On the Emotional and Spiritual Aspects of Killing

I love reading David Petzal from Field & Stream.  I look forward to his column every month and I often re-read past columns online.  Recently, “Teaching Young Hunters to Cope with Killing” was shared on their Facebook page.  In spite of the fact I’ve been teaching my daughter about hunting and ethical meat procurement since she’s been born, I have to admit I still don’t know how to properly describe the issue to her.  Of course, she’s five as I write this, so it’s a slow process and I believe a slow process is a lot better than keeping her in the dark and then sitting her down when she’s 12 and explaining where her food comes from.  That’s how vegans are made.

Even at five my daughter understands certain aspects of fair chase. These things have been taught by conversation at the dinner table, lessons during playtime and during episodes of MeatEater and Fresh Tracks with Randy Newberg.  However, I still wonder how she is going to feel this fall when we go squirrel and rabbit hunting as a family.  Is she going to be as excited to see me clean and dress small game as she was last fall when she found a freshly killed elk femur in Wyoming?  Or is seeing an animal alive one moment and then hearing the crack of the rifle and seeing the squirrel fall from the tree going to make her sad?  Either way her reaction will be normal and I fully expect her to finish the process in the kitchen with her mother because she loves to cook with mommy.

The taking of a life is a complicated thing, even for an adult.  As hunters and anglers, we do so for a very good reason, sustenance.  Sure, there are many other parts of the hunt, but the bottom line for almost all of us is we are going to feed ourselves and our families with that animal.  The death of that animal is going to provide healthy protein and nutrients to our bodies and hunting and fishing is certainly as animal friendly as meat comes (no pens, no hormones, no anti-biotics, no food that they weren’t meant to eat, etc.).  Killing to eat is as natural as the sun rising in the morning, but as humans, we, unlike other animal species, have a consciousness about the process.

For me, personally, I feel the same emotions before I pull the trigger as I do after, but they come in very different ways, looking and feeling very different.  Even when I’m not hunting, but just out in the woods observing animals, I feel a great love and reverence for all living things.  At no point do I ever take those animals for granted.

The hunt is everything before the pull of the trigger to me.  It’s everything from looking at maps and scouting to setting up camp and traipsing through the woods stalking game.  This allows for the slow process of preparedness. You’re visualizing what is going to happen so that when you lock eyes on your game you can quickly put the excitement of having found it aside, calm yourself and take an ethical shot.  I have always said a little prayer to myself before pulling the trigger to steady my nerves and remember to be grateful to be in the position to take a shot.  You’re about to take the life of a beautiful animal and it’s hard not to appreciate that when you’re in the moment.

Emotionally, I think the toughest part of hunting are those moments between the shot and the field dressing.  Often hunters will become overwhelmed by their emotions even if they act stoically around their buddies.  Many mature hunters will admit that they have cried as they approach the fallen animal. While everyone handles their emotions differently, I love hearing those stories or seeing it with my own two eyes. At this point, all your hard work has paid off, there is a relief in your success as well as a pride for having put in the time and effort.  There is also a deep feeling of appreciation as well as a twinge of sadness.  Contrary to what some anti-hunters might think, or attempt to over-simplify, killing is never fun.  Hunting is fun and joyous, but unless you’ve hunted, I imagine it’s hard to understand the nuance between the hunt and the kill.  

It can be unnerving to have mixed emotions.  In life, one doesn’t usually experience gratitude, relief, joy, sadness and love all at once.  It happens, but not with the regularity that it happens to a hunter or fisherman.  It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but hunters especially, are comfortable in discomfort as we get up early in the morning and brave the cold, the wind, the rain, the snow and all the other elements (usually on vacation days from work mind you, this is how we choose to spend our free time) in pursuit of the hunt.  These mixed emotions and this discomfort, if you accept them, are powerful enough to transform you.  Unfortunately, many hunters choose to bury this instead, as if accepting the emotions somehow makes them less manly.  I believe, based on biology, evolution and my own anecdotal observations, that female hunters are much better at understanding this and accepting it and because of this, I believe that often times they have a deeper love of hunting than their male counterparts.  

I believe that one must accept all the emotional weight of the hunt before one can feel the spiritual connection of the hunt.  This does not mean you have to go around posting videos of you crying over your recently harvested elk on social media nor does it mean you need to start a blog and talk about these things all the time.  You can simply accept it in your heart and your mind.  I do think it’s helpful if you can talk about it, because those folks on the fence about hunting don’t often hear emotional or spiritual stories about hunting in the media.  We’re all painted with a broad brush and the many are convicted of the crimes of the few. 

Killing doesn’t have to be a cold-hearted endeavor.  Show the animal the proper love and respect, perhaps even participate in a ritual to connect yourself to nature in some way.  I once read where the Cherokee would bury tobacco before the hunt as a sacrifice.  I have a little Cherokee in my ancestry and I thought this would be a great way to connect with my ancestors as well as offer a token of love and respect to Mother Nature. Do I believe that the sacrifice actually helped my chances on the hunt?  No, but I do believe that it opened my mind and heart up to connect better with nature and perhaps that made for a better hunt.

What this looks like for you is probably different than it does for me. The only thing I hope is that more hunters are willing to dig a little deeper and then discuss those feelings with others.  It’s truly hard to understand unless you’ve done it, but I believe people, especially young people, are looking for meaning in their lives and hunting is a great way to find it.  Perhaps the person you share your hunting story with will be the next Theodore Roosevelt or George Bird Grinnell.