I was once vegan, and now fill my freezers with the spoils of our hunts. When people hear that I previously (attempted to) make my own tofu, and now proudly hang trophies throughout my house, they are usually dumbfounded. You, my dear reader, are likely having a similar reaction.
In this article, I hope to show you that my former and current lifestyles are far less contradictory than you might presume. Further, I will argue that despite our many differences, the time has come for those who profess to care deeply for the flora and fauna of this planet to band together on what common ground is shared rather than emphasizing and disputing the morals and ethics of our seemingly opposed world views. It is important to note that these are my own personal views and not those of any organization or group with which I am associated.
On the face of it, a trophy and meat hunter could not possess a more contrasting set of values than with the vegan. Vegans and hunters are viewed as irreconcilably opposed. What could they have to learn from one another? Before dissecting the nuances, let me begin with the story of the evolution of my ethics.
I was a typical university student: naive, passionate, and idealistic. When I first learned of the medical animal testing occurring on my campus, I was shocked. How could they do that here? Was I somehow complicit in it, and indirectly responsible? At the time, the Internet was a pretty new thing, but I managed to do some research and learn more about animal testing. I found my way to the website for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Within a couple of days of watching slaughterhouse footage and covert behind-the-scenes filming of battery hens and broiler chickens, I tried my first week of vegetarian living. During that week, I learned more about animal agriculture, or at least what PETA thought of it, and the environmental impact of industrial animal agriculture, something to which I had been previously entirely ignorant. Before too long, I decided that a vegan lifestyle was what my personal ethics demanded.
But what were my ethics? Growing up shielded from the harsh realities of life, whether poverty, hunger, or humanity’s tendency to prey upon itself, I was filled with idealism, but also with horror when I encountered a hard truth about life: things will die, and my very existence comes at a cost to the Earth. My reaction was to radically and suddenly change my life to reduce my personal impact. This was a significant time for me when I sought to bring my actions in-line with how I thought the world should be. I was a faithful recycler, but was there more that I could do to combat the ever-expanding, consumptive destruction of our planet? Going with the flow was easy, but I wanted to take more responsibility for my actions. If I was unwilling to kill those animals, and would not condone the industry that produces the meat, I was reluctant to consume them. A valuable lesson I learned through these vegan years was that it felt right to know what was important to me and to act in a way that was consistent with this morality. I also learned that I could offend people by shoveling vegan speaking points at them when they were enjoying their lunch.
When I confronted the supply chain of my food, I came to see two main problems: industrial meat production had no genuine consideration for the welfare of the millions and billions of creatures it consumed annually, and our planet was beginning to suffer under the weight of so many mouths to feed. It was my first experience with cognitive dissonance: I could not reconcile what I believed with my actions. I thought I was a person who cared deeply for the environment but learned I was complicit in many activities—industrial meat production most glaringly—that were harming the environment. Somehow I had believed the imagery on the milk carton, that these idyllic farms supplied our food. It was a trying time for me, as I began to see the world a little more for what it was, and for those around me who had to listen to my whining and proselytizing. Naturally, various inconsistencies between my stated position and my actions (“But what about your leather belt?”) arose, and as a younger person, these were difficult to reconcile. Touché.
I became vegan in Victoria, British Columbia, a town where a person can grow vegetables 10 months per year and which is close (in Canadian terms) to the agricultural areas of British Columbia, California and Mexico. It is safe to say that Victoria is known for the idealism of its university students. A couple of years later I moved to Whitehorse, Yukon, a northern town far, far away from the agricultural fields that supply so much of Canada with its vegetables and fruit. My vegan life was starting to come apart at the seams. My nutrition was showing cracks as my iron levels were low, and I began to look unhealthy. Here, the environmental case for a meatless diet was less intuitive: beyond beets, carrots and cabbage, there was not much commercial agriculture in the Yukon. Almost everything we could buy at the grocery came from a far-off land.
It was in the Yukon that the second landmark moment of cognitive dissonance occurred. I was eating dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house. More accurately, I was not eating dinner. My uncle had harvested a moose and spaghetti with meatballs was on the menu. But vegans do not eat moose, so I had organic lettuce with some other low-calorie, high-impact greenery from far away. As I write this 15 years later, I can still feel the scaffolding of my ethics tremble and groan as this new information shook my reality. Their plates were graced by a huge animal harvested by a team of friends, butchered and fed to the family, grown of this very land where we lived. And then there was mine: lettuce cajoled into being by an industrial machine, organic or not, shipped thousands of miles by truck, and somehow kept “alive” long enough to be consumed. In the days and weeks that followed, I could not reconcile what I had seen and felt. Ultimately, I left veganism behind as I saw it to be an incomplete set of ethics that made some sense to me in an urban world separated from the natural world, but overall failed to accommodate my new northern reality. Veganism was no longer what I needed.
