Saturday, October 30, 2010

Ethical Hunters? You Gotta Be Kidding!


It is common knowledge that hunting is a cruel and barbarous relic of our less civilized past that is no longer appropriate. As Friends of Animals so accurately puts it, hunting is “an act against Nature.” (Hunting – An Act Against Nature, c. 1995) While hunting and the associated killing of animals was a necessary part of human survival for millennia, that is simply no longer the case today. We have domesticated animals that are more than sufficient to satisfy our desire for meat, animals that exist now solely for that purpose and whose death does not detract from the majesty of Nature’s wild lands. At the same time, numerous recent scientific studies have confirmed that balanced, healthy vegetarian diets can provide all of our nutritional needs without any meat whatsoever.

So why do hunters persist in their “sport”, that is all about killing defenseless animals? How would they like it if, somehow, deer and ducks were chasing them around, shooting at them? But more importantly – why do we allow these “sportsmen” to pursue their activity? Many other harmful activities that were permitted in times past are now outlawed; why isn’t hunting? And anyway – hunting as a “sport”? How much skill or physical ability is required to drive around looking for an animal to blast away at with today’s sophisticated weaponry?

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If you live in a big city or its suburbs, especially on the Atlantic or Pacific coast, then odds are: that’s how you view hunting. In fact, the traditional majority of Americans who support hunting is steadily losing ground to those who oppose it. In all likelihood, anti-hunters will be in the majority at some point in the not-too-distant future, as America gets further and further away from its rural roots. In a country where being “into” nature and protecting the environment mostly means watching the Discovery Channel, driving a 4x4 SUV (on pavement only, thank you), and buying your hiking boots (for walking the dog) at R.E.I., there is less and less real understanding of either Nature or hunting.

The fact is that a great many Americans are woefully ignorant when it comes to ethical hunting as it is practiced in this country. It’s important to note that “ignorant” is not the same thing as stupid; there is no intent to insult those who oppose hunting. Rather, this monograph is simply an attempt to address commonly held beliefs about hunting; in particular, commonly held and erroneous beliefs about hunting big game animals, focusing on deer and elk, the two most widely hunted big game species in North America.

THE CLAIM: Hunting is not a sport; few skills or physical abilities are required to kill a defenseless animal.

A lot of “hunters” ride around in trucks, looking for animals to shoot at from or near the road. Others are fortunate enough to just look out their back porches and see legal game animals. A great many enjoy going to ranches where they can look over many fine animals before choosing the one they want to “harvest”. All of these are great ways to put meat on the table, but none is really hunting in the fullest sense; certainly, they are a far cry from what most serious hunters engage in when they hunt. Similarly, there is no interest here in defending “slob” hunters – those who hunt illegally or who don’t utilize the animals they kill. It is they who are responsible for a great deal of animosity towards, and misconceptions about, legitimate, ethical hunting. Rather, it is the serious, ethical hunters as described below, hunters who are an integral part of, and who abide by, the principles of what has become known as the North American Wildlife Conservation Model (,) that this essay seeks to defend.

For the author and those with whom he has hunted over several decades, hunting is an intensely physical and challenging activity. They typically travel hundreds or thousands of miles to hunt in the Sierras or the Rockies or Alaska or wherever, after talking with local game wardens and forest rangers and poring over maps for months beforehand. Once at their destination, they camp out in the cold (and often – the rain or snow). They rise well before daylight and tromp up and down hills and mountains all day long, often far from any roads and usually at high elevations that quickly wind even the most physically fit flatlander. Backwoods skills are a must: map reading, tracking, navigating through rugged terrain, working with the wind, sneaking quietly through downed wood and leaves, stalking an animal without being detected, and so forth. Of course there are fat, lazy hunters with no particular physical attributes to recommend them. But as a rule, serious, successful hunters have honed their skills, physical strength and stamina, and have developed their senses (of sight, smell, and hearing) well beyond those of most city folk.

This demanding physical activity generally continues for several days during the short hunting season – as many days as one is able to hunt. That is because the majority of hunters - even the serious, experienced ones – don’t get a shot at a legal animal every year. Animals, while unarmed, are far from defenseless. Nature has gifted them with three especially keen senses: sight, hearing, and smell. Consequently, the fact is that in the woods, deer, elk and other game animals have the distinct advantage over human hunters. This is illustrated by overall success rates for hunters, which ranged from 3% to 64% for deer in the various hunting units and seasons of California in 2001, averaging about 20% overall (California Department of Fish and Game, 2002 Big Game Hunting). In Colorado, with the nation’s largest elk population, hunter success rates for those animals typically range from 5-50% (again – depending on which part of the state, the season, and the weapon used), with an overall average of about 20% as well (Colorado Division of Wildlife, Big Game Hunting Statistics, 1991-1999).

