(Note: this post contains my recounting of a hunting event that some readers will find disturbing, etc.)
When I was 15 I killed a deer. My dad and I were hunting in the woods near my grandparents’ house in West Virginia. I think it was the fall. It was cold and we walked slowly, careful not to snap twigs or crunch leaves. Eventually, we heard some rustling in the distance but didn’t see anything. My heart rate began to rise. Attempting a common hunting strategy where one party flanks the animal sending it in another direction, my dad took a wide path around while I stayed in one place waiting to spot the deer after he “jumped” it toward me.
Hunting is a true test of patience, not unlike fishing. I waited in the silent woods for what seemed like forever, but was likely only 15 or 20 minutes. Finally, I heard more noise as something approached from the distance. My heart thumped. Then the deer appeared. I made sure it was a deer and not my dad or someone else walking back (my grandfather always admonished us to be sure of what we were shooting at; never shoot at a sound or movement. He had been shot in a near-fatal hunting accident as a teenager).
The deer was in plain sight now, maybe 25 yards away. I raised my rifle, captured the deer in my scope, exhaled, and pulled the trigger. Crack. The deer ran off, wounded. When my dad returned I told him I shot one and we set off to track it. I was full of excitement and adrenaline.
Walking in the direction I had fired, I started to look at the ground and began to see crimson spots on the leaves. Then we came upon the deer, lying on the ground alive, its faint breath visible in the cold air. It was an odd moment, surreal even. I looked in the deer’s big black orb-eyes thinking that I might see anguish or fear that might intensify my shame and guilt. But I saw nothing. Its thick tan hide was beautiful, even majestic. My dad told me to shoot it to prevent it from suffering any more. I shot it again and it died.
“The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor, ‘Can they talk?’ but rather, ‘Can they suffer?’ ~Jeremy Bentham
Few experiences have stirred such conflicting emotions in me. I was thrilled and depressed, proud and ashamed. As a teenager I didn’t think much about the ethics of killing animals. I hardly questioned the tradition of hunting; it was a tried and true venture, connected to a past when securing food this way was necessary. We didn’t take it lightly or do it for sport. The entire animal was salvaged, the meat, the hide, the brains for tanning the hide, the carcass for feeding the animals and birds. My mother hated hunting, for various reasons, but, as a teenager, her aversion only seemed to send me further in the direction of committing an act of cruelty that might lead to her deep disappointment.
As far as we know, humans are the only species that feel and think about the things that I felt when I shot the deer – shame, pride, sadness, and so on. We are the only species that contemplates death, or contemplates anything. Though, other primates and dolphins seem to have greater capacity to exhibit empathic and sympathetic behaviors on a regular basis.
We tend to treat animals based on our perception of their levels of intelligence through a spectrum of human behavior that ranges from the ridiculous (pushing dogs in baby strollers) to the despicable (swatting flies). We show affection to dogs and cats and vigorously decry their mistreatment because they exhibit relatable traits and expressions. Yet, most of us don’t protest the inhumane slaughter of cows and chickens because they can’t look us in the eye.
Understanding consciousness and suffering in animals is obviously complex, and how far down the line such things go is impossible to say. Upon being eaten, plants have been known to send signals to nearby plants that will, in turn, subtly alter their appearance and flavor by developing unsightly features and unpleasant tastes that discourage their consumption. Broccoli seems to do this without such incitement.
Of course, we continue to debate and study the ethics of killing animals and the science of their behavior and emotions. Yet, there must be something that it is like to be a fly…or a jellyfish…or a bird.
On The Simpsons, Lisa asks, “Do we have any food that wasn’t brutally slaughtered?”, Homer responds, “Well, I think the veal died of loneliness.”
When I look at my dog staring out the window from a comfortable position on the couch, forlornly resting his face on the armrest, I like to think that he is reflecting on how he had been a bad boy earlier that day, as he contemplates how to make up for it. When he whimpers and trembles in his sleep I can’t help but think that his dreams must be real. He nudges my hand with his nose and I think he is being affectionate, until he bares his teeth and starts to gnaw on my hand, and I realize he is only trying to satisfy his instinctual desire to chew.
Some say that it’s silly to think that cats care about how we feel, (Cats, of course don’t care about how we feel, only dogs do). But it seems to me equally foolish to think that animals are senseless and don’t suffer. I despised (and still do) the killing of animals purely for sport.
In Switzerland, they recently banned the practice of boiling lobsters. This seems to be a humane and sensible move since hardly anyone would argue that any creature enjoys being thrust unwittingly into scalding water. The most ardent activists there have even pushed for constitutional rights to be enshrined for animals, including the right to an attorney. Lawyers always need more work.
In an excellent article on the Endangered Species Act, Cornell law professor, Sherry F. Colb links animal rights to the ethics derived form Plato’s allegory of the cave about the abstract world of ideas and the reality of the material world. She writes, “The contrast is between seeing and valuing an individual being as the unique creature that she is, and regarding the animals whose flesh and secretions one consumes as abstractions, mere exemplars of the idea of “cow” or “chicken” or “pig,” an idea that represents a source of food, rather than real living beings who want to live just as much as our dogs and cats do.” (My emphasis added). Those italicized words get to the heart of the issue, and for this reason, the debate will go on.
So you know, I have not killed a deer since I was 15.