Thoreau said that collecting a turtle for Agassiz made him feel like he had “a murderer’s experience in a degree.” I felt a little like that a few weeks ago when I ran over a squirrel, even though it was only an accident. That feeling partly explains why I am not a hunter.
I hunted once, if you can call it that, a long time ago when I was not so sensitive about killing animals. I went out in the field and did some occasional shooting, mostly for the fun of it, but I never brought home any edible game. I consider that my biggest failure as a hunter.
My dad was a good hunter, good in the sense that he bagged a lot of game, but he was not, as they say, a recreational hunter. I’m sure he enjoyed his hunting, but he didn’t hunt for the enjoyment. He hunted to put food on the table, a habit he formed back in the Dust Bowl days when jobs were scarce.
My hunting days ended the semester I was making a skin collection for a mammalogy class in college. Not content with the common variety of specimens, I borrowed my dad’s gun and went out looking for something more interesting to add to my collection.
I came over a hill in a remote pasture, and there, no more than a hundred yards away, stood a young coyote. Instead of bolting away, he hesitated a moment, out of curiosity perhaps — something no mature coyote would ever do — and that brief pause gave me just enough time to raise my gun and shoot.
I brought the coyote home, but I never skinned it. That was the last time I went hunting.
Strangely enough, during the same time that I was practicing the art of hunting and killing, I also had a fascination for living animals. I enjoyed watching birds. I brought home a variety of critters and kept them in cages. I raised several orphan nestlings, including a Great Horned Owl that I fed partly by shooting other birds.
The contradiction, so obvious to me now, wasn’t so obvious back then. The fact is, we are blind to many inconsistencies in our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. This self-inflicted blindness, whether we are conscious of it or not, is a common trick the mind uses to maintain an illusion of harmony.
Once in a while we are lucky enough to confront the contradiction. My moment of epiphany came when I realized there was really little difference between a coyote and a dog, and that I was treating one with cold indifference and the other, a family pet, with great affection.
My blind spot, treating some animals as if they were not really alive, is perhaps common in our culture. It accounts for an abuse that sometimes masquerades as sportsmanship. Joseph Wood Krutch quotes one hunter as saying the enjoyment of shooting a bird or an animal is “like the pleasure of hitting a ball.”
There is a big difference between the sportsman who hunts responsibly and the vandal who shoots at everything that moves, who kills not for any real need but for the sheer enjoyment of killing.
My feeling about hunting, or more specifically, about killing, is likely to be labeled as sentimentalism. I suggest, however, that we are all sentimentalists, we are just sentimental about different things.
I can’t say that I’ve resolved my conflicts about killing. I try to use Schweitzer’s “reverence for life” as a model, but that’s not always easy to do in practice. Schweitzer thought that no life should be destroyed except at the expense of some higher life, but what counts as “higher life” is open to wide and loose interpretation.
I acknowledge that my no-kill attitude is both impractical and self-defeating. I would certainly not survive long in a culture of subsistence hunting, like that which maintained our ancestors for countless generations. For now, I am content to buy my meat at the grocery store and just let someone else do the killing.
Humans are complex organisms. There is a conflict in our society between reverence for life and contempt for life, and sometimes the conflict even shows up within ourselves.
If there is to be a wise compromise between them, says Joseph Wood Krutch, “it is not likely to be reached by the refusal to think.”
Richard Weber is a nature enthusiast living in Ellis County.