Another indication of just how hard most hunters have to work is the number of days needed for the average hunter to bag his or her animal. During the 2001 deer season in western Oregon, for example, 135,386 hunters hunted a total of 1,010,156 hours. That works out to an average of 7.5 days of hunting per hunter. Yet with all those days of hunting, only 28,677 deer were taken, a success rate of 21%. That would equate to approximately 35.5 days of total hunting per successful hunter. It is worth noting, as well, that only 5641 of the 28,677 deer harvested (or less than 20%) were does or fawns. In other words, the idea of hunters slaughtering Bambi and his mother is mostly fictional. The vast majority of all deer killed by hunters (about 80%) are adult males, and they’re taken by the relatively few hunters who are skilled, hard working, and just a little lucky. ODFWhtml/Wildlife /StatBooks/2001stats/01westdeer_rflarchy.PDF). It should be noted, however, that deer hunters east of the Rockies often have significantly higher success rates than those just discussed, as animal densities are much higher in the Midwest and East.

Yet there is reason to question these kinds of numbers as telling the whole story. Accepting that only some 20% of deer hunters are successful in bagging an animal, one still wonders how many hunters wound an animal without recovering it. Accurate statistics for that would seem very difficult to obtain, and in fact do not seem to be available. But even if only a few percent of all hunters wound an animal, that would translate into thousands of animals that might die a slow and painful death. This is indeed a troubling consideration, one that we should keep in mind as we consider all the merits of ethical hunting.

Now, assuming one is among the minority who get a shot at a legal animal, then a whole new set of skills come into play. Being a good shot with a high-power rifle is not a simple proposition. Most serious hunters have several good quality scoped rifles, typically worth about $1000 each, which they alternate under various conditions and for different animals. They go out to the local shooting range several times a year to practice at various distances and from a variety of shooting positions, with the ultimate goal of being able to quickly, reliably, and humanely kill any game animal at which they are fortunate enough to have a good shot.

Accordingly, hunters must be knowledgeable about different weapons, calibers, bullets, and riflescopes. They must know where their bullet will strike based on a wide number of variables, not the least of which are: distance, angle of the shot, wind speed and wind direction. In most cases, shooting is much more challenging than just raising up the rifle, pulling the trigger, and collecting your trophy animal – and that’s just talking about high-power rifles. Muzzleloaders and archery hunters have things even harder. Again – all of this is borne out by the low success rate of hunters and the many days they typically spend trying to take a legal animal.

While of course any hunter hopes to succeed in bringing home a good animal, the reality is that most hunters are happy to go out day after day, knowing that they probably won’t even get a shot. The excitement of preparing for each fall’s hunting trip, enjoying the camaraderie of fellow hunters, being away from civilization and in the midst of the beautiful outdoors, connecting with Nature and our own human past in a way that one can never do by looking for food in the grocery store, the exhausted but satisfied feeling of sitting around the campfire at night – these are the things that keep hunters going out into the woods year after year.

THE REALITY: Big game hunting is extremely challenging, both physically and mentally, and is a sport in all legitimate senses of the word.

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THE CLAIM: Hunting is an abomination; it is an act against Nature.

The group Friends of Animals, in Hunting – An Act Against Nature, exemplifies the feelings of many anti-hunters as they aver that humans behave unnaturally when hunting. They believe that “the hunter as predator is a lame excuse and fallacious. The fact is that hunting … serve(s) no useful purpose.” Those who have merely a passing familiarity with Nature find this emotionally appealing. Yet, that is not the same thing as saying that it is correct.

We know, for example, that humans have been hunters for hundreds of thousands of years. Humans evolved into that role after countless millennia as gatherers and scavengers in Africa; there is nothing unnatural about this evolution. ( m-eating evid) Humans competed with other hunters and scavengers, most notably the big cats, but also hyenas and even other opportunistic primates. Over time, humans became more and more successful hunters as their intelligence increased, and with it, the ability to communicate, plan, and use tools. Humans have been, almost since they’ve been humans, hunters, and an integral part of the natural landscape.

So the history of humankind is at least partly the history of predation, because after all, hunters are predators. Predators, even animal rights folks readily admit, play a critical role in maintaining healthy animal populations. Humans, who evolved into the most successful of all predators, have been key players for many thousands of years in the never-ending and very natural process of hunter and hunted. One might wish to suggest that humans have now evolved to the point where they no longer need to be hunter/predators, but any assertion that human hunters are committing an unnatural act is made contrary to both logic and natural history.

It is noteworthy that throughout human history, skilled hunters have been recognized as among the most respected and highly esteemed members of any society. This has been the case worldwide, at least up until recent times. The man (or woman) who could regularly bring home the venison, the elk or other wild meat was honored as a great contributor to the group’s survival. Even well into the 20th century in this country, going hunting was generally seen as a normal (natural, if you will) and positive thing to do, and the successful hunter was widely admired for his skill. How ironic and sad, then, that hunters are now vilified by such a large segment of the population that, just decades ago, used to venerate them!

