Why I hunt: a Canadian’s perspective
I like to hike. However, my version of “hiking” may be different from yours. Living on the West Coast means there are countless hills and mountains everywhere you look. To me, hiking means: to summit that mountain. Or, more specifically, to reach a destination and engage in a challenge – not just a stroll in the woods.
My first engagement with hunting was exactly that: an opportunity to be in the forest, a new challenge, and hiking to an appropriate spot. So, perhaps I was already conditioned for it. However, many things would have suggested otherwise: I grew up in an urban and progressive family. We ate meat, but very little. No one owned a gun, or ever had. Hunting, I was taught, was cruel, unnecessary, and evidence of a character flaw. I did not grow up a hunter.
There is however, one caveat; in my late teens I acquired a pellet gun. My friends and I were going to a cabin and we were so excited to be “outdoorsmen.” We bought all the (probably unnecessary) gadgets our young minds thought were essential. What was an innocent experimentation with a different persona or with different skill sets became a little less innocent when I saw a rabbit in my yard one day (there were 100’s of rabbits) and it triggered in me a need to express these newly sought-after skills. Now, let me just add, that this was in no way a psychopathic development. If you need to lay blame this early in this essay, steer it towards that “boys will be boys” sentiment, or “overzealous youth.” Regardless, as I took aim, I promised to myself that I would keep the fur and eat the animal so as not to be wasted. With my yellow lab, Gus, safely inside, I pulled the trigger. It was a clean kill. It was then that adrenaline kicked-in. I ran to the animal to ensure it was dead and (graphic warning) I slit it’s throat to ensure there was so suffering. As the dead rabbit’s muscles twitched in my hands I began to panic. I suddenly thought I couldn’t go through with it. But, my promise to myself (and a sort of promise to the animal) kept me in check. I skinned and gutted it, and on several occasions I had to stop and collect myself. I was not grossed-out, but simply overcome with anxiety. The reason I share this uncomfortable story is that I witnessed something that may also have planted the seed towards becoming a hunter. During one of my pauses, to recollect, I brought Gus outside. He was old, fat and entirely a city dog. I was curious how he’d react to the dead rabbit seeing as he had always chased, but never caught them. To my surprise, he showed absolute aversion to the partially skinned animal. If you have dogs you will know that I read his body language accurately. I can’t describe his reaction strong-enough. He wouldn’t go near it and while he looked, he turned his body in a submissive way. He didn’t ignore my task, he stood, intently watching the whole thing from a distance, tail and ears lowered. It was such a pronounced behaviour that it created, in me, a sense of guilt (beyond that of taking an animal.) But, I also promised to eat it. Gus followed me as I took it to the bbq, staying back, tail lowered. But when I opened the bbq lid he stepped forward. And then, while he always loved food, his excitement towards what I was doing I had never seen and have never seen since. It was as if he hadn’t before connected animals with food. With a different dog I might have feared I would turn him into a killer, but this was a friendly, hungry lab – that was really only a threat to any dropped food in the kitchen. I recognized, sharing the rabbit with my dog, (some curry spice on it for me), that his hunger towards this animal was now greater than he had ever shown to other food and that perhaps we all have a similar disconnect from nature. And it is that disconnect – and subsequent reconnection – that I will speak of shortly.
Many years later I married a woman whose family had hunted annually for many generations. My brother in law – close to my age – had not grown up hunting but was now recognizing the need to maintain family traditions, as both Grandfathers had passed (and father and uncle were not so young anymore.) An invitation from the in-laws would never have been turned down anyways, but I admit to being excited to try hunting. Now equipped with the internet, I bought what was truly necessary for a safe journey into the woods. We were, however, “skunked” for two straight years on our moose hunt (meaning we never saw a moose we were able to take.)
With the financial investment in place, I now needed to get an animal to fill the freezer with organic meat to justify the bills. So, I invited my brother to hunt with me. He was also interested, but was having resistance from his immediate family. This hunt was to be different however. We would hike from my cabin for days, on a true wilderness backpacking expedition to a specific lake, hunt for a full day and journey back. Sure enough, on the way back, my brother brought down a deer.
