Food Ethics and Why I Hunt

Food ethics and why I hunt

So, I’m a hunter—and that means I’m a killer. I end the lives of wild animals to consume them. For a human, being a killer is a pretty common thing to be, at least from a historical standpoint. But, today killing—especially direct killing—seems to arouse a host of emotional reactions in people. Some find it admirable that I kill and consume my own food. Some seem to find it a little distasteful, though being too polite, they’ll never really communicate this distaste. And some others are quite extreme and open in their disapproval: the willingly chosen blood on my hands causes them to respond with vitriol, to disparage the act of direct killing and those who take part in it—namely me.

But when I kill, I do it for a purpose. I kill because it is a more ethical way to live. As contradictory as that may sound on the face of it, it’s true.


Before I became a hunter, I was actually a vegan. Yeah, I know, it seems like a weird move to make. After reading the rest of this post, however, you will hopefully understand why I believe that veganism and conscientious hunting actually share many of the same food ethics foundations. That most vegans and hunters have a spiteful relationship—to put it mildly—somewhat bemuses me, given my path into hunting. In this post, I distill food ethics, highlighting that vegans and hunters may be much closer ideological bedfellows than either group might like to admit.

Let’s start with why I transitioned from being a normal, eat-whatever-comes-your-way meat-eater to a vegetarian, from a vegetarian to a vegan, and from a vegan to a hunter. This food-related evolution highlights all the major themes in the ethics of food.

I grew up in the Midwest, and at the time there really wasn’t any notion of ‘local food’, ‘sustainability’, or ‘animal welfare’ that my family or any of my friends’ families were aware of. We ate whatever was convenient and tasty. And that’s how most of America still eats.

When I went away to college, things like ‘the environment’ started to enter my consciousness a bit more. I read a handful of books on environmental issues, decided they were particularly interesting to me—given my new-found enjoyment of the outdoors—and decided to do a major on the topic. Through my coursework, I began to be exposed to some of the environmental ills associated with the large-scale production and consumption of animals. I learned that animal waste all too commonly finds its way into water drainages, leading to excess nutrients in the water, giant blooms of toxic algae, and ultimately the depletion of oxygen from the water and massive wildlife die offs (see here). I learned that belching from the rumen of cattle produces substantial amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas (here). And I learned that the mass application of antibiotics to animals in these settings risked the development of antibiotic resistant supergerms (Science). In short, I learned that a lot of practices associated with raising the numbers of animals required to sate our voracious collective taste for meat led to direct environmental harm.

So, I decided to eat less meat at first. Then I decided to eat only white meat—chicken and turkey—and fish. Then I decided to forgo meat and fish all together and become a vegetarian. The process of becoming a full vegetarian took a couple of years from my first concern about meat to forgoing it all together. I was a vegetarian for nearly five years.

Then I became a vegan. Now that I look back on it, being a vegan and not a vegetarian made so much logical sense it’s amazing that I didn’t do it sooner. And then I remember… I just couldn’t give up cheese. Vegetarians get to enjoy some of the guilty little pleasures of life—like cheese and ice cream—that vegans forego for the sake of internal consistency. I’m a lover of consistency, so eventually I decided to give up all animal products and transition to a fully vegan diet. Doing so really wasn’t too terribly difficult practically—just stop buying those things at the grocery store. Giving up cheese was harder, but I did it.

Why do I think that veganism is more internally consistent than vegetarianism, and why did I transition to it? Well, as I see it there are three main reasons for anyone to choose a conscientious approach to the consumption of meat: environment, health, and animal welfare. If someone decides to become a vegetarian for environmental reasons, as I did, they’re left with the reality that their consumption of dairy and egg products still causes large-scale environmental degradation. Lots of chickens have to be fed to produce the amounts of eggs we consume, and those chickens do lots of pooping. Whole hordes of dairy cattle sit belching from their rumens to produce the beloved milk that makes the cheese vegetarians so enjoy. In short, while being a vegetarian is better, there’s still a lot of room for improvement on the environmental front.

On the health front, if one is concerned about the potential health effects of animal products, dairy and eggs should be just as concerning as meat. I, for one, am mildly concerned about the possible health effects of the antibiotics and hormones used in rearing the animals and am not concerned in the slightest about the direct health effects of dairy (saturated fat) or eggs (cholesterol), but that’s a topic for another blog post.

