Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Hunting for Food - My Entry Into the World of Hunting

Image from:

I love eating meat.  I always have.  I enjoy the taste of a juicy steak and the salivation-driving smells and flavors of beef brisket and pulled pork covered in BBQ sauce. I've enjoyed the American food staples of burgers and hotdogs when grilling with friends, and I've sought out uncommon meats like ground ostrich and kangaroo, meal worms and fried grasshoppers, and even horse stroganoff (which I had in the small town of Villigen in Switzerland). The few times in my life that I've had meat from animals that were taken from the wild by hunters, I've loved the taste and the aroma from that meat. Also, somewhere deep inside, it felt good to know I was eating meat that was taken from the wilderness.

We are an omnivorous species and that omnivory is part of what allowed us to develop civilization as we know it and to conquer the globe. However, our omnivore lifestyles (especially amongst Americans) have also become something of a danger to our civilization and to our planet. Over the past couple of years I've been leaning more and more toward getting into hunting for the meat that I eat. Hunting runs rich in my family's history and, although I have never hunted before, I feel a certain call from the wilderness - a beckoning to get out into the wild and hunt for my food from a wild source.  My girlfriend and I are planning on moving toward as much of a locavore lifestyle as possible; we want to grow our own vegetables, hunt our own meat, and buy locally as much as possible (of course, there are some things that we just can't get from close to home - like coffee). Can we change our diets to become more sustainable and healthier through growing our own vegetables and hunting our own meat? I truly hope so.

There are a lot of people in my country who subsist on diets of meat with sprinklings of other bits like cheeses and breads with maybe a stray slice of tomato or onion every now and then (don't forget to wash it down with a load of sugar and artificial colorings and flavorings in some water).  Such diets might not be so bad (still not great, but not so bad) if the foods came from sources where the producers had an investment in human health and global sustainability as opposed to maximizing profit, but that's just not the case.  I don't want to sound like some ranting lunatic ("them there big bad corporations") so here's a little history of food followed by my beginner's take on hunting and what I intend to gain for myself, my community, and our world by hunting.

The Beauties and Terrors
of Food Preparation

The Last Supper by Leonardo DiVinci
Image from:

Just as with any other large heterotrophic organisms on our planet, our biology requires taking in organic compounds, vitamins, and other nutrients by ingesting other organisms, live or dead.  We've come to the point now where we add in lots of synthetic organic compounds that we create in labs, but most of what we eat requires that other organisms have done the hard work of taking inorganic and organic molecules from the environment and have then produced within themselves the nutrients that we we take once we ingest those organisms or parts of them (don't lie to yourselves, vegetarians, you also have to kill organisms to eat, but your killing is only slightly more removed from our genetic lineage; see below for more on vegetarianism).  As many of us were taught in school, amongst animal forms of eating there are carnivores (which eat other animals), herbivores (which eat plants), and omnivores (which can eat animals and plants).  However, there are more forms of eating in the animal world than that, including detritivores (which eat decomposing material from plants and animals), scavengers (which must search to find recently dead bodies of plants and animals to eat), and fungivores (organisms which eat only fungi).  Our species are omnivores (and we have been for a very long time), which means that we can eat meat and vegetables and fungi and even microbes (with the help of other microbes, of course!).

No one knows for sure when we started preparing our meals to improve the flavor and presentation of our food, but the act of spending time to prepare a meal (as opposed to just eating raw whatever bits we had at hand) is probably just about as old as hunting itself.  For hundreds of thousands to over a million years, we and our ancestors have taken extra time to ensure that our food was nourishing as well as tasty.  There are even some people out there who argue that preparing our meals, especially through the use of fire, might have given early humans a benefit over other primates.  Cooking gave us a great way to mix together our various food sources to ensure that we were getting all of the nutrients we needed, but also ensured that we spent more time working together (improving our socialization and probably helping to ensure the development of civilization).  One of the most enjoyable ways to socialize with other people is over a well-prepared meal.

A long history of cooking and food preparation led to the development of various ethnic cuisines and special types of meal preparation for various events of celebration in our lives.  Many religions have developed special meals for celebration over time, and various people across the planet have sorted out their favorite types of food and food preparation to form the national cuisines that many of us know of now.  Many of us love trying ethnic meals.  French, Italian, Indian, Mongolian, Latin American, Ethiopian, German, American, Japanese...  all of these words in the context of food signify a certain range of meals that I love to eat, and each of those types of food preparation have unique ingredients, cooking methods, and presentation styles that make each of them special in their own right.  Interestingly, the preparation of animal meat is included in nearly all of those forms of cuisine.

