There are some who believe that animals are gifts to a hunter. In this view the animals freely and willingly give themselves, or are given by God, so a hunter may eat. Continued giving or hunting success is often seen as being dependent upon the hunter’s judicious use of the animal’s meat, hide, bones, and other organs. As long as a hunter utilizes and gives thanks for the gift, then he/she may strive to be worthy of it, and continued gifts may follow.
Gifts presuppose a giver, and from this one can conclude that a gift cannot be received except as from someone. In the case of receiving a gift from the animal her/himself, thanks is due to the animals themselves. This presupposes that animals have wills of their own, and that for them, dying is not the ultimate evil some believe it to be. Given that an animal’s usual response is to flee from predators, this view may be a hard pill to swallow. Nevertheless, solace for killing may be found in the belief that the giving was voluntary or in the inevitability of death for every living being. Purpose may be found in ecology and the necessary assimilation and exchange of nutrients through eating and otherwise utilizing once living material–life necessitates death and nutrient cycles. Purpose may also be found in a belief that there is a structure, value, or guiding hand to continued selection and evolution. There may also be a basis for purpose from spiritual/religious beliefs—attributing individual wills to animals does not rule out a creator.
For the case of God given animals, religious connotations may follow for the purpose of death, and hunting does have some religious and spiritual elements.
In An Archer’s Inner Life author David Sigurslid makes frequent references to Taoism. “Tao” translates as “the way” and one of the tenets of Taoism is that there is a way or “right way” to life. The task for the Taoist is to meld her/his life to that way. Sigurslid’s parallels between Taoism and hunting suggest the possibility of merging the two, and this would provide a religious and spiritual component to hunting. One would have to believe that death is a part of the Tao for this to be plausible.
Native Americans held a spiritual belief in Animism, and this is the idea that all the world and its components are enspirited. This belief was integrated into nearly every aspect of their lives, and hunting was a vital part of their existence—culturally, biologically, and spiritually. Some Native Americans believed that when animals gave their lives in exchange for certain behavior on the part of the hunter, they were fulfilling a contract. Contemporary author and hunter David Petersen has described himself as a neo-animist. From his writings, one can see the importance of hunting for his spiritual well being.
In the bible, God made a covenant with Noah whereby He gave Noah plants and animals for food. “Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.” (Genesis 9:3) Jesus also spoke to Peter about a relationship with animals. In a vision Peter saw “…something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners…I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles, and birds of the air. Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’” (Acts 11:5-7) One can see from these passages that there is a biblical basis for animals being gifts that are to be killed and eaten.
When we assimilate animals through eating or other utilization, we are taking part in a gracious exchange. If animals are gifts, and we use them in order to live, then by utilizing them our lives may be seen as gifts, as well, and not something which is necessary, obligatory, or forced upon us. There is indeed something about hunting that lends itself to a view of grace and giving. In Encounters with Nature Paul Shepard writes: “Unlike farmers who must labor in the fields and who earn by their sweat a grudging security in nature, the primitive hunter gets ‘something for nothing.’ The kill is a gift.” (Shepard, 73) The view of life as a gift seems in stark contrast to the commodified existence to which so many of us have become accustomed. While success in hunting rarely comes without effort, it is a different kind of effort as compared to the market of commodities. For commodities, much effort is spent on providing shelter, confinement, food, proper genetics, and proper nutrition–commodification can sometimes seem to be a practice in imposition, control, and forcing life from the biotic community. For hunting, time is spent on appreciating the flora and fauna for what and where they are, not for what they could be with “proper” nutrition and genetics, and the animals do the work of gathering food, providing shelter, and satisfying their reproductive needs. Furthermore, for hunting, there exists intrinsically what eco-philosopher Val Plumwood calls a “dialogical relationship” with the biotic community. In a dialogical relationship hunters pay attention to and listen to the biotic community to select the proper stand location, hunting techniques, and which animals to shoot. The animals and landscapes are active participants in this process. All of this lends itself to a belief in a giving world.
For both individual giving and God giving it can be seen that death is not an ultimate evil. That is to say, if one believes that animals are gifts, it seems there is some higher order or purpose to the exchange of living flesh, viscera, bone, and hide. In the case of the animals individually giving themselves, it could be said there is faith in the order of nature, and death is a part of this. In the case of God given animals, it could mean faith in the goodness of God’s creation (death being a part of that, as well), or a belief in an afterlife. In any case, death is not an ultimate evil.
Gifts are treasured and cared for. They are not merely tossed aside or in the trash. Many times gifts may not be exactly what we want or expect, but they are treasured nonetheless, and they often stay with us a lifetime. I know I still have antlers I found as a child. I also have other trinkets that were given to me by others. I didn’t keep them because they were particularly useful or because they were amazing presents. I kept them, because they were gifts from people about whom I cared. Those gifts remind me of those people and relationships in the same way my “trophies” remind me of the animals, places, and relationships I’ve experienced while hunting. I care about the animals, places, and relationships, and that’s a large reason why I keep the trophies.
What’s more, there is a particular spirit to giving and receiving. Gifts cannot be forced or extorted from someone, nor can they be imposed upon someone else. There seems to be a mutual understanding and a free, genuine, volitional component to giving and receiving. Maybe this is why, for hunting and trophies, size is usually not the sole focus of value. The process and the spirit of the gift often take priority over, or in addition to, the physical attributes of an animal. Methods such as baiting and canned hunting may be frowned upon, because the process and the outcome is controlled, manipulated, coerced, and fixed. Love can be a gift, as well.
If you were raised like I was, “Thank you” is in order after receiving a gift. Some may thank the animals themselves, some may thank God, and some may thank both. I see no contradiction in that, but the gratitude is important. Just as important may be how we show this thanks. Some Native Americans used to make an offering of tobacco, or cut a lock of their hair after making a kill. Not that these gestures are misguided or inappropriate, but in today’s world tobacco and hair won’t cut it. It would seem caring about and doing something to conserve the animals’ habitat is one way of expressing gratitude. If one is of the religious persuasion, one may ascribe to the stewardship ethic that has permeated Christianity. Some in this group believe it is our duty, a mandate from God to take good care of His creation. At any rate, hunters have a long track record in the conservation department. Some of the greatest conservationists in history were hunters: Teddy Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold just to name two. I don’t believe it is a coincidence they were hunters. However, we should not rest on our laurels and think that the work has been done. Previous hunters have laid a solid foundation for giving back, but with changing demographics and an increasingly urbanized population, sometimes it seems we may be losing ground. I don’t want to get heavy handed, come off as pushy, or as some patchouli soaked earth muffin, but hunting has provided so much to me. I can’t imagine my life without it, and we can’t hunt without hunting grounds. Furthermore, I’ve always felt a desire to take care of the places I hunt. This desire has been sparked, in large part, by my experiences with and reflections upon hunting. I call my urge to give back a “desire,” because the terms “obligation” and “duty” don’t quite do my sentiments justice. Part of the beauty of a gift is that there are no strings attached, and an obligation or duty can so often feel like a string; though, at times the desire feels binding enough to be called an obligation or duty. I have a genuine desire to take care of the places I hunt, though my means have more often than not been limited. It has been through investing my time and my writing thus far that I have been able to best give thanks. I would encourage everyone else to do the same with the time and talents they may have. It matters little if you do not have oodles of money to throw at hunting and conservation organizations. Every little bit helps, and, in fact, investing time may be a more personal expression of thanks. Gifts entail gratitude and at times giving back. We give back to people who give us gifts. Why not to the biotic community for all it gives to us?
Author Bio: The author has a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy and environmental ethics from the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. He makes his home in Wisconsin.