Philosophy part 4: The Morality of Killing

After reading parts 1-3 I hope everyone (hunters, non-hunters, and anti-hunters) realize that I’ve given my pursuit quite a bit of consideration.

  • I have very good reasons for wanting to get high quality meat unavailable from our industrial meat growing and slaughtering operations.
  • Likewise, I have seen that an arrow can produce a far more peaceful death than a bullet.
  • Finally, I am very selective about what species I even endeavor to pursue based on ecological and ethical reasons.

In this post I want to talk about the act of killing itself. I have killed countless mosquitoes. I have on a few occasions accidentally run over squirrels.  I bought a nice leather jacket once. Years ago I purchased a good amount of meat at the grocery store or local butcher’s shop. All of those things boil down to killing. What’s worse, it’s the type of killing that almost nobody really thinks about.

When I go hunting I make a very conscious choice to go way out of my way to try to kill an animal. I think it’s good that the direct effect of being “successful” is front and center in one’s mind as they lace up their hunting boots. When I kill a specific animal I’d say my feelings are split between gratitude for all nutritional benefit I will receive, and remorse that a wild animal died so I could get it. I’ve never seen anyone shed a tear buying a steak wrapped in cellophane, but maybe they should.

I’ve studied the teachings of the Buddha, and I can clearly understand the philosophy behind not killing anything including insects. I think it’s admirable that some people can live with this level of consciousness. The main takeaway I have from these studies is the idea of “wholly good.” It could be looked at this way: If I kill a pig and eat it, it is not wholly good. It was clearly bad for the pig, and even though I received nutritional benefit, I had to kill the animal so that was not entirely good for me either.

This is wonderful when you are sitting on a pillow and considering the way that people get their food in first world counties today. Where it starts to get tricky is when you are looking at a male black bear and considering it might kill a dozen cubs per year. It doesn’t seem to me that letting that bruiser walk is really doing a favor to their herd or the ecosystem. Killing that bear is actually beneficial for everyone but that individual bear.

As a hunter out in nature, you are faced with many questions about what you should kill and what you should let pass. One example from a couple months ago; I had a coyote right in front of me in Wyoming on the opening day of pronghorn season. Ranchers (especially sheep ranchers) would consider it a great kindness for a hunter to kill all of them that they could. Moreover getting it and it’s smell away from the animals it was spooking (the ones I wanted to hunt) would have helped me too. Alas, I never even considered shooting him. I took a few comical pictures of him dancing around a waterhole with a doe pronghorn and I’ll cherish that memory forever.

I just got back from a week long hog hunt, and when I say hog I really mean to say feral pig. A very destructive animal planted in the new world to be a source of protein for the people who would inhabit this land in the future. In essence, a “put and take fishery” except for pigs. One day I had an immature sow, maybe 75 pounds within 5 yards of me. Why would I do harm to an animal that hasn’t even begun to participate in the cycle of life? A pig twice that size would yield much more meat meaning that I could kill half as much and still eat just the same. A few days before I had a male boar just coming into his prime walk in very close to me. He was asserting himself as a alpha boar by marking out his territory, but he lacked any nicks in his ears, or deep scars on his sides common with older boars. He has all the structure to support the heavy shields that will develop with time, and the heavy layer of fat that will come as well. He’s just still a little trim, I’m guessing around 250 pounds. He walked straight into my shooting lane at 10 yards and stood broadside. My bow was ready, and I could have easily taken a shot. So why didn’t I? Because he is just coming into his prime. He might have mated a few sows already, but the gene pool hasn’t been significantly diversified since the passing of the old alpha boar that has been running that swamp since 2009. If he lives a few years more it will be great for the herd.

When a hunter has a weapon in their hand they have a great deal to consider before they ever get to the point of trying to find a shot. To me this is a process of trying to rule out a shot instead of trying to find a way to justify it. If I can disqualify an entire animal for some ecological or “health of the herd” reason, that makes things much easier. Last spring I had a big group of mature hogs come marauding into my stand one evening. There were 13 hogs in total, and since no animal was off-limits for either of the reasons above I quickly settled down to the two I would take a shot on if presented. The oldest, biggest sow would produce the highest yield of meat. She was also wise and held back in the bushes for a long time after her offspring came browsing in. The other was the smallest male, about 150 pounds. It would be a great size to eat, and given the number of larger boars present I knew he had little chance of being part of the gene pool for the foreseeable future. Neither of those two hogs presented a clean shot opportunity, and so I let them all continue on their way.

I hope this helps folks who do not hunt to understand what many of us hunters go through before we ever decide to try to take an animal while afield. For many of us it’s much more involved than what the hunting television shows would have you believe. For a little deeper look into some of the emotions I experience while afield, I would invite you to read another hunting story I wrote a while back.