The Hunter’s Paradox: Loving What You Kill


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Photo by Johnathan O'Dell, AZ Game and Fish Dept.
Photo by Johnathan O’Dell, AZ Game and Fish Dept.

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

— Walt Whitman

On a day not so long ago, I sat on a cooler in a meadow at dawn. Hot coffee in hand, I drew breath on what was to be my final morning of a weeklong deer hunt with my friend Steve. In a few hours I’d pile back into my truck and return to the world of pavement and steel and glowing computer screens. But for the moment, all was quiet. Steve was fast asleep in his tent, and the slightest of breezes set the fading oak leaves to murmuring amongst themselves.

My lazy gaze settled on a pair of ears, bobbing through the suede grass of an adjoining field. It’s Mr. Jack, I thought. And then Mr. Jack was joined by Mrs. Jack. Or perhaps they were brother and sister, or maybe sisters or brothers both. I have no idea. But what I do know is that these jackrabbits clearly enjoyed each other’s company, and were unreservedly relaxed as they hopped toward our campsite.

Soon they were less than 10 yards from sleeping Steve. I found myself beaming as I watched these two hares casually going about their business, having a good time; I rarely get to see two jackrabbits interacting with each other. It felt like I was being given a gift.

And then one stopped and looked directly at me. Without thought, I waved hello. And while Mr. Jack did not exactly wave back, he did cock one ear in my direction before continuing on his way – every bit as casually as he and his friend/lover/sibling had been before they’d seen me.

I sipped my coffee and watched them amble out of sight. It was a lovely way to start a morning.

But you should know something: I kill and eat jackrabbits. In fact, just two days prior, I had stalked, shot, killed, skinned, gutted and cooked one. Could it have been a friend or relative of these two jackrabbits? And how is it that I can feel such pure joy in both the act of watching animals and in hunting them?

I feel a deep kinship with the animals I hunt; most hunters do. We get to know them in a far deeper way than all but a few other sorts of human: We know their personalities, their foibles, their habits. Where they like to live, what they like to eat, and what they might do in any given situation. Yet most of us take delight in being fooled when a deer or rabbit shows us some new quirk of their behavior. Hunt any animal long enough and it ceases to be the Disneyfied caricature of itself most people know and blossoms into a clever, free-thinking entity – an entity not so different from us.

My mind settled onto this seeming paradox the way a leaf settles onto the forest floor. Sitting in this meadow, in this place, as a hunter and a human animal, it felt serenely right in a way I find wildly incapable of explaining to those who have not experienced the same feeling.

This feeling lies beneath rational thought, and no attempt to reduce it to reason can capture it accurately; a picture of the ocean is not the ocean. However, one piece of this feeling centers on the fundamental fact that to live on planet Earth something else must die. It has been so for more than 600 million years. No animal, from an amoeba to the girl next door, can exist without making a mark upon this planet. Dealing death is the business of life.

Many reject this notion as abhorrent. They ask themselves: Are we really no better than the lions on the Serengeti? Should not humanity stand for something at least slightly more grand than being the biggest, baddest pack of wolves on the planet? To such people, humanity’s highest purpose is to transcend the boundaries of the so-called animal world in order to reach whatever state of exaltation seems best to them. With a worldview like this, hunters are retrograde Neanderthals wallowing in Nature red in tooth and claw.

I suspect that the core of such criticism of what we do is an unnatural fear of death, a fear stoked by distance and ignorance. Citizens of the wealthiest nations of the world have created barriers between themselves and the commonplace reality of not only the deaths that their existence requires, but also their own mortality. Death is an abstraction, a goblin lurking inside the dark attic of their mind.

No one is entirely immune to this fear, yet we hunters are men and women who deal death in a very personal way. I have stared into the eyes of hundreds of birds, scores of rabbits and dozens of larger animals as they lay in the dust dying. Their eyes hold mine fast, forcing me to look full in the face the consequences of my actions, forcing me to remember what it is I do. What all life does.

