Are We Really Being Honest with Ourselves and the Public When We Use “Whole Foods Buzzwords”?

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.

Moral Relativism and the Outdoors

The last couple days I’ve been following the story of a white, female Huffington Post contributor tweeting about her response to a black man, driving a BMW that has an NRA and “Tea Party” bumper sticker on it and how he didn’t fit her idea of what a black man should be. While some people are getting pretty worked up about it, I’m more interested in seeing the interactions themselves because it tells an interesting story about where our culture, or at least a significant segment of our culture, is today. People who do not have an underlying code of ethics will decide each situation based on the outcome that they desire rather than making a decision on what is right or wrong based on a code of ethics. This leads to a significant amount of contradiction and a vacuum of logic and reasoning.  

This type of thought process, or moral relativism, has not yet infiltrated the outdoors world in any significant way, but I see it on the horizon. Why? Because we are members of this “subculture” of hunters and outdoorsman, but we’re also members of the culture-at-large. We also have some folks who are willing to set themselves apart from the rest of us because they do not share our methods of take, our traditions or our other values. Some of you may say, “but dude, you have written against baiting!” I have, and I still believe we should be having an on-going conversation about ethics. However, I will never join a campaign to outlaw baiting or ever speak in favor of outlawing baiting. I view that as an internal conversation amongst hunters, but if you bait and the Humane Society is after you, I am on your side. If it comes on the ballot in Colorado, I will vote against outlawing baiting and if it’s in the legislature, I’ll write my congress people on your behalf. The need to police ourselves is the exact reason for the conversation I want to have. You’re welcome to disagree with me, I’m open to changing my mind, but my goal is to make sure we are always trying to do the right thing in the woods.

As the saying goes, if you lie down with dogs, you will get fleas -- and I am baffled by the hunters that the Humane Society and other groups dig up for their campaigns. It comes from the idea that “whatever I do is good and moral and whatever other people do is not as just as what I do.” Similar to the recent gun control protests where you’d see “Hunters Against the NRA.” These guys I saw were saying, “you don’t need a high-powered rifle to hunt, all you need are shotguns.” The average, urban, non-hunter sees this and they say, “well, look, even these hunters say you don’t need rifles” and they take these guys as an authority. Come to find out, these guys were duck hunters, of course all they needed were shotguns. They’re not taking a 300-yard shot on a bull elk in Colorado this fall, so they don’t care. The question I would ask these fellas is, if rifles are outlawed, do you think us western big game hunters will have your back when they come for your shotguns next? 

Over the last one hundred plus years, most fish and game laws have been pushed for and supported by hunters, including self-imposed excise taxes like Pittman-Robertson. State wildlife biologists and conservation organizations (hunters) have done an amazing job over the years at fine tuning our laws and bringing us into, for many species, “the good ol’ days” of hunting.  I urge you all to have faith in a process that has always worked and treat the hunting community as a brotherhood. We can pick on our own, but when the outside comes picking a fight, we stand up for one another. 




This Is Who We Are

A short message to my fellow hunters…

I got my first anti-meat hate on Instagram the other day.  Ironically, it was from someone I met once when she was brought to my house for Christmas Eve dinner.  At this dinner, she ate fish, so apparently “taking innocent lives” and being “disgusting” only applies to the things she chooses not to eat, not to living creatures of the sea.  When I went to respond to her comments, they disappeared because she had blocked me.  This is fine and I do not plan to respond to every piece of hate I get from animal rights activists.  People who are willing to engage in conversation with those of differing opinions do not open those conversations with hate and threats of violence.  Ninety-seven percent of people eat meat and the hateful folks are (I believe) a minority of that three percent.  There’s absolutely no need to engage with anyone who shows you right off the bat they are not interested in a conversation.

Hunters have a responsibility to know the facts.  “We’ve always hunted” is not a good argument nor is “my licenses pay for conservation”.  We have to know more and we have to do more.  We’ve been the stewards of wildlife for a long time but we cannot rest on our laurels.  We have to continue to be leaders and understand the complex and nuanced ecosystems we live in and hunt in.  

When non-hunters see us, they see hunting as something we do.  They think, “Why can’t you just get your meat at a supermarket like a normal person?”. The reality is, it’s not what we do, hunting is who we are.  We feel a connection to nature that others don’t feel.  Some non-consumptive users will say they’re connected to nature as well, and maybe some are, but most non-consumptive users see themselves as tourists in the wild.  They’re visiting.  Hunters know we are more than that, we are a part of the environment, just like our fellow predators, just like our prey and just like all the other pieces of our ecosystem.  We are not separate, we are not visitors, we are home.

