“I hate to Kill”: Thoughts on Hunting

I hate hunting. I hate the idea of taking pleasure in deaths that humans inflict on animals in the name of “sport,” or “conservation,” or some warped notion of what it means to be “rugged,” or “a survivor,” or “manly.” A real man, as I see it, views animals as having intrinsic value. He sees them on their own terms at best and, at worst, as innocent beings deserving our protection. He sees hunting for what it is: a refuge of the weak, a rigged and twisted game marked by blood and power, a one-time necessary evil that humans have evolved beyond the need to engage. Hunting is especially popular in rural areas where traditional, and often evangelical, Christian values dominate. How disconcerting, then, that “creatures of God” are summarily blown away with weaponry more reflective of the profane than the sacred. How baffling that contemporary hunting violates not just Christian values, but every theory of normative ethics. Ours is not a culture of deep reflection, but one need not kneel on the philosopher’s stone to appreciate the basic point that the recreational killing of a sentient being is, by the dictates of common sense, just plain wrong.

This morning, perhaps in a sadistic mood, I re-read this widely circulated New York Times op-ed by Seamus McGraw: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/26/opinion/hunting-deer-with-my-flintlock.html?pagewanted=all. The author, inexplicably, insists that he hates to kill. He makes this claim, however, in the midst of describing his botched flintlock kill of a “beautiful doe.” My initial reaction, again, was anger. “I had to admire her guts,” McGraw thought, before pulling the trigger, leading one to wonder: then why did this gutless man kill her? In any case, rather than get caught in this spiral of anger, I’ve decided to do some reading and reflecting on hunting. There’s a lot going on when a grown man can say he hates to kill and then kill. This post starts a new catagory, one to which I will be adding frequently.

As always, all responses, ideas, suggestions, and insights are warmly welcomes.




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.

7 Responses to “I hate to Kill”: Thoughts on Hunting

  1. Thanks for taking this on, and good luck. I have done a number of writings on hunting (writing about it from a vegan perspective, that is) and engaged in a few following conversations with them. By and large, not a positive experience.

  2. magpie says:

    I also wonder about this. I seek out opportuinities to talk to hunters because the ir mindset is so strange to me. A while ago I asked a hunter .”Picture this: it’s just coming daybreak and the sun is starting to come up and there, where sunbeams are piercing the trees’ foliage making a dappled carpet on the forest floor, stands a beautiful and graceful deer: you lift your gun and reduce the deer to a pile of blood and guts! What do you feel?!” A lot of mumbling and muttering came from this lofty specimen of manhood; he could not answer, but after a while he said to the effct that it was quick and that he would like his own end to be likewise! Shall be following with interest.

  3. Provoked says:

    Yes, hunting to me too seems to be one of the most blatant areas of disconnect. I can see the thrill of walking in the woods and spotting a deer or a boar or any other free creature – But to have that “thrill” immortalized in a killing just baffles me to tears.

    I’ve been around a lot of men who bring down prey, and willingly violate everything I hold as sacred. If you can shed any light as to why or how they’re driven to do so – It would be appreciated.

  4. Jamie Berger says:

    Great topic! It’s shocking to me that killing for sheer pleasure is still a respected hobby here. I would be curious to see how it is viewed in other developed countries (mainly Europe?). I am also curious about how to better manage populations of wildlife (e.g. deer and squirrels) that are out of control and negatively impacting ecosystems without just mowing them down. Obviously the ideal would be to reintroduce their natural predators but that’s rarely an option for a number of reasons.

    Looking forward to more!

  5. CQ says:

    Anything I have to say about hunting pales next to the remarks of those who have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about the culture of killing animals.

    So, I present here one of the most articulate pieces I’ve found on the subject, by a humble librarian named Irwin Feldman. “Where Violence Begins: Animal Industries and the Cult of Aggression” explains the origins of (in)humanity’s aggression toward animals.

    Everything below is written by Feldman:

    We often hear hunting described as a “manly” sport. Its macho image accounts for most of its appeal. Why do hunters see the killing or wounding of a defenseless animal as a mark of manhood? Animals are unarmed and can’t compete effectively against human weapons. How could participation in such an unequal contest be seen as an affirmation of masculinity?

    The answer is surprisingly simple: it has to be viewed that way. Otherwise it could not continue. The roots of this misunderstood phenomenon go back to prehistory.

    As Jim Mason documents in his pioneering book, An Unnatural Order: Why We Are Destroying the Planet and Each Other, the rise of hunting and herding in prehistoric societies triggered a quantum leap in tribal aggressiveness.

    These societies tended to be far more territorial, combative, and violent than their predecessors.

    What accounts for this change? All evidence suggests that earlier foraging cultures had a profound respect for animals.

    To foragers, animals were spirits and close relatives who evoked powerful bonds and complex emotional responses in their human kin.

    Their routine victimization would have been almost as repellent as cannibalism is today.

    To develop an economy based on a brutal act of violence, a radical cultural change was necessary.

    What occurred might be described as the invention of “manhood.”

    In order to legitimize the taking of animal life, hunters and herdsmen idealized aggression, enveloping it in mysticism.

    Psychologically, much of this may be understood in terms of compensation. The Dictionary of Behavioral Science defines compensation as “the mechanism of covering up aspects of oneself that are unacceptable and substituting more desired traits in an exaggerated form.”

    Hunters and herdsmen compensated for the shame, horror, and cowardice of animal abuse by idealizing aggression.

    The cult of aggression, which replaced animals and nature as the focus of spirituality, elevated cruelty to a rite of male power. These new masculine ideals supported an unprecedented assault against animals and nature. Highly effective in justifying animal cruelty, such beliefs took root in many animal-exploiting cultures.

