I’ll be frank: I think we’re all lying to ourselves and each other about why we hunt. Ask just about anyone why they hunt and you’ll get surprisingly homogenous answers: First, “for the meat” and then “hunting is conservation,” and somewhere down the list you might hear “it gives me a chance to enjoy the outdoors” and some stuff about tradition and family.
And while all of that is true, and all of those things are important to us, are these truly genuine answers? There’s this weird unspoken rule in the hunting community that we don’t talk about what I believe is the true reason most of us hunt: We like it. We certainly don’t hide the fact that we enjoy hunting, but we try to pretend it’s way down the list of reasons we do it. Even if you’re the type of hunter who gets emotional and feels a twinge of sadness when you take an animal’s life, you still hunt because you enjoy the experience overall. Hunting is among the most basic and primal instincts we have as humans. We were born to eat meat, therefore born to hunt, and few things connect us with the real roots of humanity as intimately as a successful hunt. You should enjoy that and be proud of it, and you shouldn’t feel like it’s not a good enough reason to hunt by itself.
Now that we’re not afraid to say we hunt because we like it, we can allow that the reasons we like it include all the aspects listed above, not the least of which is meat. Many of us feed our families all winter from the animals we hunted in the fall, the same way humankind has done since the beginning.
But in our rush to try to soften hunting’s image and defend it to non-hunters and anti-hunters, we might have taken the meat thing a little too far. How many times have you seen “Don’t shoot it if you’re not going to eat it” or “eat what you kill!” posted on social media? In general, those statements are meant well, but what about the animals we don’t eat?
Trying to justify hunting by claiming it’s 100 percent about the meat is a failing argument on a couple of levels. One, it’s obviously phony on its face, because absolutely no one (outside true subsistence hunters) says, “Boy, I just really hate hunting, but we need meat in the freezer, so I guess I’ll go shoot a deer.” Two, by the time you factor in time, gear, travel and processing fees or equipment, most of us could save money just buying meat at the grocery store.
Three, and this is the part we don’t like to talk about: We kill stuff we don’t eat all the time. Coyotes. Crows. Prairie dogs. You shouldn’t be shooting ducks or deer or rabbits that you don't intend to eat (in fact, it’s illegal), but trying to make the argument that this is a game animal and that one’s not, so it’s OK not to eat it, is going to go over like a lead balloon with anti-hunters. The whole “we’re only in this for the meat” argument falls apart with just a little bit of scrutiny.
We have to change the way we defend hunting, and in my view, it starts with being honest about why we do it. Yes, it’s for the meat, but it’s also because we enjoy doing it, and there’s nothing wrong with admitting that. My first instinct is to avoid defending hunting at all. It’s legal, I know it has positive effects on the ecosystem and it benefits my family. I am 100 percent certain that I’m on the right side of this, so why would I waste my breath arguing with people who are clearly on the wrong side? But then I have to check my attitude and remember that while the anti-hunters are a small (but vocal) group, the non-hunters make up the bulk of the U.S. population. If we can keep them seeing reason about why hunting should remain a part of the American tradition, they’ll continue to support what we do even if they don’t participate themselves. And that’s a really big deal when it comes to voting and passing legislation that impacts hunters.
We can’t change the narrative overnight, but I think it would be in our best interests to be a little more honest about why we hunt. Yes, letting meat be the star of the show might help us get there, but if we keep using “I only hunt for the meat” as our sole justification for hunting, almost as if we feel the need to apologize for what we do, we’re going to lose the battle every time.