Column: Can a kind man kill?

Andy 1b

A question of ethics

Cast your vote: Should Andy hunt?

By Andy McGlashen
Nov. 10, 2009

Last week I watched the great John Huston film The Misfits, and there’s a scene I can’t get out of my head.  Clark Gable, Eli Wallach and Montgomery Clift have taken Marilyn Monroe with them on a “mustanging” trip into some Nevada mountains.

Monroe goes into hysterics when she learns that the men aren’t wrangling wild horses so birthday girls can lope around on them — they’re to be slaughtered for dog food.  “Honey, a kind man can kill,” Gable says, as much to convince himself as to calm her.  “No,” she insists.  “He can’t.”

The scene resonates because I want to take part in Michigan’s firearm deer season, which opens on November 15, but I’m not sure if I should.  I can’t decide if a kind man can kill.

I used to be a deer hunter, and still am in thought if not in deed.  My driving becomes somewhat serpentine in farm country where the fields want a good looking-over.  If I’m lucky enough to spot a band of whitetails, some old urge still gnaws at me if any of them sports an ivory-hued rack.  I still look for rubs and tracks in the woods.  I sometimes crave venison stew.

Proud moment

It’s been about a decade since I last donned blaze orange and shouldered my slug-filled Mossberg.  Not long before that I shot my first buck, a remarkably unlucky four-point that trotted into the stand of poplars I was stalking through and stopped, broadside, twenty yards in front of me.  Bang.  It ran a hundred yards or so, wheezing through the hole I’d shot in it, then lay down and died.

I was happy; I felt initiated into a long tradition.  My grandpa’s feelings were unmixed as he showed me how to dress the buck.  He beamed, and kept saying, “What a beauty, boy!”  I was proud, but also amazed by the amount of blood that poured and then dripped out, turning the snow pink.  I went hunting for another year or two, but I didn’t mind seeing only does, and when college classes started getting in the way of deer camp I didn’t resist.

Cast your vote: Should Andy hunt?
 Is it more honest for a meateater to kill dinner than shop for it?

Is it more honest for a meateater to kill dinner than to shop for it?

Yet the old tug of opening day is still there, and this year it’s stronger than ever, for whatever reason.  It could be because I’m a new husband and homeowner, and feel an ancient compulsion to bring fresh meat back to my wife (she’d rather I didn’t).  Or maybe I’m pushing against the prominent brand of environmentalist who obsesses over food miles and carbon emissions but has no idea what’s happening in the woods, and couldn’t tell a white pine from a blue spruce if his vintage bicycle was on the line.

Probably it’s those reasons and more, mixed with sentimentality: I miss the days of waking to my grandpa’s trademark call, “Daylight in the swamp!”  I have an olfactory longing for the Holy Trinity of deer camp smells: Hoppes No. 9 gun-cleaning solvent, lousy coffee and bacon.  I miss watching cold dawn sweep over the pine barrens, cedar swamps and oak ridges, and the old hunting stories that got harder to believe but more entertaining each year.

But I certainly don’t need to hunt; there’s a great Thai place just down the street.  So the big question is, can I ethically kill a living thing if I don’t need to eat it to survive?

The ethics of the hunt

I asked Michael Nelson, an environmental ethicist at Michigan State University who recently published a paper on the ethics of hunting, what he thought. “Many of us who think about an ideally sustainable world can well imagine hunting as a part of that world,” he said in an e-mail.  “In fact, many of us can imagine hunting far more readily than we can imagine any of our large scale agricultural practices.  This might mean, at a minimum, that from a conservation ethics perspective hunting is in our minds a more ethical activity than is most contemporary agriculture.”

OK, so lock and load, right?  Not quite:

“One of the most important things to realize in this debate is that, since killing living things is a serious business, the burden of proof falls on those who wish to hunt,” Nelson added.  “We should not hunt animals unless there is a good reason to hunt them.  This then requires those that wish to hunt to provide valid and sound arguments to defend their hunting.”

So, aside from tradition, vague instinct and a reactionary streak, what are my reasons for wanting to hunt?

For one thing, as a recent Great Lakes Echo story illustrated, there are too many deer in Michigan, and they’re bad news for small farmers, not to mention drivers.  Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources recommends shooting does to help control the population, and I’m happy to oblige.

Then there’s the point Nelson alluded to in his e-mail:  If I’m going to eat meat, which I try to do only occasionally, it seems to me more honest to kill the animal myself, to see firsthand that it was once alive and that now it is dead because of me.  Our agriculture spares us this messiness.  The steak simply arrives on the plate, with little to suggest it was part of a creature that cared for its young and felt pain.  Omnivores who decry hunting stand on indefensible moral ground; at least the deer I killed lived an unfenced life.

Andy 3b

What would Leopold do?

Where’s Aldo?

I’m also encouraged that great conservationist Aldo Leopold was an avid deer hunter — he who said, famously, “A thing is right when it tends to protect the health and integrity of the ecosystem.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”  I wear a kind of mental What Would Leopold Do? bracelet, and feel philosophically confident following his example.

