Humane Take Outs and Other Euphemisms from the Hunting Life

 

This piece ran on Atlantic.com two days ago. 

In a recent Atlantic post, Barry Estabrook confessed, “As a journalist who takes issues surrounding food production seriously, I too have things that drive me crazy.” Well, Barry, I’m with you. Add me to the list of writers occasionally driven to the brink. And note that fewer things make me crazier than the inevitable rash of late autumnal pieces on how hunting connects us to meat.

I was reminded of my distaste for this media trope just last week, when WNYC reported on Peter Zander’s popular hunting workshops in Columbia County, New York. The story explained that Zander’s motivation “for killing deer is to maintain the most intimate connection to the meat he eats.” A friend emailed me the piece with the subject line “this will annoy you.” Annoy me? The damn piece kept me up at night.

Zander makes much of his desire to deliver a quick death. The blow, he explained, should be merciful. “I don’t really want it [the hunt] to be evenly matched, I’m there to harvest my food … I don’t want to take a chance with [a weapon that is] under-powered or questionable. I want a sure shot that will take the animal out as humanely as I can.” Most readers, I imagine, will applaud this logic, acknowledging Zander’s compassion for the hunted. What initially strikes me, though, is Zander’s language. Consciously chosen or not, his words mask the inherent brutality of his profitable hobby.

Zander’s claim that he entered the woods “to harvest my food” is a common expression among conservation-minded hunters. The primary meaning — and clear implication — of “harvest” is, according to the OED, “to reap and gather” a cultivated crop. Not until the 1940s did hunters begin to apply the term to animals. While technically correct, Zander’s use of “harvest” is intended to soften hunting’s violent edge. The act of unnecessarily shooting an innocent animal — which is, when you reduce it to its essence, gratuitous violence — is cloaked in the innocuous language of plant-based agriculture. Zander refuses to take a chance with an under-powered weapon. Clearly he feels the same way about an over-powered but deadly accurate word: kill.

More problematic is Zander’s desire for “a sure shot that will take the animal out as humanely as I can.” I get — and respect — the wish for a quick death (if one absolutely must hunt). But again, the terminology is worth unpacking. The most violent connotation I could find for “take out” was “the striking of an opponent’s stone out of play” in the sport of curling. But anyone who watches mafia movies knows the deeper implication of Zander’s use of “take out.” It’s to murder somebody. Brutally. In the Wikipedia entry for the Italian mobster Lucky Luciano, Vito Genovese — Lucky’s one-time underboss — is said to have “wanted to take out” Lucky’s competition.

And boy he did. But no one would describe Genovese’s mob hits as being done “courteously,” “kindly,” “compassionately,” or “benevolently” — all used by the OED to define “humanely.” The whackings were cold and gruesome. Zander believes he can “humanely” “take out” a deer. But that’s about as possible as Sonny Corleone getting humanely taken out at that toll booth in The Godfather. Do note, though, that high-powered weaponry delivering “sure shots” render the harvesting of Corleone masterfully efficient. Humane? Not so much.

Zander’s wife thickens this stew of euphemism with a few choice additions of her own. Not a hunter herself, she nonetheless attended one of her husband’s ventures, and reported the event to be “transformative because I saw first-hand … the reverence that the hunter has for the woods, and all of mother nature, and the animal that they’re hunting.” There’s a lot to grumble about here, but let’s focus on the assertion of reverence for the hunted animal. The OED primarily defines reverence as “deep or due respect” marked by “deference.” Reverence also means “veneration” as a result of “a sacred or exalted character.” Did these hunters defer to, venerate, or in any way exalt the sacred character of the deer they hunted and killed?

Consider the deer’s perspective on the question. Female deer — which are often targeted for the purposes of population control — are deeply devoted mothers to their initially helpless offspring. Fawns, which weigh only a few pounds at birth, are vulnerable. They cannot stand with assurance until they consume their mother’s milk. Afterwards, the mother feeds her offspring (usually one or two fawns) for several months and then proceeds to teach them where they can forage on their own. Once independent, deer join packs that are often monitored by a dominant male. When we see a deer munching berries, we too often fail to recognize the network of dependent relationships that define that deer’s existence.

So let’s say that one of Zander’s’s hunters got a mother deer in the crosshairs of his assuredly potent weapon. And let’s say the mother’s fawn was curled up in a perfectly camouflaged ball 20 yards away. And let’s say the hunter fired that ever merciful sure shot, felling the mother deer in an instant. Is there reverence in this act? Given the deer’s evident interest in not only her own life but the life of her offspring and pack, I’m hard pressed to find any hint of deference or veneration in an act that, you will recall, Zander himself declared should be unevenly matched. The only thing deferred to or deemed sacred is the hunter’s hubris.

