I think the evolution of the new lefty urban hunter goes something like this:
2006: Reads Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, about the ickyness of the industrial food complex. Starts shopping at a farmer’s market.
2008: Puts in own vegetable garden. Tries to go vegetarian but falls off the wagon.
2009: Decides to only eat “happy meat” that has been treated humanely.
2010: Gets a chicken coop and a flock of chickens.
2011: Dabbles in backyard butchery of chickens. Reads that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg decided to only eat meat he killed himself for a year.
2012: Gets a hunting permit, thinking “how hard can it be? I already totally dominate Big Buck Hunter at the bar.”
Hunting is undeniably in vogue among the bearded, bicycle-riding, locavore set. The new trend might even be partly behind a recent 9 percent increase from 2006 to 2011 in the number of hunters in the United States after years of decline. Many of these new hunters are taking up the activity for ethical and environmental reasons.
“It feels more responsible and ecologically sound to eat an animal that was raised wild and natural in my local habitat than to eat a cow that was fattened up on grain or even hay, which is inevitably harvested with fuel-hungry machines,” writes Christie Aschwanden, a self-described “tree-hugging former vegetarian.”
A recent spate of books with titles like The Mindful Carnivore and Call of the Mild chronicles the exploits of these first-time hunters as they wrestle with their consciences and learn to sight in their rifles.
The expansion of hunting into liberal, urban circles is the latest development in an evolving and increasingly snug coexistence between humans and beasts in North America. Jim Sterba’s new book, Nature Wars, examines the paradox of the rebound of many wild species, particularly in the densely populated East Coast of the United States. Whitetail deer, turkeys, Canada geese, black bears, and trees are all doing wonderfully in 2012, thanks to conservation measures in the past and vagaries of history and cultural change. The problem, Sterba says, is that most modern North Americans have no idea what to do with these species. We gawk and gape; we feed them doughnuts; we run into them with our cars; we are surprised and alarmed by their messy habits and occasional aggressiveness; we manage them all wrong; we want them gone from our neighborhoods, but we abhor the idea of killing them.
Sterba blames our ham-fisted interactions with these representatives of the natural world on two main factors: sprawl and sentimentality. Call it the Bambi and ’burbs theory of human-wildlife interaction. Sprawl brings people to wild species and in many cases creates better-than-natural habitat by increasing habitat “edges”—the complicated, resource-rich borderlands between forest and field that deer and other species love. In addition, sprawl brings goodies in the shape of high-calorie garbage in poorly secured cans. And sentimentality, born of an alienation from real nature and a diet of too much anthropomorphized wildlife on TV, makes people unwilling to take what in many cases is the easiest route in dealing with problematic interactions: killing the animals.
Sterba can come across as a bit of a curmudgeon (he throws in a side discussion about those teenagers with their damn texting), but he is right. People need to suck it up and realize that in this crazy, anthropogenic world we live in, we sometimes need to kill to keep populations in check. If goose poop is throwing nutrient cycles out of whack, causing algae blooms, and imperiling lake species, then ready the roasting pan for some goose.
So how should we solve this “too much of a good thing” problem? Sterba proposes that local sharpshooters hunt overabundant deer and sell it at farmers markets, a genius way to use the locavore trend to pick up where declining interest in hunting has left a gap in population control. He also advocates wildlife overpasses and underpasses, fines for feeding wildlife, and making wearing fur acceptable again when populations of furbearers need to be controlled. In general, he argues, people need to reconnect with real nature “in ways that, to put it bluntly, get dirt under their fingernails, blood on their hands, and even a wood splinter or two under their kneecaps and butts.” In other words, he’s all for hipsters taking up hunting.
It is high time. And all it takes is overturning two long-held beliefs among many urban liberals: that it is wrong to personally kill animals and that hunters are all rural conservatives.
If you eat meat, eating animals you hunt yourself is a more ethical alternative than eating those from the current industrial agricultural system. Rather than being confined in small enclosures and dosed with antibiotics and antidepressants, wild birds and mammals have been leading lives very similar to those their species have been living for thousands of years (though featuring more corn, soy, and suburban refuse, generally speaking). And instead of outsourcing their deaths to an underpaid slaughterhouse employee, you do it yourself, which seems somehow most honest. If you can’t pull the trigger, you had better start collecting tempeh recipes.