We bear the responsibility for killing our prey, packaged or not


Illustration by Forest Byrd 

There’s an old saying that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. We believe that people who eat meat — or wear leather shoes or belts or coats, or take medicines that come from animal parts — shouldn’t criticize hunters.

We’re still getting letters and phone calls about a picture we ran on December 3. The photograph, which we headlined “A Successful Hunt,” showed 17-year-old John Warner Jr. with a 350-pound black bear he had killed. His Altamont grandmother, who was proud of his accomplishment, submitted the picture. She said of her grandson, “He was just out there all by himself.” The bear, she said, “filled his scope with black.” She also said the bear’s meat would be eaten and its head would be mounted.

We ran the picture inside our newspaper the week after we had run a front-page story, “Is your hamburger safer when the beef comes from home?” that included a picture of the owner of a local slaughterhouse pointing to some goat carcasses. We didn’t get a single letter objecting to that.

The week after Warner’s picture ran, though, we received three letters critical of Warner, of our publication of the picture, and of hunting itself.  “‘A Successful Hunt’ does not make a successful man,” wrote a woman from Voorheesville, lamenting the loss of an “innocent creature’s life.”

A man from Schenectady wondered “if there was actually a purpose of shooting this beautiful animal.” And a woman from Rensselaerville wrote that our publication of the picture was “an appalling endorsement of the wanton killing of animals for ‘sport.’” We responded in an editor’s note that our newspaper reflects the happenings in our community; we publish a wide variety of submitted pictures, among them teenagers participating in sports.

“If you guys think that shooting an unarmed, defenseless animal with a gun for absolutely no reason is sport, then I’ve got to seriously reconsider my subscription to your paper,” said an anonymous caller on our telephone answering machine. He went on, “And, you people need to really reconsider your membership in the human race.”

Our publisher, who is a hunter himself, discourages those who want us to print such pictures; he is aware that many will react as our letter-writers did. But if a newspaper is doing its job, we, as the editor, believe it should accurately reflect the community it serves — all parts of it.

We have been moved and educated by the work of Konrad Lorenz. The pioneering and world-renowned scientist of animal behavior began his 1949 book on man and domestic animals with these words, “Today for breakfast I ate some fried bread and sausage. Both the sausage and the lard that the bread was fried in came from a pig that I used to know as a dear little piglet.”

Lorenz goes on to write in his book, So kam der Mensch auf den Hund (literally translated as “How Man ended up with Dog,” but, in the 1954 English edition, it was called Man Meets Dog), “Once that stage was over, to save my conscience from conflict, I meticulously avoided any further acquaintance with that pig. I should probably only eat animals up to the mental level of fish or, at the most, frogs, if I were obliged to kill them myself.”

Most of us do not kill the animals we eat. Our food comes neatly packaged in the grocery store. Our leather comes in shoeboxes; we don’t have to kill the animal and scrape its hide. Our couches covered with hide are ready-made, too. And, as our down coats keep us warm this time of year, few of us think about the dead geese that made them. We don’t have to wring their necks and pluck them.

Lorenz does not let himself off the hook so easily. “It is, of course, hypocritical to avoid, in this way, the moral responsibility for the murder,” he writes.

Years later, in 1973, when Lorenz won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for being one of the founders of ethology, the comparative study of behavior, he wrote an autobiography that sets that thought in context.

He grew up in Austria in a large house with a large garden, and he had indulgent parents. When the story of a wild goose was read to him, he desperately wanted one, but settled for domestic ducks. “From a neighbor, I got a one-day-old duckling and found, to my intense joy, that it transferred its following response to my person,” Lorenz wrote. He had discovered imprinting, on which he based his career, and was imprinted himself. “At the same time,” he goes on, “my interest became irreversibly fixated on water fowl, and I became an expert on their behaviour even as a child.”

As an adult, after earning advanced medical and academic degrees, Lorenz studied hybrids of wild Greylags and domestic geese and wrote, “They showed surprising deviations from the normal social and sexual behavior of wild birds….I was frightened — as I still am —” he wrote in 1973, “by the thought that analogous genetical processes of deterioration may be at work with civilized humanity. Moved by this fear, I did a very ill-advised thing soon after the Germans had invaded Austria: I wrote about the dangers of domestication and, in order to be understood, I couched my writing in the worst of nazi terminology….None of us as much as suspected that the word ‘selection,’ when used by these rulers, meant murder. I regret those writings not so much for the undeniable discredit they reflect on my person as for their effect of hampering the future recognition of the dangers of domestication.”