The text version of the WNYC piece ends with — surprise! — a recipe. And with that comes the last critical euphemism, one that happens to be about 800 years old. Nobody wants to cook “Five Spice Stew With a Mother Deer Shot With a High-Powered Rifle While Her Baby Slept Nearby.” But what about “Five Spice Venison Stew”? Much more palatable.

Considering these verbal dodges, I’m left wondering: What kind of connection are we really seeking when we hunt for our own food? The standard line is that by hunting, butchering, and cooking animals we own the animal-to-menu supply chain and, in so doing, demystify the source of our meat. Sounds fine. But when we tell ourselves that we’re humanely harvesting venison out of reverence for the deer — rather than killing a sentient being to satisfy our palate — we’re not so much connecting with our food as we are manipulating language to avoid knowing what we don’t want to know.

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About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

3 Responses to Humane Take Outs and Other Euphemisms from the Hunting Life

  1. CQ says:

    I couldn’t agree more.

    Speaking of euphemisms, I think the concept of connecting to one’s meat is a lame excuse for sporthunting, an adreneline-pumping pasttime for those who only pretend that they really need the flesh for their food.

    Sporthunting, we know, is always lauded by hunters for its “fair chase” element. The notion that humans killing an animal with a weapon is ever “fair” is soundly debunked in “THE BIG LIE” by Dino DiGiacomo (the quote is found in Chapter 17, pp 47-49, of http://www.CreatureQuotes.com):

    People who enjoy killing animals
    have long tried to disguise their barbarity
    in a cloak of respectability they call “sporthunting.”
    The fact is, sporthunting does not exist. It never has.

    All sports share certain conditions to ensure a sense of fair play
    and create equal opportunity for all participants.
    What the animal killers call sporthunting
    meets none of the conditions of real sports.
    Let’s take a look at some of the criteria that define sport
    and why so-called sporthunting fails every one of them.

    WILLINGNESS TO PARTICIPATE

    In any sport, all participants choose to be there.
    Both boxers want to be in the ring that night,
    the players on both football teams want to be on the field that day,
    and both tennis players agree to meet on the court at that time.
    Sporthunting fails on this point
    because the animal is never a willing participant.

    KNOWING WHEN THE CONTEST WILL START

    All basketball players are aware of the starting time of the game,
    giving them time to prepare.
    Golfers know what time they will tee off.
    Wrestlers know what time the match will start.
    They don’t expect their opponent to break into their home
    and hurt or kill them while they are sleeping
    or having breakfast with their family,
    which is what happens to animals
    because this sporting condition is not met.

    EVEN CHANCE

    All participants are given the same equipment
    with which to play the game.
    Both boxers have equally weighted gloves and protective gear,
    as do football and hockey players.
    Bowlers are only allowed to throw one ball at a time
    while all rowers use the same numbers of oars.
    Sporthunting fails here also because the hunters have airplanes,
    automatic weapons, high-powered scopes, steel traps, etc.,
    while the animal has only the equipment it was given at birth.

    EQUAL PRIZE

    The criterion here insures the same prize is awarded
    to whichever team or player wins the contest.
    The prize itself may be a trophy, belt or an award,
    but the commercial and athletic value of that prize
    is the same for each potential winner.
    Sporthunting fails miserably on this point
    because the prize is life itself, but it is not an equal prize.
    The hunter can only win or draw
    while the animal can only draw or lose.
    The hunter wins by killing the animal
    or draws if the animal manages to escape.
    Conversely, the animal draws by getting away
    or loses by being killed.
    The animal cannot win.
    Some hunters say that once in a while
    the animal wins by killing the hunter
    but that only happens on rare occasions
    with all the odds stacked against the animal,
    who is never a willing participant anyway.

    I have heard some hunters say that hunting
    is not about the animals at all.
    It is, they insist, an awareness of self.
    Once and for all, let’s not buy into their facade.
    Sporthunting is not a sport.
    It is simply an excuse for unhappy men and women
    to go out and kill.
    How do I arrive at the fact they are an unhappy lot?
    Look around you!
    Happy people do not take time away from their happiness
    to go out and kill something.
    The real shame is that sporthunters
    pass this travesty onto their children
    who will come to believe that killing is a sport.

  2. Carolle says:

    Wonderful piece and breakdown of language. Thanks again for your thoughts.

  3. Provoked says:

    The comparison of hunters to hitmen is powerful… And accurate when you see the wrong for what it is. Thank you for exposing their twisted, embellished words and phrases – It needs to be done every chance we have.

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