This vilification is largely a result, as suggested earlier, of the general population’s lack of knowledge and understanding of legitimate hunting. At the same time, it is only fair to acknowledge that not all of the anti-hunters’ views are without merit. For example, market hunters once decimated entire animal populations, nearly causing the extinction of bison and elk, and the localized wiping out of deer, bear, and other animals – no one posits this as a good thing. Nor does it seem particularly in line with the idea of man as a natural check on animal populations. Kentucky, for example, had an estimated 375,000 deer in the year 1492; this number had collapsed to only about 2500 deer in the whole state by the year 1910! (

Fortunately, this kind of decimation ended nearly a hundred years ago in the U.S., as both hunters and non-hunters realized the folly of such practices. In their place we now have strict hunting regulations, bag limits, and animal population management, which have been incredibly successful in reviving animal numbers. Populations of black bears in states like New Jersey have grown so much that they now pose serious problems for humans ( Elk populations throughout the Rockies are many times larger than they were a century ago (, even as elk have recently been successfully reintroduced to states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan (, where they hadn’t previously been seen for well over 100 years. Deer numbers in most Eastern and Midwest states have grown so large as to cause extensive damage to public parks and private yards, while becoming one of the leading causes of serious automobile accidents at night. According to Outdoor Life Magazine (Feb/March 2004:16), there are 1.5 million deer/vehicle accidents yearly in the U.S., causing 150 human fatalities and creating $1.1 billion in property damage. Finally, it is widely believed that there are more white-tail deer in the U.S. today than there were when Columbus “discovered” America; the state of Kentucky, for example, reported a population of 430,000 deer in 1996, a number that is estimated to be somewhat larger than when white men first permanently arrived in America. (

But while the decimation of animal populations is clearly an issue of past times, it is nevertheless troubling to many that hunters continue to focus on taking animals with the largest antlers, the biggest hides, and so forth. This is a problem, and goes against the idea of natural selection, because with healthy, natural predation, it is the small, weak, and/or injured animals that are culled – not the largest, strongest, healthiest ones. Taking the best of a species serves to reduce the genetic potency of that species, which can have dire consequences for its future viability.

Furthermore, some hunters don’t even care much for their animal’s meat, wasting a great deal of it and making no apologies for killing without utilizing the meat. They say that either way the animal is dead, and so what’s the difference if one hunts for meat, or for hide and horns? This may be true, but it doesn’t match well with the idea of man as an agent of natural selection, and in minimizing the value of the animal’s life, it does little to endear hunters to animal lovers.

Well the good news is that not many hunters care only for the hide and antlers, and more importantly, many hunting seasons are timed to occur after the rut. This means that by the time that big buck or bull elk is killed, he’s often already made his contribution to the gene pool. A look at Boone & Crockett Club records will quickly confirm such a belief. This organization, founded by avid conservationist and hunter Teddy Roosevelt, has kept records on the largest animals taken by hunters for the last 100 years, and provides information based on species and locality.

The club recognizes, for example, four subcategories of world’s record (largest) elk; one of them was taken in 1968, the remaining three were all from the 1990s. (

In looking beyond just the world records, 12 of the 20 largest elk ever recorded for Idaho, where published data is readily available, were taken in the last forty years. For mule deer, 19 out of the top 20 were taken in the last forty years, with 7 of the top 20 taken in the last twenty years. ( There is no reason to think that the results from other American locales would be much different. Taking the largest of the species may seem “fallacious” to some, but with today’s proven management policies, it apparently does little harm to animal populations.

THE REALITY: Hunting is a fact of life and death in Nature, and humans have been an integral part of that natural activity for hundreds of millennia. The data clearly shows that human hunters in the U.S. today do not endanger animal populations.

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THE CLAIM: Eating the flesh of animals is unhealthy, immoral, and wasteful.

A great many people, for a variety of reasons, choose not to eat meat. Their motives fall into three main categories: for health reasons, because of the cruelty inherent in raising and killing animals for food, and for concern about the environment.

HEALTH: Several different types of cancer have been linked to diets that are high in meat, not the least of which is breast cancer, which the National Cancer Institute found is four times more common among women who eat significant amounts of meat and dairy products ( It is said that meat contains some 14 times the level of pesticides found in plant products, and the elimination of all meat and dairy products reduces the risk of heart attacks by 90%. Additionally, most bacterial infections, such as E. coli and Salmonella, are contracted from eating meat and animal by-products.

CRUELTY: The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) graphically states the case against killing animals for food this way, “Turkeys are tormented on factory farms and then watch in horror as their companions are killed before them and struggle in terror as their throats are slit before being scaled—often while still conscious.” ( Yet the animals’ final moments of terror only culminate the mistreatment they’ve experience throughout their lives. “New-born calves are locked in crates, not allowed to move, and underfed until they are slaughtered and served as veal. Chickens are packed so tightly into cages that they can barely move. Excrement falls through the stacked cages onto chickens below.” ( How can this be acceptable, they rightly ask?

ENVIRONMENT: The environmental case for not eating meat is equally compelling. It has been said that “An acre of prime land can produce 40,000 lbs. of potatoes, 30,000 lbs. of carrots, 50,000 lbs. of tomatoes, or 250 lbs. of beef. We can easily see, then, that much less land would need to be fertilized and farmed if we were all vegetarians. Furthermore, “the amount of animal manure produced in the U.S. is 130 times greater than the amount of human waste. Every time it rains, excess phosphorous and nitrogen from the urine and feces of farmed animals seep into our waterways causing algae blooms to spread.” ( Clearly – raising animals for food places great stress on our natural resources and can seriously foul the environment.

So it's not so hard to see why many people choose to avoid meat and animal products. Yet some of their arguments are flawed, and interestingly enough, several of them are better offered by hunters as justification for using wild game as a source of food.

