Hunting animals can mean a lot of things, from freezer filling to sport killing. As a meat hunter, I’m looking for a year’s worth of protein, with or without antlers. Hunting season is a beautiful, invigorating part of my annual routine that gets my ass up and outside early and often. While I don’t hunt for the thrill of killing, the post-kill posing or for big racks, as a hunter I’m lumped together with everyone else who shoots guns at animals.
It don’t mind being associated with the interior decorators and stuffed-animal collectors, assuming the trophy hunters in question actually eat their meat. But I’m less into being grouped with those who shoot “varmints,” or supposed pest animals, for fun, and other practitioners of sport killing. Perhaps “animal shooting” would be more descriptive than hunting of what they do.
But semantics can’t change the fact that I shop at the same gear stores as the sport killers, and we share space at the range and in the field as well. We respect each others’ safety by following safe shooting etiquette. I’ll even listen politely at the gas station if some proud killer has a story to tell. A friend who took me on my first elk hunting trip is a varmint hunter. We had a great time together, but remained worlds apart with regard to how we really feel about shooting animals.
A seldom-discussed divide exists in the hunting community between those who hunt because they enjoy shooting at living targets, and those who hunt despite the killing part. There are also those who hunt as part of their overarching obsession with guns-after all, shooting at real, living things is what guns were designed for. In my experience, however, very little time spent hunting is spent actually killing. You can hunt hard for days or even weeks and come up empty, and I’m ok with that. It’s part of the process. And even when you are successful, the kill itself is about as fast as a speeding bullet.
Trophy hunters can at least decorate their homes with skulls, fur and bones, and bask in their glory. But with sport killers, generally, as soon as one animal is down it’s onto the next, like a gambler sitting at a slot machine.
Varmint hunters can generally shoot as many animals as they want, since the targeted animal is a legally ordained pest. Prairie dog hunters will drive hundreds of miles to explode the little critters with high-powered long-range rifles. In fact, “explode” doesn’t do justice to what happens to a prairie dog hit with a .50 BMG (a very large bullet). “Vaporize” is closer to the point, like when a ripe peach collides with a baseball bat. The movie Killing Coyote has amazing footage of prairie dogs being instantaneously replaced with red mist by the slug of a high-caliber rifle.
I’m a rifle hunter, but not a lover of guns. I think the NRA is a bunch of wackos, and I’ve never gotten used to triggering loud explosions inches from my head. But while I don’t love of guns, I do love my Ruger .270. It’s one of my most sacred possessions and best friends, and the annual journey we take together has given me some of my life’s best moments, as well as many freezers full of the best meat there is.
Medical research has found several benefits to wild game, as distinct from feedlot-raised livestock, but many of these discoveries have yet to permeate standard dietary practices. You’ve probably seen endless reports linking red meat to cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other such so-called diseases of civilization. But until very recently, few of these studies have distinguished between an Oscar Meyer wiener and Wilbur the pig, never mind Bambi.
A 2010 Harvard School of Public Health meta-study found a clear correlation between diseases of civilization and processed red meat, but the correlation with unprocessed meat was weak. The take-home message, not surprisingly, is that whole cuts of meat are better for you than meat that’s been adulterated in all sorts of ways.
But in the Harvard study, both the processed and unprocessed meats were status-quo grain- and soy-fed cattle grown on feedlots. By contrast, wild game is the ultimate unprocessed meat, from the ground up. These animals consume no processed feeds, which in addition to their questionable main ingredients can also contain anything from antibiotics to candy to concrete mix.
Although the body of research on wild game nutrition and toxicity is thin, we do know about some differences between wild game, like deer and elk, and feedlot-raised meat. Wild game has more omega-3 fatty acids, branched-chain amino acids, creatine, and other nutrients. I’d sure like to see more research in this department. Another area in need of more study is in comparing wild game and grass-fed beef. The two are often lumped together and billed as nutritional equals, but it would be interesting to know if this is true.
While I wait for scientific consensus on the relative health benefits and risks of wild game versus livestock, I’m going to continue to follow my gut and eat game. It feels right, it tastes good, and the tidbits we have learned thus far are encouraging.
From an environmental standpoint, hunting your own is one of the few defensible approaches to eating meat. Growing food to feed livestock, we all know, is a terribly inefficient use of land and water. Now that humans have killed off most deer predators and replaced much of their habitat with farmland full of tasty crops, deer populations have exploded like rats in the city. Several states allow for the harvest of 10 or more deer in a season, and taking your share does farmers a favor.
Killing is an unnecessary evil, as many of our vegetarian friends have proven. Then again, crashing your car into a deer when you’re driving to the store for a shrink-wrapped, grain-fed beefsteak isn’t such a hot option either. Anyone who’s ever driven at dawn or dusk where the deer are thick knows this danger.
Hunted meat is the only meat I want to eat. Pulling the trigger may not be my favorite part of preparing the daily meal, but neither is doing the dishes. It’s all part of the package of eating well.