I’m proud to call myself a hunter.  I will never back down from that.  While there are exceptions, hunters are incredibly well versed with land management and wildlife biology issues and we have an excellent understanding of all the legal components of our lifestyle.  We’re as knowledgeable on the things we do as anyone else is on their passions, if not more so.  However, there’s still more work to do.  Volunteer with a conservation group, take someone new hunting and fishing every chance you get, reach out to those who express an interest and let go of the “I don’t want to show anyone my spot” mentality.  In fact, when you take them to your spot, you teach them, “Hey, hunters don’t swipe another hunter’s spot”.  Teach them ethics as well as how to field dress an animal.

We have a great message and I think we do a pretty good job of telling the story but we live in a world where people no longer want to listen.  It’s time we show them who we are.  There will always be those who will hate and who will ignore good science in the name of ideology and false moral supremacy, but there will be a lot of people watching. Let’s show ‘em who we are.  The future of hunting depends on it. 

The Best Shot I Never Took

I didn’t grow up hunting or fishing.  I was outside as often as possible, but I had no one in my family to take me hunting, though I always wished I had.  So, in addition to teaching myself how to shoot and learning the behaviors and habits of game animals I had to learn hunting ethics on my own as well.  Learning ethics, much like learning to shoot, is a process.

The first season I went deer hunting, I went without a license, in both Michigan and Indiana.  I was told by the folks I was with, “just shoot a doe and I will tag it for you” or “you can have my buck tag only if you shoot an eight point or bigger”.  At the time, I thought this was okay because the deer would still be tagged and I was not impeding the population studies of state wildlife agencies.  It didn’t seem to be unethical to the folks I was with and they’d been hunting for their whole lives, so who was I to question it?

On opening morning of gun season in Southern Indiana I was in the tree stand well before legal shooting light.  It was a crude, homemade platform that required me to stand.  I figured as the new guy, I got the shit end of the stick as far as stands went, there was no way I could stand there for hours not moving. I was armed with a simple, single shot, breech load, 12 gauge shotgun loaded with rifled slugs.  I had extra shells in my pockets, but I knew, if I was lucky, I’d get one shot.  In the Eastern forests, you’re not going to get much more than a 20 yard shot and I have always been a pretty good marksman, so I felt comfortable with this.  I just had to remember to be calm and not rush a shot out of the excitement of killing my first deer.

Where I was hunting was private land right across the road from public land and the whole area is heavily hunted.  Usually, after first light on opening day, it sounds like a morning in Fallujah.  Deer are pushed from place to place and move around a lot, I knew I was sure to see something.  And sure enough, I did.  

About five minutes after legal shooting light, I hear something coming from my left.  It was soft and slow, and I initially wrote it off as another damn squirrel playing tricks on me.  However, what came around the corner was a beautiful, two-and-a-half-year-old, eight-point buck.  He stopped right in front of my tree stand, broadside at about five yards.  He turned his head to look at me and I slowly raised my gun.  We made eye contact for what felt like five minutes but was more realistically about ten to fifteen seconds.  He then looked away and slowly walked off as I lowered my gun.

I told myself I was simply not being greedy and that it was mere minutes into opening day and I would see other deer and I wanted to keep hunting. I told myself all I wanted was a meat doe anyhow.  Even if I’d heard the expression “don’t pass up on your first day what you’d be happy to have on your last day” I think I still would have let him go.  Somehow, even though I wasn’t aware of it yet, I knew it was the right thing to do to walk out of those woods without a deer. I also think it’s possible that if I had taken that shot, I might have regretted it to the point that I never went hunting again, and that would have been a shame.

Not pulling the trigger on that buck is one of the best decisions I have ever made.  I never saw another deer that season and I’m glad I didn’t, but it was that deer season, being out there for several days without a license, that solidified my love of hunting.  Had I been wiser, I would have just walked out there and sat in the tree stand without a gun and I would have loved it every bit as much.  It was on those cold Indiana mornings in those tree stands that I realized I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.  It was on those mornings that I learned where I could go to feel completely at peace.  

I firmly believe, it was in that in that moment, when I couldn’t pull the trigger, that I became a hunter.

Baiting: Fair Chase? Ethical? What is baiting?

This topic is one that can be broken down into three questions and answers, each one getting more complex and more complicated.

1.     Is baiting fair chase?  No.

2.     Is baiting ethical?  Maybe, sometimes.

3.     What is baiting?  Well… we’ll attempt to define that shortly.

There is nothing about baiting that is “chase”, forget the “fair” part.  Dumping a bunch of corn or carrots underneath your tree stand so you can sit your lazy ass in one spot and let them come to you isn’t hunting, it’s just killing.  A situation such as this one is pretty clear, but beyond this, things get muddy.

