As a hunter, I kill animals, but that is not how I think about hunting.
After a recent trip hunting for whitetail deer on Anticosti Island in Canada, I discovered a distinction between the way I talk and feel about hunting and the way others around me, who don’t hunt, talk and feel about it.
One question I got a lot from non-hunters after I returned from Canada was: “So, did you kill anything?” I was surprised at how much this question caught me off guard. It usually takes me a moment before I can answer because, while the answer was “yes,” the spirit of hunting isn’t so simple.
An animal did lose its life, but there was no malice on my part and I did not just wake up one morning and kill it. I woke up very early one morning, checked my equipment, put on my backpack, hiked through the woods, stalked quietly, sat uncomfortably, and was fortunate enough to see a deer. I then had to fight a mental battle. Was this doe mature enough to take? Was I close enough to make a good shot? Could I get closer?
I shot, the deer jolted and my heart sank. We waited 10 agonizing minutes before picking up the trail. That wait is heavy on a hunter’s heart, like nothing I can explain. After searching in vain for another gut-wrenching 10 minutes, I spotted her fur; she was down. I will never forget the emotion that I had in that moment; it was pure joy.
This is the point where the distinction between killing something and having a successful hunt becomes clear. I was not joyful that the deer was dead. I was happy that my hard work, skill, and patience had resulted in a successful harvest. I was joyful that the deer did not suffer in its last moments and that we would be successful in honoring and respecting her life by harvesting the meat.
I’ve never thought the word “kill” after a successful hunt. As much as it may seem contradictory, the word is just not really a part of my hunting vocabulary, at least not in the spirit that a non-hunter would use it.
To me, killing seems so final, but harvesting an animal never begins or ends with “the kill.” Any animal that I harvest has a life long after my shot. A successful hunt feeds my family and friends and ensures a healthy, managed population.
I often struggle to convey the complex emotions that I get when I am hunting, regardless if I am successful or not. I am not sure that there is a mutually accessible vocabulary for hunters and non-hunters alike, but I do hope that as a community, we can work to show people that their words do not mean the same thing to us.
Hannah Utley is a professional chef in Connecticut who has been hunting since she was eight years old. She writes about her outdoor experiences and details numerous recipes for fish and game on her website, artemiskitchen.com.