Shoot it yourself

by Ari LeVaux

People hunt animals for a lot of reasons, from filling a freezer to festooning a wall with antlers. As a meat hunter, I'm looking for a year's worth of protein, with or without antlers attached.

Even though I don't hunt for the post-kill posing or big racks, as a hunter I'm lumped together with everyone who shoots guns at animals.  I don't mind being associated with interior decorators and stuffed-animal collectors, assuming the trophy hunters in question actually eat their meat, but I don’t like being grouped with those who shoot "varmints," or supposed pest animals, for fun. Perhaps "animal shooting" and not hunting would be more descriptive of what they do.

But semantics can't change that I shop at the same gear stores as the sport killers, and we share space at the range and in the field as well. We respect each other’s safety by following correct shooting etiquette. I'll even listen politely at the gas station if some proud killer has a story to tell. The friend who took me on my first hunting trip to shoot elk is a varmint hunter, and we had a great time together. But we remained worlds apart with regard to how we really feel about shooting animals.

A seldom-discussed divide exists in the hunting community between those who hunt because they enjoy shooting at living targets, and those who hunt despite the killing part. There are also those who hunt as part of their overarching obsession with guns: After all, guns were designed for shooting at living things.

In my experience, though, very little time spent hunting is spent actually killing. You can hunt hard for days or even weeks and come up empty, and I'm OK with that. It's part of the process. And even when you’re successful, the kill itself is about as fast as a speeding bullet.

Trophy hunters can at least decorate their homes with skulls, fur and bones. But with sport killers, as soon as one animal is down it's usually onto the next, like a gambler sitting at a slot machine. Varmint hunters can generally shoot as many animals as they want, since the targeted animal is a legally ordained pest.

I'm a rifle hunter, but not devoted to guns, though I do love my Ruger .270 and think of it as a friend. The annual journey we take together has given me some of my life's best moments, as well as many freezers-full of the best meat in the world.

Medical research has found several benefits to eating wild game, as distinct from feedlot-raised livestock, but many of these discoveries have yet to permeate standard dietary practices. You've probably seen endless reports linking red meat to cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other so-called diseases of civilization. But until very recently, few of them distinguished between an Oscar Meyer wiener and Wilbur the pig, never mind Bambi.

A 2010 Harvard School of Public Health meta-study found a clear correlation between diseases of civilization and processed red meat, but the correlation with unprocessed meat was weak. The take-home message, not surprisingly, is that whole cuts of meat are better for you than meat that's been adulterated in all sorts of ways.

In contrast, wild game is the ultimate unprocessed meat, from the ground up. These animals consume no processed feeds, which in addition to their questionable main ingredients can also contain anything from antibiotics to candy to concrete mix. Wild game also has more omega-3 fatty acids, branched-chain amino acids, creatine and other nutrients than domestic cattle.

Another area that needs more study involves comparing wild game with grass-fed beef. The two are often lumped together and billed as nutritional equals, but it would be interesting to know if this is true.

From an environmental standpoint, hunting your own is one of the few defensible approaches to eating meat. Growing food to feed livestock, we all know, is a terribly inefficient use of land and water. As for hunting, these days it can help everyone. Now that humans have killed off most deer predators and replaced much of their habitat with farms or the backyards of subdivisions, deer populations have exploded like rats in the city. Several states allow for the harvest of 10 or more deer in a season, and taking your share does farmers a favor. And hunting sure beats crashing your car into a deer when you're driving to the store for a shrink-wrapped, grain-fed beefsteak.

Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News(hcn.org). He writes about food politics in Placitas, New Mexico.

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