Since the time I was a little kid I’ve had very strong views about what is right and what is wrong. Most of these were instilled by my strong, wonderful, opinionated mother. Some I came to on my own. Others were pushed on me through media and my friends.
In the strongest of that bracket of beliefs, was how we ought to treat animals. Growing up we always had an array of critters sharing the house with us–geckos, rabbits, guinea pigs, cats, dogs, gerbils, hamsters. A horse (who didn’t share the house, but lived at a nearby barn). You name it, we had it. And those animals weren’t second class citizens. When the gerbil got injured, we spent all night up with him, crying and worrying and reading online about how to mend gerbil injuries.
Our dogs knew no boundaries. My parents both have PhDs that deal with child psychology, and they raised our dogs in much the same way they raised us–do what you want, we trust you, but treat each other with kindness. It worked out surprisingly well; while not well trained, our dogs have always been fairly good citizens. (I think you could probably say the same about me).
On top of that, we played a role in rehabilitating wild critters that came our way–mainly orphaned squirrels and rabbits. One of my sharpest childhood memories is of Easter, a baby bunny that a cat had caught. We rescued her (him? I’ll never know, so I’m going to go with her), and attempted to nurse her back to health. I remember sitting with Easter, and how she kept trying to wriggle her way into my pocket. I was afraid she’d hurt herself, so I didn’t let her, and instead returned her to the little shoe box my parents had constructed for her. She soon after died, and my seven year old self was convinced that if I had just let her hide in my pocket, she would’ve been okay.
In high school I volunteered at a wildlife refuge, and was witness to a constant parade of injured animals. Through all that I didn’t get desensitized to the pain of the animals I was caring for. Instead, if anything, my empathy intensified. I got misty eyed every time we passed a dead animal on the side of the road. I couldn’t fathom what it would be like to die alone on hard, cold asphalt. Death was one reality of life that I didn’t believe should happen, especially not to innocent animals. (It also probably didn’t help that I learned exactly what we had done wrong when trying to save Easter–my pocket might have been just the place for her as it was warm, dark and quiet. That being said, if you come across injured wildlife, it is always best to bring the critter to a professional).
All this animal loving led me to become vegetarian at the age of 16. It wasn’t a hard leap for me–previously I had only really consumed chicken, and that I was extremely picky about. It felt right to become fully vegetarian. It felt like it aligned with my beliefs about animal rights.
I understand that many of these views might seem foreign to you, particularly if you grew up in a culture where hunting was a common occurrence and your mother didn’t use Jewish Guilt as a way to make you fully believe everything that she believed. But to a young girl living in an area where people spent their time on things like tennis and equestrianism, I wasn’t exposed to any other ideas about how life worked, and about what was fair or not fair or natural or unnatural. To me, there was only ever the idea that kindness and empathy were always, above all, the most important thing.
And then I went to college and started dating Jordan, man of many siblings and few pets (10 siblings and 1 childhood dog, to be exact). Jordan had grown up hunting, and while he liked animals, he had an entirely different set of beliefs about how we should treat them. This was a rough topic in our relationship at first (as you can imagine). We’d spend hours sitting in his rundown little car, talking it over, prodding the argument from all different angles so that we could try to find common ground. And slowly, his point of view, in conjunction with the myriad of biology classes I was taking, began to change my mind.
My stance, originally, was that hunting is The Worst. That it means you are willing to trade another creature’s life for your own enjoyment and unnecessary nourishment. It was almost incomprehensible to me that this smart, loving man who I was quickly falling in love with was also capable of killing. That he thought it was ethical and even necessary.
Jordan’s stance was a bit more nuanced. He argued that if you aren’t going to eat meat, then more power to you–that people probably do eat too much meat, and that probably it is healthier and environmentally friendlier to avoid it. However, if you are going to eat meat, then you should also be able to face what eating it means. He argued that we live in a disjointed food system where the saran wrapped meat you pick up at the supermarket is so far removed from its original source that most consumers don’t understand what it took to put it there. That even if you aren’t doing the killing yourself, it doesn’t mean that you are guilt free. An animal still had to die. You’re just that much less likely to appreciate that fact.
He told me that hunting made him feel like he was part of a larger natural system, and that it wasn’t easy to kill (a fact I later came to appreciate when he shot a deer and came home trembling and upset even hours after the fact). He talked about ecosystems, and how death is part of the larger system. Death helps other things to live, and in a system that we have so radically changed by removing top predators, cultivating food sources like plush lawns and corn fields, and introducing roads that break up habitat and force wildlife to contend with cars, it is vitally important that there is some kind of check on deer populations.
Simultaneously, I started learning about Eastern forest systems, and about how forests overpopulated by deer are almost unrecognizable due to overgrazing. That overgrazing allows invasive plant species to take over, prevents seedlings from establishing, and further knocks the system out of whack. Which means that the dozens of other animals that might rely on native plants struggle to survive.
Between Jordan and my classes, I began to realize that the world is a whole lot more complicated than I had ever imagined it to be. Death is never easy, particularly when you over think it (e.g. that deer lying dead on the side of the road will never be able to bound across sun soaked meadows again). But understanding it within the larger system allowed me to see purpose in it. I no longer think of road kill as going to waste, but understand that through the process of decomposition it nourishes other forms of life (Yes, this does make me feel better. Yes, I might be a bit of a hippy. I’m okay with that). I began to think that hunting didn’t necessarily have to stand for the idea that humans are a superior species, but instead could be a way for people to be part of a natural system that we have been disconnected from for so long (when done ethically and for the right reasons).
And if those ideas weren’t enough to win me over, the sheer fact that hunting for meat is so much more sustainable and humane than picking it up at a grocery store certainly pushed me to the pro-hunting side of things (this blog post isn’t meant to get into how that’s the case, but a brief summary: supplying meat through hunting avoids supporting factory farming situations where animals spend the entirety of their lives in awful conditions, it cuts down on carbon emissions because of all the transportation of animals, meat, and supplies that it avoids, and it allows animals to live free, natural lives up until the point they are killed). That being said, I don’t think I will ever be a hunter myself. Ethics aside, meat just has never really been my thing, and so I don’t feel much pressure to try picking up a gun or bow.
I still sometimes miss that idealistic, simple view of the world I had growing up. It feels good to care deeply about individuals because it is an easy way to make a difference (nurse a baby squirrel back to health, and when you think about the impact you have made on that one life, you truly see how you’ve helped). It’s less easy to see change in a big system, let alone change you might help enact.
But I’m grateful for the perspective, and I’m excited to see how the new and different people I rub shoulders with will help it continue to evolve. If you have any thoughts about hunting, eating meat, and the ethics of it all, I would love to hear them!
End note: I’ve come to accept certain kinds of hunting. There are many forms that I do find inhumane, and that I do think are unnecessary and ethically wrong. In this article, I’m talking specifically about using hunting as the main source of meat within your diet.