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Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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When We Hunt, Do We Murder?

Feb 7, 2013
Originally published on February 7, 2013 3:24 pm

When people hunt and kill animals for sport, are they committing murder?

This question has been on my mind since my 13.7 post went up last Sunday. In that post I described (and questioned) a study indicating that cats kill as many as 3.7 billion birds a year, plus billions more small animals. In the comments left by readers, the idea of cat predation as "murder" came up — as it did in these headlines from England's Guardian newspaper and Canada's Globe and Mail.

I'm uneasy using the term "murder" for animal predators and, judging from Sunday's comments, many 13.7 readers are as well. After all, murder is a legal term, intended to describe humans killing other humans with malice. It makes no sense to me to moralize about the behavior of creatures who evolved to be predators: cats are natural hunters.

Some might say that humans are natural hunters too, because our species and some of our ancestors began hunting anywhere from half-a-million to two million years ago. Yet Homo sapiens differ from all other species because we've evolved brains that allow an unprecedented degree of reasoned choice-making in our foraging and our diet. As I've written here before, those of us with the luxury to choose might consider not eating other animals.

Feeling this way, it's hard for me to understand the pull to hunt animals unless the meat is actually needed to feed one's family, or the hunting is managed and results in good outcomes for the animal population in question. (This can be the case when high population numbers would otherwise consign individuals to starvation and slow, miserable deaths).

As is always the case, it's too easy, and wrong, to stereotype and decry what one doesn't understand. In an attempt not to do that, I've have had conversations with a family friend who hunted here in Virginia. I'm also reading Meat Eater by Steven Rinella, a writer, hunter and television host from Brooklyn.

Rinella describes his first deer kill, made illegally with a Winchester rifle at age 13 (the legal age was 14). "I aimed for the throat," Rinella writes, "but hit the jaw. The deer fell hard and then scrambled down the side of the ridge in a somersaulting flurry of legs ... . I kept expecting it to die, but suddenly it regained its feet and started to make some progress." Rinella put a knife into the deer's jugular, ending the animal's life. He then used the knife to gut the deer.

"I could feel the warm firmness of the heart inside, about the size of a man's fist," he continues. "When I sliced through the sac the heart slid out into my hand as though something were being born rather than killed. ... It was impossible not to see just how serious the business of killing was."

How could that deer (Rinella uses the terms "it" and "the thing", so I don't know the animal's sex) not have felt pain and terror? I feel sorrow for that animal. At the same time, I feel that I should distinguish among different types of hunting.

I'm tempted to accept the term "murder" as it's used against trophy hunters (warning: graphic photos) and poachers, who go after families of elephants and great apes.

By contrast, many American sport hunters, I have learned, think hard about which individual animals to kill and which to spare. They do their best to make sure that hunted animals do not suffer pain. And they are outraged by "penned" hunts, where animals have no chance, and hunts where game is killed merely for sport and is not eaten.

Rinella reports that only 5 percent of Americans are hunters nowadays; 20 percent of us oppose hunting. Assuming they're accurate, those numbers reflect a pretty hefty historical down-shift in hunting's popularity. It's a trend that Rinella laments and I welcome.

Can hunters and animal advocates talk and listen together about their different ways of thinking through these issues? Such conversations can be difficult, but also mind-expanding. And "Murder" is best left out of them. It just doesn't apply in this context.

Barbara sincerely thanks Jessie Lee Belcher, 1991-2012, for his help in better understanding this issue. Barbara wishes to honor his memory with this post.

You can keep up with more of what Barbara is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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