And on the animal welfare front, it’s really a bit hard to argue that a diet including dairy and eggs from normal sources doesn’t induce a substantial amount of animal suffering. All one needs to do is look at a hidden camera shot within a dairy or egg farm to make that connection crystal clear.1

Veganism, then, was the ideal choice to satisfy my concerns about the environment, animal welfare, and (to a lesser extent) health. I was a vegan for a bit over a year (except on my research travels to Africa, where such food preferences would border on the edge of insanity for a variety of reasons). But, though there are many vegans who will argue the opposite is true for them, after giving up animal proteins for almost a year, I started to miss them. I don’t mean ‘miss them’ in the sense of yearning for them in a romantic ‘wouldn’t it be nice to have a sharp cheddar with this wine’ sort of way. It was more like: ‘damn, I really feel like I need some animal protein in my diet… something feels off’. On all accounts, I had enough protein and micro and macro-nutrients in my diet. I was sleeping enough, working out, basically doing what I always have done. But I was feeling less energetic and had very common cravings for meat. I didn’t really yearn for the taste of meat, even, but the physical consumption of it.2

So, I decided to try to find a way to satisfy my wish for semi-regular meat consumption with my environmental and animal welfare concerns. I could find local farmers who raise their own animals humanely, organically, and thoughtfully and buy from them. And, I did and still do that. I get chickens from a local farmer that pastures them and eggs from another local farmer that has chickens effectively as her de-facto pets. This method minimized the environmental impact and animal suffering of my animal consumption, but it still left me one step removed from the process. While I do trust that the local farmers are doing all that they say they are, I can never really be sure. Moreover, I still felt detached from the process. Couldn’t I more directly procure my animal products?

One option would be to raise animals myself. But, given that I live in a city-center, that’s not really an option for me right now. Another option: go out onto wild lands and hunt for animals to eat. Those animals are guaranteed to have lived as ‘free range’ of a lifestyle as is possible for them, to be organically fed (as long as they aren’t eating crops from chemically intensive farms), and to have lived a life free from human-induced suffering. The more I thought about the option, the more I liked it. I decided to go for it. The difficulty of learning how to hunt from scratch was something that inspired me to write this blog, and that topic is fuel for a whole other series of posts.

Food ethics and why I hunt.

Jackrabbit makes for very tasty wild-game when prepared correctly.

In short, I chose to hunt because I care about the impact of my consumption on the environment and upon animal welfare. I hunt because I chose to be a conscientious consumer of meat. I think this process of ethical discernment hasn’t left too many holes through which I can be assailed as ‘unethical’ in my chosen method of procuring my food. Yet not everyone shares this view.

The arguments from the first group of naysayers are probably the easiest to discredit. These are the people who eat meat from factory farms but don’t like the idea of killing, especially of killing beautiful wild animals. I don’t want to make a straw man of their arguments, so while many of their negative responses amount to nothing more than ‘how could you kill that beautiful animal!’ while chomping down on a lamb burger (I think lambs are very beautiful animals), I’ll pick what I think to be often considered as the strongest in this camp: ‘The act of killing other animals is brutal, and doing so should be avoided.’

For any readers that have not themselves killed an animal, there is no easy way to put it: killing is indeed brutal. The process involves the taking of life from the animal, watching their animation pass into non-existence. If you’re truly tuned in, it’s a sorrowful process to see, one that is often joined for hunters with countervailing emotions like excitement and elation at success, which are coterminous with but unrelated to the sadness of death. Killing an animal provides a whirlwind of myriad complex feelings and emotions for the thoughtful hunter. It’s brutal.

Food ethics and why I hunt.

Rattlesnake makes for another tasty meal.

But yet, most people who make this argument about killing being brutal are really tacitly making the argument that the killer becomes brutalized by the process of killing. And the thing is, nothing in this process of thoughtfully hunting and killing an animal is brutalizing. What is truly brutalizing is to induce the suffering and death of a beautiful animal and to be so distant from that process that the only emotions related to the consumption of meat from that animal are one of mild appreciation for the taste of the well-cooked lamb burger. The pain of seeing the life of the lamb slip away, of seeing the conditions of the animal prior to its death, and of the loss of the beauty that lamb provided is most often entirely lost on the person who is not directly involved in the killing. I’d argue that this is about as brutalizing as consumption of animal products can be.3

I really am not a fan of factory farmed meat lovers’ arguments against hunting. I’ve yet to see one that can hold water, and there are many that hold even less water than this representative argument example.

