Some people imagine hunters to be the gleeful grim reapers of the forest, macho sadists blasting away at cute things just to watch them die. But could hunting ever be just as ethical as buying packaged goods covered with little green V’s?

About six years ago, Jackson Landers realized there was something wrong with his relationship (or lack thereof) to the meat on his plate. But he didn’t resolve this conundrum by giving up all animal products; instead, he taught himself to hunt. And now, with a growing number of people wanting to know where their food comes from, and not being totally satisfied when the answer is “factory farms,” Landers is teaching locavore hunting to people who — like Landers — weren’t raised in hunting culture, but have come to see killing animals themselves as the most ethical way to get meat.

Landers blogs at The Locavore Hunter and wrote a book on the subject, A Locavore’s Guide to Deer Hunting, which he is currently preparing for publication. And he’s already at work on his next book, Eating Aliens, a guide to hunting invasive species.  

Deer Hunting for Locavores

Is there something wrong with someone going to the grocery store and buying a hunk of packaged meat without giving a thought to where it came from?

Let me put it this way: there is something wrong with me doing that.  I’m not out to scold other people for how they choose to live their lives.  If we put anyone’s life and their personal decisions under a microscope we could find things to criticize.  I’m offering what I believe is a good way to live and a good way for many people to feed themselves.  To acknowledge the sacrifice that is always necessary to provide meat is a good thing, whether that meat comes from the woods or McDonalds.

Many people have a bias against hunters, thinking them more blood-thirsty than the average meat eater. Is there anything to that?

I’ve yet to meet a deer hunter who relishes the death of his or her prey.  What I have found is that most American hunters have a profound respect for the animals that they hunt and for the environment that they hunt in. They are just generally very bad at communicating this.  I suppose there must be some percentage of bad ones out there, but that is true of any large group of people.  

A lot of hunters say they have a reverence for the animals they hunt. To non-hunters, this can seem paradoxical. How do you kill something that you respect?

I respect all of my prey and regret that they must experience death in order for the hunt to be successful.  In most cases, I kill because I am hungry. 

Understand that throughout the recession I have at times been extremely short of money and I have children to feed.  There have been times when I literally would have had to choose between buying food or heating the house in the winter.  I was only able to have both food and heat because I could feed my family for the cost of a box of ammunition. We’ve gone weeks on end eating wild meat for lunch and dinner every single day. 

Anyone who thinks that respect is enough to keep them from killing has probably never had to listen to their child ask for food that isn’t there while having literally no money for buying any.

Does your family enjoy eating like this?

Yes.  Even my wife has come to prefer eating and cooking with venison.  My kids don’t know any other way of doing things.  This is completely normal to them.  Sometimes they complain at restaurants or relatives’ houses that there isn’t any ‘deer steak’ to eat.  When I get a deer or a turkey or whatever they are always excited and like to watch and help out with the gutting and skinning.  They are far less grossed out by it than I am. 

I butcher meat at home as routinely as many people bake bread.  None of us care much for farmed chicken since eating wild turkey and doves. Wild poultry actually has flavor, while the stuff you find in stores is just bland protein that only tastes like whatever you cook it in.

Do you try to eat every edible part of the animal?

We try to use all of it as food, but it isn’t necessarily us eating it.  I grew up in a vegetarian household and never tasted a hamburger until I was about 10 years old.  When you grew up not eating meat at all, things like kidney and liver are very challenging.  I have three dogs, so I usually turn a lot of that stuff into dog food.  If there is someone around who likes liver, heart and kidneys then I’ll give those organs to them to cook with.

Does insect eating fit into a locavore lifestyle?

It can, but it hasn’t yet in my case.  I’m open to trying it eventually.  The only insects in my area that are found in high densities are Japanese beetles, which smell horrible.  When I think about examples of insect eating in other cultures, it usually seems to be things with exceptionally high densities that can be gathered easily.  Like locusts, or really enormous grubs that we don’t have around here. 

Should a locavore ideally be a hunter?

Hunting is not for everyone.  This is an emotionally challenging thing to do if you did not grow up with it.  We definitely need more hunters in the Eastern US than there currently are (I say this because deer densities are far too high for lack of natural predators), but everyone doesn’t need to be doing it.  Like anything, there are different degrees of commitment that people will bring and that’s ok.

Do you think that locavore hunting is a lower-impact way of living than self-restrictive industrial-based approaches like consumer veganism?

Absolutely.  I have no doubt of that. If you want to be a vegetarian, then by all means go right ahead.  It can be an ethical choice.  But the ecological impact of my hunting is as close to zero as I could possibly get.  I can shoot one deer in my backyard and get 40 or 50 pounds of meat without changing the landscape in the slightest.  To produce the same number of calories on a vegetarian diet I would have had to put an acre or so of land under intensive management and cultivation.  This would mean denying that land as habitat to most of the wild things that live there. 

Agriculture, either on an industrial scale or in your own backyard, is largely a campaign against nature.  I have worked as a professional gardener and 90% of my time was spent fighting undesirable plants with chemicals, a hoe, and a pair of pruners.  More chemicals to fight insects, both native and invasive.  Fences, traps and gadgets to kill or repulse rabbits, deer, groundhogs and everything else.  As a hunter, I feel that I am participating in nature rather than fighting it.

