Written by Natalie Gubbay
Drive west, and the quaint houses of suburban Colorado give way to gas stations, RVs, and mountain passes. Signs hanging over hotels and inns read: “Hunters Welcome.” Then there is Colorado College, seemingly at odds with its surroundings, which frequents the Princeton Review’s list of schools for “Birkenstock-wearing, tree-hugging, clove-smoking vegetarians.” When I visited for accepted students day, I sat at a table with, I kid you not, eight other vegetarians. To put this in perspective: I probably met about eight other vegetarians over four years in my high school of 1,600 people.
Food ethics are highly personal, and no one person can speak for all vegetarians. But much of it winnows down to some variant of the same core belief: that animals are wild and independent beings that deserve respect, and accordingly, deserve humane treatment throughout both life and death. Clearly, today’s age of industrial meat production violates that tenant—hence, the decision not to eat meat.
A hunted animal, however, is respected by the process of observing its wildness, by the hours of effort it takes to kill it, by the appreciation for that animal of the people eating it. It lives its entire life in the wild, and, if killed properly, dies quickly. Its experience is far more natural than that of a cow fed grain, and, as importantly, it is not consumed with the casualty of a chicken nugget eaten on the go.
The hunters of rural Colorado and vegetarian students at CC have more in common than one might imagine. Even Ted Nugent—and surely, if there were a hunter least likely to philosophize and respect the subject of death, it would be him—says as much: “You don’t just handle a dead deer with respect; you handle it with reverence.”
I would argue it is not that we are uncomfortable with the result of hunting, but rather with the idea of it. We are uncomfortable with the idea of hunting because we cannot forget that to enjoy hunting means, on some level, to enjoy killing—which feels more wrong than the killing itself. “It’s not as though the rest of us don’t countenance the killing of tens of millions of animals every year. Yet for some reason we feel more comfortable with the mechanical killing practiced out of view and without emotion by industrial agriculture, ” said Michael Pollan, a leading thinker on the ethics of eating. So we separate ourselves from the killing, we hide from it; we construct ourselves a reality where meat comes from the grocery store frozen section or the kitchen of a restaurant.
It’s worth noting that only in America does there exist an industrial meat production system so distant, so opaque, that we need labels to clarify that our burgers are “100 percent real beef”—as if it should even be a question. In most other countries, meat is assumed to actually be meat; death is accepted, at least more so, as inherent in the act of eating it. When death is accepted it can be respected; when we do not hide from the reality of slaughter we can ensure it is done properly. So often I hear the question: “How?” How could anyone allow feedlots to replace pasture, for chickens to be packed into a concrete building, for pigs so be caged so tightly they can’t turn around? The answer is simple: we permitted it. The mechanized, profit-driven nature of factory farming exists because we allowed industry to take the dilemma of how to kill out of our hands and into the hands of the market.
In my junior year of high school, I lived on a farm; I fed a lamb one day and ate it the next. My friends at home asked me how I stomached it, and I asked them how they stomached their dinners—I, at least, saw that lamb grazing in an open field.
This summer, I worked at a farm where school groups would request that we not explain the purpose of our animals, that we pretend we sell rabbits as pets and that even our male cows are used for dairy. We refused. It is one thing to be sensitive to the process of slaughter, but another to pretend that the chicken on our dinner plates magically appears out of thin air. Is it any surprise that the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance found that 72 percent of consumers know nothing or very little about farming or ranching?
In 2001, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan; in 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq. Over 6,000 Americans have died. It is a privilege that I did not know this until the end of elementary school. It is a privilege that most Americans cannot point to Iraq on a map. The ability to run from the idea of death is a privilege.
By running from death, we cease to control it. We let overcrowded chickens never see the light of day and call it cage free. We let our country go to war without understanding its circumstances.
We do not have to agree with a given process of death, but not to engage with it is inexcusable. And if there is one thing to be said in the case for hunting, it is this: hunters do not run from death.