Tovar Cerulli is an ex-vegan turned hunter who writes the blog A Mindful Carnivore. But isn’t “mindful carnivore” a contradiction in terms, like… “Ethical Butcher”?

Even some meat eaters see hunting as barbaric, but it doesn’t take much time on Cerulli’s blog to figure out that he didn’t give up compassion and thoughtfulness when he left veganism. In entries such as Reverberations of a Kill, Cerulli describes the conflict he feels over killing to live — he doesn’t treat hunting as the giddy bloodsport that some vegans imagine it to be (and which, for some hunters, it is).

A comment Cerulli wrote on “Reverberations of a Kill” explains his position succinctly:

I don’t need absolute proof of, or perfect understanding of, animal suffering to make me take it seriously and to avoid doing unnecessary harm. If I felt that continuing to be a vegan (as I was for 10 years) could (1) give me full bodily health and (2) truly avoid causing harm to animals or their habitats, I don’t think I’d be eating animals or hunting today. In a sense, my hunting is underpinned by the same values that made me a vegetarian.

Cerulli is currently working on a book that—based on his journey from veganism to hunting—explores the ethics, ecology and spirituality of human-nature-food relationships.

Tovar Cerulli

(photo courtesy of Tovar Cerulli)

What got you into veganism?

I grew up fishing, and eating just about anything and everything. In my late teens, I started eating less beef and pork simply because I’d heard and read that excess red meat was unhealthy. And my girlfriend at the time was vegetarian, as were her parents and sisters, so I was learning more about other ways of eating.

When I was twenty, I had an experience with a trout I caught. In the moment of killing it, I realized its death hadn’t been necessary. I could have eaten something else. That was the end of my flesh-eating.

Not long after that, I eliminated eggs and dairy, too. My concerns, like those of so many vegans, were both ethical and ecological: the mistreatment and confinement of animals, the impact of livestock operations on the environment, and the use of farmland to grow animal feed instead of food for hungry humans.

After a while, I couldn’t think of any reason for me or other humans to eat eggs or dairy products, let alone flesh of any kind.

What got you out of veganism?

Two things.

One factor was nutrition. Or, rather, my wife’s study of it. She was learning about herbal medicine and holistic health, and her instructors—including former vegans and vegetarians—offered cautions about the long-term effects of veganism. A lot of sick people had come to them for help after decades of complete abstention from animal products.

My wife wondered if we, and especially I, might do better if we starting eating yogurt and eggs again. I wasn’t ill, but my energy wasn’t great and I had some allergic sensitivities. Once we started eating dairy and eggs, things improved for me. They improved more when we started eating chicken, and occasionally fish.

The other factor was my recognition that everything I ate had a cost to animals. Clearing land for agriculture destroys wildlife habitat. Birds, rabbits and rodents get minced by grain combines, and fish get poisoned by fertilizer and pesticide runoff. Because we have exterminated most of the large four-footed predators in North America, growing crops of all kinds now depends on keeping white-tailed deer populations in check: hunters and farmers kill them by the millions every year. Though I was vegan, my diet was still killing animals.

Even in the organic garden my wife and I were growing, we had to face the dilemmas of dealing with ravenous insects and fence-defying woodchucks. That didn’t make me abandon veganism, but it did put me in a different frame of mind. It opened me to the idea of changing my diet and made me see that veganism wasn’t as harmless and innocent as I had believed.

Then again, even after I stopped being a vegan, I had no interest in buying supermarket meat from animals whose lives I knew nothing about. I still wanted to live and eat compassionately and ecologically.

To vegans, eating compassionately means “no animal products.” Is that too simplistic? How do you think compassion can be compatible with meat eating?

I do think it’s too simplistic.

Compassion is important: for fellow humans, for fellow creatures, for the earth itself. But how compassionate is a vegan diet if the production of that food maims and kills animals, harms ecosystems, and utilizes underpaid migrant workers? My point is not that these harms are unique to the growing of fruits, vegetables, and grains; they occur in the livestock industry, too. My point is simply that “no animal products” is too simplistic a measure of “compassionate.”

Following a path of compassion is far more complicated than eating-meat or not-eating-meat. So your question could be rephrased as “How can compassion be compatible with living and eating?”

And that’s not a question I can answer briefly. It runs throughout my blog and my book.

Do you think hunting is the most compassionate way to get meat?

It depends. We have to look both at how animals live and at how they die.

I think that the animals I hunt—primarily white-tailed deer, within a few miles of home in Vermont—live good lives, free and wild. And if my kills are quick, as they all have been so far, then I think the animal dies well, too, losing consciousness in seconds, before fear surfaces and before shock can become pain: a faster exit than starving in winter, being mangled by a car, or getting dragged down by coyotes.

