The way to people’s hearts is through their stomachs

I’ve had countless philosophical conversations with non-hunting family members about why I hunt. While they’ve always respected these reasons and tried to engage in the conversations, I always questioned just how much I was really getting through. Was I actually creating any deeper sense of understanding on a personal level? At some point, it occurred to me that the old saying may be true, that the way to a person’s heart might truly be through his/her stomach.

Many hunters can relate to the excitement in sharing meals of wild meat with friends and family, something that I think is partially rooted in an opportunity for us to relive the excitement of the hunt, and to feel like we are able to share a little bit of that with those people we care about who weren’t there with us. I think we’d be hard pressed to find a culture anywhere in the world that doesn’t gather around food in some way for meaningful occasions, and that doesn’t associate sharing food with happiness and celebration. At the most basic level, it’s simply fun and exciting to get together and share meals with people, and I think there’s a depth added to this experience when it’s food that we’ve collected ourselves – whether grown in a garden or hunted.

When I first started bringing wild meat home to my family to try, there was a reticence that many of us are probably familiar with and have heard expressed in various forms. It ranges from a somewhat unfamiliar emotional feeling when someone associates the food on their plate with iconic images of deer and the social representations we ascribe to them; to the somewhat dirty or unsanitary idea people hold about Canada geese; or ideas about black bears eating nothing but household garbage, and so on down the taxonomic chain. It has been my experience that in most of these cases, it is culturally-based associations that make people hesitant to try wild meat. Sometimes people are aware of health concerns like trichinosis with bear meat, or the uncertainty about chronic wasting disease (CWD) with deer, but usually it’s much less scientific than that.

One time while visiting my family, I brought a selection of wild meat for them to try, and knowing that the particular selection I chose would be somewhat different for them, I was determined to cook such a delicious meal that they would have no choice but to reconsider some of their preconceptions (a tall order, I know). Growing up, the rule in my house was always that I had to try everything once, and then if I didn’t like it, I didn’t have to eat it; I used the same argument on my family. On this occasion, I brought a Canada goose breast and leg and a deer heart, both having been killed only about a week or two prior. The idea of eating a deer heart was definitely a difficult one for some people to stomach, intellectually speaking. So the pressure was on to ensure they liked the taste of everything so much that they didn’t feel like monsters for eating heart and dirty for eating Canada goose. I’m certainly not an accomplished chef, so there weren’t going to be any award winning recipes here, it just had to taste good.

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-9-52-07-pmFor the heart, I chose a simple recipe. I sliced it into thin discs and preheated a frying pan. I seasoned the heart with some garlic and seared the half inch discs in the pan. The key with heart is to not over cook it; rare or medium-rare is the ticket. So searing it just cooks the outsides an since the pieces were so thin, it left the insides perfectly rare. To make the meal a little more familiar to everyone, I made a quick mushroom gravy from a package (remember, the idea here was to ease people into the meal). I served it on fresh buns as open-faced sandwiches.

For the goose, it was also simple. I seasoned the breast with salt and pepper and cooked it in a fairly hot frying pan somewhere between medium-rare and medium. One of the complaints I often hear about waterfowl is that it’s too greasy, so I wanted to cook it in a way that I could burn off some of the grease and still keep it tender on the inside. I fried the leg and cooked it more fully through, figuring that since it was on a bone, it would have some great flavour from that. Again, the purpose of the meal was to add just enough of a new thing that people would let themselves enjoy it. In that sense, I thought that if people associated the goose leg with a chicken wing, they would find themselves slightly more at ease if it was more fully cooked.

