On killing


Alaska caribou/Karen Laubenstein, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

This is not a manly confession to make, but I killed a caribou last week and felt bad. Or maybe bad is the wrong word. Uncomfortable would be better.

Bad is what you feel after doing something wrong. Killing the caribou was not wrong. It was an animal destined to become food. It’s all cut up now, its flesh vacuumed packed and frozen until needed.

A human couldn’t ask for better animal protein on which to subsist.

And the discomfort is gone. It disappeared somewhere in the process of field butchering and backpacking meat to the truck. Hard work is good for focus: Stop thinking and get the job done.

But I didn’t forget the emotions and have been pondering them off and on still because they have been on-going for years.

Old man regrets

At one point, I started to worry about going down the track of an Alaska hunting guide or two who killed mercilessly for years only to morph into an anti-hunter in retirement.

These guys always had some excuse for their change of heart: Hunters weren’t as pure or as tough as they used to be; hunting was too easy in the age of mechanization; it was somehow better to watch the animals than to kill them.

The excuses always reeked of hypocrisy coming as they did from old men who’d lived to kill right up until the time they didn’t.

Telling others they should not hunt seems no different from telling them they must hunt. Just shut up and let people figure these things out themselves. It’s really none of your damn business where anyone comes down on the ethics or morality of hunting or not hunting.

But then I’m biased. I love to hunt. Lars and I have just come back from the field. He’s curled up still wet on the floor beside the chair. He couldn’t be much happier. Labrador retrievers know no remorse.

And I confess I seldom know any when out with Lars. I might feel a hint of discomfort when a duck goes down with a broken wing, and Lars tracks it down and brings it back alive. It’s not fun to ring a widgeon’s neck to end its suffering, but it’s a bird.

Birds die regularly. Song birds fly into the window of my home and kill themselves every summer. People run over more of their kind on the highway. And there’s no guessing how many of their like the neighborhood cats kill.

An estimated 500 million birds are killed by cats in this country annually. It’s totally wasteful killing. Most of the time, the cats are killing for fun and nothing more.

I find pleasure in killing birds, too. I confess that. There truly isn’t much I enjoy more, possibly nothing to be honest, than tromping the marshes with Lars and shooting a bunch of mallards.

Fine lines, very fine lines

Mallards are tasty birds, but they’re birds. On the evolutionary scale, they’re barely a step above the many salmon killed every summer, and I’ve never really had a second thought about killing a salmon.

The salmon killing is easy: Catch one; drag it ashore; bash it on the head; go get another.

It would not be so easy if salmon had big brown eyes and fur like Lars. I don’t know when I started thing about big-game hunting in that context. I don’t think it was always so. I don’t remember thinking this as a teenager or a young man.

I remember being excited about every kill in those days. Somewhere along the line that changed. Maybe it was the body count. Over the years, I’ve killed and eaten more animals than I can remember. At some point, it’s probably unavoidable for a man to wonder if this is right because its most definitely not fair.

Nearly all of the animals I kill are prey, and I am a predator. The game is stacked. They’re destined to lose. I’m destined to win. It is the way of nature.

There was no real thrill in killing this caribou. It was business cold and methodical.  I remember wishing it would turn sideways in the brush to give me a better shot. At 100 yards shooting offhand, I wanted a big target, but the caribou wouldn’t cooperate.

So I shot it straight on in the neck. The sound of the slug from a .30-06 caliber hitting the vertebrae was almost as loud as the gunshot. And then it was over.

I walked over to the caribou and stared into the dead brown eyes of an animal that had been vitally alive only seconds earlier, and I felt uncomfortable.

I think that is the way one is supposed to feel. Taking the life of any animal should mean something. It shouldn’t be like walking into the grocery and grabbing a steak without a thought, without a feeling, without any connection to the realities of life and death.

Most Americans live sanitary, disconnected lives today. They have no idea from where comes their food. They feel no discomfort in its death. And that is the thing that truly is bad, because it is hard to know the full richness of life without understanding the meaning of death and your place in the cycle of both.

