The substance from the above critique applies solidly to the second group of common naysayers—vegetarians—as well. Anyone who eats factory farmed dairy or eggs is indirectly causing the death of animals (from sickness, poor conditions, past productive age) and are is many instances causing conditions that induce animal suffering. Criticizing responsible hunters will almost certainly result in hypocrisy on the vegetarian’s part.4

On the other hand, the third group of naysayers—vegans—have one (and pretty much only one) very consistent argument against hunters: hunters kill animals and that is wrong. If you buy the argument that causing the death of animals is wrong and you avoid pretty much all way of doing so yourself, then claiming that hunters are wrong is a pretty consistent thing to do. I personally don’t think that causing the death of an animal for the purposes of consuming its resources is wrong, as long as efforts are made to ensure that death is relatively free of suffering. But, some people do believe this and act accordingly; their criticism of hunting and hunters is warranted. Unfortunately, vegans don’t just stick to this one argument. Like other opposition groups, they often make arguments that are not just related to animal death. The vast majority (all?) of these ancillary arguments are inconsistent or logically flawed in some other way. Many of the arguments amount to little more than character assassination.

In sum, unless you are a strict vegan, you should really, really reconsider before you openly or tacitly disparage hunting or hunters in general.5 You’ll almost assuredly end up being a hypocrite. If you are a strict vegan, I welcome your opposition, as long as it relates pretty much solely to animal death. Just remember that not everyone shares that ethical preference, especially once you strip away the suffering part. On the issues of environment, animal suffering, and human health hunters and vegans are much closer than either group would probably like to admit.

I hunt because it’s the best blend of my ethical code and my preference to have animal products in my diet. If you don’t hunt, why not? If you do hunt, how do you think about these issues?


  1. If you aren’t concerned about animal suffering, but would be concerned about the suffering of a severely mentally disabled person, you should definitely read Peter Singer’s argument (wiki link). It’s hard to argue that he isn’t right… in my book his argument is a sound one. However, his argument is about minimizing animal suffering, not that animals have a right to life, per say. 
  2. Though don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy the taste of well cooked meat! 
  3. There is some evidence to support that those who have to do the dirty work for the lover of lamb burgers, the slaughterhouse workers, can be desensitized to suffering and in some ways brutalized. This makes great sense to me; to protect my emotional state as a slaughterhouse worker I would have to care less about the animals. But, I’d argue that slaughterhouse worker jobs are created by the demand for factory farmed meat and are just another brutalizing effect associated with that lamb burger. 
  4. A little considered fact is that in order for dairy cows to produce their milk, they must be continually impregnated. Some of the calves are female, and can then contribute to producing more milk. However, fifty percent of calves are male. These are then sent to the slaughter in one way or another. If you consume dairy, you send cows to the slaughter… no two ways about it link
  5. As in any large group of people, there are hunters that are inconsiderate, thoughtless, and mean. They give hunting and other hunters a bad name and should certainly be criticized for their anti-social anti-environmental ways. However, these hunters are in the extreme minority. Almost all hunters are of the thoughtful, food gathering type that typify what hunting is and should be all about. 

6 Comments

  1. Nick, you said ‘please share your thoughts’ … so I’m sharing my thoughts. I understand the crux of your commentary and your sincerity, because I’ve heard countless similar arguments. But I have a much different perspective owing my experience. The idea that hunters and vegans are close philosophically works only if your primary focus is on ecological damage — and if you’re talking about the small percentage of hunters for whom ecological balance is the driving force behind their recreation. Even then, the idea that our entire U.S. population, let alone the global population, could hunt in a way that’s not totally destructive to our wildlife and wild lands is simply not viable.

    Furthermore, the percentage of hunters who hunt for the reasons you took it up, is a fraction of the larger whole of the hunting community, many of whom show no interest whatsoever in environmentalism — and who are often abjectly anti-ecology for its association with liberal ideals.

    In other respects, veganism as a philosophy, and hunting as a practice share little, at least in terms of ethical understandings and beliefs toward other species. I noticed in your piece that you make little reference to your personal or emotional connection with wild animals prior to taking up hunting. By contrast, many vegans arrive at the lifestyle changes precisely because they have a deep connection with and empathy for animals.

    I speak as one with some experience across these practices — veganism, former wildlife rehabilitator, and witness to more hunting practices and events than I wish I’d ever experienced in my life.