In the end, I’m happy to report that although this small amount of meat was being served to five people and we were all on limited rations, everyone went back for seconds (and no, they didn’t all use the gravy on the heart). Everyone loved every piece they tried. Perhaps most importantly, I believe that there were some minds changed from the experience. People came to realize that at a purely biological level, heart meat is still meat, and in fact, it’s some of the best, richest meat from a deer. Although none of them saw the deer while it was alive and did not experience the hunt, we associate emotions with the heart organ, and I think this helped people feel like they had a sense of connection with the individual deer they were eating. In regards to the goose, although some of them may still view Canada geese as a nuisance, they also had a somewhat more full picture of geese as a species that eats, digests, and travels at such great distances that they have developed incredibly powerful muscles that create dark, rich, delicious meat. In this case, I think they now see geese with a more full idea of its ecology as a species, rather than simply a bunch of critters that fill lawns with pounds of grassy poop (literally, a single goose can produce a pound of poop per day).

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The point in all this, to me, is that I can talk to non-hunting friends and family until I’m blue in the face about the political, conservation, historical, and even personal reasons I hunt (and trust me, I can). They can even respect and try to understand all of these reasons; however, I think one of my biggest breakthroughs was sharing a meal of wild meat. I’ve cooked many meals of wild meat for friends, brought a number of different dishes to potlucks and dinner events, and this example here has generally been the rule for me: give someone an experience they truly enjoy and associate with good times amongst friends and family, and they will remember their encounter with wild meat fondly. This, in turn, has the potential to foster a sense of respect and even personal attachment to the whole idea of wild meat and hunting. As hunters, it’s hard to imagine a more important measure of success in our efforts to be ambassadors of the lifestyle.

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I’ll be trying this next time I get my hands on a deer heart:
http://themeateater.com/2014/recipe-wild-game-chili-tacos/

For some other deer heart recipes, this forum has a bunch of ideas:
http://forums.bowsite.com/TF/bgforums/thread.cfm?threadid=376828&forum=4

Hunting as land ethic; or, why hunting is one method of active conservation

As a hunter, I am simultaneously a conservationist. My understanding of this role includes everything one associates with the word: naturalist, animal lover, environmentalist, manager, activist.

There are many reasons that I hunt. Here, I want to articulate how I conceptualize the relationship between my bow and arrow and my role in conservation. In other words, how can hunting be enacted as land ethic? Before I get into it though, a point of order to set the tone of the conversation.

I hear many conversations around hunting begin and progress the same way, generally depending on whether the conversation involves hunters or some combination of hunters and non-hunters (I differentiate non-hunter from anti-hunter). Depending on the scenario and people involved, I have repeatedly seen one of two problems develop. When the conversation is between two hunters, it often involves both of them reinforcing why their motivations to hunt are ethically and ecologically sound, reasons they’ve both given and heard hundreds of times and that, while factually true and ethically defensible, are nothing new by this point and long ago ceased challenging them intellectually. Both people eventually leave the conversation with their preconceived beliefs reinforced and secured. The problem here is that we sometimes resist the opportunity to truly challenge ourselves and explore new ideas, simply because we don’t need to.

Conversations involving hunters and non-hunters too often take the following course: the hunter presents a series of reasons why hunting is ethically and ecologically superior to purchasing meat from the store and why he/she is doing more for conservation than the non-hunter. For their part, I often hear non-hunters rely on cultural or media stereotypes, such as claims around animal rights or welfare. I think reliance on preconceived stereotypes can sometimes be a strategy to mask their own uncertain feelings about hunting and avoidance in having to honestly engage with these feelings. The problem with this scenario is that one person is discussing apples while the other is discussing oranges, and neither is really looking for the opportunity to try a new fruit, but rather just to prove that their choice is better.

The issue that I see in these exchanges – and one that I think derails many conversations that involve issues as complex as hunting – is people talking at one another, rather than listening to one another. There’s a great conversation to be had about the merits and joys of hunting, if only we could discuss these on a personal level and cater the conversation to the person with whom we are speaking. Don’t confuse adjusting our approach with pandering; it’s not the same thing. In addition, as hunters, we have great insight to offer about the very legitimate unease people feel about killing animals. Throwing elaborate scientific facts at someone who has an ethical block to the idea of killing animals will not help them understand; conversely, trying to convince someone of our moral superiority in gathering our own food when they are concerned about the effect of hunting on wildlife populations won’t move our case forward.

