It wasn't a great way to wake up today: checking my Facebook feed while still in bed and seeing a photo of a deer a relative had shot in Indiana. I felt sad for the dead buck.
But my relative was pleased he'd killed the deer. A bunch of comments from his Facebook friends were universally congratulatory. Nice job. Great looking deer. Congrats and yum! Excellent. What a beautiful rack...
There were more along those lines. My Facebook comment was decidedly different.
Sad, and even disgusting, says this animal loving vegetarian. Hunting for sport is cruel. Got to speak my mind.
After getting a response from another relative defending killing the deer in the name of wildlife management, I left another comment.
I'm just telling you how I feel. That photo made me feel terrible. OK, maybe killing beautiful wild animals is necessary at times. But humans should do it sparingly with sadness, not gleefully. Other commenters are happy when they see a dead deer photo. I'm saddened.
Here I want to explain why I feel the way I do.
Well, insofar as I know the why. Feelings are mysterious creatures. Much like wild animals do, emotions roam freely within our psyches, arising from hidden places and departing to unknown realms.
There's obviously a wide gulf between the way I feel about this photo, and how others do. That's fine. We're all different. I didn't intend to be moralistic or judgmental in my comments. Just honest. Which I'll continue to be now.
I'm not out to change hunters' minds. I'm simply sharing what's on my mind.
My first and only kill for sport.
I grew up in Three Rivers, a small rural town in the foothills of California's Sierra Nevada mountains. Deer hunting was common. The usual progression for a boy was bb-gun, pellet gun, .22, deer rifle. I'd progressed to pellet gun.
A neighbor boy and I were playing around with ours. I aimed at a song bird sitting in a bush. It fell down. Dead. Walking over to it, I remember feeling terrible. A moment ago it had been alive. Now it wasn't. I had killed it for no reason.
After that I never fired a gun at a creature that didn't need killing.
I own several guns now, including a shotgun that is used for doing away with ground squirrels who were burrowing under our home's foundation and wrecking our garden. I never feel good when I kill one. Once I shot a gray squirrel by mistake.
When I realized what I'd done, I felt just like I did when I shot the songbird. Terrible. Nobody taught me to feel this way. My mother wanted me to learn how to hunt. I was an avid meat eater. I'd never been exposed to animal rights ideas (this was the early 1960's).
Killing an animal for no good reason just intuitively seemed wrong to me. Did then. Does now.
I became a vegetarian at the age of 20. Before that, for a while I had continued to eat fish. Then I was served a prawn, all curled up on my plate. As with the bird, I thought, "This animal was alive until it was killed because of me."
I never ate meat or fish again. Forty-six years later, I've got no urge to. Because...
Other animals have conscious lives, just like us.
It bothers me when people de-animalize themselves.
Humans are animals. After billions of years of evolution, we are related to every other living entity, including bacteria, insects, fish, and other animals. There isn't any sort of gulf or divide between us and them. Life on earth is a continuum.
I've read a lot of books about neuroscience and the philosophy of consciousness. This can be complicated stuff. A key simple idea, though, is that what it means to be conscious is this: there is something like to be a conscious creature, something it is like for that organism.
This seems undeniable.
I know there is something it is like to be me. You know this also, for you. Every dog or cat lover understands their pets also have conscious lives. Farm animals too. And wild animals. Including deer.
Before being killed by my relative, the buck was going about its life as a conscious being. Just like we do.
Sure, we don't know what it is like to be a deer. Or a bat. Or any other human, for that matter. It is entirely possible, though, to feel empathy and compassion for other conscious organisms even if we can't know what their consciousness is like.
My wife and I live in rural south Salem, Oregon. Deer abound in our neighborhood. Recently we were about to turn into our driveway when I saw a young buck standing by the side of the road, munching on grass. I stopped the car.
The deer looked at us. We looked at the deer.
Again, I have no idea what being a deer is like. But looking into its eyes, albeit from afar, it seemed obvious that it was like something to be that deer. To kill that something for no good reason, just for sport -- I could never do that.
Science fiction films such as "Predator" show us what it would be like to be hunted by aliens who consider humans to be creatures worthy of being killed for sport. I wonder how a deer hunter would feel as his wife, children, and then himself were killed one by one.
Hey, the aliens are just harvesting us for food, or fun, or any reason they come up with.
They're more intelligent than us, with a better ability to kill. So what if we're conscious, as they are? The morality of deer hunting says, "It is OK to kill another highly-evolved conscious creature for no good reason."
It's not all about us humans.
Look, I understand the argument hunters make about killing deer and other wildlife being necessary to maintain animal populations at a desirable level. This makes some sense. But not a whole lot.
Because the argument is centered on humans. One species, Homo sapiens. The species which is destroying the planet on which it, and every other life form, depends for existence. We are in the midst of a Sixth Extinction caused by us.
There are many reasons for this ecological disaster, which is being exacerbated by global warming -- another example of the human propensity to wrongly believe, "It's all about us." Meaning, we can do whatever we want to other life forms and the planet, and everything will turn out fine.
Wrong. It won't.
Thoreau wisely said, In wildness is the preservation of the world.
With every bit of wildness destroyed, so is the world. A wild deer is priceless. I'm no Thoreau, but whenever I sense deer, coyotes, racoons, cougars, and the many other animals that live in and pass through our rural neighborhood, I feel enriched.
I can't understand how anyone feels that a dead deer is more valuable to humanity, and the world, than a live deer. I look at the photo of the buck killed by my relative and feel a deep sense of loss.
Wildness has to be preserved. Or we won't be.
It isn't possible to draw a line and say, "It's OK to destroy wildness up to this point, but no further," because history tells us that this line keeps on being pushed in the direction of more destruction.
One dead wild deer. No big deal. There's plenty more beautiful majestic bucks where that one came from.
That's the attitude of hunters. Humans know best. Killing wildness is fine. It's all about us. Other animals exist to serve our needs, not to exist as conscious creatures on their own.
I disagree. I have since I killed that song bird at age 12 or thereabouts. I'm pretty damn sure I always will.
Lastly, my wife wants me to mention this additional truth.
If some deer need to be killed to "cull the herd," it makes no sense to kill the best specimens with the best genes and largest antlers. This is exactly opposite to what happens naturally.
Wolves and other top predators kill the weakest animals, not the strongest. This leads to a healthier herd, a natural balance of nature. But we humans jump in and interfere with nature's wisdom. We irrationally fear and hate top predators like wolves and cougars, killing them needlessly almost to extinction.
Then humans complain, "There are too many deer."
Or, if the population of top predators has been allowed to recover, hunters gripe, "There are too few deer." Either way, we've messed around with nature's wildness, and nature is telling us Back off, you idiots. Understand that you are part of nature, not separate.