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
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • ASSISTANT TOWN ATTORNEY
    Town of Jackson, Wyoming, $66,700 - $88,000 DOQ, full benefits. Law Degree Required. Rental housing options available. For a complete job description and to apply,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...