There are lots of reasons for eating meat.  Meat tastes great, it contains lots of the protein and nutrients that we need to survive, and the various studies that lots of vegetarians like to point to suggesting that eating meat is unhealthy are usually, when read closer, only concluding that eating too much meat or meat prepared in the wrong way is unhealthy.  That's where we get to the crux of the problem for meat eaters.  Meat tastes great and feels rewarding to eat, but there are way too many of us who cook their meat to well-done (which usually implies an increase in the number of carcinogens in the meat) and who eat meat for every meal, sometimes only meat for a meal.  As omnivores we owe it to ourselves to balance our diets, but many of us, especially in America, have a hard time with that notion.  

The over-consumption of meat in America has led to a scary reality: our demand for meat paired with corporate demands for profit have led to factory farming methods where the animals are treated inhumanely and the food itself has become jeopardized because of it.  I won't go on about the dangers of factory farming (though here is an article from the ASPCA on the issue and here is one from Sustainable Table), but I think any of us who've ever driven past a factory farm or have seen how these animals are treated have to feel, at least a little bit, like something is very wrong in how we are treating those animals.  There's a pretty large industrial cattle lot in northeastern Colorado, on the way up to Nebraska, that makes me cringe whenever I see it.  The cows, thousands of them, are stuck standing shoulder-to-shoulder in mud mixed with their own excrement, while they wait for the slaughterhouse.  The condition is the same in many industrial farm settings for chickens and pigs as well.  If you find the nature of factory farms as unsettling as I do, here is a website that offers a Factory Farm Map to show you how many there are and how well-distributed they are across the United States (the site is produced by Food and Water Watch).

Confinement of Pigs

I don't mean to blast livestock farming. I'm sure there are lots of farmers out there who are doing their best to ensure that their animals are treated well as they make their journey from birth to death; the locavore movement and conscious consumers are driving the demand for more meats produced in more ethical manners. Even though I personally want to be as sustainable as possible, I'll still have a cheeseburger every once in a long while from a fast food joint, enjoy the meat extravaganza at a Brazilian steakhouse, or put down a hearty breakfast of eggs and bacon. I don't see the need to fully separate myself from what I've enjoyed for much of my life, but I do know I can find more enjoyment by ensuring that my food mostly comes from sustainable sources and that I am doing my best to eat a balanced and healthy diet. It's hard sometimes to think about the American obesity epidemic when I live in a town like Boulder, Colorado (one of the healthiest and fittest towns in the nation), but it doesn't seem unfair to associate a large part of that problem with the over-consumption of meat as well as the abundance of highly-processed foods in the American diet (I haven't really talked about that side of the problem, but I think we all know by now that the ridiculous amount of sugars and synthetic substances in our food can't be good for us, even if they make us feel good for a moment in time).

Image from:

"Why not just go vegetarian?"

I suppose a lot of my friends and family who are vegetarian or vegan would wonder why I don't just go fully vegetarian if I'm so worried about eating sustainably. There are definitely great arguments to be made for eating meatless diets. For instance, the three micro-populations on the planet that have the greatest number of centenarians (people who live to be over 100) all eat diets that are either vegetarian or that contain very little meat (here's another article that mentions the top 5 places with the longest living people).  Eating vegetarian diets has been shown in a plethora of studies to appear very healthy, but (as Authority Nutrition mentioned in a post I linked above) very few studies have actually considered that most vegetarians are already health-conscious people and are likely doing other things to keep themselves healthy as well. I would throw down real money on a bet that vegetarians who eat boatloads of candy and highly-processed breads, drink soda, and live mostly sedentary lifestyles would start skewing such studies to show that although vegetarian diets can be good, they are by no means the sole solution.  Where vegetarian and vegan diets really kick-ass compared to mostly meat-based diets is in the realm of sustainability.  As this article from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows, the common meat-based diets (I would argue they are "meat-overconsumption diets") require far greater land, water, and energy resources than do typical plant-based diets of the same calorie-load.  Without a doubt, eating a plant-based diet is far more sustainable than the typical meat-overconsumption diet.  But that doesn't mean that we can't make conscious and sustainable decisions while choosing to eat meat.  I think that being smart about choosing how much meat and which meats to eat is one huge step we can all take toward making better sustainable and health-conscious decisions with our meat eating.  This post is really just the "tip of the iceberg" for me on this issue, but when it comes down to it, I think the decision to hunt for the meat I will eat will make me far more conscious of where my food comes from, it will ensure that I eat locally-produced meat from healthy sources, and it will let me experience the entire process of preparing the meat for consumption.  That final bit is something that bothers me greatly: too many Americans who eat meat think of their meat as something prepared for them or something that comes wrapped in plastic at the grocery store and seem to have forgotten that an animal has to be killed and then butchered before that meat can be so nicely wrapped and prepared.  I know that I'll get more out of hunting than just knowing my food is sustainable, but that's definitely one huge reason for giving it a go.