On the other hand, hunting kills can be botched. Even the most conscientious, careful hunters can make mistakes. Animals can get wounded, feeling pain until the hunter finishes the job, the animal recovers, or the animal dies. I dread that possibility in my own hunting.

With domesticated animals, I again look at their lives and their deaths. In many of the factory farming conditions we see and read about, I think animals live horribly. On the other hand, I’ve seen meat chickens contentedly pecking away in a grassy backyard. I’ve read about botched slaughters, yet I also know folks who take care to make every livestock kill instantaneous.

You don’t want animals to suffer, yet you kill them. Why is suffering bad but death is okay?

One element of this way of thinking is, I think, very common. Most people don’t want to cause suffering, for other humans or for animals. This is true for vegetarians, meat-eaters, livestock ranchers, hunters, and so on. Are there exceptions: people who don’t care about suffering at all, or actually enjoy inflicting it? Sure. But they are relatively rare among hunters, as they are among the general population.

The killing element is less common. Virtually all of us cause some animal deaths, whether we eat meat or not. But few of us do the killing ourselves. We don’t look directly at the animals. We don’t know how swift or tortured their deaths are. So we don’t need to think about it.

Those of us who do actually kill have to find a way to make peace with it.

For me, it’s not so much a moral judgment that death and killing are “okay” as it is an acceptance that death and killing are inevitable. Whatever I do, my existence causes some amount of animal death. Hunting is part of how I come to terms with that.

Of course, hunting involves a lot more than killing. It involves getting to know the land, the habits of the animals there, and more. Most of my time hunting, I don’t even see deer. When I do see them, I usually don’t get a clear, legal, ethical shot. If I do get that once-a-year shot at a deer, my highest priority is to make death instantaneous.

I don’t enjoy killing at all. But I kill anyway, because I don’t want to distance myself from it, always letting others do the killing for me.

You seem to have conflicting emotions while hunting. Is your conscience trying to tell you that you’re doing something wrong?

My feeling is that my conscience is telling me that I’m doing something difficult. Something troubling. Something that stirs up questions about what it means to be a living, eating being with a moral conscience.

In exploring my feelings about hunting and about other aspects of human relationships with nature and animals, I often think about a line from Barry Lopez’s book Arctic Dreams: “No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind: how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s own culture but within oneself.”

My aim is to eat honestly, to fully inhabit both my body and my heart. I want to eat, feel compassion, and celebrate life despite the blood. That involves some emotional and moral discomforts.

One of your recent entries was about how the way you honor the animal you’ve killed has evolved over time. Vegans are often annoyed with the idea of a post-killing prayer, since they think the best way to honor an animal is to not kill it — the animal is dead and so it can’t appreciate any prayer you are doing (and even if it were alive it wouldn’t understand the concept). Why do you think it’s important to honor an animal who isn’t aware that it’s being honored?

I understand that kind of criticism. If I’m convinced that an act is wrong, then any secondary act that seems to spin it, dress it up, or excuse it is going to offend me.

As a hunter, I’m not sure “honoring” is quite the word I would use. But I do find that making some ritual gesture is important to me. Partly, the impulse is simply to acknowledge the animal’s death, apologizing for the killing and giving thanks for the food.

Partly, the gesture helps me address and integrate the apparent contradiction of compassion and killing. This goes back to the Barry Lopez quote I mentioned before, to that primal difficulty of being both a creature with a need to eat and a creature with a moral conscience.

And, partly, the gesture comes out of the possibility that it matters to the animals, too. From most scientific perspectives, that sounds crazy. From a religious or spiritual view in which animals have no souls, it sounds misplaced. But traditions all over the world, especially the traditions of hunting cultures, describe animals as “animal persons.” In those traditions, animals are seen as communicative and intelligent beings, with a great deal of spiritual power, and rituals are seen as important ways of maintaining good relationships with them. I didn’t grow up in a tradition like that. Yet—as an agnostic—I think it’s worth staying open to the possibility.

You wrote an entry saying you are more okay with intentional harm (shooting a deer) than unintentional harm (hitting a deer with your car). From the vegan perspective, this is backwards. It’s better to kill something accidentally than intentionally because, as you put it in the comments, “One way to think of it is as the difference between involuntary deerslaughter and first-degree murder.”

Vegans justify eating the products of agriculture even though it is an attack on animals because that killing is the means rather than the end. But when you shoot something on purpose, that death was the intentional end, which makes you guilty of willful killing. Some vegans would even say that if you kill fewer creatures by killing intentionally rather than as a byproduct, it is still better to kill as a byproduct. You admitted feeling similarly when you first started hunting.