Fast-forwarding a decade or so, I found myself back in the Yukon, living in a small aboriginal village. I was no longer a vegan, and there were no vegans to be seen. These were people who live as their ancestors had: harvesting moose, trapping and fishing. One of my first experiences in this place was to help a trapper skin wolves. It was a new experience and was consistent with my values of aspiring to live from what the local forests could provide, and with my nostalgia for the old ways. The idealism of my youth was alive and kicking, but it was expanding to accommodate a decade of life experience. I had travelled the world and seen how different people live different stories. It was not long before I witnessed my first moose harvest and felt, in my bones, the dichotomy we hunters know so well.
Since that time, I have harvested moose, bear, sheep, caribou, bison, goat, coyote and wolf. My bride wore a coyote pelt to our wedding, and I have a surprising amount of horn on the walls of our small house, good trophies among them. We have three freezers. My young daughter has been nourished from the bounty of the Yukon since her conception and grows strong from moose and sheep meat, and even some carefully prepared grizzly and black bear sausage. My meat grinder and butchering knives are among my most prized possessions. Every day of the week, I eat what this land provides. I buy local vegetables, grow a modest garden in our backyard, and pass by the meat coolers at the grocery store without pause. I spend my money lower on the food chain, acquiring much of my nutrition indirectly via the meat of ungulates that feed off the grasses, lichens and willows of the Yukon.
Hunters now consistently deliver the message that “to be a hunter is to be a conservationist,” as the reality that hunter groups contribute massive sums of money, energy and volunteer time to the stewardship of game species and their habitats has gone under-reported for far too long. With our passion seen increasingly like an anachronism, an old habit from a time and place long ago, and with hunter numbers declining and the average age steadily rising, we must be proactive. I do not disagree with the conservation messaging. However, I believe that the traditional hunter-as-conservationist approach does not go far enough, even for the protection of the hunter’s way of life.
Vegans and many hard-core environmentalists are concerned for the welfare of individual animals and for the environment. Broadly speaking, they condemn industrial animal husbandry as cruel with severely negative environmental impacts. Water consumption and pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and impacts to wildlife all make their list of concerns, and frankly, these are not up for debate. Countless analyses of the impacts of animal agriculture-based diets show definitively that the impacts are much, much higher than a vegetarian diet.
Many hunters will claim to agree that the environment, broadly speaking, is worth protecting. Yet when we look closely, beyond a membership with a conservation group and wild meat in the freezer, the actual lifestyles of modern hunters may differ little from everyone else. We fly, consume, consume, consume, and participate fully in the modern economy that is largely ignorant to its full environmental burden. I humbly suggest that the traditional conservation-minded hunter could expand his or her ethics beyond the concern for game species, and take a page from the more general environmentalist. We can learn from the vegan and environmentalist by supporting broader environmental goals. Will we leave a better planet for our children than we received? What are the chances that there will be more game in 50 years than now if the planet warms considerably? We may save a dozen sheep here and 20 lions there, but if the ever-worsening trend continues, these token efforts will be swamped. While we have experienced some small victories, these days, it is trivially easy to find some very bad news about where we are headed environmentally and about the general habitability of this blue sphere. Thus, should we continue down the path we are on?
Those who hunt do so for as many reasons as there are hunters. There are many who speak to the health benefits of “the best protein on the planet” and appreciate “knowing where our food comes from,” and they are on the same track as I am, even if they do not do their best to eat as a vegetarian in restaurants or purchase as a vegetarian at the grocery store. Most hunters possess a grave concern for the wellbeing of the animal populations they hunt, as well as a broader concern for the wild spaces and ecosystems that sustain their quarry. What I think is missing in the dialogue is the consideration of the indirect impacts on wildlife of our overall lifestyles. For example, is the destruction of caribou habitat in British Columbia, and the extirpation of this majestic animal, due solely to local industrial development, or is it more fundamentally a question of the very nature of the modern economy in which we are active participants? Are the tools of the conservationist simply the gun and bow, or do we need to widen our repertoire of tools?
What has changed since our forefathers helped found the modern era of selective hunting, National Parks and a system supported by hunter-conservationists are the widespread human impacts on the global biosphere. No longer are our most significant impacts whaling, the slaughter of buffalo or deforestation. It is now accepted that we are in the Anthropocene epoch, where human effects on the biosphere are so massive, so widespread, and so enduring, that we have begun altering the very climate of the planet. Not only are we at risk of destroying our game species, but the habitability of the entire planet for our own species.