"Hunting for food is, ethically speaking, the next best thing to being a vegetarian" 
Jackson Landers, from "The Beginner's Guide to Hunting Deer for Food"

History of Hunting and What It's
Taking Me to Get Started

Ancient cave paintings of the hands of humans and images of animals.
Were these the artistic expressions of ancient hunters?
Image from:

In the summer of 2012, I went on a trip to Spain to attend the International Summer School in Astrobiology in the coastal city of Santander.  When the school was finished, my girlfriend flew out to meet me, and she and I then went on a weeklong trek around Spain's northeastern region.  Besides eating paella in Barcelona and checking out Pamplona and cruising around the little towns to the southwest of the Pyrenees, we decided to check out the cave exhibits at Altamira and El Castillo.  Altamira has the most extensive paleolithic cave paintings of any cave on the planet (though you can't see the real paintings anymore since the cave was closed to the public to preserve the artwork), but we were really interested in seeing El Castillo.  It was only a week before our arrival that a team of archaeologists published an article in the journal Science where they dated some of the paintings within El Castillo and found some dates as old as 40,800 years ago!  This makes some of the paintings in El Castillo the oldest known cave paintings on the planet!  We had to go see these paintings, and they were absolutely stunning.  Working with charcoal from burned organic material and ochre pigments from minerals in the nearby soil, the paleolithic artists who lived in these caves painted circles, outlines of human hands (by blowing the pigment around their hand on the wall), and they painted many of the large game animals from the region, including deer, ibex, bison, and some form of now-extinct cow.  We don't know exactly why these ancient people painted the animals they hunted.  Surely the meat from these animals sustained the people who lived in the cave, but there are some who ascribe a mysticism to the paintings, suggesting that they were made as a form of magic that summons the animals for hunting.  Whatever the inspiration was for the drawings, it's a certainty that humans were hunting by tens of thousands of years ago and probably even long before that.  Evidence was recently presented that suggests that our ancestor hominids may have been hunting as far back as 2 million years agoand, indeed, many of us can imagine the importance of hunting amongst the beings that led to humanity; the opening scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey comes to mind:

By the time our earliest civilizations were developing, hunting had already become a mainstay for our diets and lifestyles.  Quite obviously, the development of animal husbandry and raising livestock overtook hunting for food sources for many dense populations, but hunting has remained a pastime and source of food for humans for millennia.  It's not too hard to see why so many ancient peoples created gods of hunting and included great hunters in their mythology (the Greek god Artemis and the great hunter Nimrod, great-grandson of Noah in the Bible, come to mind).  The development of weaponry for war through human history has also led to the development of more efficient tools for hunting, specifically in the case of the modern firearm.  Guns led to easier and cleaner kills but also led to overhunting and trophy hunting.  In the 1800's overhunting and trophy hunting ran rampant and there were few controls in place to conserve and preserve the wildlife that was being hunted.  Even in our modern time, now that we have laws that force hunters to work with their local wildlife and natural resources agencies to determine when, how, and what to hunt, there are still problems across the planet with poaching.  Poachers, those who break the laws as well as the ethical standards of hunting, make hunters look bad.  Indeed, hunters who follow the laws but fail to maintain a respectable ethical standard with regard to hunting make hunters look bad as well (I saw a post on an online forum the other day from some asshole who kills coyotes and leaves their dead bodies but cuts off their tails to "slam them" into his truck tailgate so that they flap in the wind - that guy is not only an asshole, but also makes hunters look bad).  Fortunately, there are hunters out there (a good many of them, I'm finding) who also know that poaching and unethical behavior are bad for hunting, bad for the wildlife they enjoy, and bad for our planet.