HEALTH: Opinions on the healthiness of eating meat have fluctuated with the times. Until the 1960s, the great majority of American thought that red meat was synonymous with health and vitality. This began to change by the 1960s, a change that accelerated throughout the succeeding decades. Today it is estimated that more than 12 million Americans practice vegetarianism in some form or another, although a great many of these still eat red meat, poultry and/or fish on occasion. ( However, medical research in recent years has started to cast doubt on the assertion that eating meat is unhealthy.

The gist of this new thinking, backed by powerful medical and anthropological studies, is that humans evolved over hundreds of thousands of years on a diet that was high in meat, as well as nuts, berries, and fruits. Our bodies, not surprisingly, are designed to function best on such a diet. Human bodies are not, by contrast, at their healthiest on a diet that is high in carbohydrates provided by such "healthy" foods as bread and pasta, and the sugars found in so many foods today. ( In fact, there is evidence that as humans shifted to a heavier reliance on starchy foods with the rise of agriculture, beginning some 10,000 years ago, tooth decay, malnutrition, and rates of infectious disease increased dramatically. (

Contrary to the conventional thinking of recent decades, researchers are finding that just as our ancestors craved animal fat in their diets, high fat foods may not be as bad for modern humans as we've been led to believe. For some 30 years, Dr. Robert C. Atkins advocated a diet that is high in animal protein and fat, and was ridiculed by the medical community for doing so. Over the years he has steadfastly and convincingly defended his ideas, and has recently gained impressive support from some most unlikely sources. In November 2002, the American Heart Association (AHA) summarized the results of a study they oversaw; a study, by the way, that they expected to show Dr. Atkins theories as fatally flawed, once and for all. Surprisingly, what their study found was that Dr. Atkins' diet was more effective than their own low-fat diet for weight loss (an average of 31 pounds lost on Atkins, vs. 20 pounds on AHA). Furthermore, his diet yielded little change in "bad" cholesterol, but higher levels of "good" cholesterol in the study's subjects (up 6 mg/dl with Atkins vs. down 2 mg/dl on the AHA diet)! ( Subsequent studies, by other independent groups, continue to show similar results. Yet Dr. Atkins detractors continue to dispute these findings and to maliciously (and incorrectly!) claim that his death, while grossly overweight, was a result of eating a high fat diet. But the fact is that it is now far from clear that eating meat is unhealthy.

Although many nutritionists suggest that one can have a healthy diet that does not include meat, there are numerous challenges to such a belief, as Dr. Stephen Byrnes, of the International Organization of Nutritional Consultants points out in a lengthy article on vegetarianism. He describes, among other things, how sufficient amounts of essential vitamins A, D, and B12 are unlikely to be found in a non-meat diet. (

The prestigious New England Journal of Medicine (March 23, 2000 342:897-898) reported a story that underlines the dangers of a strict vegan diet (one that excludes all animal products). It involved “a 33-year-old patient who had been a vegan since the age of 20. He did not eat meat, eggs, dairy products or fish. He had no history of alcohol abuse, did not smoke cigarettes and was not taking any supplements. The patient was diagnosed with severe optic neuropathy in both eyes with poor vision of 20/400 in each eye. There was no evidence for an infectious cause of this severe loss of vision but blood samples revealed deficiencies in B1, B12, A, C, D, E, zinc and selenium. The patient was treated with intramuscular and oral multivitamins until his blood levels normalized but his eyesight did not recover—the damage to the optic nerve from lack of nutrients was irreversible.” So a vegetarian diet may be healthier than a meat-eating diet; or maybe it is not...

While not particularly germane to the question of whether modern humans should or should not eat meat, it is nevertheless interesting to note that anthropologists now believe that the inclusion of meat (especially cooked meat) in early humans' diets was a significant factor in developing advanced levels of human intelligence. ( Since meat is a richer source of nutrients than plants, increased meat consumption aided the physical growth of the human species (and its predecessor hominoids). This growth shows up in gradually increased cranium size, which implies larger brains and, thus, greater intelligence. (

The trend accelerated once humans tamed the use of fire and began cooking meat. Cooked meat is much easier for the body to digest than raw meat, thus permitting it to divert even more nutrients to other parts of the body including, most notably, the brain. ( This is not to imply that vegetarianism will ultimately result in lower IQs, but it does seem to further support the idea that eating meat is both a healthy, natural, and inherently "human" thing to do.

As for the question of pesticides, hormones, bacteria and other unhealthy elements found in meat, this is where hunters point out the benefits of eating wild game. Venison and other wild meats are free of virtually all pesticides, herbicides, hormones, and other additives. And while contamination from E. coli and other bacteria is possible, one can also ensure that this does not happen. Since the hunter is in control of the animal from the time it is killed until it is on the table, he or she has the ability to make sure that it is kept clean, cool, and free of contaminants, unlike domestic animals that are processed in bulk.

