It was early in the Wisconsin bow season and I was hunting on my uncle’s farm with a good friend of mine. We hunted Saturday, and were scouting the area on Sunday morning before heading back to school. Matt was trying to get the lay of the land for a return hunting trip. We were walking along a ridge when three bucks approached from downwind. Matt spotted them first and we noticed the first buck was wounded in a hind quarter. As he approached broadside about 10-15 yards away I drew my longbow and released. The arrow penetrated his ribcage and passed through… the arrow lay on the ground on the other side of the deer. With a few bounds the buck was out of sight and the others soon dispersed. We retrieved the arrow and we both felt confident about the shot. We waited about 10 minutes before beginning to track him.

The buck had gone off the top of the ridge and down a point. We found him bedded down after a couple hundred yards. He was about 35 yards away when we spotted him, staring straight at us. His eyes were glowing and luminescent, they looked like stoplights shining green. I’ll never forget those eyes as I crept a bit closer and sent another arrow into his neck. The buck lay there gasping for air as we stood over him. I took the first arrow and shot him again, this time through the sternum. The arrow lodged in his heart and the nock bounced with every beat of his heart until he died. Standing over him, I felt helpless to do anything else to kill him faster. The first arrow had hit him in one lung and the liver. The second arrow hit him in the vertebra and likely paralyzed him. He was not moving when I shot him the third time, but his heart was still beating. The buck was not mortally wounded when we first spotted him, and all three shots I sent his way were fatal. I know I had done everything I could to kill him quickly and humanely… yet I still felt helpless to do anything else for him.

Later that day we battled yellow jackets as we butchered the buck and I shared some of the meat with Matt. We returned to our college rentals with fresh meat and warm memories.

I never told this to Matt, but at the time, watching the end of my arrow bounce with every beat of the buck’s heart I was nearly reduced to tears. I knew the buck was going to die, and I did not want him to suffer, nor did I want his death to be prolonged any more than necessary. Dealing with death is never easy, nor should it be. I enjoy hunting and getting a deer, but I don’t know if I can say I “enjoyed” watching that deer die. Nor do I know if I ever really enjoy watching the death of an animal, but the experience is invaluable to me.

I have heard that arrow wounds are less painful than other forms of trauma. A cut from a razor sharp implement severs flesh and nerve endings cleanly so there is little or no pain. This has certainly been my experience with cuts I’ve inflicted upon myself. I’ve also heard that major trauma is not painful, as the victim goes into shock. None of this soothes my conscience for the approximately 15 minutes that buck was mortally wounded. Maybe the pain was not as great as I imagine it may have been, but I still caused it, and I feel a responsibility to end things quickly. I see this as a sign respect for the animals I hunt.

In a paper titled “The Ethics of Hunting, Can We Have Our Animal Ethics and Eat Them Too?” Michael P. Nelson and Kelly F. Millenbah suggest that hunting and the direct moral standing of animals may not be incompatible, as some in the animal ethics and pro-hunting communities suggest. They wonder, “What would hunting look like if we granted animals direct moral standing?” (The Wildlife Professional, Fall 2009), and they call for honesty on all sides of the debate.

Say what you will about hunting, but there are few hunters who actually believe animals do not matter morally. I have never encountered one, and as Nelson and Millenbah point out, the clean kill ethic is indicative that hunters believe animals matter as suffering is minimized. Animals deserve our respect, and I’m not going to offer an argument for why. As far as I’m concerned the burden of proof falls on anyone claiming they don’t. The whole conversation of whether or not animals count morally still seems weird to me. They deserve our respect just because. The fact that we are actually having the conversation does seem indicative of a troubling mind set, and as I’ve stated, I have not found that mind set among the hunters I’ve encountered, though I can’t speak for everyone.

The animal rights folks claim the capacity for suffering to be the morally significant criteria (whether or not this is sufficient and complete criteria is a separate issue, but let’s go with it for the sake of argument). Nelson and Millenbah claim that in light of this some pro-hunters may try to deny moral standing to animals. My response is simple: Don’t deny it. How does one actually hunt without presupposing that animals are sensuous, and hence have the capacity to suffer? As previously stated, there is the clean kill ethic that we are taught in hunter education and from fellow hunters. Furthermore, every aspect of the hunt is done to evade the animals’ senses; camouflage, stand location, wind direction, etc. Hunting presupposes through action that animals are sensuous beings. Simply put, we know the animals we hunt are sensuous, because we relate to them as such.

Furthermore, I don’t see a contradiction in caring for animals and killing and eating them. The death of every being on earth is unavoidable, and part of what living beings do is die to be food for other plants and animals. This does not mean their only value is as food, nor does this justify actively taking a life. I enjoy being a part of the natural process, and some would say one may then have to make the case that the benefits accrued from hunting outweigh the cost of taking an animal’s life (as if all of morality were a cost benefit analysis). Caring and respect may do this, and we can show this in how we hunt. In fact, I see caring and respect as the logical outcome of the hunting I know. And as for the kill, we should not dismiss feelings of sadness or helplessness mixed with excitement as something to overcome. This is evidence that we do care, that animals matter, and that there is a cost to our lives. We should hold these feelings near and dear to our hearts. It is what makes us moral. I suppose I “enjoy” the kill for this. I watched the beating of a heart travel along my arrow until a deer died. I would be worried if I didn’t well up with tears at such a sight.

As to Nelson and Millenbah’s question of “What would hunting look like if we granted animals direct moral standing?” I think it would look a lot like the hunt that Sunday morning: a good friend, a good hunt, and a good buck.