Still, none of these arguments for hunting tells the whole story.  Thinning the deer herd may be good for Michigan’s ecosystems, but it would be disingenuous for me, and probably for any hunter, to claim that I want to hunt because it promotes ecological balance.  I want to hunt because it’s fun, whatever that might say about my psyche.

Getting my meat from the woods instead of the farm avoids the environmental and ethical problems modern agriculture presents, yet I can’t get around the simple truth that I don’t need to eat meat to survive.  Sure, Leopold killed deer, but a lot has changed since he died, in 1948. (Even his death — a heart attack while helping a neighbor fight a wildfire — seems a kind of moral instruction).  I can’t help but wonder if he’d still be a hunter today.

So you see dear reader (pun intended, and relished), I’m adrift in uncertainty.  You can help by participating in this poll. Should I go hunting? But more importantly, in the comment section below tell me why you believe as you do.  Does deer hunting promote ecological health and integrity?  Does it tie us to valuable traditions and to the land?  Or is it just a brutish expression of some vestigial instinct?

Can a kind man kill?

Andy McGlashen writes for Michigan State University’s Environmental Science and Policy Program and is a graduate of MSU’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.

19 thoughts on “Column: Can a kind man kill?

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  2. Andy, where have you been? Lost in the woods somewhere, I suppose. I like animals better than people; they are not A-holes. Most are just trying to survive. I would struggle with killing something unless it was messing with me and deserved it. Good to see that you are still as strange as they make them. Tofu is delicious. Congrats on the marriage!

  3. Ok,

    The question that always comes to mind, when people oppose hunting, is this. How, my dear, sweet, loving anti-hunters, do you suppose this animal will die if I don’t shoot it? What, if you exclude humans as natural, are natural causes?

    Let’s see. If it dies of old age, it’s teeth fall out. It will die a a terrible death of starvation. No one will care for it in an old animals’ home, spoon feeding it babyfood or giving it an i.v.

    If it dies of predation, it will be eaten alive.

    There’s also the chance it will get in a fight with one of its own kind and lose. Also a slow terrible death.

    If these were the choices for my own death, which do you think I would choose? What would you choose for your parent, for your child? A quick shot, or slow death. I know hunters arent’ perfect, not every shot is a kill shot, but most are. Mine sure are. I’d choose death by hunter. It seems…kinder.

    So what is most ethical, kind thing to do for the animal?

    I theorize that humans who try to avoid animal death at all cost are also kind, but are missing a part of the equation. They will die. It’s just a matter of how.

    Bring your camera and skip the hunting if you’d like.

    But honesty, reality, and Aldo dictate that humans must be part of the equation – and that’s not as a bunch of preservationists who watch nature from their televisions writing checks to stop human involvement. We ARE nature. We are the only part that consciously gives back to any species with thought and deliberation.

    Even, and especially the MODERN hunters, who were the first group to go before Congress and request a tax on their equipment so they could restore wildlife habitat and species that had been destroyed by market hunting in the early years. That was in 1937, and we’ve been doing great things since.

    When I was born, there were 3,500 turkeys in the state of Michigan. Today, there are 200,000 (thanks Al Stewart). That is because hunters paid for most of the programs to bring them back. In fact, hunters and anglers have paid for nearly all wildlife restoration in the state of Michigan.


    I hunt for fun.
    I hunt for honesty. Much less hypocritical than a grocery store.
    I hunt for free range, organic meat.
    I hunt for food for my family. My four kids deserve the best protein.

    I hunt because my mom was a vegetarian and told me I should be able to look my meat in the eye.

    I hunt because I am part of nature. And that is ok.

  4. I’m late responding to this discussion because I just recently subscribed to Echo, but I will have my say. If you are against hunting and killing of wild animals for food, then you must also be against fishing, both sport and commercial, and the raising of all domestic animals for meat, milk, eggs, leather or any product. You must also be against the use of any method of conveyance that might accidentally cause “road and aero kill”. You must also be against any industrial process that could directly or indirectly cause the death of wild animals. You must also be against any agricultural activity that would deprive wild animals of their natural foods. In other words, you should be against any human activity that impacts wild animals. So, don’t let the door hit you in the ass when you exit this world.

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  6. I am vehemently against hunting — full disclosure from the start. I wasn’t always. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was in my early 20s, but generally kept my beliefs, strong though they were, to myself.

    In the last 10 years, however, I began working in a veterinary hospital that also treats wild and feral animals. It’s in treating wild animals and in understanding the tremendous stress we humans inflict that I’ve become unable to compartmentalize a “sport” like hunting.

    We see all manner of injury, both deliberate and accidental. But it’s the human-injured animals that bring the most despair because these are injuries that simply did not need to happen. Some are injured animals lost or left by hunters. Others are acts of malice.

