The Hunter’s Paradox
The Hunter’s Paradox why do we hunt what we love
It was a cold, clear morning. The sun had not yet risen, and already the hustle and bustle of the camp, consisting of uncles and cousins, was alive with the idea of the start of a brand new day. My father shook me gently, “JP, time to get up,” in his thick Italian accent. I quickly sprung from my makeshift bed and prepared myself for the day. The sense of excitement and fear of not knowing were only overshadowed by the feeling of connection—the connection to my family, the connection to the world around me, and a connection to a deep-seated spirit, something like an ancient version of me. I felt as if I had been here before, like I had some ancestral connection to what I was about to embark on, even though it was my first time. Even at that young age, I could feel it in me that this is part of what it is to be me, what it is to be human, to be connected to what you do—not just a job, a hobby, or pastime, but an identity. Most of us drift through life searching for who we are, never really knowing or finding a real purpose. Sure, we find love in things, past times, and fulfilling careers, but we never grasp what truly makes up our inner fabric and what constructs our identities. In that moment, on that day, even at 5 years old, I knew that hunting was part of who I am. Although it took some years later to understand what I was feeling, I knew I was born into this.
Fast forward 30 years. I was sitting on a rock bluff, hoping to spot an old buck on the far ridge. I had been searching through my glass for quite some time, and my mind started to drift. I was cold, alone, tired, and a bit hungry, and I had asked myself “Why do I do this”? Especially now, I didn’t have anything to prove, not even to myself. I had tested myself many times before and faced much greater opposition than I did at that moment. I started to talk to myself like someone who had been deprived of companionship for a very long time.
“Hunting to me has always been about the connection with the earth and the role I feel I play in the world… I often get criticized, berated, and even cursed for my love of hunting. Those that don’t see won’t hear, and they can’t feel what it is to be me. Nor will they know about the connection I have with nature and its beings. I’ve spent a lifetime searching for this connection, and with each day I spend abroad, I feel my connection grows deeper. My self-awareness and self-discovery of who I am become more evident… It’s never been about the kill for me… I don’t need game meat to survive or to feed my family… I don’t need to come home with the biggest or best trophy, but what I do need is the connection to who I am, and that is a hunter. It is something deep rooted in me, and it was evident even as a little boy. A past life? A primal instinct? I’m not sure, but the one thing I am sure of is that when I am out there, it’s the only time I feel like I am me.”John Stallone 2010
I spoke this passage in my head as an answer to my own questions. I eventually wrote it down, and it became the opening monologue to one of my films. For the past 13+ years, I’ve tried to put into words and answer my own questions, or at least explain this inner battle that we hunters are faced with. “How do you honor, respect, revere, and possibly love something that you will eventually take its life?” It’s called The Hunter’s Paradox. There are so many complex emotions and moral dilemmas for hunters to carry and process. The duality of caring for animals while also being involved in the hunting of those animals’ raises questions about the relationships humans have with animals, the ethics of hunting, and the complexities of our emotions. It’s a conundrum I don’t know will ever be fully understood, even by those who live it.
Here is some insight into my personal “why,” although I fear this may produce more questions unless an individual is willing to experience the how, what, when, and where alongside me.
Being part of the wild: Being a participant in nature is more personal, more stimulating, and ultimately more gratifying than being an observer of nature. This holds true not only for physically hunting but for being a steward and conservationist as well. I myself have always found it impossible to really be in touch with something you don’t participate in. I equate that to a guy who watches football religiously, stating they are a football player but never physically stepping on the field.
Wanderlust: although it is not exclusive to hunting, there is a certain pull to see what the day will bring while hunting that can’t be equated to any other action. Exploration is coupled with a deep desire to find what doesn’t want to be found. The desire to see what’s over the next ridge is far more polarizing than just wanting to see over the next ridge.
Connection to our ancestors: I am drawn to the hunt; I feel it within my soul that this is what I was built to do. I often envision myself as a pioneer or an indigenous being and try to imagine my life and my role in the world. We are not that far removed from humans that needed to hunt to survive; the idea of humans that don’t hunt is actually a new concept. We live in a society that shields most of us from the idea that something has to die in order for us to live. Whether we eat vegetables or grass-fed beef, something gave up its life for you. It is foolish to believe that we are above the death of an organism so that another may prosper.
Being a provider: There is something uniquely pure about finding, procuring, and creating a meal for your family. I imagine it much like the feeling a farmer gets from cultivating a field, pouring their sweat, blood, and tears into it, yielding a crop, and turning that crop into something their family can nourish their bodies with. In this age where we can just go to a store or a restaurant and instantly produce a meal, intrinsically it doesn’t hold the same value. Yes, I worked for the money to buy it, and yes, I may have even prepared the meal, but unless you have been part of the full circle, it is not the same; it’s not as rewarding. But until you experience that for yourself, it’s not something words can accurately describe.
Connection to the food I eat: For a very long time, I was happy not to know where food came from or what had to happen for the food to show up in my refrigerator. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to be part of the process of at least some of what I consumed. I didn’t just want to be a taker without a connection. I know it’s not plausible, given where I live, etc., to live solely off the land, but I take great pride in knowing that at least a portion of what my family and I consume is a result of my two hands.