Finally, wild meats such as venison are famously low in fat. If one wants, in fact, to pursue a low-fat diet, wild game is one way to do it. A 3-ounce serving of venison contains less than 3 grams of fat, compared to an average of over 6 grams of fat in chicken and about 10 grams of fat in various cuts of beef. ( Even grains can be higher in fat, as oats contain about 5% fat, vs. 3-4% for venison. (

CRUELTY: The cruelty to animals that permeates the domestic animal industry is troubling to say the least, and presents the meat-eater with a quandary, as he or she must weigh the perceived advantages of eating meat against the cruelty imposed on the animals that provide it. There is, of course, the old Biblical spin on this issue: God placed animals on Earth for the good of Man, and it is their destiny to serve as our food. But that rationale only goes so far in relieving a thinking person's remorse over the mistreatment of animals destined for the table.

No mentally healthy person likes seeing animals suffer, and that certainly includes most hunters. It may seem paradoxical to some, but hunters truly love and respect their quarry in ways that non-hunters perhaps cannot completely fathom, and typically kneel beside the animal after a successful hunt to thank it for giving its life and flesh to the hunter and his/her family. Ethical hunters strive for the shot that kills in a matter of seconds, with the animal experiencing as little pain as possible. Of course, this is not always the case, as many game animals don't expire for several minutes or even hours after they're shot; this is something that torments thoughtful hunters. And unfortunately, there are more than a few hunters who too willingly take shots that are marginal, wounding animals who then escape only to suffer, and often die a slow, painful death, as first considered on page 3. Yet compared to the way that the animals would otherwise die (a topic discussed at some length in a later section), and compared to the cruelty imposed on domestic animals, one must conclude that game animals' overall pain and suffering are relatively modest in most cases, at least as we consider the subject of this essay: the ethical hunter who chooses his/her shot carefully and is proficient enough to usually hit the mark. Thus, the hunter feels that if one is to use animals for food, then perhaps the least cruel way to do it is by using legitimate, conscientious hunting methods.

ENVIRONMENT: There is no interest here in challenging the statistics regarding the inefficient use of natural resources in raising animals for human consumption. Let us just concede, for argument's sake, that vegetarians place much less strain on the environment than do meat-eaters, based on the kinds of statistics cited earlier.

Yet even if domestic animals create a great deal of environmental problems, then it would still be true that hunters place fewer demands on the environment than vegetarians. No wild lands at all are deforested to create croplands for hunters. No fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides are used by hunters at all. No natural waterways at all are drained to irrigate hunters' lands. Those who produce non-meat food items - even organic farmers - cannot make the same claim. While farmers must and do clear lands of their native plants and animals to provide food for the masses, hunters are “among the most fervent Americans when it comes to protecting the unspoiled lands that hold their game” – this according to the preeminent (and generally anti-hunting) conservationist organization, the Sierra Club. ( Further, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that “By paying the Federal excise tax on hunting equipment, hunters are contributing hundreds of millions of dollars for conservation programs that benefit many wildlife species, both hunted and non-hunted.” (

THE REALITY: While vegetarians make some valid points, wild meat is one of the healthiest of foods for humans. Hunters provide a less cruel and more environmentally benign way for humans to get meat, compared to the alternatives.

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THE CLAIM: Meat is murder; hunters kill beautiful animals. “Ethical hunter” is an oxymoron.

This is what it mostly comes down to for many opponents of hunting: hunters kill, and that's just wrong, plain and simple. Well, this “simple truth” is neither simple nor true. Surely, the hunter's ultimate objective is to kill an animal and eat it. But the question is: how wrong is this? The answer is both multi-faceted and complex.

WILD ANIMALS DIE IN GRUESOME WAYS: The answer to the common rhetorical question: “how would hunters like it if animals were hunting them?” is that, of course they wouldn’t like it at all! But that is the wrong question. We’re all going to die, and generally speaking, nobody is happy about it. Yet we will indeed die, and the animals that are the targets of big game hunters will surely die as well. So the more relevant question is: how will they die? In reality, few animals die peacefully in their sleep of old age, as many anti-hunters must believe they do. According to a study of elk in Pennsylvania from between 1991 and 1999, less than 1% of the animals studied died of old age. ( The vast majority of animals not taken by human hunters or hit by cars die brutal, painful, and/or cruelly lingering deaths that fall into several often-related categories: habitat loss, starvation, cold, disease, injury, and predation.

Research on elk introduced into Ontario, Canada showed that “Up until the fall of 2001, a total of 126 of the introduced elk were confirmed to have died of various causes. The main causes included wolf predation …, emaciation, road accidents, bacterial infections, drowning, accidental shooting, poaching as well as a variety of other causes. ” ( The results of a nine-year study of black tail deer on Vancouver Island, reported in the Journal of Wildlife Management, found that the vast majority of deer died from one of five identified causes: wolves, cougars, hunting, malnutrition, and accident. ( Biologists point to habitat loss (because of human development, farming, ranching, etc.) as possibly the greatest danger to healthy animal populations.( As metropolitan areas expand to provide more homes for humans, animals lose their own homes. Their food, water, and shelter resources are taken over by “civilization”, leaving them to retreat to even more remote (and increasingly scarce) areas that are already fully populated by their species.

Starvation (severe malnutrition) is a related cause of mortality, as it can result from too many animals being pushed onto increasingly smaller habitable areas. It can also be the result of overpopulation caused by a number of other factors, such as mild winters and a lack of adequate predation. Such overpopulation leads to unsustainable pressure on the natural food sources, wherein virtually all forage is eventually wiped out by the starving animals. Alternatively, animal starvation inevitably increases during times of extended drought and severe winters when, once again, there is insufficient food and/or water for all. Starving to death and/or dying of thirst, one imagines, must be neither a quick nor painless way to die.

