Very early this morning, headlights crept down rural roads across Alberta, turned in to the edges of fields and woodlands, and blinked out. Had you been there, you might have heard the muffled shutting of doors, low voices and the metallic sound of rifles and shotguns closing.
Had you been, instead, farther west, where mountains carve black silhouettes against the pre-dawn sky, you might have smelled wood smoke and seen shadowed figures moving against the flickering flames of campfires. The same low voices, the same metallic sounds, the fire doused suddenly with coffee dregs and creek water, and then stillness.
Aldo Leopold, universally acclaimed as the father of North American wildlife management, wrote in his classic 1949 work A Sand County Almanac: “Getting up too early is a vice habitual in horned owls, stars, geese and freight trains. Some hunters acquire it from geese, and some coffee pots from hunters.”
Each autumn, hunters all across Alberta get up too early and set off into the dawn’s first shadows in search of their prey—geese, grouse, deer, bighorn sheep, moose or pheasants. We’ve been doing it for millennia. That we still do it today, however, is a subject of recurring controversy. Agriculture long ago supplanted the need for most people to hunt their food, after all, and hunting by definition involves the killing of creatures. Ending a life is a profound act; why would one do it by choice? Why not just buy a pork chop?
Mary Zeiss Stange, for many years a professor and director of religious studies at New York’s Skidmore College and co-owner of Crazy Woman Bison Ranch in eastern Montana, is one of many hunters who has debated whether hunting is an anachronism in our modern culture of placeless consumerism. In her contribution to an online compendium on “Does Hunting Make Us Human?” Stange asserts that, regardless of how you answer that question, “…it is hunting that marks us human animals as predators—kindred spirits to the cougar and wolf, the grizzly and great horned owl. That we do, indeed must, meditate on the implications of our predation also distinguishes us (at least as far as we know) from those other nonhuman hunters. We human hunters have both the capacity and the responsibility to reflect upon the impact of our actions—our very existence—on the world about us.”
If the argument against hunting is an argument against death, then it is an argument against life. Things die so that other things might live.
And we do. It’s impossible to spend hours afield, cut off from contrivance and distractions, immersed in everything that is real and vital about the living world that sustains us, without reflecting on the choices we make as hunters.
One of those choices is to take personal responsibility for the inevitable deaths that provide us with the meat we eat. Wild animals enjoy freedom, health and the ability to interact with one another and with their natural habitats right up until the moment they fall to a bullet or arrow. Death is no less final for them than for a cow, hog or chicken, but there can be little doubt that their lives are immeasurably richer. Consumers of domestic meat can ignore the messy question of how that meat found its way to the table. Hunters cannot dodge the question.
There is a way to avoid the question, of course: don’t eat meat. But that simply changes the frame for what remains an ethical dilemma: things always die so that we may eat. If we choose to eat only legumes, grains and other plant products, then we cannot escape the truth that most of these are grown in monocultural fields. Entire ecosystems are destroyed to produce our vegetable foods. Voles, gophers, ground squirrels and mice are killed directly to keep them from eating those crops, and indirectly each time a field is plowed. If the argument against hunting is an argument against death, then it is essentially an argument against life. Things die so that other things might live.
So some of us hunt; there remains the question of how we hunt. Hunting reveals one’s ethical values in a way that few other activities do. Every decision—whether to walk or to use a habitat-damaging off-highway vehicle; whether to respect our prey enough to ensure it a clean, painless death or to risk wounding with shots at distant or running prey; whether to give animals a better than fair chance of escape or to overwhelm their defences with space-age technologies—every decision a hunter makes is ultimately an ethical one. Or should be.
U of A philosophy professor Nathan Kowalsky, when he told a friend that he was editing a book on hunting and philosophy, says he got this response: “Lots of people think the combination is almost an oxymoron; philosophers don’t hunt and hunters don’t think.”
Some hunters don’t. They’re the ones who should stay home this fall.
Kevin Van Tighem’s latest book, Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta, was released in spring 2017 by RMB.