Photo by Hank Shaw
Photo by Hank Shaw

Again and again and again, I see my own death in the eyes of that jackrabbit, or duck or deer. And I am afraid. I know not what lies beyond, nor does the animal I stand over. All I know is that someday, the dying eyes will be mine, staring at a doctor, or a lover. Or the unblinking sky. It is a searing moment that feels like staring at the sun in a windstorm. It leaves me gasping.

But then it passes. The rabbit moves no more. I inhale. I notice the birds are still singing. There is a fly buzzing somewhere. Life continues, at least for me. And at my feet is an animal that will soon feed me and my friends and family.

Why do this? Why seek out death on purpose? It isn’t the death I am seeking, but death is the price I must pay for what I seek. Best I can explain it is that when I rise, kill, and eat – to quote Acts 10:13 — I feel I am living deeply within something larger than myself. There is a serenity to it all. I kill when I am hungry, drink in Nature’s great pageant when I am not. In both there is bliss. It is a fleeting glimpse of the eternity of being.

Which returns us to my meeting with the jackrabbits on that gauzy September morning. The hares, like all of the animals I hunt, are not exactly my friends. But nor are they my enemies. We are players in a much larger game – a game that must be played, whether we choose to take the field or not. And like all games, this one has beginnings and endings. My wave? Mr. Jack’s cock of the ear? It was a salute, an acknowledgement by predator and prey that at on this day, at this moment, there will be no killing. Tomorrow may be different.

NOTE: I suspect this essay will generate some discussion and disagreement. All I ask — require, really — is for everyone to respect each other’s opinions, even (and especially) when we disagree. Discussion and debate = good. Flame war and name-calling = bad. ~Hank

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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  1. It is interesting that I came across this piece. This is my first season hunting. In fact, Holly was my guide on my first duck hunt this year in December with CWA and the BOW-Becoming an Outdoors Woman. I brought home two green wing teals on that weekend.
    I was elated when my shotgun connected and the duck fell from the sky. As I held the limp, lifeless body of that duck in my hands, a sudden wave of guilt and regret washed over me. OMG, what was I thinking? What did I do? I feel a deep respect and appreciation for animals. If hunters didn’t feel a sense of sadness at taking a life-something is wrong with them.
    Thank you Hank for putting so eloquently into words what I was feeling, but was unable to articulate. I have since done other bird hunting. I don’t always come home with a bird, but hunting is not only about the harvest. It is also about the experience of getting up very early and seeing the sun rise. It’s the hike in the dark, the stock, set-up, and taking in the sounds and smells of the forest or marsh. It’s about quality time spent with companions and the joy of watching a well trained dog work.
    One important thing for people to remember who may be quick to judge a hunter is this. Anytime we eat meat, an animal died to provide that meat. Those who acquire their meats from a butcher or grocery store feel far removed from the reality that an animal’s life was taken to provide food for you. In addition to the meat, people who enjoy wearing leather boots and jackets, or carry a leather purse need to think about where the hide came from to make the apparel they enjoy.

  2. Outstanding article. I have not hunted yet. My friend who was to take me on my first pheasant hunt died last week so this hunt is gone. But I have fished, killed chickens, and one hog. I respect your words. They are what I have felt but cannot put into my own words. Thank you.

  3. I am new to hunting, just having purchased my compound bow about 11 months ago and I’ve yet to kill anything with it, even though I’ve been hunting several times. Since I’m new to the sport when others hear I’ve got this new passion, I sometimes get grief about it. I have particular disdain from those that ARE meat eaters but feel that hunting is wrong. I guess shrink-wrapped is ok though? Funny.

    Your essay is extremely well written and I found it an incredibly interesting read. Thank you very much for writing this. I enjoyed it a lot!

