Eating ethically: a tree-hugging former vegetarian learns to hunt


Cross-posted from The Last Word on Nothing.

I don’t like guns. I’m almost universally opposed to killing things. So why then, did I spend a recent weekend learning how to handle a shotgun and rifle? What possessed me to take the hunter safety exam necessary for obtaining a hunting license?

It began with a dead elk. I was out walking my dog one October morning when I heard a gun shot. As I circled back toward my house, I came upon my neighbor across the road. Merle was with a friend, and the two of them were standing over an enormous, beautiful bull elk the friend had just shot. The meadow where they stood, the old Threewhit property, belongs to Merle and in late autumn through early spring a large herd of elk often occupy the field at dawn and dusk. Merle’s meadow stands directly across from our house, and I’ve spent countless hours on my front porch watching deer, elk, coyotes and foxes wander through.

My first reaction upon seeing the dead elk was horror, then anger that this man had killed such a beautiful animal. Even so, I was drawn to the scene. I walked over to observe while they gutted the elk. I asked the hunter what he planned to do with the carcass. Take it to the processing facility down the road, he said. This elk would feed his family for a year, he told me with gratitude and not a hint of bravado.

I paused for a moment to digest this information. A thought crossed my mind — this good ole’ boy isn’t a trophy hunter. He’s a locavore. This just might be the most ethical way to eat meat.

I’ve given a great deal of thought to meat eating. For the first 13 years of my adult life, I ate no meat at all. I’ve written elsewhere about why I became a carnivore again. My reasons were my own and I will never try to talk a vegetarian into eating meat. I don’t think meat is necessary for survival, and I agree with those who say the world would be a better place if we all ate less meat.

At the same time, I’ve come to believe that meat can have a place in a sustainable diet. I raise heritage poultry, and these animals are essential to the fertility of our soil. Our small farm is no monoculture; it sustains us with its diverse ecosystem. Compost from the chicken house fertilizes our fruit trees and garden. Guinea fowl and turkeys eat the grasshoppers and bugs that would otherwise overrun our salad greens, raspberry bushes and fruit trees. Geese keep the grass down in the orchard and vineyard.

I’ve butchered enough poultry with my own two hands to know that killing is stressful, sad and difficult work. It pains me every time, but I believe in taking responsibility for my food. If I’m going to eat meat, I must be willing to kill it. The act of taking the life that feeds you instills a gratitude and a reverence for the animal — something that’s missing from the slabs of meat sitting shrink-wrapped in the grocery store cooler.

Which brings me back to the elk. The truth is, I’ve grown to love red meat. I feel better when I eat a little bit of it from time to time, but I am careful about its origins. I want to know that the animals I eat were treated humanely and raised without shots of hormones or energy-intensive feed supplements. I’ve bought sides of beef from neighbors who raise their cows on grass and shares of pork from friends who keep pigs in their cider orchard.

Hunting a deer or elk from my local community seems like the logical next step. It feels more responsible and ecologically sound to eat an animal that was raised wild and natural in my local habitat than to eat a cow that was fattened up on grain or even hay, which is inevitably harvested with fuel-hungry machines. Tight regulation and management by wildlife officials ensure that hunting doesn’t deplete wildlife populations, and a 10 percent tax on ammunition and firearms, mandated by the Pittman-Robertson Act, funds habitat restoration projects across the U.S.

So I’ve decided to try my hand at hunting. I’m in the early stages of what will likely be a long and arduous process. I’ve earned my hunter safety card and made plans to accompany a hunting guide friend on some of his outings this fall. In the coming months, I’ll purchase on my weapon (either a bow or a rifle) and work on my aim so that I’m ready for next season. I won’t take a shot until I’m confident I can hit my target.

It’s possible I won’t be able to go through with it. Maybe I will find myself unable to take that shot or release the arrow. But already I find myself more reverent toward these creatures of my habitat.

Essays in the  blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Christie Aschwanden writes from western Colorado. 

Image courtesy the author.

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