    The singular idea that hunters only take what they need and do it quickly, does tend to appeal to non-hunters or new hunters as justification, even if that’s often not how it all goes down in the field. I used to believe this myself about hunting. You shoot one deer, her death feeds you for a year, and its preferable to factory farming. For this reason, as a young vegan, I used to credit hunters with at least walking their talk. Until, that is, I began spending much time in the field, seeing incident after incident that, sadly, defied all of the perceptions I had in my youth.

    This awareness led a greater understanding for how wildlife management as a whole operates in this country. And you learn that hunting is just one part of a much bigger and often unjustifiable system of wildlife culling for sport and revenue. It is difficult to embrace a practice that in its entirety, entails so much suffering for wild animals. The system as a whole is actually not unlike commercial agriculture, in the way white tail deer populations are manipulated for hunting (as one example), predators are killed to preserve numbers of ungulates, fur-bearing animals are trapped for commercial sales, animals are ranched for hunting preserves and does are farmed for the scents then marketed to buck hunters, birds like pigeons and quail are raised to train dogs as hunting tools. The list goes on. Hunting, again, as a business and a system shares an underlying utilitarian view of other species, in common with all exploitation of animals. That’s something you simply can’t say about veganism.

    In one of your posts, you talk about the habituation of deer in my home turf of the Bay Area, where they are protected. I photograph wildlife and am acutely aware of behavioral changes where animals are hunted. The same disparity in behavior is true of any species considered “game.” Their behaviors are altered markedly in response to hunting, including ducks who learn to fly after sundown, and animals who become nocturnal or crepuscular against their nature, in response to the pressures of hunting season. There is an impact even beyond the individual. And beyond the impact, there is injury. There are the millions of animals injured and never retrieved each year, a number estimated to be in the millions for waterfowl.

    Violence in the forest and in the wetlands has a more profound impact than the hunter can possibly see from his or her side of the weapon. It’s much easier to distance yourself from an animal you’ve never held in your hands, or nursed with medicine, or syringe-fed on the hour, or watched in anguish as she suffers. It’s easy to ignore her role in her greater social and family system when you haven’t been a part of it. When a wolf hunter in Idaho shoots an alpha female or male, he disrupts and sometimes even destroys the entire pack through that violent act. Wild animals of many species outside of wolves share similarly complex emotional lives and social interactions. Those are not considerations generally undertaken by hunters who are keen to acquire their prey.

    All of that may be okay with you, and I suspect it is, or you wouldn’t have undertaken hunting to begin with. But what I’m getting at is there are considerations of ethics, compassion and non-violence in veganism and animal care, that cannot easily reconcile themselves with intentional violence toward wild animals in hunting.

    You mention ancillary harm of other diets and lifestyles. Even those with the strictest belief in ahimsa or least harm, understand that mere existence causes harm. It’s a logical fallacy to suggest that purposeful violence is justified by the existence of accidental harm. There are countless examples that defy this reasoning. In our culture, intent does count for something. There’s a reason our legal and philosophical frameworks recognize intent as an important consideration in questions of innocence or guilt, or in degrees of culpability.

    The harm often cited in commercial ag systems doesn’t take into account the many entities working with wildlife-friendly practices, tenets in agriculture that are gaining greater acceptance. You need to look no further than Marin County for a model program of predator co-existence. Lastly, most hunters I know do eat commercial meats, grains, and vegetables and fruits so their impact is even greater for the fact that they engage both the killing of wildlife, and in commercial agricultural systems. I really don’t see the equivalency.

    • Nick

      November 17, 2014 at 11:59 pm

      Ingrid,

      First thank you for taking the time to write such a detailed, respectfully worded, and thoughtful response. Also, I checked out your website; what stunning photography! It is clear that you have given issues of wildlife ethics great consideration.

      I think many of your points are valid and agree for the most part with the majority of them.

      It’s certainly true that if everyone in the U.S. hunted, large scale ecological damage would likely ensue. Moreover, there simply aren’t enough animals to go around. That’s the whole point behind the intensification that is provided by modern industrial agriculture. However, I hunt not just to depart from the ecological stressors associated with modern ag, but also — and even primarily — to minimize the animal suffering associated with my consumption of meat. Environment and animal welfare concerns are both on my mind.

      Your point about the mindset of far too many hunters is well taken. Those who hold an anti-environment mindset irk me, as their ideology lays bare a base inconsistency between preference and reality. If it weren’t for environmental integrity and conservation, there wouldn’t be anything to hunt. However, while I have certainly encountered a handful of ‘who cares about the trees, I ain’t no hippy’ hunters, I have encountered a surprisingly large fraction that could reasonably be called environmentalists-‘lite’. People who realize the value of conservation of wild animals, their ecosystems, and the habitats that sustain them. Prior to entering into hunting, I was coming from the liberal, vegan, environmentalist mindset: I expected a far greater number of Elmer Fudds than I have encountered.

