In the end, all I could tell the guy was, “I agree with you. I just don’t eat animals.”
During our flight from Portland to Denver, two major differences between us had come up: He was a hunter, and I was a vegetarian. I listened from the window seat, two days removed from a backpacking trip in the Wallowa Mountains in Oregon. He told me he mostly hunted elk and ate what he killed, and noted that the meat he hunted was healthier for him than anything he could buy in a store. I nodded and said, “I know.”
He said you can make all these trips to Whole Foods and buy organic beef, or you can do what he does, and shoot one elk and feed yourself all year. I said, “I’m with you,” and continued to nod my head.
“I just don’t eat animals,” I said finally. “But I have nothing against hunting at all.”
It was a classic New West conversation, I thought, one guy trying to reassure the other that he’s not the wild-eyed Ted Nugent type of hunter, the other trying to communicate that even though he’s a vegetarian, he’s not a militant, anti-hunting activist.
I liked that guy, because he had clearly spent a lot of time thinking about the morality of hunting and where was the best place for him to get the meat he loved to eat. I felt he’d put as much thought into why he ate animals as I’d put into why I didn’t eat animals. That isn’t always the case when I meet new people, and they ask: “So … why don’t you eat meat?”
Vegetarianism can be chosen for political, philosophical, ethical or just plain contrarian reasons, depending on the person involved. So when someone asks you why, it can get awkward.
I try to give a benign answer. I usually say “I like animals” or “I don’t eat animals.” I don’t preach, don’t act like I’m up on the moral high ground. I don’t like to argue. I haven’t eaten meat in six and a half years, and I’m not going back anytime soon.
Chances are that you eat meat -- most people do -- and that’s fine with me. But the answer to, “Why don’t you eat meat?” is exponentially more contentious than the answer to, “Why don’t you eat Brussels sprouts?” So sometimes I tell people about a bear I saw in the Tetons a few years ago.
Nick and I were walking along Cascade Creek after an early morning of slogging up and over the Paintbrush Divide, and we had several more miles to go. We bounced down the trail, chatting and kicking up dust. Then I saw what I thought was a marmot crawling down a boulder field. But it wasn’t a marmot; it was a grizzly cub. “Whoa,” I said.
We backed up, maybe 100 feet away from the bear. We waited as he picked his way over rocks in the late-morning sunshine. He ambled up to the base of a thick evergreen tree, and suddenly, he was four feet up in it, claws stuck in the bark, hanging on as casually as Spider-Man.
It was a great moment. I feel a mix of awe, caution, fear and curiosity whenever I see any animal in the wild, and maybe you’ve felt something similar, rushing to find your camera and shoot as many photos as possible, while also knowing that you might have to drop everything and run for your life.
Watching that grizzly is why I don’t eat animals. I can’t make a good argument about why that bear is different from a cow. I can’t look at them both and say one of them is “meat” and the other one isn’t. To me, if a cow is meat, so is that grizzly. And so is your dog.
A hunter’s relationship with animals is different, of course, but as I’ve found in a few conversations, it can involve similar awe and reverence for animals as well as a meditative relationship with nature that’s developed over many hours spent sitting in one spot and waiting for an animal to walk into range. I’ve never experienced that; when I see wild animals, it happens at a lucky moment, because I’m walking through their habitat and our paths have crossed, not because I’ve spent long hours becoming invisible in their landscape. But deep down, hunters and I seem to share the same feelings about the wild.
I understand that vegetarianism won’t work on a global scale, and I understand that we evolved by eating animals. But being a vegetarian makes sense to me, just the way being a carnivore probably makes sense to you.
We can both agree that the mythical West we learned about in cowboy movies is gone now, if it ever existed. We’re a region of yogis, rock climbers, kayakers, hunters, cyclists and ATV users, oil industry workers, conservationists, vegetarians and omnivores. And sometimes, we end up sitting right next to each other on an airplane -- where we have a friendly conversation.
Brendan Leonard is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Denver, Colorado.