Baiting might be ethical in certain situations, but those situations I wouldn’t call “hunting”.  If you are looking for a nuisance animal or it’s a culling situation in an urban or suburban environment, it is better for all parties involved for the animal(s) to come to a safe spot, rather than some guy with a bow creeping through backyards in search of said animal.  Whether we call this hunting or pest control or something else we can debate at another time, but if it’s not hunting, then fair chase goes out of the equation.

Now, as to the question, “what is baiting?”, well, different people have different ideas about that.  The example I gave above is an easy one, but some people believe the following are all baiting:

·     Sitting on a cornfield

·     Habitat improvement for the express purpose of bigger deer

·     Sitting on a watering hole

Many of these examples are unique to certain animals and locations.  If you’re hunting elk in Colorado you might sit on a watering hole, but there is no cornfield to sit and you’re most likely on public land, so you’re not improving the habitat.  My best attempt at defining “baiting” would look something like, the placement of attractants with the explicit intent of bringing game animals to a certain place for immediate or short-term harvest.  

I think most hunters would agree sitting over a watering hole is just smart hunting.  Not every watering hole gets used, so you’re looking for sign, and if your method of hunting is still hunting, I can’t think of too many better places to sit than over a watering hole.  As for the cornfield scenario, I think it could go either way.  If you’re sitting on a cornfield that is for the explicit purpose of agriculture and you’re taking advantage of the deer pursuing the few pieces of corn not picked up at harvest, I think again, you’re hunting a natural food source and that’s smart hunting.  However, if you or the landowner, purposely don’t harvest all the corn for commercial or agricultural reasons, but rather leave some to attract deer, then yes, I think that fits my definition of baiting.

Habitat improvement is something I think all hunters and conservations should pursue.  Will helping the herd help your hunting?  Sure, it will.  However, your intention in this is to produce habitat to support the herd all year long and well into the future and not just to lure a big buck near your tree stand. Habitat improvement is something we all should care about for the long-term health of our herds and all the other animals, game or not, that live alongside the game animals we are chasing. 

Having grown up in Indiana and having hunted white tail deer in Indiana, Michigan and Kentucky, I understand the complications of this issue. My friend’s dad’s property that I hunted in Kentucky was a small piece of land with a small vineyard on it.  The vineyard attracted turkeys and deer to the property (though the grapes were long gone by deer firearm season).  Considering the relatively small range of a white tail, was I baiting?  I’d say no because the grapes were long gone by late November.  However, being a small property, I had no idea what the neighbors were doing.  Did they have bird feeders that were attracting deer to the neighborhood?  And if so, was I hunting over bait?  I would say the answers are “no” and “no” because in two seasons hunting out there I didn’t see one damn deer and if the neighbors did have some attractant out, I had no knowledge of it.  You can only control what you can control and that is the essence of this question.

I think this all boils down to whether you are manipulating nature to affect your hunt.  Yes, we use technology to improve our odds, which we have since we started hunting millions of years ago and which without, our species would look very different today. With all of that technology is it really necessary to bait?  Shouldn’t the hunt be about the pursuit and the time in the woods?  If you just want to walk a few hundred yards to a tree stand and sit in it for 90 minutes to kill something for food, why don’t you just drive five miles to the grocery store and buy a steak?  Where is the passion?  Where is the participation in the natural world?  

I think there are a few black and white truths in this world, but baiting, like almost all questions of morality and ethics, is made up of a lot of gray. There are only two limitations on you as a hunter: state and federal wildlife laws and your conscience.  The first one you have to answer to your fellow hunters and citizens on.  The second, you only have to answer to yourself, your community and your creator. All I hope is that hunters take the time to consider the second as much or more than they take to consider the first.

“A peculiar virtue in wildlife ethics is that the hunter has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. Whatever his acts, they are dictated by his own conscience, rather than by a mob of onlookers. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this fact.”
– Aldo Leopold

Conflicts, Contradictions & Conundrums

When discussing hunting ethics, the number of questions is limitless:

·     How far of a shot is ethical?

·     How much technology is acceptable, if any?

·     Is baiting ethical?

·     If baiting isn’t ethical, what’s the definition of baiting?

·     Is urban or suburban killing of nuisance animals hunting?

·     Is shooting an animal on a fenced game farm hunting?

These are just a few of the number of things that can come up when the topic of ethics and fair chase is discussed.  Eventually, I plan to post on all of these questions and more individually, but to open the discussion I want to point out the inevitable conflicts, contradictions and conundrums.  This isn’t exclusive to hunting, life is complicated.  As Thomas McIntyre writes in What the Hunter Knows, “The neohunter understands that the natural world, the real world, the realest world we can have in this life, is chock-full of conflicts and conundrums and that between the moment of our birth and that of death there are no absolute truths out there, at least none that we can claim full comprehension of, because this system we call the wild is forever changing, as all vital systems do. And so we are obliged always to be on our toes.”

