Hunting for Reflection: Another Talk in Texas

Culture is everything. I gave a talk today at the University of Texas. Students at UT-Austin are as smart as students anywhere. After I presented my ideas about the myriad problems with animal agriculture, venturing into the issue of animal rights, students seemed to be generally receptive to my message. Then came the inevitable question: what about hunting?

Ah, hunting. Texans don’t just hunt, they hunt. It’s life not only for middle class insurance agents in Huntsville, but for high SAT scoring college students in Austin. One student appealed to the Bible’s insistence that humans have “dominion” over animals and thus could shoot them at will. Another made a case for conservation and deer control. Yet another argued that hunting starving animals wracked by drought put them out of misery. When I responded that humans have a duty to minimize the purposeful infliction of harm, one young man rolled his eyes.

I say these students are intelligent, and they are. But intelligence does not mean reflective. One student, whom I know, stated that he ate animals because, well, they were animals and he was human. Really? He ate them because it made him happy. I asked him if he’d eat his dog and he looked horrified and said, “no.”

When I left UT I hopped on my bike and rode to Casa de Luz, Austin’s vegan haven, and had a wonderful lunch of lentils, sweet potatoes, kale, and brown rice.  On my way down to Casa I rode along Lake Lady Bird (pictured above), where I watched dozens of people, young and old, many of them probably hunters,play with their dogs. All the while I was thinking how, for so many of us, the dots are in place.

Culture, though, makes it very hard to connect them.


Hunting for Identity and Inflicting Suffering: The Stress of Being Stalked

One justification for hunting animals as a way to supply meat is that it’s more humane because the animals are able to avoid confinement and, as a result, suffering. A recent piece by one of my favorite writers, Marc Bekoff, explains why this is a false assumption. He explains:

Stalking animals causes immense suffering for those who are stalked . . . .Even if people stalk animals but don’t try to kill them, the animals suffer greatly. Just seeing a potential predator, and hunters are viewed as predators, is stressful. Patrick Bateson, at the University of Cambridge in England, found red deer stalked by dogs showed stress responses similar to those experienced when animals were anxious and scared. Deer showed high levels of cortisol and the breakdown of red blood cells, indicating extreme physiological and psychological stress. Stalked deer also displayed excessive fatigue and damaged muscles. Non-stalked deer and those shot without prolonged stalking didn’t show similar stress responses. There’s no reason to thinik that birds would respond any differently. Clearly, animals don’t like the emotional distress, anxiety, and fear of being stalked and neither do humans. Stalked animals may also spend less time feeding, resting, and protecting young. The stalker’s intentions, malevolent or not, are unimportant to the animal and there often is much collateral damage to family and friends of the targeted individual.”

Hunting is becoming stylish among people who somehow think that it’s a virtuous way to reconnect with nature, our primitive forebears, and some inner sense of what it means to be part of the food chain. Kudos to Bekoff for drawing on science to provide a much needed, and hopefully heeded, reality check.

Here’s the whole piece:

(thank you to Mariann Sullivan)

What’s So Natural about Butchery?: The Artifice of Eating Animals

One of the most common justifications for eating animals is that it’s “natural.” It’s considered natural, in part, because animals eat animals in the wild. Why should humans, as confirmed omnivores, be exempt from this struggle for survival? If it’s natural for a lion to hunt down and kill a gazelle, why is not equally natural for a human being to hunt down and kill a gazelle?

Standard objections to this argument stress the fact that humans are the only species with a moral compass. We are the only species that can design and promote plans explicitly intended to make the world a more peaceful place. We should therefore not eat animals. Such a response seems perfectly reasonable.

The practical problem with it, though, is that defenders of the “red in tooth and claw” viewpoint use the moral distinction to make the wrong case. Instead of  interpreting our moral capacity as a reason to avoid unnecessary animal suffering, they argue that it makes humans so superior to other species that we can justifiably transform them into sausage and cook them on a grill. I don’t in any way agree with this claim, but I hear it so often that I’m wondering if it might make more sense to confront the “animals do it too” argument from another perspective.

Of course, animals do a lot of things in the wild that humans have, thankfully, chosen to avoid. But what strikes me as potentially important is the way animals eat other animals in nature. Essentially, they kill them with their own claws or fangs and devour them raw. As far as I can tell, no non-human animals in any way significantly prepares the meat he kills (although I would not be surprised if insects did something insanely sophisticated). The blood and flesh are unprocessed. That’s generally how it works in nature.

For humans, however, eating animals is mediated by layer upon layer of artifice–and, I would argue, all of these layers require human inventions designed to protect us from the hard reality that we’re eating products from sentient animals. We butcher, process, and cook; sterilize, package, and ship. An array of synthetic devices never found in the nature–guns, arrows, traps, knives, ovens, stoves, etc.–make the experience of comfortable alienation possible. None of this is natural in the way that animals eating animals is natural. Not at all. If we had to obtain our animal products through the same natural mechanisms as animals in the wild do it, we’d likely end up a) eaten, b) so disgusted we could not swallow our catch, or c) sickened by zoonotic disease.  It is here, I think, where the “animals do it” argument is seriously weakened.

