In less than two weeks, on Sept. 19, the opening of bow hunting season in Minnesota, more than 90,000 archers will take to the woods, hoping to shoot a whitetail deer. On Nov. 7, they’ll be joined by more than half a million hunters for firearms season.
And over the course of the fall, the Star Tribune will publish photos of successful hunters kneeling behind dead deer, holding antlers in one hand and a rifle in the other. Many of these photos will be of young people who have felled their first deer.
Inevitably, letters to the editor will follow, decrying the practice of hunting and the newspaper’s tradition of publishing such photos. Some readers won’t like the blood and the sight of a dead animal. Some will tie hunting to the gun violence that continues to plague our country.
As an adult-onset hunter, I take a different view.
With the exception of an occasional crappie or sunnie pulled from the lake, neither of my parents ever butchered an animal. As far as I know, none of my grandparents did, either — or if they did, it was as children in the early 20th century. They happily left butchery behind when they moved to the city. Instead they did civilized things like sending their kids to college. Having blood under their fingernails did not suit their new suburban lifestyle.
So when I felt the inexplicable desire to hunt in my late 20s, I could not ask my dad to teach me. At the time, I was a young pastor, and a parishioner two decades my senior offered to mentor me. First he took me to hunt ducks in Ontario, then pheasants in South Dakota.
My love of hunting grew, but it wasn’t until two decades later, just four years ago, that I shot my first deer. My brothers and a neighbor talked me through field-dressing the animal — that’s a euphemism for extracting the entrails. Later that day I butchered the deer myself, which I’d learned to do from watching YouTube videos.
I wasn’t alone. According to the state Department of Natural Resources, 183,637 whitetail deer were legally killed by hunters last year in Minnesota.
That may seem like a lot. But according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 13.5 million mammals (cows, hogs and sheep) are commercially slaughtered in this country each month. Poultry accounts for another 800 million deaths per month. Do the math, and that’s more than 9.5 billion commercially slaughtered animals per year in the U.S.
So if we were really being honest with ourselves, the Star Tribune would publish 500,000 photos of dead cows and pigs for every one image of a hunter with a deer or pheasant. We may not like it, but that’s the reality about the meat that most of us eat.
And most of us eat meat. According to a recent Gallup poll, about 5% of Americans are vegetarian, a percentage that has held steady for decades. I just happen to know where most of my meat comes from, because I harvested it legally and ethically. And I have the added benefit of knowing that a portion of the funds from my various licenses, as well as special taxes on my firearms and ammunition, go directly to conservation efforts.
The late theologian Stephen Webb was a vegetarian and animal-rights activist — and an unlikely ally of mine. He wrote, “The vegetarian and the hunter are moral companions in the treatment of animals. Vegetarians and hunters, unlike consumers of industrialized agricultural products, both acknowledge that humans have the power of life and death over animals and that choosing to take an animal’s life should be done in a way that does not make beasts of men.”
So when you see that photo of a hunter and a dead animal in the paper — or in your social-media feed — stop for a second and consider whether you, too, might benefit from a closer connection to the animals you eat.
Tony Jones is a theologian and writer in Edina and the host of the “Reverend Hunter Podcast.” His series “Boundary Waters Passage” appeared in the Star Tribune in 2019.