As I’ve mentioned recently, we all want to be “back to nature” but we use modern technology like GPS map programs on our smart phones.  Some use more cutting-edge technology than that, but where do we draw the line?  What’s ethical?  What’s fair chase?  And conversely, those who are anti-technology out there shooting traditional bows, why didn’t you carve your own shafts and make your own arrowheads?  What about using an atlatl?  Why not go out in a loin cloth with nothing more than a rock and try to kill a wooly mammoth?  One extreme is fair chase but doesn’t make much sense in the 21st century, the other extreme is not fair chase, and quite frankly, in my opinion, not even hunting.  So we’re all stuck in the middle somewhere arguing over where the middle should be.

Again, this isn’t limited to hunting, it is something that permeates all of our culture.  I don’t want to get into politics or even anything that can be construed to be political outside of conservation issues, but I bet if you think hard enough you can come up with a handful of examples pretty easily.  We’re uncomfortable in these gray areas.  We like things to be simple, black and white.  We like our ethics to fit on a bumper sticker. Sorry, but that’s not reality.  

The difficult part is trying to live in between the two main veins of hunting philosophy: “all hunters should stand in solidarity, no matter what they do” and “what I do is better than what you do”.  I feel solidarity with other hunters, but I can also be a judgmental ass sometimes.  It’s difficult, but we need to discuss these things if we want to protect the future of hunting.  It is important to ask questions and to consider that just because things have always been done one way doesn’t mean it’s still the right way.  Sometimes a tradition still holds true, but sometimes it doesn’t.  Some things are obvious, some are less so, but the key is to be questioning things. Always be trying to do what’s right. Accept that sometimes you’ll be right, sometimes you’ll be wrong, and sometimes you’ll change your mind about what’s right and wrong.  

I know, easier said than done.  

Food Waste in America

According to the National Resource Defense Council (article from 2012), America wastes up to 40% of the food it produces. This number comes from all points from farm to table. It’s claimed that less than half of domestic beef is consumed by humans with the waste being dumped or fed back to the cows. I cannot say that hunters do not contribute to this as well. I admit that there have been times I’ve had business lunches for multiple days in a row and then ended up having to throw out leftovers at the end of the week. Also, I cannot (or rather will not) take home and reheat egg or fish leftovers if the portion size provided at a restaurant is too big (at home I simply only make what I will eat). 

However, hunters are far more likely to consume more parts of an animal and appreciate the meat, than non-hunting omnivores. We routinely eat organs, tongue, jowls, neck and other parts of an animal -- including caul fat. These all go into our freezer, or at the very least, are made into sausage. The parts of an animal used to make hot dogs that grosses everyone out? Yeah, we eat those happily. The idea that hunters kill animals, cut off their heads for the antlers and leave the body to rot is not only preposterous, it’s illegal. It’s called wanton waste and it’s against the law in all 50 states.

Overall, I think this tendency toward food waste, especially meat waste, occurs more and more because as time goes on, we become more and more disconnected from the Earth. All of us like to talk about how much we love the planet and how much we want to save it (or there are those who don’t want to open their eyes and realize we’re negatively impacting our planet). However, it’s not from the perspective of saving ourselves, it’s from the perspective of we’re above it all and we feel better about ourselves if we’re doing something. We feel good about ourselves because we eat organic, drive a Prius or we “rescued” a dog from the pound, and yet we waste food or buy a new house on the edge of town that used to be prime deer habitat, etc. We view ourselves as being separate from nature and above it all because we’re the most evolved. 

I’m a hypocrite, it’s damn near impossible to investigate every decision we make, nor are ideologues fun to be around. I’m not advocating for everyone to go without their HVAC or switch from automobiles to bicycles, but I am asking everyone to spend a little time thinking about how you waste resources. Go for a hike and don’t look at your phone. Halfway in, sit down, drink some water and listen. After about ten minutes you’ll hear a noise, you’ll think a moose or a bear is headed your way. You’ll realize it’s just a squirrel. There’s so much noise in our lives that once you tune it out, you’ll realize how much you’re missing every day. Once you spend time on their turf and on their terms, you develop a greater appreciation and respect for the animal and its habitat. You don’t have to anthropomorphize an animal in order to love it, but you do need to understand what it is in its own habitat – and zoos are not an animal’s native habitat.

Personally, I’m going to make some adjustments. If the menu at the restaurant doesn’t say how many eggs are in the dish, I’m going to ask. If I think I might get busy, I’m going to throw the leftovers in the freezer until I can get to them. Much like we placed laws on ourselves to end market hunting over 100 years ago for the betterment of wildlife, it’s time we reigned in our own behavior again.

Maybe there aren’t mountains of buffalo heads like there were in the 1870s, but there are mountains of food waste out there, we’re just not seeing it.