This post was inspired by the 2nd hour of The MeatEater Podcast Episode 125: Live from Tempe featuring Steve Rinella, Janis Putelis, Matt Rinella and Dr. Karl Malcolm and can be found here as well as on iTunes and Stitcher.
I’m obsessed with ethics and morality. If I’m honest with myself, I can honestly say that a time or two it has probably been more of a vice than a virtue and in my younger days it probably came across as judgmental. Maybe I still come across that way sometimes when I believe in something as passionately as I believe in ethical hunting. While I feel the need to stand up and speak out on what I believe in, especially here on this page, I do think there are more approachable ambassadors for hunting than me and that is why guys like Steve Rinella, Randy Newberg and others are so popular and are really inspiring both current hunters to do better and to bring new folks into our ranks.
Recently on The MeatEater Podcast, there was a conversation about the sincerity of many hunters these days who throw around, what Steve Rinella called something like, “Whole Foods Buzzwords”. It’s true, growing up, I never heard anyone use words like “organic”, “free range” or “humanely killed”. I grew up in a fairly rural area and I think we just assumed at the time all meat fit these three criteria. It was only in the last ten to twenty years that many less than humane practices have come to light and we’ve started talking about the humane treatment of our domestic animals. The guys on the show started questioning these words and I had to admit to myself, that although I meant it when I’ve told people how much better game meat is and why that is, I had definitely been looking at the issue with rose colored glasses on.
So, let me break down a few of these buzzwords when it comes to wild game:
Organic – This is relative to the animal and the place where you hunt it. Are you hunting caribou in the Brooks Range? I’d call that pretty organic. Whitetail or turkeys in Indiana? Damn near impossible to call that organic when it is living amongst and around so much agricultural land. You have to honestly ask yourself, what is this animal eating given where it lives?
Free Range – Unless you’re hunting a high fenced farm, I’d argue wild game is free range. Some animals move very little (whitetail) and some migrate hundreds of miles (caribou), but if their movement is unrestricted, they’re free range. You could argue that human infringement such as housing additions and energy development impede their movement, and I’d agree with you, but barring removing humans from the landscape, I think it’s hard to argue against this.
Humanely Killed – This was the topic on the show that really hurt me and stung my pride. I’ve always made the argument that a double lung shot was as humane as it gets but as the guys on the show so eloquently pointed out, (1) agricultural practices have evolved a long way in this area and are much more humane these days and (2) how many times do you put your animal down by dropping it where it stands? I have to be honest and say hunting is sometimes incredibly humane and sometimes devastatingly inhumane.
As the conversation evolved, they came to the same conclusion that I ultimately have come to through the years, that there’s something you cannot put on a label or whittle down to a buzzword, what separates hunters and wild game as a food is our connection to the animal, our connection to the land and the bonds that are strengthened through the food at our dinner tables. It’s doing the work and getting your hands dirty, just the same as you’d have more pride and more of a connection to a car you built from the ground up than a car you bought off the lot. When you eat that food, you think of all the hours scouting, the nights in the cold tent, the camaraderie of your loved ones you went with, the field dressing, the pack out and finally, for many of us, the butchering. You remember the folds of the earth, the feel of the wind, the ache in your back and the smell of the animal because there can be much more to food than how it tastes on your plate.
Dr. Karl Malcolm touched on something and the end of the conversation that I constantly preach about: gratitude. He shared a story about his family and their practice of saying something they’re grateful for at the dinner table and his three-year-old daughter saying she was thankful for the moose that they were eating. While I know there are plenty of people who are thankful for their food no matter where it comes from, I do suspect most Americans take this for granted. I’m not throwing stones, it’s easy to do when you’re so disconnected from the source. You go to the supermarket and there’s hamburger meat already ground up and packaged in a one meal container. Or you go to a restaurant and you just verbalize you’d like a filet cooked medium and twenty minutes later it shows up in front of you. Our modern world can be magical in that sense, but there’s magic in doing it yourself as well.
There’s something powerful about putting food on your own table whether it is an elk steak or vegetables from your garden. There’s a lot of work that goes into it, a lot of time that you sacrifice that you could be doing something else and so many opportunities for it to all go wrong, whether that is your mistake or Mother Nature not providing the right conditions. That food is something to be proud of, something you are more willing to share, something you’re more likely to remember and, in my opinion, it just tastes better. While it’s important to have this conversation on a wide platform where words like “organic” are going to be thrown around, I’m not sure there’s a better way to share our love and passion for wild game than at the dinner table. Our stories and arguments are much more convincing when we can tell them over the fruits of our labor, if for no other reason, our non-hunting loved ones can see how grateful we are for the animal and the chance to interact with it in order to feed our families.