I believe that hunting is an important tool in the conservation of nature and maintenance of healthy wildlife populations. In fact, perhaps few people realize that when modern wildlife management began in North American, hunting was the central focus of this work and the primary tool used by managers. This, at the same time, is the basis for my ethical position on hunting. I believe it is ethical because of the positive benefits it contributes to conservation. In my case, my ethics are developed based on the science of hunting. I understand that this isn’t the case for everyone, but if we can agree on some basic facts, I believe that we can at least respect the direction we each take in developing our own personal ethics. At the end of the day, conservation is about making decisions, and even if we feel uneasy about the particular methods, understanding the facts will help us determine an effective course of action to address shared priorities.

A point that often comes up is that hunters contribute piles of money each year to wildlife management and habitat conservation efforts. This is true. In fact, the majority of money that is used for wildlife management efforts is generated through the sale of hunting licenses and tags (the pieces of paper that allow a hunter to kill an individual animal, such as a deer or a bear). Many of the conservation organizations out there are funded by a membership composed largely of hunters and anglers, meaning that, for example, most of the wetland conservation activities in Canada are funded by hunters. Wetlands, for their part, are absolutely integral to water filtration and are critical habitat for an abundance of wildlife. So the financial contribution of hunters is true, and it’s a valid case. The problem is that this point can be extended beyond its reach, with some hunters then presuming to claim without exception that hunters do more than non-hunters for conservation and that the work hunters do is inherently more valuable. Period, end of discussion.

If someone tells me they don’t hunt, but that they are dedicated to conservation, I ask them what they do. When they tell me that they volunteer for a local organization in their community, or donate to an environmental NGO, or do everything they can to conserve water in their own home, or compost, or anything else, I say great. I love it. Good for you, and thank you. It does no good for me to value what I do more than what someone else does. When they ask what I do? I tell them I hunt. One of these activities isn’t more important than the other. Sure, we can put a monetary value on our contributions, but why? For most people who are acting because of a sense of moral or emotional motivation, that won’t convince them that what I do is more valuable. (Having said this, the economic argument is actually a legitimate and established strategy to convince people of the value of conservation. For example, ecologists have attempted to put a monetary value on certain ecosystem services, such as wetlands, to convince people of the importance in their protection, but I’m not talking about that.)

Here’s how I think about it. When I pick up my bow and step outside to go on a hunt, I’m simultaneously thinking about the entire species of the animal I’m hunting, the local population of that species, the family group on the property I’m hunting, and the individual animal that I hope to kill. I understand how the removal of one deer might affect population and reproductive dynamics, and the habitat and the other animals in the area. As a result, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that my actions are having positive benefits for the overall health of the species I’m hunting and the other species that interact with it.

As an example, let’s consider the most popular big game animal hunted in North America, the whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Whitetail deer populations exploded in North America as a result of the reorganization and modification of land for modern agriculture, which creates perfect habitat for deer. Many people would say this is great; it is great, but those deer also have to continue to eat and find suitable habitat.

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For the purposes of space, let’s focus on two points: every year, a certain number of deer are born, and given the finite space and food available in any area of habitat, a certain number of deer will die. They will die in great numbers from vehicle collisions, and they will die throughout the winter as a result of starvation and predation by other animals. Whenever a population of wildlife outgrows the ability of its habitat to support it (a term referred to by ecologists as “carrying capacity”), some individuals of that population will die, but not before many other members of the population suffer some form of malnutrition and stress due to competition for resources.

So the overall point here is that in order for all deer to be healthy, the population must remain at or below a certain number of individuals, a number that is determined by habitat characteristics. All things being equal, the rate at which the population reaches this upper limit is a function of the sex ratio (number of males and females) and age structure (the number of individuals at breeding age) of the population. That’s just how biology works. Each spring-summer, a doe (female deer) can give birth to 1-2 fawns, depending on her own health. If environmental or nutritional conditions are difficult (poor food sources or quality, a winter with heavy snowfall, etc.), reproductive capacity suffers. If there are too many females in the population, the population may increase too quickly.

