I was once vegan, and now fill my freezers with meat from my hunts. When people hear that I once made my own tofu, and now proudly hang what most non-hunters would call trophies throughout my house, they are usually dumbfounded. You, my dear reader, are likely having a similar reaction.
In this article, I hope to show you that my former and current lifestyles are far less contradictory than you might presume. Further, I will posit that despite the many differences between my former peers and my current lifestyle, the time has come for those of us who profess to care deeply for the flora and fauna of this planet to band together on our common ground, rather than emphasizing and disputing the morals and ethics of our seemingly opposite world views. It is important to note that these are my own personal views and not those of any organization or group with which I am associated.
On the face of it, a hunter could not possess a more contrasting set of values than with the vegan. Vegans and hunters are viewed as irreconcilably opposed. What could they have to learn from one another? Before dissecting the nuances, let me begin with the story of the evolution of my ethics.
It came to a head while I was a typical university student: naive, passionate, and idealistic. When I first learned of the medical animal testing occurring on my campus, I was shocked. How could they do that here? Was I somehow complicit in it? At the time, the Internet was a pretty new thing, but I managed to do some research and learn more about animal testing. I found my way to the website for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Within a couple of days of watching slaughterhouse footage and covert behind-the-scenes filming of battery hens and broiler chickens, I tried my first week of vegetarian living.
During that week, I learned more about large scale animal agriculture, or at least what PETA thought of it, and the environmental impact of industrial meat production, something to which I had been previously ignorant. Before long, I decided that a vegan lifestyle was what my personal ethics likely demanded.
But what were my ethics? Growing up shielded from the harsh realities of life such as poverty, hunger, or humanity’s tendency to prey upon itself, I was filled with idealism, but also with horror when I encountered a hard truth about life: things will die, and my very existence comes at a cost to the Earth. I thought I was a person who cared deeply for the environment but learned I was complicit in many activities that were in fact, harming it.
My reaction was to radically and suddenly change my life to reduce my personal impact. This was a significant time for me when I sought to bring my actions in-line with how I thought the world should be. Going with the flow was easy, but I wanted to take more responsibility for my actions. If I was unwilling to kill those animals, and would not condone the industry that produces the meat, I was reluctant to consume them.
When I confronted the supply chain of my food, I came to see two main problems: industrial meat production had no genuine consideration for the welfare of the millions and billions of creatures it consumed annually, and our planet was beginning to suffer under the weight of so many mouths to feed. It was my first experience with cognitive dissonance: I could not reconcile what I believed with my personal actions. And so, I became vegan.
It was a trying time for me, and for those around me who had to listen to my constant proselytizing. Naturally, various inconsistencies between my stated position (veganism) and my actions (“But what about your leather belt?”) arose, and as a younger person, these were difficult to reconcile. Touché.
This all transpired in Victoria, British Columbia, a town where a person can grow vegetables 10 months per year and which is close (in Canadian terms) to the agricultural areas of British Columbia, California and Mexico. It is safe to say that Victoria is known for the idealism of its university students.
A couple of years later I moved to Whitehorse, Yukon, a northern town far, far away from the agricultural fields that supply so much of Canada with its vegetables and fruit. My vegan life began to come apart at the seams. My nutrition was showing cracks as my iron levels were low, and I began to look unhealthy. Here, the environmental case for a meatless diet was less intuitive: beyond beets, carrots and cabbage, there was not much commercial agriculture in the Yukon. Almost everything we could buy at the grocery store came from a far-off land.
It was in the Yukon that the second landmark moment of cognitive dissonance occurred. I was eating dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house. More accurately, I was not eating dinner. My uncle had harvested a moose, and spaghetti with moose meatballs was on the menu. But vegans do not eat moose. So, I had organic lettuce with some other low-calorie, high-impact greenery from far away. As I write this 15 years later, I can still feel the scaffolding of my ethics tremble and groan as this new information shook my reality.
Their plates were graced by a huge animal harvested by a team of friends, butchered and fed to the family, grown of this very land where we lived. And then there was mine: lettuce cajoled into being by an industrial machine, organic or not, shipped thousands of miles by truck, and somehow kept “alive” long enough to be consumed.
In the days and weeks that followed, I could not reconcile what I had seen and felt. Ultimately, I left veganism behind as I saw it to be an incomplete set of ethics that made some sense to me in an urban world separated from the natural world, but overall failed to accommodate my new northern reality. Veganism was no longer what I needed.
Fast-forwarding a decade or so, I found myself back in the Yukon, living in a small aboriginal village. I was no longer a vegan, and there were no vegans to be seen. These were people who live as their ancestors had: harvesting moose, trapping and fishing. One of my first experiences in this place was to help a trapper skin wolves. It was a new experience and was consistent with my values of aspiring to live from what the local forests could provide, and with my nostalgia for the old ways. The idealism of my youth was alive and kicking, but it was expanding to accommodate a decade of life experience. I had travelled the world and seen how different people live different stories. It was not long before I witnessed my first moose harvest and felt, in my bones, the dichotomy we hunters know so well and articulate so poorly.