Since I've made the decision to get started hunting, it's been a fun learning adventure.  I've been on a non-stop crash course in the practices and regulations for hunting, I've had to learn about hunting seasons and animal life cycles, and I've purchased a hunting rifle and have begun to train with it.  The rifle I picked up is a Ruger American .30-06 (the ".30" implies that the caliber of the bullet that will be fired by the gun is 300/1000th of an inch in diameter, while the "-06" comes from the fact that the specific type of cartridge intended for this barrel was first developed in 1906).  From all of the reading that I've done regarding hunting, this appears to be a pretty standard beginner's hunting rifle.  I'm now taking to practicing once every week or two by working on my target practice and shooting positions.  I hope to get good enough that I feel comfortable at placing my shots within 200 yards, though I'm starting off much closer.

I've also recently completed a hunter's safety course.  The course included two in-class sessions (including a live-fire session to show we can safely operate a rifle) as well as a well-produced online course.  The online course I completed was from Hunter-Ed.  I was super impressed by the online material: there was material in text, images, videos, and quizzes.  The course covered topics like the anatomy of firearm ammunition and different types of rifles, shotguns, and handguns; bow hunting; hunting history and hunting regulations; animal identification; hunting gear; and a good deal of material on ethical hunting practices as well as conservation and preservation of habitat and wildlife.  The in-class sessions were helpful, since it gave me a chance to meet some other people who are interested in hunting (even though only about half of us were over the age of 12 in the class).  The live-fire session was pretty simple and probably more intended for the younger students of the class (the firearms were little bolt-action .22 rifles and we were only shooting at targets within 10 yards; it was still fun, though).  I was pretty happy to get my hunter's safety card after the course was over.  With that card and my driver's license, I can now apply for a hunting license to legally (and ethically, of course) hunt here in Colorado!

Along with taking the necessary hunter's safety course and beginning to get the gear I need to hunt, I've been reading online materials and books to help me learn along the way.  One of the best books for beginning hunters that I've read so far is "The Beginner's Guide to Hunting Deer for Food" by Jackson Landers.  Although the book is directed primarily at hunting Whitetail Deer (I'll be hunting Mule Deer and Elk primarily), there's a lot of good information to be found within.  Landers appears to have been in something of the same boat as me, having not gotten into hunting until later in his adult life.  He presents hunting for food from the perspective of someone who wants to get away from eating factory farmed meat as well as someone who wants to provide for their family.  He presents the following three great reasons for hunting: "eating locally", "eating well", and "utilizing natural resources to save money" (I definitely think getting out into the wilderness and having a greater connection with our food are important reasons as well).  Landers' book covers a little of the basics about everything, from learning the biology of deer to the process of field dressing and butchering the animal after you have killed them.  I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to get into hunting deer for food.

I'm not sure where this hunting adventure will take me.  My girlfriend and I have already started eating more vegetarian meals and trying to subsist with less meat in our diets.  I hope to be able to hunt just enough to feed us and our dogs, though if I do hunt more I can share with friends or donate (the various state departments of wildlife have great programs in place for donating meat).  I haven't crunched the numbers to determine the savings to carbon emissions and fossil fuels usage from eating more locally, though the numbers I've seen from others appear promising.  I do know that I will feel better knowing that I am doing what I can to live more sustainably.  Growing and hunting for much of our own food will take a burden off of the food industry and may just keep a little extra money in our pockets.  Also, I think we'll feel more at one with our world when we need to work the Earth and trek through the wilderness to achieve our meals.  Preparing for hunting in and of itself will require a lot of time spent hiking in the outdoors, and that will be a fun activity for both of us.  In the end, I'm taking to hunting because I think it will make me feel better, it will help reduce the resources that are used to get my food to my plate, and I think if each of us did just a little bit in the way of reducing our impact to natural resources while ensuring the conservation of the wilderness, we'd all benefit together.


  1. By the way, for all of my meat-eating friends out there: I mean no insult with regard to pointing out the improved sustainability of eating less meat and of eating meat from better sources. I know how hard it can be sometimes to get food on the table. It can really seem sometimes like the healthiest choices cost way more (part of that comes from the nature of factory farming and industrial food production), but the truth does remain that eating a little less meat and eating a little healthier meat can go a long way to improving your diet and the sustainability of our planet. I don't really expect others to take on the urge to hunt for their meat as I have, but I would love to see more people considering, even if just a little bit, about how to be thoughtful meat-eaters.

  2. Hunting always been an art. It need much more patience you think to learn. You need to have proper command over your weapon. Or else you can hurt yourself.

    1. Oh, I'm quite sure it takes patience to learn (that's pretty much the case with just about everything in life), however I have been shooting for quite some time now so I feel plenty confident and ready with my rifle.