Like with the rabbit, an anxiety set in. The hardest part of hunting is walking up to the fallen animal, dismissing the remorse, and recognizing the hours of work ahead. We did not photograph the animal, we did not keep a trophy – we were hunting for meat. Gutting and skinning an animal is exactly that – there is no glory, no fun. But, I recognized a change once the meat was exposed:
Hanging the animal to remove the various cuts of meat was an entirely different experience. There was no anxiety, but instead (remembering Gus) a hunger sets in – a sort of greed of working with such a quantity of food. I could feel that it was primitive, from deep within. It was the same satisfaction of harvesting a crop you’ve grown all summer, but far more intense; as if the joy of planting seeds, caring for your plants all year, harvesting and consuming the product was all enjoyed in a single moment. The feeling was overwhelming.
Like this feeling during the hunt, I have always felt that gardening taps into something primitive within us. I feel that anyone given the time, the knowledge to succeed, and the desire to produce a plant will be overcome by the same desire to continue gardening as so many of us have. If you’re not convinced, consider this: all societies across all of time have been tightly tied to nature and some sort of harvest. The urbanization and industrialization did not end that connection, but merely proved the immense strength of the connection: Urbanization gave rise to the city park; subdivisions gave rise to the huge industry of ornamental trees and shrubs for aesthetic reasons; industrialization developed in part with a cut-flower industry to bring nature back into our houses; and no matter the economic situation of each society you will see garden stores, farmers markets or at least neighbours tilling some tiny bit of land in their yard. It seems you can’t get the nature out of us – nor would we want to.
So, I am hooked on the desire to fill my freezer with free-range, organic, high protein meat to feed my growing family. And for a family that eats meat less than once a week, one animal promises to feed my family for a year. But this isn’t telling the whole story:
I started talking about hiking – I love it. I’ve summited several mountains to stand at a view-point and take-in my effort and the majesty of such incredible views. It is rare that I sit or stand for long. The return trip – avoiding dusk – or need to set camp in always a priority. It wan’t until I started hunting that I had an excuse – or opportunity – to sit in silence, in nature, for long periods of time…. And what an experience!
First, consider sneaking through a forest so as to be noticed by as few animals as possible, but being entirely focused on any sign that you may be accidentally sneaking up on a Grizzly Bear. Your senses begin to sharpen. Imagine now walking a half hour like this; a fox stands in your path, dances off, only to return a few minutes later, again in front of you, repeating this playful pattern for a while. Now, you’ve found a spot with a large enough view to sit and wait. The playful Whiskeyjacks flying by attempt to land on your hat and let you know that you’ve done a good job of blending-in. What happens next is your ears start to ring; The silence, as deep as the forest, is too much for your ears and your level of focus is straining your mind. Later, as you have accidentally benefited from hours of meditation, your mind clears. A wind-rustled leaf sounds so loud you think of raising your rifle; you notice a field mouse eating seeds thirty-feet away. A balance between an on-edge fear and a connectedness, and contentment is achieved.
Of course, you don’t need to hunt to achieve that. Some Eastern mental health practices include a “forest bath,” which from my understanding is exactly that. And, while I have not researched this, I recall an article explaining linking a physical reaction in the body to these outdoor experiences. If you get nothing from my writing, at least go for a walk in the woods.
Why I’ll stop hunting: Alas, after professing my primitive connection to hunting, I must examine an obvious difficulty in deciding to hunt. It is not sustainable. I’m not prepared to stop hunting yet – it is a family tradition, and a healthy alternative to store-bought meat. However, when I do, it will be because of the number of animals. Our system in BC is flawed. Moose counts are done by helicopter. If they see four in a square kilometre, they assume that is the rate for the whole region and base and “allowable harvest” on that number. I won’t go into explaining why that is flawed. There is also the fact that every hunter will respond the same way when asked about animal numbers: “there’s too much pressure (people hunting)” or “there are just fewer animals.” We know it, yet we continue. This year some First Nations groups took it upon themselves to close access to hunting areas because of the combination of over-hunting and devastating forest fires reducing cover. I have no idea why we culturally have such a difficult time accepting preservation, but I know it is not unique to hunting. Our fisheries are on the verge of collapse; we’re seeing baby whales starve. I don’t want to be a primary contributor to the decline of animal populations, so I know I will soon, need to stop. If we all want to have the opportunity to hunt we need to take measures now.
In the meantime, I embrace the family tradition of the hunt; I incorporate First Nations’ traditions of preparing for a hunt; I believe in hunting for meat and hide, not trophies; I look forward to the silence, the rush, the vulnerability; I benefit from days in the outdoors; I wear plaid, or camouflage; I recognize the scope, beauty and importance of wilderness and I ask it to provide for my family as a gift, not a right. Strap snowshoes to my backpack and throw me in a canoe and you can’t get anymore Canadian than that.