By the time my fiancée and I returned to eating eggs and dairy due to health concerns, I had realized that everything I ate took a toll on animals. I knew that clearing crop land wipes out wildlife habitat, that grain harvesters mince birds and mammals (PDF), and that farmers kill to protect virtually every crop grown in North America. Even local, organic greens and strawberries came to us courtesy of missing forests, smoke-bombed woodchucks, and rifle-shot deer. If farmers had had their way in the late 19th century, deer populations here in the Northeast would have remained at the near-extinction levels to which they had been driven by overhunting and the clearing of forests for agriculture.
Our return to eating local chicken and wild fish was even more unsettling. These creatures had not died as a side effect of agriculture. They had been killed specifically so I could eat them.
So I took up hunting. I needed to take responsibility for at least a few of the deaths that sustained me, to confront that emotional and moral difficulty. I needed to look directly at living, breathing creatures. I couldn't have all the killing done by proxy.
As in my vegan years, I sought a respectful, holistic way of living as a member of the larger-than-human world. Ecologically, venison from local woods made more sense than anything shipped cross-country. Ethically, a truly wild animal made more sense than any creature raised in confinement.
Hunting, of course, is hard for many Americans to swallow.
In part, that's a matter of history. From the Puritans, who saw hunting as a sign of degeneracy in both European nobles and American Indians, to lionized hunters like Daniel Boone and Theodore Roosevelt to our modern stereotype of hunters as reckless rednecks, we have inherited a wildly conflicted legacy.
In part, it's a matter of current events. Some hunters take dangerous shots at unidentified flashes of movement, occasionally resulting in tragedy. Some take marginal shots at animals, with little care for the suffering inflicted or the risk of a slow, painful death.
We are -- and should be -- troubled by such behavior. But we should also see it for what it is: the dark side not just of hunting but of our culture as a whole.
As writer and hunter Ted Kerasote pointed out years ago, recklessness and disrespect are hardly unique to thoughtless hunters. As a society, we engage in all kinds of gratuitously harmful behavior, from drunk driving and factory farming to rapacious development and agricultural practices that cause soil erosion and poison birds by the tens of millions (PDF). Poor hunter conduct -- attributable to the willful actions of individual members of a minority -- serves as a lightning rod for disapproval, but it is not particularly unusual.
In great part, our difficulty with hunting stems from the simple fact that we are disturbed by the killing of animals. Most burger-wolfing Americans don't want to know what happens in slaughterhouses. Most yogurt-scooping vegetarians don't want to know that dairy farming depends on the constant butchering of male calves for veal. As a salad-munching vegan, I didn't want to know about the impacts of agriculture.