Vegetarian Hunters. Yes, Really.

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The first weekend in January is one of my favorite here, because that’s when my organization, California Waterfowl, does one of the coolest things ever: We take a group of college wildlife biology students from non-hunting backgrounds, teach them to shoot, put them through hunter education, then take them on a hunt. All in one weekend.

The premise is that these students from the University of California, Davis, are our future wildlife managers, and they need to experience firsthand both hunting and hunters – the people who are active consumers and major funders of wildlife habitat.

The majority of students in that department are women. Many of them are vegetarian. Some of students listen and learn with open minds, yet can’t bring themselves to pull the trigger. Such was the case with the student I guided this year. Leading up to the hunt, she was extremely stressed out and ended up apologetically saying she couldn’t do it.

I told her that was totally fine. “So, what do you want out of this experience?” I asked.

“I just want to see what it’s like,” she said.

“No problem!” My fellow guide Regina and I went out and just hunted as we normally would, but peppering everything we did with explanations – why we’d take one shot and not another, how you take care not to shoot over any limits (my first two birds were pintails, which led me to pass on a lot of shots until it got lighter outside), how we searched for cripples.

While we took care to be sensitive to her feelings about watching us kill animals, we also behaved honestly, as in being happy when we got ducks, because we wanted her to see what it’s really like, not some sanitized version of hunting.

You never know how that’s going to go, but by the end of the hunt, I was surprised to hear her say “Great shot!” after I nailed a duck that came zipping through so fast that I scarcely had time to announce its arrival – I just shot.

When I picked it up and found myself in possession of a hen hooded merganser, she got to hear my authentic reaction. I need not share it here.

This girl was not a vegetarian, but I got the chance to talk with a group of vegetarian students the night before, when we ate a wild game dinner.

Yes, they ate wild game.

Each of the three girls had a variety of reasons for becoming vegetarian. One was actually raised vegetarian. But they had one thing in common: extreme distaste for factory farming. The easiest way to opt out of that system in America is to forgo meat.

But they were open to hunting. They liked the idea that the animals we kill lead free lives. They liked the idea of taking direct responsibility for killing rather than surrendering that grim reality to a third party. And they knew from their studies that hunting is integral to maintaining wildlife habitat.

While I didn’t hunt with these girls, I did work with them afterward on duck processing, and I was pleased to see they were taking birds home and planning to eat them.

You never know what people like this are going to take away from such an experience, but these students were required to write follow-up essays, and I’d like to highlight one in particular that I think hunters should read – more to say on that later.

I attended the hunter camp because I wanted to understand the hunter lifestyle and form my own opinions about hunting. Before entering the hunter camp, I only had negative experiences with hunters. No one in my family eats meat, hunts, or even fishes. Actually my entire family is against hunting. The few experiences my father had were with drunken hunters who had no respect for property, the lives of the animals they killed, or for the environment they were in. I also heard many stories in the news of poachers and their gross collection.

Following the hunter camp, there are many things for me to consider. I reacted in ways that I expected to and in ways that I did not expect to. I went into the hunter camp knowing that I had to be open minded, that some of the experiences were going to be uncomfortable, and I was going to have to push my comfort level to fully experience the camp. Friday and Saturday were the easiest days for me. I enjoyed learning about the ethics of hunting and its use for conservation. I found that I agreed with the general principles of hunting, especially since it provides the funds and labor for habitat restoration. I realized that I respect hunters because they go through the entire process and have to observe and understand the bird’s behavior. …

Sunday (the hunt day) was emotionally overwhelming. It was beautiful to arrive before dark and slowly watch the light touch the marsh. Ducks, ibis, geese, egrets, and blackbirds flew from every direction. I love the jet sound of teals zipping over our heads. My guide was very supportive and interesting to talk to. I am astonished to witness the amount of patience and stillness required to hunt. Pintails seem to abort their course if we moved in the slightest.

Surprisingly I actually tried shooting, but I missed every time. The more I missed, the more I started to feel reluctant to try and guilty about injuring the birds, a fear I still have in the back of my mind as I write this paper. If I were to hunt again, I would like to practice with clay pigeons until I am a good shot.

The emotions did not begin until the group gathered together and was taking pictures of their kills. Although I understood that all of the ducks would be used for food, the image of seeing rows of ducks hanging from their necks became too much for my emotions to stay concealed. The beliefs I grew up with began to accuse me and contrasted with the beliefs I had formed during the camp.

I only plucked and gutted one duck while at the camp, I finished the rest at my house. Initially I groaned and was grossed out by having to use my bare hands to remove the duck’s interior, especially when the intestines exploded in my hands and the stench of poop filled my nostrils. Over time, the desire to not let the meat go to waste overcame my initial hesitations. My stubbornness to go through the whole process of feathered duck to dinner also comes from a belief that I don’t deserve to eat meat unless I am able to do the whole process. I still have much to learn.”

This essay is important to me for lots of reasons, foremost being I think this girl showed incredible courage immersing herself, albeit only for a weekend, in a culture that is antithetical to her upbringing. Few people are willing to do that; increasingly in America, we are isolating ourselves among like thinkers where we can remain insulated against alternative viewpoints.

Which segues into my next point: Hunters are as guilty of that intellectual isolationism as non-hunters.

I can easily imagine what the response to this essay would be if I posted it in some hunting forums. First, there would be the predictable, “Did you know ‘vegetarian’ is an old Indian word for ‘bad hunter’?” Then someone would mock the disgust she felt during the cleaning process. Then someone would revel in her general discomfort, probably the same person who enjoys carting a bloody carcass around town on the hood of his truck to show off to fellow hunters and to horrify non-hunters.

I don’t believe every hunter would react that way – the forums do tend to concentrate the nattering nabobs of negativism like no other. However, it is pervasive in our culture to mock vegetarians as though they were the enemy, when in fact they’re just trying to eat ethically, as are many of us who hunt.

If anything, I’d like hunters who read this to keep in mind that every vegetarian they meet might be someone like this girl: someone open to learning about what we do, even if she may never pick up a gun again. While we can’t all provide such people with the kind of experience this girl had, we can treat them respectfully and leave them with at least one positive impression of hunting.

Holly A. Heyser is the editor of California Waterfowl Magazine. A hunter, forager, writer and photographer, she lives in Sacramento, California. You can see more of her work at hollyheyser.com