Winter typically prompts the greatest die-off, as several factors converge at that time of year to the animals’ detriment. Adult male deer and elk, for example, are in a weakened physical state after “the rut”, a period when virtually all of their energies are spent on mating and fighting their rivals. For several weeks in the fall, when other animals are loading up on calories to see them through the winter, male elk and deer hardly eat at all, and instead expend a great deal of energy on their rutting activities. This reality was evident in the Colorado bull elk this writer shot in mid-October of 2002. One of its antlers was partially broken off (probably from fighting another bull), and it had an average of a quarter of an inch of fat on its body – not nearly enough to survive a harsh Rocky Mountain winter. When you add to the animals’ often weakened condition winter’s severely cold temperatures, diminished food supplies, and hungry predators, it’s easy to see how the Colorado Division of Wildlife says that the majority of bull elk will not survive a tough winter. (Colorado Elk Hunting, Colorado Division of Wildlife, 1990)

Author and satellite bull, 2002

Winter, with all of its stresses, is also the time when animals are most susceptible to death by diseases or injury. It must be remembered, however, that “malnutrition is often the

fundamental cause of mortality actually brought about by other agents.” Diseases such as necrotic stomatitis, and parasites such as lungworm and tapeworms, cause the deaths of many very young, old, and otherwise weaker animals. Broken legs and other injuries caused by fighting or just by living in a harsh environment similarly make it less likely that animals will survive the harsh winter.

( Who would suggest that dying of the combined effects of cold, and lack of food, perhaps while injured or sick, would be a pleasant way to depart this Earth?

Predators are always present, except to the degree that humans have removed them from the environment. Besides Man, mountain lions, coyotes, bears, and wolves are the major natural predators for North American deer and elk. A study by the state of New Mexico has identified mule deer as accounting for 86% of the diet of mountain lions, while suggesting that predation by lions is the number one cause of mule deer deaths (though mentioning that “habitat quality was the ultimate limiting factor”).

( In Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains, 87% of fawn deaths were attributed to predation – the majority caused by coyotes. (

Colorado’s 1999 study on fawn deer mortality claims that only 40% of their deaths were caused by predators, with about 46% killed by starvation and/or disease. Coyotes were responsible for the majority of (the small fawns’) deaths, while lions, bobcats, and bears each accounting for about an equal share of the other kills. ( The importance of coyote predation on young deer is also confirmed in a National Park Service study of deer/coyote interdependence in Yellowstone National Park, where coyotes were identified as the principal predator of fawns. (

Could being attacked by a pack of coyotes, or brought down by a lion or bear, be anything but a horrible death? While death would usually come rather swiftly after a period of sheer terror, countless cases of extended and painful battles between predator and prey have been documented. Even worse, it is not unknown for some predators to begin feeding while their prey is still alive. Take the case of Southern California bicyclist Mark Reynolds, who was killed by a mountain lion in early-2004, for example. ( Experts believe that he was immediately paralyzed but still alive when the cat’s initial attack broke his neck. They believe that Reynolds was alive (and probably conscious) as the lion proceeded to rip open his chest cavity and feed on his organs. Predation, while imminently “natural”, would seem to be pretty high up on the list of gruesome ways to die.

The bottom line is that life in the wild is not like a Disney movie. Wild animals lead brutish lives that more often than not end violently and/or painfully. While it would be disingenuous to say that hunters are doing animals a favor by putting them out of their misery, the fact is that non-hunted animals suffer more from most non-human causes of death. And the specious argument that: “well, at least they’re not dying prematurely, and they’re dying the way Nature intended” ignores the reality of humans’ ingrained role as natural predators across the millennia.

At the risk of anthropomorphizing, one cannot help but think that, given a choice between living freely in the wild and then suddenly – BAM! – feeling a sharp pain, and collapsing a few minutes later, versus a slow, painful death by starvation, disease, injury, cold or a quick, violent death by predators, animals would prefer the former option. Similarly, returning to the way domesticated animals live and die, which would you prefer: an essentially lobotomized existence your entire life with hundreds or thousands of your species, confined in filthy pens, cages, and feedlots – a purposeless existence other than to serve as a food source for humans, OR roaming the majestic wilderness for years and then one day – BOOM – you’re gone? Of course, we can’t know what animals would choose, if they could choose, but still, it’s hard to see death by human hunters as the worst way to go…

DEATH MEANS LIFE: The argument against killing game animals betrays a modern, Western naïveté: that death is ever and always a bad thing to be avoided at all costs. In reality, life and death are inexorably connected: there is no life without death and, just as importantly, death always results in life. Every animal WILL die; that’s the “price” of living. Yet the animal killed by whatever cause brings forth life in one way or another. Maybe the animal’s death allows coyotes or lions or humans to survive. Birds and other scavengers will benefit from the animal’s deaths. Whatever those animals don’t eat returns to Earth with the help of insects, worms, fungi, bacteria, and other living organisms, creating nutrition for the plants that make our wild lands beautiful and ultimately providing the essential nourishment for future generations of animals. Another way to say this is that without death, there would be no life: no deer, no coyotes, no birds, no trees, and surely no humans to gnash their teeth over the cruelty of hunters.