So you can see that nothing happens in isolation: we need to maintain healthy deer to produce healthy deer. Hunting season for whitetail deer is in the fall during their annual breeding season, and the number of individuals of each sex that hunters are allowed to kill is strictly regulated to maintain healthy deer and healthy deer populations. The goal is to continue to ensure that the resources available in a given habitat can support the number of deer in that area throughout the winter, thus ensuring that does can give birth to healthy fawns in the spring, and so on and so forth.

Therefore, by removing 1-2 deer of a specific sex from an area of habitat through managed hunting, hunters are part of a larger effort and directly contributing to maintaining healthy deer populations and healthy habitats. I help to ensure that the remaining deer that are not killed by hunters can access enough food and habitat throughout the winter; I’m reducing the likelihood that either the deer I killed or others in the area will be hit by a car because they’re forced to search farther for resources; and I’m helping to ensure that individual deer will not be forced into such strong competition for resources with one another that they will die from malnutrition or exhaustion.

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So whatever our thoughts on the act of killing, I recognize that I need to accept that removing certain individual animals from a population is necessary. Our own feelings and ethics around this are certainly individual. For me, knowing that I am thoughtfully engaged in carefully planned and effective conservation activities gives me a strong belief that what I am doing is morally right (for me). I like the knowledge that I am contributing to maintaining healthy wildlife populations. Does this diminish the emotions that I face in killing animals? No. Those are real. Does it mean I haphazardly choose the equipment (gun or bow) that I use to hunt? No. I put a great deal of thought into how those decisions change the nature of the hunt. Is hunting easy? No. It takes a great deal of preparation, practice, and dedication to be successful, an outcome that is in great measure determined by the guarantee that the animal dies quickly and with as little stress as possible.

For now, I’m motivated by the knowledge that there are a diversity of ways to engage in conservation, that many people out there are doing their own thing, that the combination of all of our actions is what will make a difference, and that supporting everyone’s conservation choices and capitalizing on opportunities for agreement will make this important task successful.

For me, I’ll keep picking up my bow and hunting.

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Setting the Stage: My Position as a Hunter-Conservationist

The idea of this blog is to explore a topic that is controversial to many, and perhaps for the most profound reasons that a topic can be controversial. Eliciting a wide and diverse spectrum of opinions and feelings, hunting is a topic that involves complex ecological, political, cultural, and ethical dimensions. Considered this way, it’s hard to deny that it’s worth earnest and sincere discussion.

My intention is not to win anyone over to any side in an issue; it is not to lobby for anything or to prove a political point; and it’s not to use moralist and rhetorical arguments that are beyond critical reflection. Having said that, I suppose my purpose is simply to request that people consider that there is a rationality and honesty in the following statement: hunting is my way of taking an active role in conservation.

I’ve had people say to me that they could not hunt because they are animal lovers. My response is always the same: “So am I; that’s why I hunt.” Often, this is followed by a somewhat understandable sense of confusion about how someone can love animals and be ok with killing them.

As hunters, we often take this seemingly paradoxical feeling for granted. We know that many other hunters understand this feeling, and that many non-hunters will have great difficulty understanding it.

Sometimes, I will try to explain the way that hunters embrace the emotional complexity that comes with hunting; how we learn to understand the paradoxes that define the natural world; how the most intensely personal experiences with nature and wildlife come from hunting; how our relationship with animals takes place on a level that defies simplistic emotional categorization; how we take pride in procuring our own healthy food; how it enables us to develop an enhanced understanding of our own biology, evolution, and role in the landscapes we are part of; how hunting gives us the ability to observe the natural world on a level that can only be experienced by engaging with it on a species-to-species level; and how hunting is a critical component of environmental management and conservation.

Other times, the sentiment that we can simultaneously love the animals we seek to kill is best expressed by Steven Rinella in his book American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon,

“For now, I rely on a response that is admittedly glib: I just do, and I always will.”