Does hunting make us human? No, there are lots of other hunters on this planet, a good number of them as clever as we are. They just lack some of our helpful bonus features, such as opposable thumbs.
One could argue that the way we hunt is uniquely human, and I wouldn’t disagree. I just think hunting does something far more important: It reminds us we, too, are animals, just one of many interrelated species in the complex, beautiful and amoral organism we call Earth.
The problem is we’ve willfully forgotten that.
Ten thousand years of agriculture-fed civilization have been marked by ever-increasing self-congratulation about our cleverness and superiority over all other life on Earth. We celebrate our technological achievements with joyous disregard for their impacts on the world around us, poisoning the air, the water, and our own bodies.
We cheer when a new advance mitigates the damage of our old achievements, all too happy to ignore the new costs. Ever look at the hazardous materials used to make solar panels?
We wax grateful about advances in modern medicine, rarely stopping to question how many of them we would need if it weren’t for the self-inflicted wounds of modern living— rampant diabetes, land mines, car accidents.
Admittedly, I am an accomplice to these crimes against the planet and our bodies. I have a computer, a tablet, and a smart phone. I drive a car to work. And while I do skimp on water (I live in semi-arid California), I help myself to all the electricity I need to keep my home a comfortable temperature in hot Sacramento summers.
Make no mistake: I am well aware that I’m deeply ensconced in my own sphere of misanthropy. But I reserve the right to snarl when fellow humans proclaim that the answers to every problem we’ve created are just around the synaptic corner.
I came to hunting late in life, at the age of forty-one, and I hunt voraciously now, trying to make up for lost time. But it was actually a great gift to enter the hunting world as an already fully sentient being. I took no sensation, no emotion, no discovery for granted. I passed on no opportunity to explore this new world, devouring books about hunting in search of truths that might resonate with what I was feeling. I started a blog about hunting and I engaged in great and lengthy discussions with my readers about what we do and why we do it.
The shortest way to describe why I love hunting is that it connects me to nature, but that’s clumsy and simplistic, inviting a trite retort: “Can’t you connect with nature without killing it?”
Well, yes, actually, because most of the time I’m not successful, and I still feel connected.
To fend off yet another attack, allow me to admit that my hunting, at a distance, bears little resemblance to the low-tech affair our hunter-gatherer ancestors engaged in for millennia before someone got the brilliant idea to leave Eden.
But there is no denying that hunting, regardless of the accoutrements, is about observing what’s around you, looking for opportunity (the animal who makes a mistake), using the means at your disposal to kill that animal, then eating its flesh. It is that simple fact that reminds me I have something in common—a connection—with all the other predators out there.
We used to know this. We used to understand the animals of earth, sky, and water were kin. Yes, they’re food (as are we), but they are all inherently worthy of respect.
When you hunt, you usually have ample opportunity—if you’re well hidden—to observe the behavior of lots of wild animals. It is impossible not to relate to what might be going through their minds, whether it’s bucks in rut (high school, anyone?) or a bird chastising its mate (ah, marital bliss).
And when you hunt, you discover that most wild animals are actually pretty smart. They know far more about their environment than most of us do, and their wariness has thwarted many a hunter. You know most of the wild predators are better hunters than you are, and it makes you want to be as smart and skilled as they are.
That’s enough to win most hunters’ respect, but for me it wins more: envy. When you start watching animals closely, you see how much time they spend resting, playing, and sleeping. At first these seem like signs of sloth. No wonder they don’t have smart phones—they’re just not industrious!
Then you look at what industriousness has done for us. Humans are what’s known as a very plastic species, highly adaptable. We have our sweet spots of living—small groups of hunter-gatherers in temperate climates—but we are capable of living in extreme climates, mega-cities and even space. We’re also capable of working extremely long hours under high-stress conditions, which is the kind of behavior that drives all our miraculous advances.
But living so far outside the sweet spot comes at a cost. At any given time in America, one-fourth of all adults are suffering from some sort of mental illness, primarily depression, but also anxiety and a host of other conditions. Do you really think that’s natural or normal in anything but a zoo population? I wonder how that number would change if we all spent more time sleeping, relaxing and playing. Actually, I don’t wonder. It’s obvious.
So why do so many people think animals are stupid?
I have a theory: In our society, the animals most people have contact with are pets or farm animals, and either way, they are slaves or dependents, stripped of their survival skills because we take care of them, to one degree or another. The very nature of that relationship stifles our respect for them. And besides, if they were as smart and worthy as we are, they’d have iPads too, right?
The irony is that this disrespect for animals actually reaches great heights in political veganism, which seeks to abolish our use of animals for any reason, but especially killing them for meat. We ask these people, “If animals eat other animals, why is it wrong that we eat animals?”
“Because we’ve evolved to know better.”
Really. All those poor animals are too stupid to comprehend that Earth’s biology is wrong, huh?
How condescending! And misguided.
There is another irony in this analysis: When you hunt long enough, you will realize we, too, are slaves and dependents, most of us stripped of the skills we need to survive without being propped up by the complex gadgets and systems we’ve developed. We’re just so dazzled by our inventiveness that we don’t see it. Angry Birds, anyone?
Hunting brings us back to the basic reality of how life was meant to be lived.
It reinserts us—ever so briefly—into the sweet spot of our existence, where we are among kin in feather and fur who have managed to thrive for millennia without all the trinkets of modern human existence.
And while most of us don’t have the guts (and more practically, the habitat) to cast off modern living for good, we know where we are when we’re hunting.