I’m not saying that agriculture should be banned or anything that radical.  There are billions of people on Earth who need to be fed somehow.  But in terms of my own personal decision about how to get food, I like the fact that the land that produces my food is also functioning as quality habitat for wildlife.

Some people say hunting is not much better than factory farming because when humans shoot an animal, it sometimes dies a slow, painful death.

That can definitely happen.  Speaking from personal experience, over 90% of the deer that I have shot were dead within one minute of squeezing the trigger.  That includes when I was just starting out as a hunter and had no idea what I was doing. 

This is a risk that can be reduced tremendously through education.  A thorough understanding of anatomy, the ballistic characteristics of one's rifle and bullet and a checklist of the most common causes of misplaced shots will reduce the chances of failing to kill the deer immediately.  This is all stuff that is an important part of the curriculum that I teach.

A bullet through the heart and lungs, or through the spine and lungs, is a pretty fast way to go.  In the case of a spine shot over the lungs, the deer turns off like a light switch.  I suspect that the shock associated with such sudden and massive injury would tend to temporarily block the experience of physical pain while the deer dies, but obviously there is no way to know this for sure.  We can’t get answers from deer about what their experience is, so all I can do is project the human experience of shock following such an injury.

I am of the opinion that even accepting the fact that there will always be some small percentage of deer that die slowly (usually because of making it into thick cover before collapsing, where tracking it can take a long time), the total sum of suffering per pound of food is still lower than we find in typical factory-raised and slaughtered meat. 

Many animals in slaughterhouses die slowly and painfully as well.  PETA has plenty of proof of this.  Add to that what is commonly a lifetime of suffering before death.  Pigs kept in farrowing cages where they are literally unable to turn around.  Chickens tortured by having their beaks cut off.  Animals that never see the sun for a day of their lives.

Not that I want to minimize the reality of suffering that a shot deer may feel.  The animal’s experience should always be acknowledged.  But if you are going to eat meat, I think that the total suffering in terms of both intensity and time is still less than what is found behind the vast majority of commercially available meat. 

As to a vegetarian diet, there is a quite a lot of killing and suffering required to produce soy on an industrial scale.  The difference is that it is easy to ignore the debris of severed snakes, crushed rabbits and voles behind a harvester as it makes its way across a field, or the high numbers of deer and crows that are shot by farmers under depredation permits (and often left to rot) in order to protect those crops.  The hunter is forced to acknowledge the suffering required to produce his or her food with an exceptional immediacy.

Is there anything harmful about the animal rights idea that all animals are sentient beings with a right to life and thus we should never intentionally kill one?

I don’t think that the idea is harmful.  It is a perfectly understandable idea to put forth and it merits serious discussion. In fact, I agree that all vertebrates are probably sentient on some level and that their personal experience of life and of pain should be considered.  But I don’t agree that this means we must never intentionally kill one.  To take a concept of animal rights to that degree must necessarily discard the value of species and the value of ecologies at some point. 

For example, there is a barrier island off the coast of Virginia that is full of feral pigs.  The pigs dig and root in the ground for the roots of plants to eat, and when they do this on the dunes they remove the plants that hold the dunes together.  If this goes on long enough then the sand will get blown into the sea and the entire island will literally disappear, along with many threatened and endangered species that live in this delicate habitat.  So they have managed pig hunts every year to protect that habitat. 

From a strict animal rights perspective, this would be unacceptable.  When you start looking at the issues facing a lot of threatened species and habitats this conundrum comes up constantly.  It is not possible to maintain a strict animal rights philosophy along with a consistent policy of protecting threatened species unless you are willing to put your head in the sand most of the time.

Recently a vegan anthropology student tagged along on one of your hunts. How did that go?

She was really great to have along.  She asked useful questions and really understood what we were doing.  She also took one of my weekend classes and ended up eating some of the meat that we had butchered and cooked.  Vegans, by definition, tend to put a lot of thought into where their food comes from and I suspect that I will see more of them in my classes in the future.

Deer Hunting for Locavores

For your next book, you’re focusing on hunting and eating invasive species. What makes a species qualify as invasive, and thus deserve to end up on our plates?

The most succinct definition of ‘invasive species’ that I know of is the one the was provided under an executive order that Bill Clinton signed in 1999:

"Non-native (or alien) to the ecosystem under consideration and whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health."

Personally, I’m mostly focused on the environmental harm end of things rather than the economic issues.  But it is a good definition.

Aren’t humans the most invasive species?

No.  Lystrosaurus was way more invasive.  For millions of years they dominated the globe and for part of that period 95% of all land vertebrates were Lystrosaurus

Not that this issue of whether other species have been more invasive than humans really matters. We value the lives of our own kind over those of other types of life and the idea of deliberately failing to provide for ourselves is just not even remotely an option.  Nor is it realistic to suggest that homo sapiens pull back as a species to our original range in Africa.  We value human life too much.

What are the alternatives to killing and eating an invasive species? Are any of them preferable from an animal rights perspective?