Indeed, maybe it’s through this angle that vegans might make the case that eating for humans–and humans alone– is a choice. It’s moral choice that–no matter how assiduously we compare our experience to those of non-human animals–reflects well on humanity when we choose to leave animals out of our diet. Compassion, I would venture, is natural, too.

Can Violence Against Animals Lead to Violence Against People?

I’ve been reading lately about that horrific school shooting in Ohio. I follow these all too common reports with some obsession not only because I’m the father of two children in grade school, but because I’m curious about what leads any individual, especially such a young individual, to declare war on his classmates.

Many reports noted that the shooter, T. J. Lane, was a hunter. I realize that the connection between violence committed against animals and violence committed against humans is tenuous. I also know that it’s a matter of sustained debate in the psychological and sociological literature. That said, the concept of one form of violence systematically fostering another hardly seems far-fetched.

Throughout much of modern history observers—most of them women–have unabashedly made the connection. Writing in 1943, Agnes Martin, author of “For the Church Door,” opined that “wars will never cease while men still kill other animals for food, since to turn any living creature into a roast, a steak, a chop, or any other form of ‘meat’ takes the same kind of violence, the same kind of bloodshed and the same kind of mental processes required to change a living man into a dead soldier.” Twenty years later Grace Knole, author of The James Joyce Murders, wrote, “I expect after you have many times seen a deer or woodchuck blown to bits, the thought of a human blown to bits is that much less impossible to conceive.” These assessments strike me as sensible as they are disturbing.

In many parts of the United States hunting remains a revered right-of-passage for young boys.  The tradition of killing one’s first deer often comes sheathed in warrior-like, and frequently sexually suggestive, rituals such as a “virgin” hunter covering his face with the blood of “his” first conquest. Troll YouTube and you’ll find a disturbing number of videos of boys as young as eight killing deer.

It’s astounding how many people think this is a wonderful thing. Advocates of this behavior invariably highlight the benefits that come from being in nature, bonding with fathers, and pursuing an ethic of conservation. It’s important to expose the lunacy of this rhetoric. These supposed benefits are, if the above quotes are onto anything, little more than rationalizations for severe violence, violence that could all too easily carry over into the way we view–and perhaps can treat–our fellow humans.

Hunting for Flesh, Hunting for Identity: Why Men Hunt

A while ago I promised a series of posts on hunting. After putting some thought into the matter, and trying to decide the most productive angle into the topic, I found myself unable to escape the looming specter of testosterone. Sorry if this is painfully obvious but I see no other way to begin: hunting is inseparable from manhood.

Sure, women hunt. But for 99 percent of humanity’s existence it was the necessary job of men to acquire meat. Chances are good that patriarchy as a social arrangement developed directly out of this responsibility. With the onset of animal domestication about 10,000 years ago, the connection between men and meat only intensified. The entire idea of what it meant to be a man, at least in western cultures, came to center not only on the ability to drag flesh to the home fire, but to raise animals at home, to husband them and harvest their flesh. Any man who failed at either of these tasks saw his masculinity seriously imperiled, much as if he were sexually impotent. The experience of running out of meat could be a humiliating experience, a sharp source of ridicule. Men without meat were men who failed to perform.

Occasionally, the relationship between hunting animals and domesticating animals became temporarily complicated. A case in point is early America. On the one hand, hunting briefly fell out of favor, primarily because it was a practice that white settlers didn’t necessarily want to share with Native Americans, whom they deemed utterly savage. On the other hand, there was no way around the fact that, every now and then, even the most responsible husbandman needed to grab his rifle, duck into the woods, and hunt for food. This was a settlement society. Nonetheless, if the association between hunting and manhood temporarily weakened in the eighteenth century (due to the cultural importance of domestication), it roared back with a vengeance in the nineteenth. Western migrants, intoxicated on the spirit of Manifest Destiny, revived and solidified the bond between manhood and hunting, deeming them the combined epitome of not just a mere man, but a frontiersman.

This wasn’t to last. Today there’s no immediate physical need for men to hunt. The frontier is not only the stuff of legend (and myth), but it’s been replaced by strip malls and grocery stores–venues where women do most of the “hunting.” And therein lies the crisis. Men are in a genuine bind, one not to be taken lightly (or mocked).Throughout the history of humanity men have been responsible for venturing outside the home–be it the pasture or the woods (or high seas)–and dragging home the main course. This activity was essential to the masculine identity, so much so that we hinged nothing less than our reputation as real men upon the acquisition of animal flesh. Now consider the situation today. At least in the developed world, there’s currently no need for anyone to hunt. Multinational corporations domesticate our animals for us. Women (or restaurants) dominate the task of bringing food to our table. Men golf.

Men thus hunt not to survive, but to preserve an antiquated sense of what it means to be a man. They hunt because the weight of two-hundred thousand years of tradition is hard to shake. They hunt because our culture–in so many ways so advanced and so enlightened–has yet to promote the idea that it’s extremely attractive for a man to love and nurture animals.




“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: 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.