Life and death form a never-ending circle, with “death” actually somewhat of a misnomer. A more correct term would be “transformation”, as one form of life is transformed into other forms of life. The American Indians understood this, as did our own (Western) ancestors before they became so “advanced”; eastern religions and philosophies understand this even today. The death of a beautiful animal is a sad thing, no doubt. But it is just the way things work, and a cause for celebration as well as lamentation.

HYPOCRICY: A great deal of hypocrisy, usually unintended and unrecognized, is associated with those who chastise hunters for killing Nature’s beautiful animals. For example, one might ask: WHY

  • is it terrible for hunters to kill those beautiful animals in the wild, but it’s OK for us to confine domestic animals under miserable conditions? Is it just their destiny?
  • it’s terrible for hunters to cut up and eat the animals they’ve “harvested”, but fine to go down to the supermarket to buy meat for dinner? Is that because supermarket meat doesn’t really represent an animal, it’s just hamburger or steak or bacon, all neatly wrapped up in plastic by someone else?
  • it’s wrong to abuse Nature by taking game animals, but acceptable to destroy the habitat that supports wildlife as we continually extend our suburbs? Is it acceptable to kill wild animals, as long as we do it indirectly?
  • is it wrong to kill beautiful doe-eyed animals, but OK to eat goofy-looking chicken or cold, scaly fish? Is “cuteness” a legitimate factor for deciding what we may kill?
  • hunting is barbaric, but fishing is a noble sport? Could it be that fish feel no pain? Then there’s the related hypocrisy: why is it bad to eat the fish we catch, but catch and release fishing is a good thing? Is it OK to cause fish pain just for fun, but not for something as base as putting food on the table?
  • American Indian lifestyles were a model of harmony with Nature, and their hunting activities were righteous, but this doesn’t apply to whites who try to emulate their philosophy and actions today?
  • since vegans don’t kill animals, they’re superior to those who do? Why is it OK to exploit Nature’s plants, but not her animals?

Let’s look a little closer at this last one, because after all, plants are living things too, and exhibit of a number of behaviors that most people would attribute only to animals. Scientists know from recent research, for example, that plants regularly communicate with one another to warn of imminent danger from a variety of sources. Plants also communicate with insects, both warning away those that would eat them, and calling for help from insects that feed on their enemies. (“Talking Plants”, Discover Magazine, April 2002) Plants also have a “stress response” to actions such as cutting one of their leaves. They respond to this by releasing a chemical called ethylene, and “the researchers who studied this response had a rather bizarre way of measuring the presence of ethylene – by listening for it. To be precise, they captured the gas in a bell jar and fired lasers at it, which resonated with the molecules and emitted sound at a particular frequency. Upon seeing this, it wasn’t long before scientists and journalists alike were calling these sounds ‘screams’, and suddenly this response seemed a lot more like pain as we know it!” ( Other researchers reported in The Journal of Biological Chemistry that plants “cry in pain” in response to attacks by herbivores, and that their “pain” can be alleviated by the use of aspirin and similar drugs. (

Well all right – let us admit that any “pain” plants may feel upon being harvested, cooked or eaten is likely to be on a lower level than pain felt by a deer that is shot by a hunter, and in fact may be no more than a chemical reaction that isn’t quite equivalent to the pain animals feel.. And so it comes down to a matter of degree, which prompts the following question: just where do we draw the line?

If killers of deer are wrong, then aren’t killers of beef cattle? If killing cattle is wrong, then how is killing a chicken any different? Can we kill fish because, unlike cows and chickens, they aren’t warm-blooded? And if we can’t eat fish, then what about grubs and other insects that historically made up a large portion of primitive people’s diets? Do those lowly animals feel pain; are they far enough down in the animal kingdom not to have to worry about? How about sponges? They’re animals, but primitive and sedentary – may we use them? If we cannot, then why may we cut down a living plant to eat or otherwise utilize? If we shouldn’t do that, then can it be right to uproot vegetables and eat them raw, or boil them when they’re still alive? May we at least eat the fruits and nuts that fall from living plants, or does that interfere too much with their species’ chances to reproduce?

Just how much does eating nuts differ from eating vegetables, or eating insects or fish or deer? Where, precisely, is the line drawn between right and wrong, and why is it drawn there instead of at another point?

Of course any “line” is arbitrary. Where you draw the line is much more about you and the particular way you think than it is about immutable ethics. All living things are sacred, yet we may ethically utilize them as a food source, since that is the way of Nature. Venison, salmon, bugs, or carrots? It’s all the same – Nature doesn’t care what we eat or don’t eat; she will see to it that the world carries on and that any given species will flourish, as long as we don’t over-exploit it.