It was once believed that marine fish stocks were endless. We now know better. Rather than merely over-harvesting a species, which is something we can manage with population transplants and the regulation of sport hunting, we are causing shifts in vegetation, disrupting hydrological and climate regimes, and kick-starting the migration of species into new areas (such as ticks) and the extirpation of other species from traditional ranges. Here in the Yukon, there is concern that climate changes could see the treeline rise higher, altering important sheep habitat. It is time for a new generation of hunting pioneers to lead us to a better future. But how?
Can we expand our concept of “self” beyond ourselves as individuals and our families? Do our feelings of responsibility to our hunting grounds not extend to our entire countries and ultimately to the Earth?
I see the degradation of our waterways, the expansion of developed areas and the impacts of climate change as threats to not just me as a human being but also to me as a hunter. Paradoxically, it is my self-interested wishes that have expanded my ethics. How can I help my daughter harvest a ram when climate change has allowed the treeline to swallow their ranges? Perhaps the main difference between my ethics and those of many hunters is that I would prefer to drive less, and forgo the beef steak so I can continue to enjoy the natural world as I have come to know it.
While more expensive flights and a lentil curry for dinner are (arguably) an inconvenience, we cannot deny that our actions as a society are creating effects that are existential in nature for the species we love. Changes in wildfire prevalence and severity, vegetation and hydrological regimes have become the exception, not the norm. Shopping as a vegetarian is a powerful way to reduce our individual environmental impacts. To some of you, this may ring of sacrilege, but if we are to demand that the vegetarian and environmental community understand and respect us, should we not demand the same of ourselves?
This may mean giving up certain conveniences and pleasures, I agree. Frankly, we already live with a standard of living that would be unimaginable to our own relations only a few generations ago. Can we not make choices now that will benefit our children and theirs? How can we call ourselves conservationists if we fail to recognize the broad environmental impacts of our behaviors that could be the death knell for much of what we hold dear? It will no longer be a question of whether we can enjoy the wilderness, but whether there remains wilderness at all.
I frequently have people laugh as they tell me how much I have changed, and what a difference it is to go from being vegan to a hunter. It is true, a cursory look at my story is rather comical. But I see it differently. In my university years, I attempted to live in-line with my ethics and values, to take responsibility for what I did and ate. I am proud of the courage I summoned to stand apart to live a conscious life. While I now see the world with more nuance and humility, and frankly less militancy, I have the same fundamental ethics. I care about the Earth and do my best to avoid supporting industries I believe are killing it. I will be the first to admit that I do not have all the answers and that my own hypocrisy is substantial. However, now is not the time for blame, or failure to act simply because the way forward is uncertain.
Just as my ethics have evolved to closer match my reality, I believe that the modern hunter should also evolve. As circumstances change, so do norms and ethics. If we are true conservationists, we should find common ground with all those who can help us to make a better future.
Hunters have been stewards of the land and their quarry since the beginning of time in ways that no vegan can lay claim to. We bring an intimacy with the landscape that no hipster can photograph or fathom. This planet needs every advocate and requires a transformation of society that hunters alone cannot bring about. For this reason, finding the common interests is more important than getting hung up on any specific moral disagreement. This of course, flows both ways, and I certainly am not suggesting that the vegan or environmental community does not need to shoulder its fair share of the load.
I believe that now is a time for all of us, hunters and non-hunters alike, to revive and expand our tradition of stewardship in the interests of ourselves, future generations, and the animals we hunt. It is up to us to share our unique passion for nature with society at large, to the extent we can. This must occur through conversations, through our good examples of stewardship, conservation and concern, and through whatever media we can use, such as this magazine, social media, or film. Communicating the emotional value of a hunt is a powerful tool. I am striving to raise a child who needs the wilderness. Even if she does not live in the wild every day, I hope she will have the need to know it is there, and therefore have a passion for defending it.
Just as an individual can benefit from exposure to the inner workings of others through fiction, or the small-towner can benefit from that first vacation to Europe, non-hunters will grow through their understanding of the stories we hunters tell. Equally, we must remain open to the truths these others can share with us. While we may disagree on the path, hunters and environmentalists all wish to see the land rich with game. This is a common belief worth acknowledging and celebrating. Regardless of our differences, this Blue Planet of ours begs that hunters and non-hunters alike unite in the development and practice of a modern ethic that faces the harsh truths of our time.
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