In 1941, Lorenz was recruited into the German army as a medical man, and was sent to the front where he was taken prisoner by the Russians. As a doctor in prison camps, he wrote, “I started to write a book on epistemology, since that was the only subject for which I needed no library. The manuscript was mainly written with potassium permanganate solution on cement sacking cut to pieces and ironed out.”

When he was repatriated in 1948, Lorenz brought the manuscript and his pet starling with him to Austria. The manuscript was published as Behind the Mirror.

The next year, he wrote Man Meets Dog, in which he explores human relationships with the only two domestic animals that people in Western cultures don’t eat — dogs and cats.

“The attitude of a human being to the animals which he rears for food is a somewhat contradictory one,” writes Lorenz. “In the case of farmers, who follow a certain age-old tradition, the relation of man to beast is determined by a line of conduct of an almost ritual kind which becomes so much a matter of course as to relieve him of any moral responsibility or feeling compunction.”

Lorenz writes that man to some extent is exculpated because he is bound by no agreement, by no contract, with domestic animals to treat them as anything but enemies that he has taken prisoner. He writes, “Only two animals have entered the human household otherwise than as prisoners and become domesticated by other means than those of enforced servitude: the dog and the cat.”

Referring to his own situation as a scientist, Lorenz continues, “But for the man who is engaged professionally in research into the animal mind which, in its inmost workings, so much resembles our own, the matter assumes an entirely different aspect. For him, the slaughtering of a farm animal is something infinitely worse than the shooting of game. The hunter does not know the latter personally or, at least, not so intimately as the farmer does the domestic animal and, above all, the game animal recognizes the danger it is in.

“Morally, it is much worse to wring the neck of a tame goose which approaches one confidently to take food from one’s hand than it is, at the expense of some physical effort and a great deal of patience, to shoot a wild goose which is fully conscious of its danger and, moreover, has a good chance of eluding it.”

Therein lies a distinction that escapes those who object to hunting. Why is a bear “innocent” and “beautiful” and “defenseless” while a goat or a pig or a sheep or a steer is not? Why is it reprehensible for a 17-year-old to hunt and shoot a bear while it is not for a business owner to slaughter farm animals trucked to him?

Farming practices have changed in the sixty years since Lorenz wrote his book. Some cows are now raised so that they never set foot on, let alone graze on, grass. Some chickens are bred so that their breasts are so heavy they can’t walk. Some domesticated animals suffer their entire lives, at the hands of humans, until they are slaughtered.

A wild animal can lead a good life until the moment it dies. And, if the hunter who kills it is human, he at least has respect for and knowledge of the animal and its natural habitat. Hunters haven’t altered the nature of the animals they kill. Human agencies — in New York State, it’s the Department of Environmental Conservation — control what they term the “harvesting” of animals.

To assert that hunting doesn’t exist as a sport or as part of our current American culture is naive at best. Hunting organizations, as one of our letter writers pointed out, have done much to restore natural habitats and re-introduce near-extinct species.

Man has tampered with the natural world to such an extent that “wild” animals exist only with careful controls. A hunter needs a license to kill and can only take certain game at certain times. Worse forces than hunters’ bullets threaten the earth’s wildlife. Each year, dozens of species disappear forever from our earth, threatened by the forces of development — the pollution of water, land, and air — and climate change brought about by humans.

Lorenz in his 1973 autobiography for the Nobel Prize wrote prophetically, “Surprisingly late, I got involved with the danger of man’s destruction of his natural environment and of the devastating vicious circle of commercial competition and economical growth….The main problems with which humanity is faced are moral and ethical problems.”

In his Nobel Lecture on analogy as a source of knowledge, Lorenz said, “Human culture, after enveloping and filling the whole globe, is in danger of being killed by its own excretion, of dying from an illness closely analogous to uraemia. Humanity will be forced to invent some sort of planetary kidney — or it will die from its own waste products.”

  We don’t know if the panacea of a planetary kidney can save us; we doubt it. But opening our eyes to the realities we face — hard choices and sacrifices must be made — is a beginning. Our world is more fragile than a glass house; let’s think long and hard, on both sides, before we hurl more stones.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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