Challenge one’s self: I don’t think that most people understand what goes into a hunt: planning, preparation, training, scouting, and, of course, the physical and environmental challenges you must endure to find success. It takes focus, control, strength, and perseverance. It’s like chess meets football on a cold, windy day. I have been an athlete my whole life; I’ve done martial arts, played sports, and was an avid mountain biker and snowboarder. Nothing even comes close to helping you find out who you are and what you are made of after 7 days of bow hunting in the mountains.
Camaraderie and family: For me, like many others, I was introduced to hunting by my father and uncles, who learned it from my grandfather, who learned it from his father. Im sure if I traced it back, I would continue to find hunter after hunter in my lineage; it’s part of me, and it’s a part I’m not willing to relinquish. When I take to the field, I can feel my father, grandfather, and those before them with me. I can still hear the stories told around the dinner table about the adventures of the hunt. These stories consumed my imagination as a child and continue on in my journey.
So why does one care so deeply about the livelihood of these animals and the landscape they live in? Why are we willing to put so much time, effort, and funding towards building a better life for an animal that you intend to kill and then eat? Can it be equated to the rancher who loves and cares for his cattle just so he can turn them around and turn them into meals? I don’t think so. It’s deeper than just a desire or a need to preserve them just so we can continue to hunt them or help them thrive, just so we can benefit from having more of them for our use. We want to see them on the landscape just as much, if not more, than anyone else. I can’t count how many times I just sat back in awe to watch nature unfold before me. I have never met a hunter who didn’t love the wild, wild places, wild things, and all the gifts we receive from the wild. And because of that, I believe there is an innate sense that most of the hunting public feels a desire to be able to share these gifts with the next generation. There’s an old Greek proverb that says, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in.” That always resonated with me, and I think it’s more evident in the hunting conservation world than in any other space. Hunters are unfailingly doing what needs to be done to conserve for the future so that grandchildren, great grandchildren, and their children can enjoy what we enjoy in the future. The whole premise of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation was founded on the idea, “Hey, we need to do something, so all this is still around hundreds of years from now”.
Bloodlust: I would be lying if there wasn’t a sense or a desire to kill something to eat it. I love fruits, vegetables, and grains, but they are just an accompaniment to meat. My body craves meat, and I think it adds to my desire to want to procure that meat.
Adrenaline Junky: Again, I would be delusive if I didn’t acknowledge that there is a sense of exhilaration that is associated with the thrill of the hunt. It is undeniable that the thrill of the hunt is a large reason why I engage in hunting. I live for the thrill of the pursuit, the challenge of matching wits and pushing through the adversity, only to come out the other side having conquered the situation. But this is more about the pursuit than the killing. I take no joy in ending a life. In fact, it often saddens me.
So how does one explain the feeling of reverence for an animal whose life you have taken? How do you explain the feeling of elation, accomplishment, and joy that is riddled with a sense of remorse and sadness? I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to weep at the same time that I was “dancing for joy”. It is not something to take lightly; it’s not an easy thing to do, and I have never met anyone who can do it without emotion. It’s a fictive, I’m sure you have been exposed to: the bloodthirsty hunter running around haphazardly shooting at everything, only caring about the trophy or the act of killing. Just like anything else in life, there is always a shadow cast by the darkness of a few bad seeds. I’m sure you would find that the vast majority of hunters share similar views, feelings, and/or philosophy as I do.
Exploring these ideas through storytelling, discussion, and experience could lead you, the reader, to a deeper understanding of the human-animal connection, cultural traditions, ethical considerations, and the ways in which hunters navigate these conflicting feelings, but more so to an understanding of their why. So to start you off on your discovery journey, I will leave you with this passage by Dr. Lee Foote explaining his why.
“I would contend that many of us don’t hunt for meat or the animal or the bragging rights. We’re basically hunting for a deep rich, meaningful satisfaction. We’re hunting for meaning. It positions us in the world. It reinforces a self-identity. It links us to our ancient past, our recent past, and hopefully into our future. It gives a small window to see into what will happen to this bag of meat when it expires. When you actually get to put your hands on an animal and see that famous, Aldo Leopold’s green light flicker out in the eyes of a wolf, when you get to see an animal die of your intention right there. It brings about a wave of not only gratitude, but sorrow, and responsibility. It comes with a mandate to fully utilize this animal and make sure that its offspring have habitat to continue to replace themselves. You get a charge, no a mandate from your activities to pour yourself back in, to give in the same measure that you’ve received. And what you’ve received if much more profound than 120liograms of meat. It’s a profound insight into self, an orientation to the world, a commitment to the future, a reassurance of the past and you’re part of an unbroken chain. And its where I think that heritage piece comes in, its part of an unbroken chain that moves back into time immemorial. We can only trace back to Lascaux and maybe some fossils before that, but we know we are the modern-day progenitors of that chain that’s continuous in humanity up to now. And fully continuously human with our ancestry by responsibly participating in this field endeavor called hunting. “ Dr. Lee Foote 2023
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