    * * *

    The figure of the cowboy epitomizes these ideals in contemporary society. Unadorned, the “cowherdly” exploitation of harmless herbivores would be too unpalatable to generate social consent.

    It has to be reinterpreted. By enshrining the cowboy as an exemplar of masculinity, celebrating his deeds as epic achievements, and promoting his mythology of wholesome brutality, industry and media succeed in repackaging animal cruelty for public consumption.

    The “sportsman” renders a similar service. His occult faith that he can prove his manhood by bullying a duck, a deer, or a rabbit establishes aggression as a virtue.

    * * *

    Most people know intuitively that manhood consists in protecting, loving, and defending, not in victimizing. But the need to idealize aggression in order to promote animal agriculture produces a different concept of masculinity entirely.

    This version values aggression per se. It confers acceptance and prestige on those who dominate, and on the act of domination itself. Through the magic of social ritual, aggression against the weak achieves not only respectability but honor.

    * * *

    In ancient times the practice of animal sacrifice gave cruelty the implicit blessing of the gods.
    (This barbaric ritual still persists in some areas, where its essential purpose remains unchanged.)

    * * *

    Today, sport hunting, bullfights, rodeos, dissections, dog shows, zoos, 4-H clubs, and other traditions serve to sanction and sanctify animal abuse.

    The honor accorded to aggression by animal-based economies has disfigured human relations for millennia. Militarism, racism, genocide, crime, child and spousal abuse, economic exploitation, even sports and entertainment exhibit the malignant effects of our “aggression obsession.”

    The primary model for human aggression is animal abuse. “They treat us like animals” we say to signify total disregard for the rights of others.

    * * *

    As children we learn that animals can be exploited for human benefit. We quickly grasp the reason: they can’t defend themselves. Might makes right is the foundation of our interspecies relations.

    Whether we see animals as prey, prisoners, sacrificial offerings, slaves, commodities, experimental subjects, toys, ornaments, or educational tools, our relentless drive to profit from animal suffering inspires the most debased human behaviors.

    * * *

    [O]ur persecution of animals—the original scapegoats—sets the pattern for discrimination against any population deemed inferior or threatening. We always depict such groups as animal-like, therefore expendable.

    * * *

    Animal cruelty kills respect for life. When an entire society exploits animals on a massive scale, violence becomes an institution.

    What has been called “the banality of evil” springs from the same phenomena: worship of aggression, scapegoating, the myth of biological superiority, and habituation to violence.

    * * *

    The Nazis proved how easily mass murder crosses the species barrier. Some of the bids submitted by the German manufacturers who built Hitler’s herding and killing facilities have been preserved. These bland documents are indistinguishable from contracts for livestock equipment.

    Industrialized violence kills millions of animals every day. “Collateral damage” to our own species takes an additional toll.

    * * *

    With a rapacity bordering on apocalyptic, we now spill more blood of man and beast than all other terrestrial species combined.

    The cult of aggression responsible for this war against life originated in the distant past as a cover-up for animal cruelty. It may be the most archaic superstition to survive antiquity.

    * * *

    We are not carnivores by nature and there is nothing manly about abusing the defenseless.
    Those who prey on the vulnerable are cowards and cutthroats. Their pursuit of cruelty through the ages transformed violence into a human institution.

    For it is the systematic slaughter of sentient beings that has made history “a nightmare from which we are trying to awake.”

  6. ingrid says:

    Thank you for pointing this out. I read that piece when it first came out and perhaps what’s most disturbing is that he was willing to inflict this on a doe with a system he knew to be flawed, that had considerable potential for suffering. I engage in a lot of discussions with hunters, and have plenty of field experience as a photographer, sharing the land with them (much to my dismay when it occurs). I hear every manner of rationalization for some of the most egregious practices. And always, I hear “I love the hunt, I don’t like to kill.” That is usually followed by explanations for why they are high-fiving the kill, cheering, and straddling the dead animal for photo ops: “It’s not joy, just the satisfaction of succeeding in a hard-won hunt, bringing food home for the table.”

    A development I find even more disturbing is two-fold. First, there’s the current meme in our culture, especially among foodies, about “taking responsibility for food” — alluded to in this piece — which always seem to equate to killing one’s own chickens or taking up mid-life hunting. It’s a shame that “taking responsibility for one’s food” seems to avoid, altogether, the issue of how much meat those individuals really need to consume. It is, instead, a very thin justification (as I see it) for pressing on with a meat-laden diet that, beyond personal considerations, carries significant moral and global weight.

    Second, there appears to be a new form of literature these days relating to the sanctity of the hunt. I’ve read more accounts in major papers and magazines than I care to retell, defining hunting in spiritual terms. Always, the hunt is presented as a “communion” with the animal. I’ve seen the word “intimacy” used to describe the relationship between hunter and hunted which strikes me as more than perverse. Always, the story is told from the self-serving needs of the hunter, how the hunt helped him or her “connect” to nature, to life, without regard for how his or her sense of personal achievement in the hunt affected the actual life of hunted. And, more often than not, it’s accompanied by some commentary about the nobility of acquiring one’s own food. It seems to have become a badge of honor to kill with one’s own hands, and I can only suppose that this is one result of an effectively deadened society. Because one open to its own sense of consciousness and empathy would not be able to explain away, without cynicism, the unfortunate things I’ve seen.

  7. Provoked says:

    Hi Ingrid – I know what you mean about the new literature out these days that tout the good in “gentle” bloodshed – Namely yesterday the release of some “enlightened” ex-vegan turned hunter. He makes it appear to spiritually connected… This man feels he’s reverent to his prey. I just don’t get it either except that one will always believe what supports their whim. Knowledge is a totally different thing – We all know other animals don’t wish to die. No mountain of false “reasoning” can undo that fact.

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