 12:31 PM
I grew up on a farm and ranch, not hunting, but part of the life and death of the beef and chicken that graced our plates every night. Later in life, I started hunting as an extension of my love of being truly connected to the outdoors and desire to be more a part of the natural reality of what it means to eat meat.
This essay and following comments are poignant, thought provoking, and encouraging. It's good to see the choices people have made and the reasons for them thoughtfully explained. I don't' kill for enjoyment or kill anything I don't eat. However, the suggestion that hunting with a rifle is less "challenging" than running down an animal and killing it with your hands seems to actually make more of a point about "sport" hunting than a point about being part of our world and it's cycles of life and death.
I have prayed in thanks over every deer I've shot, I have wrapped my legs and arms around a doe thrashing on the side of the road with a shattered pelvis, cut her throat, and held her while she passed, and I've grabbed a chicken out of my coop and wrung it's neck. These acts all have held equal reverence, and a full range of emotions that seems to be part of our modern and fragmented relationship with the rest of creation.
My sincere hope is that those who have made the choice not to hunt, many for reasons I can certainly not fault, have also made the choice to either not consume meat, or to solely consume local and humanly raised meat. I have been repeatedly amazed when someone makes comments of moral outrage against hunting, then admits that they eat industrial feed lot animals without a thought. There is no excuse for this and more than enough information out there to become and educated meat eater with a functioning moral compass.
Thanks for the always excellent publication and the thoughtful readership.
Bill Gordon
Bill Gordon Subscriber
Oct 26, 2013 07:22 PM
The grins are for the camera, not for the kill. That's what people do when they are photographed. The killing is very personal and very intimate. As a lifelong hunter (ret.) I say well done on a great piece.
Phillip Watts
Phillip Watts
Oct 29, 2013 04:12 PM
Men have been hunting since there were men; hunting is part of our DNA, like it or not. While I respect anyone's choice to hunt or not hunt, or to eat meat or not eat meat, I feel no need to explain my own choices. For people to survive and have food to eat, something has to die. Even for vegans. Growing and storing grains and vegetables means plowing earth and eliminating pests, and those pests include mammals. I choose to get my own hands bloody. Out of sight/out of mind does not change the inescapable facts.