What does an animal activist have in common with a hunter? Turns out, more than you think.
I am an animal lover. Among my animal-related activities are fostering cats, volunteering at shelters, serving on the New York City Bar committee on animal issues, and supporting the ban on dog fighting, cock fighting, cricket fighting, basically any form of non-human animal fighting for the profit of humans. I abhor intentional infliction of suffering on animals. Therefore, I always thought all hunters are cold-hearted Cheney-esq monsters… until I met one at Sip-N-Dip Lounge, a kitsch yet original bar with a live mermaid tank in Great Falls, Montana. It was once named “#1 bar on earth” by GQ Magazine.
A stubby yet fit man in his late 30s and his wife of 16 years started chatting with us the minute we sat down next to them. They were visiting from a small town in Montana to attend his cousin’s wedding. Over glasses of Johnnie Walker Black (my default drink), our conversation drifted to the ill-advised topic of politics. As an avid hunter, his hot button issue was gun rights. He hunts for food; he hunts for fun; he hunts to exercise what he believes to be his inalienable right.
Perhaps thanks to the combination of the jolly atmosphere and the Johnnie Walker buzz, I suppressed my urge to lay down legal arguments why hurting another living being is not an inalienable right and instead listened to him as he patiently and eloquently enumerated the pros of hunting.
“First, I gotta eat somehow. I eat my kills, which means I eat far less meat from the grocery store. Y’all know what? I am healthy as a horse ‘cuz the meat I put in my body is not contaminated.”
He’s got a point there. Given the current deplorable state of the food industry, wild game are probably much healthier than the factory-farmed hormone-injected slabs of unidentifiable flesh served at fast food restaurants. As long as people indiscriminately consume meat on the cheap, factory farming will continue to thrive. I have seen my share of horrifying videos depicting the barbarity of slaughterhouses, the miserable conditions in which livestock are kept, and the sickly state of the animals we eat. My husband and I had a wake-up call after watching Food Inc. and have since cut down our meat consumption drastically. We still eat meat, but as much as possible only organic, free-roaming, antibiotic-free or grass-fed. (Although this is not helping our self-imposed “austerity” month, it is worth the cost.) It is no sure proof, but at least we are making progress. We hope to become full-fledged wild-fish-only pescaterians one day.
“Second, do you know what is the most invasive animal species in this part of the world?” he asked.
“Humans,” I answered quickly without batting an eyelid (yes, that is another “Jenism”).
He chuckled and proceeded to answer his own question, saying a type of deer that I had never heard of. “These deers breed like crazy and their population can grow quickly if not culled. Believe it or not, they are a major cause of auto accidents and fatalities in our area. So, hunting helps to cull the population and maintain a natural balance.”
I remembered a recent article I had read on New York City’s plan to eliminate 170,000 Canadian geese by gassing them in the aftermath of the US Airways flight that landed in the Hudson river after colliding with a flock of the birds. When reading the article, I was baffled why most of the measures we humans take in maintaining ecological balance were so reactive and result-oriented — mass slaughter of the species that are over-populated — rather than prophylactic (legalese for preventative). I am no zoologist or ecologist, but what if the killing leads to a population boom of a more invasive specie? Shouldn’t scientists do a more in-depth study of possible effects on the ecological food chain?
It occurred to me that hunting might well be such a prophylactic measure. However, I was not sure whether hunters were in the best position to make such a judgment. I said to him, “I understand the delicate balance of the ecosystem and the necessity of human intervention at some point to keep such balance in check. But I’d feel much better if there were robust regulations backed by hard science limiting the species that can be hunted.”
I anticipated some libertarian arguments stating why regulations were useless, but to my surprise, he readily agreed. He told me that there were in fact such regulations promulgated by each state’s conservation department and the hunters he knew all abided by them. “We hunters are law-abiding citizens. Actually, my third point is that we have an honor code: we try out best to make the kill shot, no suffering, no nothing on the hunted. These deer literally get caught in the headlights and don’t know what hit them. We are really no different from the predators in the wild hunting to survive.”
I recalled the vivid image of the lifeless body of a gazelle dangling from the powerful jaws of a cheetah. It was one of the highlights of my post-bar safari, seeing a cheetah killing a young gazelle. I was saddened by the life cut short, but my momentary anguish dissipated when the cheetah’s cubs hungrily devoured the meat, gaining a better chance to live out their lives. Such is the cruel reality of Mother Nature. Animals kill each other, for food, for protection, for survival. Our caveman ancestors did the same to survive.
I realized that our view points were starting to converge, but my lawyer-trained mind couldn’t help to poke holes in his reasoning.
“True… BUT… there is a HUGE difference between these carnivore predators and hunters. I mean, these animals only hunt when they need to. After all, hunting takes energy and they only kill when necessary. I bet you there is very little wastage in what these animals consume.” I started to get animated. “We humans on the other hand waste so much food. Just look the portion sizes served at restaurants these days. And not to mention the havoc such habits can cause to the health care system.”
“Exactly. Because I hunt, I have a much better appreciation of where my food comes from. I understand what I put in my mouth used to be from a living thing, with blood, bones and organs. It is not just a piece of steak served on a silver platter.”
His wife chimed in, “We have a separate freezer, full of the game he hunted. We hardly waste anything. He makes a mean stew.”
Then the bartender announced it was 10 minutes to closing and time to settle the bill.
How time flies when you are immersed in interesting conversation. As we exchanged contact information with us promising to show them around if they ever visit New York City, I was glad that I listened to him. Had I applied my prejudice and argued with him when he first mentioned he was a hunter, we would’ve parted ways both feeling indignant. He would’ve probably — and rightfully — thought of me as a crazy knee-jerking out-of-touch animal activist, and I would’ve continued to wish all hunters to suffer the fate of Harry Whittington (the guy accidentally shot in the face by Dick Cheney while hunting together).
I am not an advocate of hunting. In fact, I have problems with his point that he hunts for fun — I don’t see how recreation based on cutting short another being’s life is justified — but I didn’t have time to talk to him about this. I am sure the whole debate on hunting and animal rights are multi-faceted and this conversation only touches the tip. But one thing I know is that two seemingly incongruent perspectives can find common ground if people are able to set aside their pre-formed view points and listen… preferably drinking whisky and surrounded by mermaids.