THE REALITY: Death is all around us, and that’s not an entirely bad thing. We are all killers in one way or another. Ethical hunters are simply honest about it, and they take pride in being able to put healthy food on the table as a result of their own hard efforts.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

It sort of boils down to this: serious hunters take a lot of abuse for their sport, when in reality they engage in a healthy, natural and ethical pursuit. One may choose not to hunt because he or she thinks deer are just too pretty to kill, or simply does not like thinking about death or being around blood and guts. But considering that those things are facts of life, then being a passive, third-party food gatherer hardly makes one morally superior to someone who personally takes responsibility for getting his or her own food. Or one may not wish to hunt, feeling that Man has evolved to such a point that killing other animals is beneath him or her. But such an assertion is clearly an individual opinion that is far from indisputable, and in any event does nothing to show that hunting is unnatural. One may decide that a non-meat diet suits them better than the alternative, or wish to draw the line by eating plants but not animals. Yet this is not to say that meat – especially wild game – is unhealthy, nor that there is any inherent legitimacy attached to the belief in eating only foods that come directly from plants.

The fact is that opposition to hunting is mostly based on false assumptions, incomplete understanding, tortured logic, and sentiment rather than points of real substance. Non-hunters are free to live according to their beliefs, and legitimate, ethical hunters should have the same freedom. Hunters should also be free from the need to explain, justify, or apologize for their sport in response to the ignorance of non-hunters.

Jon S. Strebler

February, 2004 (revised September, 2007)


Amber Sheldon said...

I believe that those who enjoy hunting have every right to participate in the recreational tracking and exterminating of animals. However, that does not mean I support hunting nor do I myself enjoy hunting. If such activities interest a person and if it is not posing any serious harm to other people or their surroundings then they should be free to actively hunt and kill wild creatures. I do believe that if one obtains their meat from hunting it is better than purchasing meat at the store since purchasing meat would support the abhorrent practices of the factory farming industry. However, I do not eat meat, nor do I hunt, because I do not feel that I have the right to terminate the life of another sentient being in order to bnenefit, or for the enjoyment of myself if it is not necessary to do so. But I do believe that hunting animals for food is a great alternative to supporting the abominable treatment of animals by the meat industry. I also respect that some people may have an interest in participating in such activities as hunting, although I am not particularly interested or supportive of hunting.

Emily DeLaBarre said...

In Jon Strebler's essay The Ethical Hunter, he uses valid points to justify the sport of hunting. Although it is slightly biased ,due to the fact that the author is a hunter, he did a pretty good job at looking at both sides of the issue. The essay is clear and mentions the most common misconceptions of hunting including the cruelty to the animals and the effects meat has on humans.I agree with the opinions expresed in this essay. It is possible for a hunter to hunt without being cruel or harmful to the environment.

Andrew Goldberg said...

The idea of hunting usually creates moral arguments and turns into a battle of ethics and religion while it really is much simpler than that. If you enjoy killing animals, than participating in a recreational and legal hunting of game would be perfect for you. I personally do not enjoy the idea of hunting or have any desire to go hunting, but that doesn't mean other people shouldn't be able to participate and enjoy it. I believe that as long as you follow the rules of the area you are in and are safe, that hunting is acceptable. Also on another note, after reading about the cruelty and abuse of slaughter house animals, killing your own meat and knowing it's clean just seems more ethical and safe. For you, knowing you're not ingesting those chemicals, and anyways, the animal is probably put through less pain anyways. Although I do not support and wish to participate in the sport of hunting, I feel that as long as you legally and safely participate in hunting, you morally are doing nothing wrong and should be able to if that is what you wish to do.

Melinda Sevilla said...

I honestly know nothing about Animal Hunting whatsoever. The extent of my hunting knowledge is that you have some sort of animal head in the back of your classroom and its names vary from Kurt to Burt to Awashanesha. It was very interesting to read this blog post, especially since I have an unbiased point of view. I have never (nor do I think I ever will) hunt animals, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with someone enjoying hunting, and if one wants to do that, I think there is nothing wrong with it. I also admired the fact that you covered both sides of the issue pretty well, which was surprising since you are a hunter yourself and might have had a biased opinion. Another point I’d like to bring up is the fact that animal-lovers say it’s not ethical to kill innocent animals. I believe it’s actually better to hunt animals yourself, because you know what you are putting in your mouth since you killed it and prepared it yourself. Plus, I’m sure hunting animals is much more humane than having a bunch of animals in bad living conditions in a slaughter house, ultimately leading to a violent and painful death. I’m sure hunting is much more respectful to the animal, since I’m assuming they never see it coming and don’t have to suffer very long, since it’s a one-shot kill. The “cuteness factor” part really got to me, since superficial people probably won’t kill a cute animal, but are more likely to kill an “uglier one”. This essay really made me think.

Sebastian Falcon said...

While reading this essay my opinion about hunting has changed, before I taught going to the store and buying your meat there was actually better or whatnot but now that I think about it, hunting is actually a lot less torturing rather than big companies that just violently kill the animals. Despite that meat is really good (i love meat myself) in the essay I talked about how you studies showed that meat wasn't necessary to survive yet I asked myself why do people still hunt? and the only two answers I came across were either you're a meat lover or just for the hobby of this "sport" (I think its more of a hobby/entertainment rather than a sport) And to finish this, I was thinking about how depending on where you live people see hunting different like for example (rural vs urban). I taught this essay was going to be bias because I know the author loves hunting but it covered both sides pretty good overall.