Yesterday I signed up for my hunter safety class, a prerequisite for a Massachusetts hunting license. Once I learn how to be safe, I’m going to have to learn how to handle a gun; the authorities want to make sure you can do that, too. But the state’s got nothing to say about what you really need in order to hunt – the willingness to shoot a real, live animal. I’m working up to it.
I find that living in the woods is changing my relationship to living creatures. When you live in the city, there are three major categories of animals: the kind you pay to see in the zoo, the kind that make too much noise in the apartment next door, and cockroaches. There are also rats, pigeons, and those little eely things you find in the bathtub, but I include those in the “cockroach” category, Linnaeus be damned.
Out here in the sticks, animals also break down into categories, but they are entirely different categories. There are the animals you want to eat, the animals you want to prevent from eating what you want to eat, and the animals that present a clear threat to your way of life. There’s a lot more us-vs.-them out here.
My first brush with this new taxonomy came last summer, with rabbits. When we first moved here, I was delighted to find we had nice furry bunnies on our land, and I always watched for them when I went to get the paper in the morning. My feelings did an about-face the morning I found one of them in my garden, nibbling at the cabbages. All of a sudden, I had no qualms about sending Thumper to the great bunny hutch in the sky.
Actually, that’s not quite true. I had fewer qualms. What I had no qualms about was letting Kevin send Thumper to the great bunny hutch in the sky – and from there to the ten-quart stewpot in the basement.
Coyotes are more problematic. You can’t eat them (can you?), but their nighttime howling, sometimes accompanied by frantic yelping, and then silence, is what stands between us and our livestock plans. But even if killing them were the solution, and it probably isn’t because there are just too many of them, I’m not sure I could bring myself to do it.
I’d have an easier time with deer, even though they’re way cuter than coyotes, simply because they’re delicious, and I understand that population control is necessary for human/deer coexistence. Sorry, Bambi.
Then there are the animals that are a threat to your way of life. By which I mean grizzly bears, rogue elephants, and woodpeckers. Woodpeckers especially. You can’t eat them, and they don’t eat what you can eat, but the little peckerheads seem to like nothing better than indulging their perverse avian compulsion for drilling holes in your house. Watch yourself, Woody.
Even before I realized that lots of my furred and feathered friends were out to get me, I had no ethical problem with killing animals, either the kind we raise or the kind we hunt. (I even wrote a Washington Post op-ed about the problems with vegetarianism.) I feel strongly that we owe animals a decent life, and I don’t buy factory pork or chicken, but I don’t think killing an animal for food is wrong on its face. Keeping an animal locked in a tiny cage, miserable, is a much more serious affront to its well-being than giving it a humane death.
Wild animals face grisly ends in many guises, from starvation to predation. As fates go, a clean shot by a hunter is probably one of the better options. And the calculus we use for humans, of the years that an early death denies us, doesn’t apply to animals that have no sense of death or the prospect of a life not lived.
My qualms aren’t ethical, they’re visceral, born of squeamishness and cowardice, and I have never been inclined to hunt because I’ve found that ideas about ethics are no match for feelings like squeamishness and cowardice. But, if I’m going to eat hunted animals, I think I should come face-to-face with my dinner on the hoof, or the paw, or the foot – at least once. Reasoning your way clear to shooting a living, breathing creature, though, is a losing proposition. You have to be convinced at a gut level and, try as it might, my brain can’t seem to communicate with my gut.
Thumper in the cabbages, though – now that’s something my gut understands.