12 replies »

  1. Good thoughts Craig. I too feel the twinge of remorse standing over a dying animal that I’ve just killed; I think it’s human nature. It’s especially hard because of the tremendous respect I have for the animals that I harvest for subsistence. The Alaskan moose and caribou are so well adapted to their environment that it’s easy for me to imaging a certain enjoyment they must have in their lives wandering the mountains and valleys and I feel a debt of gratitude to each one that gives itself to my family. I do find solace in the fact that I feel more connected to my food this way and also I know exactly what has gone into it. Beef cattle, pigs and the like, on the other hand, suffer death by someone else’s hand far away and live a less-than natural life. I’m never sure what has gone into this meat. Imagining enjoyment in their lives is much harder to fathom. So why does purchasing a ribeye from the grocery store exempt us from these feelings of guilt? Does this make us feel better by turning a blind eye to the killing process of mass produced commercial meat that is certainly more disgusting, shocking and impersonal? I am thankful to live in a state where our game population is monitored closely so that my children’s children might also have this wonderful opportunity that will connect them to their food source as well.

  2. Great post – I hear where you’re coming from. Sometimes I meat fish with total abandon, other times I catch and release – These days it bugs me when I tear up a perfectly good fish I intended to release. I think it’s a good sign that we have different reactions in different context.

  3. “On the evolutionary scale, they’re barely a step above the many salmon killed every summer…”

    Maybe it’s a minor point, but we humans are exactly as far removed from modern fish as birds are, on an evolutionary timeline. The line that became mammals and birds diverged from fish at the same time, and then split later. I’m not sure if our evolutionary relatedness to other creatures should be the basis for compassion anyway. Should our willingness to kill other animals be related to those animals’ intelligence? Many birds seem to be pretty clever. Their size? Whales evoke far stronger emotions than pigs, but it’s not totally clear why. Our relatedness to them? Or something else? This is maddeningly complicated question without any clear answers. I totally share your frustration with trying to figure out where we should draw these lines given that we have no choice but to live in a world in which killing other creatures seems to be necessary, whether directly with a gun or through tilling fields and killing “pests”, habitat destruction, etc. Ultimately we’re just stuck doing the best we can, but the limited information we have here means we’re all just kinda shooting in the dark.

    • that’s true, Paxson. but everyone draws the line somewhere. i don’t think i’ve ever known anyone who avoided swatting a mosquito, and i can’t imagine anyone deciding to die to let a parasite within them survive. but i can answer the question of whales v. pigs.

  4. Thanks for an excellent post…. I never hunted much until I moved to Alaska and took a job as a assistant hunting guide. Even working in the ‘business’ of guided hunts the master guide made salvaging all the meat our number one priority. Granted the hunters were there for the trophy but some indeed took home some meat. Now in my older years I am hunting no more because I just do not have the strength to dress and butcher my game… but I do miss the many wonderful meals after a day in the field.

  5. I hope you’re sensitive article on hunting does not increase recruitment. There is only so much harvestable surplus of game and there’s a lot of folks after it; subsistence users with 1st priority, the guide/outfitter Industry with top dollar, nonresident independent hunters, and Alaskan’s who choose to gather a wildfood harvest. Game has been a fully allocated resource in Alaska for years. Let nonhunters not have to hunt, just leave hunters alone, as long as harvest is sustainable.

    Sent from Rod Arno’s iPad.


  6. When I was younger, we hunted and fished, largely to reduce the food bill. We did not have the luxury of Safeway. Now that Safeway, and others are nearby and easy to access, I find no need to hunt, though I love a good walk in the woods.

    • Safeway is definitely easier, William. but the whole industrial farming thing sort of turns my stomach. i grew up around some of that a long time ago in a place far, faraway, and i recognize that if not for the Green Revolution most of the world population of today would be starving to death. but raising animals just to kill them has always made me more uncomfortable than hunting.

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