    Our species has a choice to show compassion or violence toward those over whom we exercise so much power. In a world where we’re already decimating the habitat, polluting the waters and soils, and killing wildlife through our technological ways, I personally believe that hunting is a difficult pursuit to defend. Sure, it’s legal, you can do it. But I have a hard time ascribing the qualities of kindness or compassion toward individuals who chooses killing and violence over mercy when dealing with sentient beings. That’s my take.

  7. Unless you plan to go vegetarian, hunt for your food. The connection to, and respect for, the meat is worth the effort and sacrifice. Since I started hunting three years ago at the age of 41, I’ve never looked back. Killing is never pleasant, but it is the most honest way to be an omnivore.

    I’m sorry, though, to hear that your wife might kill you for this, and that she is not interested in having you bring home this meat. If she’s a vegetarian, I understand (sorta) where she’s coming from. If she’s not, though, I think she needs to do the kind of thinking YOU’RE doing here. Delegating the kill and the processing and the personal responsibility for death to a third party does not leave anyone blameless.

    Still need more convincing? Read Omnivore’s Dilemma and watch FOOD Inc. You’ll either go vegetarian, or pick up your gun and head into the woods.

  8. “We should not hunt animals unless there is a good reason to hunt them. This then requires those that wish to hunt to provide valid and sound arguments to defend their hunting.” How about getting rid of completely or reducing in a large amount their natural predators. Add to that clearing huge areas and converting them into what amounts to a giant deer buffet. Mix those 2 things together and you get a deer population that is so huge that hunting is the best management tool. Of course you could just let the population normalize through starvation and disease if a single shot through the heart is too barbaric for your tastes.

  9. Andy,
    You seem to love the woods and enjoy the hunt…but you are hesitant about the kill.
    That speaks volumes……about what is right for you.

    You can have the thrill of the hunt and feel that rush of a deer in your sights, but save the shot for when you and yours actually need the meat to live.

  10. Personally, I appreciate people like my Father who hunt. Because, honestly, venison is really tasty and then I don’t have to go hunt the deer myself. Even though they can be really cute, there really are too many of them. And without us hunting them and the wolf population keeping them in check, they’ll all get sick and die…and get all the farmers’ cows sick so they die. Then there will be no red meat left for anyone to eat. The American way of life will be destroyed. Anarchy will ensue and society as we know it will collapse. We’ll all have to live on tofu (which…actually…can be very tasty). How environmentally friendly are soybeans? Round-up ready anyone?

    I see no ethical dilemma with hunting, because keeping cows in a box and feeding them grain until they are a hair away from dying seems more cruel. But then again, that is what most of us do to ourselves. And I must not be too torn up about it because I still eat beef. But the tasty, tasty venison that my Dad got for me last November means that I don’t have to buy or cook any myself, which is nice on a graduate student’s salary.

  11. I am Canadian, and have hunted as long as I can remember. My dad hunted, my dads dad hunted. We eat and enjoy the wild game we harvest at family get togethers. It is a tradition my family enjoys. We are ethical, and care deeply about our environment and wildlife. We care more than most I know and are active in organizations that promote wildlife. If we did not harvest the deer and moose the herds would become diseased and die a horrible death. Quite frankly man was destined to harvest wild game and WE ARE part of the food chain eco-system. Go hunt, enjoy your heritage, and be ethical.

  12. Of course you should hunt! But as long as you are in a mental quandary about the ethics, don’t take any bullets.

  13. Too much navel-gazing. Humans evolved to eat meat as part of their diet, period. Hunting a deer is no less ethical than buying a steak in the supermarket, and perhaps more so. It’s the same basic impulse that leads others to hunt mushrooms or gather wild asparagus – getting food from the wild. I’m not a hunter myself, but I am a devout carnivore. I say leave ’em alone.

  14. To my dear son in law, Andy,
    Honey, I wasn’t aware that you are such a bloodthirsty little carnivore. I love you, anyway. I think that for the sake of my future grandchildren, you probably should not hunt because my daughter might possibly kill you.

  15. Good for you for wrestling with this issue! It’s something I strenuously have no opinion regarding!

  16. For someone who is actually hunting for their own food needs, then hunting may be reasonable. Certainly there is an ethical point to killing your own food. However, if Andy does NOT need the meat – eats little meat anyway, and if he will not be using the deer for his own sustenance, what is the purpose?

  17. I believe it’s far more ethical to find your own food on the hoof than it is to let someone else kill it for you. I think everyone should take part in finding or killing their own food, if only for perspective. Pull the trigger on a deer, spend the day doubled over on an asparagus picking cart, try pulling a frame out of a beehive. Maybe people would be a little less judgmental if they understood the processes better.

  18. Hunting requires a person to become a part of the ecosystem. A hunter becomes a participant in the natural world, not just a spectator. The organic protein derived from the activity is low in cholesterol and high is satisfaction.

    So pick up your weapon, sharpen your knife and your senses, clear your mind of modern distractions and get in the woods.

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