Hunters, Environmentalists, and Vegans Have More in Common Than We Think

“I’m not concerned about people who have different viewpoints. I think that’s fantastic. I want people to say to me as a hunter, “Why do you do that?” I want people to ask me to explain to them how it is I can take the life of an animal, and how it has made me who I am, and how it has made me do the things I do for wildlife. I want them to ask me that.” – Shane Mahoney, 2012

My last post suggested that we can, and indeed should, be conscientious to the perspectives of our audiences when framing our messaging about hunting. This is a position that is perhaps a stark contrast to the paradigm of the “unapologetic hunter”, an approach that I quickly found to be tiresome and increasingly unproductive. Rather, I’ve tried to make the case that creating new allies is valuable for hunters and that we need to cultivate allies in many different social communities; however, I think we already have far more allies than we may at times recognize.

One of the more common pieces of rhetoric we hear in the hunting community is how the “tree huggers,” “liberals,” “environmentalists,” or “vegans” are trying to put an end to hunting. As the drama plays out in much of the media, these other groups will never understand why we hunt and want only to take our guns and our hunting opportunities. I think that much of the reaction from the hunting community is due to the perception that these other communities see hunters as nothing more than bloodthirsty murderers acting without regard for animal welfare. For our part, I think too many hunters pigeonhole non-hunters as people who will never truly understand what it means to have a relationship with wildlife and can never measure up to hunters in our contributions and commitment to conservation. This kind of in-group situation can quickly lead to increasingly reactionary responses, cutting off more poignant opportunities for communication and understanding.

So bear with me for a moment when I suggest that the proposition that hunters and environmentalists (as a proxy for conservation-minded non-hunters) are necessarily opposed is, at the very least, exaggerated and misguided, and at most, harmful in the long-term to conservation. I believe that at the very foundation of our ethics, there is actually far more in common between many hunters and non-hunters than we often recognize. I think that from the ideologies, motivations, and political priorities of these groups are many opportunities for alliances.

I’ve said before that my choice to hunt is rooted in an intense affection for nature and fascination with wildlife, and it’s a way of being an active participant in conservation. Tracing this sentiment back to its origins, one finds, for me and I suspect many other hunters, a concern for preserving healthy habitats, protecting animal welfare, eating nutritious and ethically gathered food, promoting progressive environmental policy, and enacting a personal relationship with the natural world. I’m fortunate to have had opportunities throughout my life that have exposed me to a wide variety of experiences and perspectives related to coming to understand the natural world. These experiences have variously led me down paths to identifying as an environmentalist, a one-time vegetarian, a self-proclaimed tree hugger, and a hunter-conservationist. Each of these paths, these identities, began from different experiences, and they each played their own part in constructing a set of ethics that I hold today and choose to put into practice through hunting.

As hunters, we often use our commitment and contributions to conservation to justify hunting. Indeed, the “fathers of the conservation movement” were hunters; the history of the North American model of wildlife management, one of the most successful conservation models in the world, is the result of numerous organizations, policies, and achievements that are largely bound up with hunting. For example, the Migratory Bird Treaty was signed between Canada and the United States back in 1916. We wouldn’t have the successful conservation measures we do today without managed hunting.

Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, 1903.

However, we also need to remember that without the powerful figures and campaigns of the environmental movement, we would be without much of the scientific knowledge and popular affection related to protecting wildlife and natural habitats. Indeed, without the indispensable overlap in the priorities of various hunting and non-hunting communities that has generated such a powerful political voice, we would be without many critical achievements and conservation initiatives.

Temagami blockade
The Temagami Blockades that opposed logging in old growth pine forests in Temagami, Ontario, 1989.

But this should not become some kind of exercise in conservation score-keeping between hunters and environmentalists. I find it ridiculous and short-sighted to hear hunters use environmentalists as the scapegoats for everything that threatens hunting, and environmentalists use hunters as scapegoats for everything that threatens the ideal of the pristine, untouched nature. Environmentalists are not our enemies. Certainly, there are some environmental NGOs that have proclaimed a staunch anti-hunting position, but there are others that take a much more nuanced approach. Sweeping generalizations about groups of people are rarely accurate or productive. The writer David Petersen suggests that there is an important distinction to be made between “animal rightists” and “animal welfarists”. Animal rights advocates, he explains, are against the use of animals by humans in any way, while animal welfare advocates are concerned with the “humane treatment and responsible care” of animals that ensures they have “freedom from unnecessary pain and suffering”. In some instances, Petersen notes that “in a philosophical confluence of odd bedfellows, both nature hunters and anti-hunters ‘appeared to perceive an equality and kinship, rather than a hierarchical-dominant relationship, existing between humans and animals'”. I have found similar philosophical confluences in my own life.

I have a good friend who is vegan, and she and I have had many productive conversations about the ideas that led us to both embrace a partially overlapping set of ethics around human-animal relationships. While at first glance appearing to be completely opposed to one other, it occurred to us that we both took the paths we did as a way to enact similar ethical principles. We realized that at the root of things, we are both motivated by a desire to think deeply about the origin and ethics of our food sources and the relationship we have with animals through our food choices. We both value a human-animal relationship that excludes suffering. In this case, she chose to avoid eating animals, while I chose to pursue a way of gathering my own meat that gives me greater control over ensuring that the animals I eat are killed ethically. So while sharing similar philosophical foundations, it’s true, our paths eventually diverged, and this leads me to my next point.

Wildlife conservation is an ongoing effort. If we learn from history, healthy wildlife populations and natural habitats are not something we achieve overnight. Conservation is a shifting terrain that needs to continuously respond to pressures on wildlife and habitats as they arise. Our actions need to be multifaceted and take place in a variety of social, political, cultural, and intellectual arenas. There’s no such thing as too many conservationists. By the same token, it means that no one group will be able to take on every struggle and campaign; we need diversity in the conservation community and in our strategies. Does this mean that our viewpoints and goals need to align perfectly with every other group 100% of the time? No, but it does mean that we need to seek out those moments where our goals do align with those of other groups. There will be points in time when hunters and animal welfare activists can work together. Of course, it may also mean that we need to separate when our agendas do not fully align. But what might perhaps be an inevitable divergence in priorities should not prevent us from working together when possible. At the very least, when we do have to go in separate directions, we can do so with a deeper understanding of one another’s perspective.

Of course, this challenge goes both ways. To those non-hunters reading this who take a different approach to conservation activism: I also encourage you to seek out and capitalize on those opportunities for ideological and strategic overlap between your priorities and those of the hunting community. The challenge is to actively foster understanding, and to highlight points of shared priorities rather than division.

Let’s both – hunters and non-hunters – think about our long-term goals and determine the points of agreement that can lead to immediate actions. I would bet that in more cases than not, we will find that even when we disagree on the particulars of our personal beliefs about human-wildlife relationships or intermediate-term priorities, we can at least agree on some shared ethical principles, at least one action we can take, and ways we can engage with one another positively towards achieving our long-term conservation goals. Let’s remember that this endeavour is much larger than our own individual desires, and we owe much more to wildlife on this continent than we do to our personal priorities. To adapt David Petersen’s quote of Field & Stream columnist George Reiger, if humans fail in our efforts at conservation, it will be because we have been “too demanding of rights and too indifferent of responsibilities”. Let’s all remember our responsibilities.

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