Why did you change your mind? Why do you believe that it’s better to shoot an animal and eat the flesh than to accidentally hit a deer with your car or eat the vegan agricultural products that lead to deaths that you never see?

This is a realization I’ve come to fairly recently, and I’m still sorting it out.

For many years, I felt that intentional harm to an animal was far worse than unintentional harm. It wasn’t until that car accident—where a doe ran into the side of our car as we went past and, fortunately, survived—that I realized my feelings had changed. I still don’t understand it fully.

Part of it is this: When I harm fellow creatures unintentionally, that harm serves no specific purpose. The animals that get maimed or killed on our highways, in our farm fields, and elsewhere are merely collateral damage. When I hunt, a purpose is served: death feeds life.

Another part goes back to your question about suffering: Unintentional harm, in agriculture and elsewhere, is often messy. I’m a volunteer firefighter and was once called to an accident scene where a car had hit a deer. The driver thought the deer had run away. But when I walked down the highway in search of the missing front license plate, I saw the doe drag herself into the underbrush. I called the game warden and showed him where she’d gone. She hadn’t gone far and, after he shot her, he told me what I already knew: she had been very badly injured.

I never want to do that to an animal. When I choose to cause harm, as I said above, my priority is to kill as swiftly and painlessly as possible.

If for some reason you couldn’t hunt anymore, how would you get your food? Would you give up meat again?

I don’t eat flesh foods every day.

Also, I’m not a subsistence hunter who absolutely depends on hunting. That’s a good thing, because in my first three years of deer hunting I dragged home exactly zero pounds of venison.

My wife and I still eat other flesh foods, especially chicken, which we buy from local producers. Those folks include another couple of ex-vegetarians who raise their own meat animals—and run a meat CSA—because they care deeply about the quality of those animals’ lives and about the swiftness of their deaths.

So, no, if I couldn’t hunt I wouldn’t give up flesh foods. I would still eat venison if it was given to me by other hunters. I would still fish. And I would still eat chicken. Maybe I’d start raising some of my own birds.

I interviewed locavore hunter Jackson Landers a while back and he admitted not being keen on the organ meats. Are you the same way? Do you feel like you should put the organs to use so that you can kill fewer animals?

I think it’s ideal to use as much of an animal as possible. That said, I don’t eat every last bit. For example, I find deer heart perfectly edible, but have more trouble with the taste of liver. I don’t generally eat the latter, though I will happily pack it home if I know someone who wants it.

Also, the function of the liver includes detoxification. So deer livers, like deer kidneys, sometimes have high concentrations of toxic metals such as cadmium. This is especially true in older deer. The Connecticut Department of Environmental Conservation, for example, has a deer liver consumption advisory on its website. I’m not keen on eating cadmium.

Because I don’t eat flesh foods every day, my decision not to eat one deer liver in a year doesn’t have an appreciable effect on the number of animals I eat.

How much hunting does it take for you to kill one deer? And how long does that meat last you?

The time it takes me to get a whitetail varies wildly. The past couple years—given the density of the deer population here, the state regulations, the places I know and have access to, my modest skills, and the vagaries of luck and whatever other forces are at work in the woods—I’ve hunted a few days in bow season and then a few days in rifle season before getting a deer. The day I get a deer, it might come after a few hours in the woods, or it might come after a few minutes.

But it took me more than three autumns to get my first. And I expect that I, like most deer hunters, have plenty of meatless hunting seasons in my future.

So the meat I get from hunting—though cost-efficient in terms of ecology, fossil fuel consumption, and the like—is not terribly cost-efficient in terms of time. Fortunately, my hunting also rewards me in ways that have nothing to do with food.

We eat that venison—say between 50 and 100 pounds, depending on the size of the deer—throughout the entire year, and also share it with friends and family. It’s a nutritionally and symbolically valuable part of our diet, but it’s not a daily staple. If it was, I would need to kill more deer.

The goals of veganism for most vegans are to reduce animal suffering and death, reduce their impact on the environment and sometimes to improve their health. Is veganism the best way to achieve these goals, or is locavore hunting more effective?

That’s a complicated question.

Nutritionally, it’s not my place to dispense advice on others’ health.

Ecologically, a vegan diet can be low-impact if you’re eating local, organic food produced through farming practices that minimize soil erosion and such. Hunting locally can be low-impact, too: the past two autumns, I killed a deer within a half-mile of home. But a lot of factors come into play. To make precise comparisons, we’d need to calculate everything from habitat displacement and the fossil fuel used in the production, transport, and storage of foodstuffs, to the manufacture of tools and gear such as tractors, shovels, rifles, and blaze orange vests.