Since that time, I have harvested moose, bear, sheep, caribou, bison, goat, coyote and wolf. My bride wore a coyote pelt to our wedding, and I have a surprising amount of horn (what some might call trophies) on the walls of our small house. We have three freezers. My young daughter has been nourished from the bounty of the Yukon since her conception and grows strong from moose and sheep meat, and even some carefully prepared grizzly and black bear sausage.
My meat grinder and butchering knives are among my most prized possessions. Every day of the week, I eat what this land provides. I buy local vegetables, grow a modest garden in our backyard, and pass by the meat coolers at the grocery store without pause. I spend my money lower on the food chain, acquiring much of my nutrition indirectly via the meat of ungulates that feed off the grasses, lichens and willows of the Yukon.
Hunters nowadays consistently deliver the message that “to be a hunter is to be a conservationist,” as the reality that hunter-led clubs and organizations contribute massive sums of money, energy and volunteer time to the stewardship of wildlife and their habitats has gone under-reported for far too long. With our passion seen increasingly like an anachronism, an old habit from a time and place long ago, and with hunter numbers declining and the average age steadily rising, the future of hunting in modern society is unclear. I do not disagree with the conservation messaging. However, I believe that the traditional hunter-as-conservationist approach does not go far enough given the environmental realities of the 21st century.
Vegans and many hard-core environmentalists are concerned for the welfare of individual animals and for the environment. Broadly speaking, they condemn industrial animal husbandry as cruel with severely negative environmental impacts. Water consumption and pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and impacts to wildlife all make their list of concerns, and frankly, these are not up for debate. Countless analyses of the impacts of animal agriculture-based diets show definitively that the impacts are much, much higher than a vegetarian diet. We hunters should not ignore these facts simply because they are espoused by vegans and environmentalists.
Many hunters will claim to agree that the environment, broadly speaking, is worth protecting. Yet when we look closely, the actual lifestyles of modern hunters may differ little from everyone else. We fly, consume, consume, consume, and participate fully in the modern economy that is largely ignorant to its full environmental burden.
Those who hunt, do so for as many reasons as there are hunters. There are many who speak to the health benefits of “the best protein on the planet” and appreciate “knowing where our food comes from,” and they are on the same track as I am, even if they do not do their best to eat as a vegetarian in restaurants or purchase as a vegetarian at the grocery store.
Despite what you may see or read on social media, most hunters truly do possess a grave concern for the wellbeing of the animal populations they hunt, as well as a broader concern for the wild spaces and ecosystems that sustain their quarry. Hunters have been stewards of the land and their prey since the beginning of time in ways that no vegan can lay claim to. We bring an intimacy with the landscape that no “outdoor enthusiast” can photograph or fathom. In turn, my former peers in the vegan and environmental community should not ignore these facts either.
This planet needs every advocate and requires a transformation of society that no singular contingent, organization or belief system can bring about. For this reason, finding our common interests is more important than getting hung up on any specific moral disagreement. If the outcome is net positive for wildlife, their specific habitats, and more broadly the environment, morals and ethics should play second fiddle to what we all profess to be striving for.
I frequently have people laugh as they tell me how much I have changed, and what a difference it is to go from being vegan to a hunter. It is true, a cursory look at my story is rather comical. But I see it differently. In my university years, I attempted to live in-line with my ethics and values, to take responsibility for what I did and ate. I am proud of the courage I summoned to stand apart and live a conscious life.
While I now see the world with more nuance and humility, and frankly less militancy, I have the same fundamental ethics. I care about the Earth and do my best to avoid supporting industries I believe are killing it. I will be the first to admit that I do not have all the answers and that my own hypocrisy is substantial. However, now is not the time for blame, or failure to act, simply because the way forward is uncertain.
Just as my ethics have evolved to closer match my reality, I believe that the modern hunter should also evolve. 1Campfire is proof positive that I am not alone in these sentiments. As circumstances change, so do norms and ethics. If we are true conservationists, we should find common ground with all those who can help us to make a better future. But, that open mindedness must flow both ways.
I believe that now is a time for all of us, hunters and non-hunters alike, to revive and expand our tradition of stewardship in the interests of future generations, and the ecosystems that support healthy wildlife populations. This must occur through constructive dialogue, through good examples of stewardship and conservation, and through whatever media we can use, such as this platform, social media, or film.
Just as an individual can benefit from exposure to the inner workings of others through fiction, or the small-towner can benefit from that first vacation to Europe, non-hunters will grow through their understanding of the stories hunters tell. Equally, we hunters must remain open to the truths these other groups can share with us.
While we may disagree on the path to the desired outcome, hunters and environmentalists all wish to see the land rich with wildlife. This is a common belief worth acknowledging and celebrating. Regardless of our differences, this Blue Planet of ours begs that hunters and non-hunters alike unite in the development and practice of a modern ethic that faces the harsh truths of our time.
About Karl Blattman
If you read this in full, there isn’t much more to say about Karl. But, if you’d like to put a face to this story. Check out this short video featuring Karl and his ethical journey exploring his consumption habits (scroll to second video).