Turns out our stereotypes of hunting are really about our own fear of death

When it comes to hunting, the discomfort some of us feel may speak directly to our cultural denial of death itself

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published April 13, 2023 2:59PM (EDT)

Venison, Elk Sirloin Tip Roast (Getty Images/LauriPatterson)
Venison, Elk Sirloin Tip Roast (Getty Images/LauriPatterson)

I'll never forget the day my vegan friend Polly explained to me that she loved animals too much to ever eat one. "Unless," she added, "I killed it myself."

Polly was a tofu-baking Californian, a woman I could no more easily picture holding a rifle than wearing a MAGA hat. When I thought about her words a little more, however, I understood that the dissonance was mine.

Why was my reflexive image of a hunter one of some hostile guy poaching endangered species in between posting Tucker Carlson clips on Facebook? Why had I — a city dweller whose meat often comes cut up and sandwiched between a layer of styrofoam and plastic wrap — not considered that it might take a lot more love and thought to kill an animal than it does to just go to the store and buy one?

I thought of Polly's words again recently, after talking to author and actor Dan Adhoot about his own experiences as a hunter.

"It is very unfortunate to me that hunting does have a kind of politics," he said. "Everyone thinks that [hunters] go out and kill and just dance on the carcass of a dead elk."

Instead, he explained, each one of them "really sees it as a responsibility to care for the animal, to make sure every part of it is used."

I know that I don't live in any kind of real dialogue with the natural world that sustains me  — but hunters do, both individually and collectively. Since the 1930s, a series of acts known as the American System of Conservation Funding has channeled the excise taxes from hunting and fishing licenses and equipment back to state fish and wildlife agencies. In fact, as the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies notes, this money is the "primary source of support" for these groups, which means hunting helps pay not only for wildlife management but also wildlife refuges, endangered species management and other forms of conservation.

"When we think about hunting, we think about conservation."

"When we think about hunting, we think about conservation," explained Elizabeth Metcalf, Joel Meier Distinguished Professor of Wildland Management at the University of Montana. "It's literally one of the primary tools with which we control populations across the United States. When we have a bunch of development — like we do on the East Coast, the West Coast and places in between — it's natural for animals to gravitate to those areas. For example, Connecticut's dealing with a massive black bear issue, so the first thing I often like to say is our hunters are part of our wildlife management program."

And when I pull my lens back from whatever stereotype I may have once had in my head of a bloodthirsty guy in camouflage, I can acknowledge that overdeveloped urban areas exactly like the one I live in are creating a much bigger problem for the stressed-out, encroached upon animals I share this land with than a weekend duck hunter ever could.

But people don't hunt simply because they like where the taxes on their licenses go.

"I often like to look at why people are actually engaging in the activity," Metcalf said. "You see things that you would expect: They're there to develop some skills, they want to connect with nature, they want to challenge themselves. We also know that there's a big piece of hunting that's about spending time with family, harvesting local meat and connecting to the natural landscape. Those are the pieces of hunting that don't get as much traction in a lot of places."

"The way hunting has you move across the landscape, it's so much different than going on a hike," she continued. "You're not on trails when you're hunting; you're exploring these places, you're going up and down these big mountains, down into these ravines and back up again. You're getting into a terrain that, frankly, most people in the United States would never have exposure to — it's really this kind of powerful experience of exploration."

For women, hunting can be downright transformational.

Perhaps the discomfort some of us reflexively feel about hunting speaks directly to our more profound and pervasive cultural denial of death itself.

"What I like about hunting, in particular, is that there's a real tie to self-confidence with women in hunting," Metcalf said. "We did a study to look at female hunters and found that female hunters are more motivated by food and family reasons than their male counterparts. Women can hunt with their families; they can go out with their children and do it as a family activity. It's a way to have this opportunity to get outdoors, build self-confidence, have support and do something really good for harvesting meat for their own tables."

This last part is a key element that my vegan friend appreciates: Hunting means bringing home something to eat. Perhaps the discomfort some of us reflexively feel about hunting speaks directly to our more profound and pervasive cultural denial of death itself.

Meredith Leigh, educator and author of "The Ethical Meat Handbook," explained that much of the work she does surrounds "helping people rearrange their consciousness that the modern food system has been part of the big illusion that we're separate from nature and that we aren't animals ourselves."

"I think that's a huge block that people have around eating animals in general — not just hunting — but eating animals from the food system, farmed animals," Leigh said, adding that our ancestors "understood that they were participants in natural systems — not just in beautiful ways, where we get to watch the sunrise every morning, but also in uncomfortable ways, where we take other lives in order to feed ourselves."

"There is a way to participate in nature that isn't always sunshine and rainbows."

"For 99.9% of history, eating has been the thing that puts us in touch with our role in the ecosystem of the earth," she continued. "Fast forward to now, it is one of the most removed things we do from nature. It's important to remember that hunters — specifically people involved in mindful or ethical hunting where the whole animal is used — are in touch with this. We're not separate from nature; being good doesn't mean doing no harm. There is a way to participate in nature that isn't always sunshine and rainbows, but it is kind of our place. Getting past this block is really, really tricky because pretty much every mainstream message that people are getting is reinforcing this separateness from nature."

As with most activities, there are ethical and moral ways to participate in hunting, from which Leigh draws a distinction. "Not all hunting is honorable hunting," she told me, "or in line with indigenous wisdom."

For example, I've yet to hear a compelling argument for trophy hunting — and I can't imagine I ever will.

"There's the way our ancestors hunted in the indigenous wisdom infused in the ethical harvest and reciprocity with nature," Leigh said. "And then there's what colonization taught us, which specifically here in America was go out and take all the buffalo hide and then disrupt that entire ecosystem and the original people of that ecosystem."

"Can we think of modern, anti-participation in nature as being a form of colonized thinking?" she asked.

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In the U.S., hunting participation is declining, with states like Pennsylvania and North Dakota reporting dips in hunting and fishing license applications. Meanwhile, "non-consumptive" recreational activities such as hiking and photography — ones that aren't taxed — are on the uptick. This not only means an ironic decline in funding for wildlife conservation but also a potentially serious disruption to it.

A global review of 274 articles on "the effects of non-consumptive recreation on animals" published in PLOS One in 2016 found that "over 93% of reviewed articles documenting at least one effect of recreation on animals, the majority of which (59%) were classified as negative," including "increased flight and vigilance . . . declines in abundance, occupation and density . . . physiological stress and reduced reproductive success."

In other words, hikers create their own ecological disruptions that hunters do not.

There are plenty of persuasive and compelling health, environmental and ethical reasons not to consume animals. However, our relationship with the natural world is complex, and buying plastic-wrapped artificial cheese does automatically confer virtue. In my park this morning, I came across a message scrawled on the path that read, "If you are not vegan you are paying for unwatchable horrors."

That scolding may be at least partially true if your diet consists of factory-farmed animals, and you happen to have the resources to make other choices. But I truly believe that the people who do the serious work of hunting don't need lectures from sanctimonious urban chalk-wielders. I think that we omnivores do need to understand and acknowledge that however tidily they are packaged at the supermarket, animals die to make our dinner.

But there's a deep difference between death and horror, between thoughtfully taking our place within the rhythms of nature and selfishly participating in the suffering of its creatures. And if you don't see the distinction, maybe you, too, could ask a hunter to explain it sometime.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Death And Dying Deep Dive Elk Environment Food Hunting Vegan