The primary alternatives to killing and eating an invasive species are as follows:

1. Kill them without eating them.
2. Leave them alone and accept the environmental and economic damage that they cause.
3. Try to sterilize enough individuals to cause the population to be reduced by lack of reproduction (this never works).

Options 2 and 3 would be superior from a strict animal rights perspective.  But option 2 is in conflict with environmentalist values and option 3 seriously and truly never works.  Some day we might have technology that is both effective and economically feasible but right now birth control on deer, fish or anything else in the wild has not been shown to be effective in practical application.  The sole exception that comes to mind might be certain isolated populations of feral cats.

What are some of the invasive species in the United States and around the world that people should be eating?

Starlings, pigeons and pigs are the first three that come to mind.  Pigs have been recklessly introduced around the world by European explorers and colonists.  If you trace the voyages of Captain Cook around the world, you find that he left a trail of feral pigs behind him.  Deliberately, in fact.  He thought they would be a good source of food for future settlers and mariners.

I find pigs too intelligent and am too horrified by the conditions in which they are kept on factory farms to eat industrial pork at all, but they truly need to be removed from the wild.  They root everywhere and destroy native plants, erode critical slopes, eat the eggs and young of ground-nesting birds, and can learn to eat pretty much anything that moves. 

I don’t know if they are still around, but 30 years ago there was a population of feral pigs in Argentina that had actually come to specialize in killing and eating sheep.  These animals are so tremendously adaptable that they pose a threat almost anywhere they might be released.  We need more people hunting pigs.

What is the most obnoxious invasive species in your area?

Starlings.  We have them in flocks of tens of thousands at times.  Believe me, I’m working on it.  What I’m finding is that they require a whole new set of techniques to hunt with shotguns, which are distinct from wing-shooting for geese or doves or anything else. They fly fast and high and with an undulating sort of track across the sky.  They respond to structure in the habitat in ways that other birds don’t.

I’ve spent much of the last two months standing in the meadow in front of my house, staring at the sky, figuring out their behavior and developing techniques for bagging them.  It has proven to be surprisingly difficult.  Once I’ve got the whole thing down, I’ll have a chapter on starlings in Eating Aliens so that it won’t be half this hard for everyone else to do.

Are invasive species often more difficult to hunt? 

What I am starting to realize is that I’m going to be running into things like this for many of the species that I’m covering in the book.  When I started hunting Canada geese there were magazine articles and books to read that explained how to do it.  I could ask other people.  There are well-established doctrines and techniques to follow.  This isn’t the case when one decides to hunt something that nobody else hunts.

For some of these species, I’ve got to spend weeks developing the techniques and testing different types of equipment and weapons.  When it’s time to go after Nile monitor lizards I can’t just go the library and grab a stack of books on methods of hunting them.  Or cooking them, for that matter.

Is there a stigma attached to invasive species that makes them seem less appetizing?

Yes, I think that there is.  People tend to label any undesirable animal or bird as ‘dirty.’  We also look down on whatever is common. Back when 10-pound Maine lobsters could be hauled out by the bushel, lobsters were considered something for poor or lower class people to eat. 

Then there is the question of names.  Nobody wanted to eat something called a ‘Patagonian toothfish,’ so some people in the seafood business renamed it ‘Chilean sea bass’ and now we’re in danger of fishing them to extinction.  If we started calling starlings ‘Spanish plate hens’ then people would be all over them.

What invasive species are you most eager to try?

I am really curious to try iguana meat.  I’ll be making at least one trip to Florida to hunt iguanas and Nile monitor lizards.  They usually move fairly slowly and they eat plants so I’m thinking that they should taste pretty good.  Probably a lot of white meat.

Is it possible for someone living in the suburbs or a big city to make invasive species a part of their diet?

Yes, depending on the city.  Even in NYC there is public land less than an hour outside of the city limits where people can hunt.  In some cities it may even be legal to do things like trapping pigeons on your roof.  Pigs are a big problem in much of California and when you are successful you are looking at quite a lot of meat in reward for your time.  It would be worth taking a few weekends a year to go camp somewhere and hunt pigs. 

I do want to stress that you will always be more successful hunting in a place that you know well.  If you show up blindly at some place that has pigs and wander around with a rifle, you probably won’t fire a shot all day.  Identify some places to hunt and spend a day hiking around there at least once a month.  Then you’ll get to know the habits of those pigs or nutria or whatever you are after and when it’s time to hunt you’ll be able to find them. 

Deer Hunting for Locavores

How scalable are the “eating aliens” and locavore hunting models? Could hunting and fishing invasive species feed the world?

Not for long.  Hunting and fishing on that kind of market-level scale would eventually wipe out the invasive species in those areas.  Which is sort of the point.  Eating invasive species can certainly be scaled up from where it currently is, but it is no more a single solution to global hunger than any other single approach. 

But the thing about hunting for food is that you don’t have to look that far to see the benefits.  My family is hungry, there’s a deer in the backyard, and we eat it.  Sometimes it really is that simple.

[Photos used courtesy of John Athayde under Creative Commons license]