In terms of animal suffering and death, it again depends on specifics and on how you measure things. In the case of the deer I’ve killed, thankfully there has been no suffering: just one death, virtually instantaneous, yielding 50 to 100 pounds of meat. Could I get the same volume and nutrient value in vegan foods, while causing fewer deaths or less suffering? I doubt it. But I suppose it’s possible.

In any case, hunting isn’t for everyone. It’s emotionally challenging, even for many hunters.

And if everyone wanted local, wild meat to be central to their diet, North America’s game populations couldn’t support it. In the US, for example, white-tailed deer numbers are roughly what they were before European contact. In some parts of the country, overpopulations threaten forest biodiversity as well as crop production, and wildlife managers are working hard to bring those numbers down. But, with over 300 million people in the US, we still only have about one whitetail for every ten humans. If the majority of us suddenly started hunting, game regulations would quickly adjust to protect wildlife from the kind of massive overhunting that almost exterminated many species in the late 1800s.

You were influenced to leave veganism by hearing the experiences of ex-vegans and ex-vegetarians who had negative long-term effects from avoiding animal products. Most vegans prefer to think that ex-veg*ans “did it wrong” and that the same thing would never happen to them. It is only once they have health problems themselves that they start to question this. Why were you open to listening to the ex-veg*ans even though you had no health problems of your own?

It’s true that I didn’t have any severe health problems. My system was just somewhat weak: low energy, active allergies, and the like. That might not have been enough to convince me to change my diet.

By that time, though, I had already realized that my vegan diet had impacts: that agriculture destroyed habitats, that many critters (especially deer) were getting killed to bring food to my plate. I had begun to see that I was part of nature. My existence affected other beings. There was no escape, no way to achieve innocence.

That opened me to the possibility of eating flesh and other animal products. I still cared about the kind of impact my diet had. But the illusion of “no impact”—which had made me highly resistant to changing my diet—was gone.

In the comments to the CNN article on you, an upset vegan said that you were never a real vegan, simply on the basis that you are no longer vegan. Some vegans do believe that if someone quits veganism, then they were never vegan to begin with. Why do you think vegans react that way? 

When someone makes a claim like that, I imagine that, for them, being “vegan” means much more than not eating animal products. I understand that. For me, too, veganism was much more than a diet. It was a way of living, a way of perceiving, and a way of trying to change the world for the better. It was both a system of ideas and a program for action.

I can’t speak for other vegans, but—putting myself back into the mindset I once held—I can imagine being angry at someone who abandoned veganism. I don’t know that I would have felt threatened, but I might have thought, “This guy’s convictions can’t ever have been as real and strong as mine are. He wasn’t ever a real vegan like I am.”

Changing my diet involved shifts at levels far deeper than my dinner plate.

Is there anything wrong with veganism?

I don’t think so.

Morally, it’s a fine stance to take, based as it often is on the admirable commitment to not harm mammals, birds, fish or even insects. My only concern is that some vegans delude themselves into believing that their diet is harm-free, which is exactly what I did for many years. What I ate was my business, but my holier-than-thou judgments were based on ignorance about the costs incurred by agriculture.

Nutritionally, I’m not so sure. I’m no expert and I try to remain open-minded. Long-term veganism may work for some folks. It just didn’t work for me and it hasn’t worked for a lot of other people I know. Nor did it work for Mahatma Gandhi, who tried veganism and went back to consuming milk. Nor did vegetarianism work for the current Dalai Lama, who tried it and went back to eating meat.

You mentioned making holier-than-thou judgments as a vegan. Is there something innate to veganism that turns people judgmental?

I don’t think this is particular to veganism. It can happen when people get invested in any kind of absolute moral certainty—dietary, religious, or otherwise.

I should note, too, that I know vegans and vegetarians who are not rigidly judgmental.

On the one hand, I think the capacity to make moral judgments is vitally important. Without it, we can easily slide into the murky realm of ethical relativism, where nothing is right or wrong. On the other hand, I need to temper my ethical perceptions and judgments by reminding myself that they aren’t perfect or absolute.

That’s part of what I’m getting at in my most recent post, about how Gandhi was simultaneously committed to the truth as he saw it and to the recognition that it was a “relative truth.”

Moral questions remain crucial—for me and, I think, for the world. I still pass judgments on others’ behavior. But I’ve come to a place where the quest for absolute certainty feels less relevant than it once did.