  4. Hank,
    I read your piece with interest (and also for its beautiful craft). I am grateful to meet a high-minded hunter who can articulate something that has been missing from the conversation in my head. I have a visceral repulsion to guns. They are too close to the weaponry that increasingly allows human carnage — on other humans and the animal world. Your words temper my reaction. Just last week,the nearly 100 geese we have been watching for months – their pairing, nesting, raising their families — were “massacred” in the words of my brother in law. He was particularly close to them. The hunters came on posted land early one morning, leaving nothing but feathers, some floating dead bodies we found (others were likely taken out to sea). Geese do not come here anymore. I know only a few hunters, so these made yet another mark on my psyche concerning killing. I eat very little meat — not out of some righteous decision – but because of a natural reaction to killing the animals I love.Please know that your words have helped to balance this. Thank you.

    1. Lily: Whoa. The “hunters” who killed those geese were more likely illegal poachers. Sounds like they killed over the limit, and, depending on where you are, the season hasn’t even started yet. And it is a crime to leave what you killed in the field; it’s called wanton waste. If you shoot it, you need to eat it, or give it to someone who will. That’s the law. I am sorry you had to experience that. Stories like yours make my blood boil.

  5. Awesome. As you may still play the game that must be played, wether you take the field or not, most others are a century ahead of you and only hunt for sport and only for a quick thrill (so many won’t even eat the kill) because of the advancement in farming and the love of tacos…. .. but I have to admit, while I read yours I pretty much sang it in my head

  6. When I was 51 I was lucky enough to marry a hunter. I grew up on a farm and we ate the animals that we raised, but that was their “purpose”. My Dad had a gun, but it was for killing groundhogs, not for hunting for food. I am a gardener. Is a tomato less alive than a jackrabbit? It’s okay to kill a mosquito but not a turkey? I have helped my husband haul in a deer that he shot. I have looked into the deer’s lifeless eyes and we are thankful for every bite we eat. Everything returns to the Earth when it dies, and nurtures other creatures, except humans. We fill humans with embalming fluid and bury them in cases to prevent decomposition. Jackrabbits and deer and tomatoes know more about the cycle of life than we do.

  7. This is a great piece and sums up many of my feelings about wildlife. Sometimes I kill an animal and sometimes I choose not to. I thoroughly enjoy watching the wildlife that uses my backyard. I have often said that I do not hunt to prove anything to anyone. Hunting makes me part of the system in which my prey exists in a way just simply observing cannot do. There is a famous quote that applies: “I do not hunt to kill. I kill to have hunted.”

  8. I thought that I was the only one that saw things this way. This past deer season I had plenty of opportunities to harvest a dear in my back yard. I realized that I still had plenty of meat from last year, and I had been enjoying watching these does and their fawns all summer so I passed on shooting one. Next year may be different but one thing that won’t change is the reverence I feel for any animal that gives it’s life for me.

  9. Well, then go live in the forest…you can always return to the safety of the city. And how about not using a gun, or a modern bow, but crafting your own weapon, and wearing a bear skin in the winter. That would be a real challenge, one were you must kill or be killed by the forest. To experience famine for missing a prey, to suffer and to rejoice when a meal is served, because you ain’t doing it to “return to nature” anymore, you’re doing it to actually keep yourself alive.
    I probably don’t understand your feelings and thoughts about nature, but also I guess you don’t understand me when I choose to not hunt animals for food (I know that crops kill animals, but if people cut their meat consumption, then a lot less would be needed), I can feel conected to nature by working the land (hope I can do it some day, and not depend on large scale crops).
    May an honorable death, away from humanity sick cities, finds you in the end, maybe in a forest so you can feed the trees with your flesh. Peace and please excuse me for my english.

  10. I am also a bowhunter. Your thoughts help me to better understand what I feel when hunting.
    As you know there are so strong feelings when an animal dies. It is so easy to misunderstand that these feelings. And today the whole vegan community with their worldview has taken over the interpretation of these feelings. I accept all vegans with their religion. But it is not mine.
    Thanks for your thoughts.