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 (hcn.org). He is the author of “The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance.”

High Country News Classifieds
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • MATADOR RANCH STEWARD
    The Matador Ranch Steward conducts annual stewardship projects at the Matador Ranch Preserve and occasionally supports stewardship projects elsewhere in Montana's Northern Great Plains. The...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a motivated individual to help build public support for key strategic initiatives in northern Idaho through public outreach and...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation seeks a steward/educator to lead backcountry volunteer projects and community outreach. FT $36k-$40k, competitive time off. ALSO HIRING OPERATIONS MANAGER. More...
  • ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER
    WANTED: ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER ~ UTAH/COLORADO border ~ Looking to immediately hire an experienced and clean hardworker to join us on a beautiful, very...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.