      One of our goals with this website is to help encourage people who will hunt considerately and who do care about the environment along the journey to becoming hunters.

      Regarding emotional connection to animals, I took up veganism primarily to minimize the suffering of the dairy cows and laying hens that sustained my consumption of animal products as a vegetarian. Empathy surely played a role. It continues to play a role in the guilt and sorrow that I feel upon harvesting each animal that I eat. Killing things is unpleasant, but since I have decided that I want to consume their meat, death is necessary.

      This leads me to where you and I apparently depart most starkly in opinion: the difference between unintentionally and intentionally induced harm. You see, the whole reason I wanted to become a hunter was to intentionally take direct responsibility for the harm that I had previously been unintentionally — in many cases ignorantly — causing. I wanted to kill the animals myself, to be fairly certain that their lives up to that point had been relatively free of human-induced pain. I think that hunting provides that.

      By the way that you phrase it, it seems that accidental, or unintentional harm, should be conceived of as less of a ‘bad’ than intentional harm. And in most cases, say for example manslaughter versus first degree murder, the difference is relevant and goes in the direction that you suggest. However, there is a crucial distinction: consumption of animal products requires animal death. And consumption of animal products is rarely if ever an accident. Thus the choice is ‘accidental harm’ in the form of consumption of a McDonalds burger — ignorant of the suffering such consumption causes — versus the intentional and direct killing, and mourning over, say, a deer. Now, perhaps you’ll argue that this example is a straw-man. For the majority of consumers of meat, it isn’t. But if we’re talking about the accidental harm to animals caused by veganism — like the killing of a deer to reduce its depredation on crops — well I’d make two points. The first, truly considerate vegans will work to understand the impact of all of their consumption choices on wildlife, as it appears you have. I don’t give much weight to accident predicated on ignorance of relevant facts — the vegan who would prefer to not learn that their soy required the death of some fraction of a deer.

      My second point: veganism, for people that believe that the death of an animal is a moral bad, is ethically preferable to hunting. I made this point in my article as well. However, I am happy to cede the ethical higher ground to vegans on this point, simply because I found veganism to be untenable for me doesn’t mean that I believe killing animals is preferable to not killing them. I decided that I needed — and wanted — to eat meat. I’m just trying to do that in the most considerate way I can.

      Many hunters do think about these ethical quandaries quite carefully and regularly experience the emotions associated with the death of beautiful wildlife. I am one of them.

      Thanks again for reading!

      • Nick, I composed a comment but neglected to copy it into my buffer before submitting. When I clicked POST, I got the notice that my “reply timed out.” I lost all of the content and don’t have it in me to recompose. My apologies. I appreciate and am grateful for your kind and gracious comments and compliments — especially in the face of my long and contentious comment. And although I did have a few reasonably cogent responses, I suppose I’ll leave it at this … possibly a better outcome, given the word count I incurred above. Cheers. 🙂

        • As a life long hunter I have heard all arguments against hunting. What vegans often forget is game animals are often vermin on agricultural farms. In the UK alone rabbits cause over 1 million pounds worth of damage to crops every year. It is up to people like myself to hunt the vermin to protect the vegans crops and feed myself and my family in the process. For a vegan to eat animals still have to die! It’s an unavoidable fact of life

  2. As the wife of a deer hunter, I have struggled with the ethics of hunting animals for their meat. As I process my ambivalence toward hunting, the arguments posted here are the most helpful I’ve found. It is especially helpful to be reminded that even the plant-based lifestyle of veganism requires some animal sacrifice, to prevent their destroying the crops that vegans consume. Thank you all for taking the time to present this thoughtful discussion!

  3. Buddy. Your mind set is a Carbon Copy of mine and I am a Strict Vegan LoL. I refrain from the consumption of Mammalian meat specifically for deeper spiritual purposes of not wanting the stress, anger and fear of the consumed animals DNA integrating and assimilating into my being. The stress hormones and genetic alteration that occurs in animals in Factory farms can and will manifest into us. I have been considering the prospects of Hunting as a way of reducing all the fore-mentioned issues of Stress hormones and Genetic Damage, Rage and Anger. I have never shot a gun as a Canadian but have had an interest in picking up the skill recently for various purposes.

    Thanks for the read.

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