Holly Heyser: The Philosophical Huntress

Hunting. Just the word evokes a response in most people, whether it be excitement, curiosity, anger, sadness, or a host of other feelings. Killing something - anything - is intense, and any emotions attached to such an act are often rooted deep within ourselves and are therefore difficult to change. But, since hunting, eating, and the evolution of mankind are so closely linked, it makes sense to consider this bloody activity with more than just visceral disdain or rampant zealotry. Without hunting, we as a species wouldn't be who we are today.

Holly Heyser, a California writer, photographer, and hunter, gives a lot of thought to the subject and how it affects her on a personal level. Here, Holly shares her perspective on hunting, foraging, and what it really means to kill things for food. She has many valuable viewpoints.

What's your overall philosophy when it comes to wild food in general, whether it be hunted, fished, foraged, etc?

Wild food is better, no doubt about it. Agriculture gives us large fruit, but nature gives us more flavorful fruit. Animal husbandry gives us fat animals, but nature gives us animals whose limited fat is healthier to eat.

It is a fact that at every place and time where human populations converted to agriculture, we find evidence that their health declined as a result . Their stature shrank, more degenerative diseases weakened and/or killed them, malnutrition left its mark (grain is calorie-dense, but nutrient-poor, compared with meat and greens). Up until the last century or so, only the powerful (read: rich) achieved better health through agriculture. It is only recently that we've seen gains in some of those health markers in the rest of the population, and I'd argue that the diabetes epidemic is powerful evidence that we still don't have it better than the hunter-gatherers.

In terms of labor, agriculture makes us slaves to our plants and animals; wild food takes care of itself. Hunter-gatherers spend about 17 hours a week on food acquisition and enjoy vastly more leisure time than we do. I love me my internet and my air-conditioned house, but dang, 17 hours sounds like a great work week to me.

Let's face it, though: There isn't enough wild food on earth to feed seven billion human beings. It is physically impossible for every human to consume a diet like mine, which is made up primarily (but not exclusively) of wild food.

If everyone wanted to hunt, would all the wild animals go extinct? No, not under our current system, which is - by law - sustainable. Hunting in North America is regulated to ensure that we do not over-hunt species; the number of animals we are allowed to kill in any given season is based on what losses each species can sustain. If anything, limits err on the side of being too conservative, because they assume that there will be a certain level of poaching. So if everyone hunted, limits would shrink accordingly. Of course, hunting would become so impractical that it wouldn't be worth it for everyone to hunt.

Foraged food, as it becomes more popular, may require the same system of regulation and limits that has worked so well for hunting. However, in the absence of laws requiring such restraint, I think it's important for foragers to follow and promote an ethic of leaving behind enough for wild plant species to remain healthy (and for wild animals to eat their share, too).

What sort of diet did you grow up on, and how is it different or similar to what you eat now?

My family always gardened, and when I was 7 years old, we started raising animals for meat. We were extremely poor, financially, but our diet was excellent because we always had plenty of meat and greens.

Our food tasted better than store-bought food, too. Our pigs didn't eat just pig food; they ate all the scraps we had from our table and garden, so they had better flavor. (And let me tell you, there is nothing quite as fun as watching a pig catch a buzz from eating fermented watermelon - it's impossible not to smile.)

Once I went out on my own, though, I lived in cities and bought my meat at the store like everyone else. After a decade of this, I didn't think much about how good our food had tasted, until I had lunch with a visitor from Vietnam. He praised the chicken tacos I'd made, but complained that meat in America had no flavor. Why? Our pigs are fed industrial food. Pigs where my visitor grew up were fed household scraps and whatever they could forage for themselves.

It was a few years later that I started hunting, and re-discovered what meat is supposed to taste like. We did a fun little experiment once with some friends: My boyfriend and I had gotten four mallards that had come from different regions, and therefore had different diets. One had been eating grass seed, one acorns, one rice and one corn. Hank cooked the breasts from each bird identically, sliced them and laid the meat out on a platter and asked our guests to rank the flavor without knowing which was which. Grass-seed was No. 1, followed very closely by the acorn-fed duck. Rice fed came in third, and corn-fed was universally ranked at the bottom, because it didn't taste like anything. Of course, it tasted like something, but pretty much all industrial meat in America is corn-fed these days, so the flavor has become wallpaper.

You have some pretty interesting thoughts on hunting and how it relates to a vegan way of thinking. Can you elaborate on that?

Yeah, I may be a bit of a radical with some of my thinking on this subject, but what the hell, here goes: When I decided to take up hunting, my secret fear was that I would become callous toward animals. Surprise, surprise - the opposite happened. My respect for animals has grown exponentially, as has my love for them.

I can hear the shrieks of horror already. "Respect? Love? But you kill them." I know it doesn't appear to make sense at all. Work with me: Most human relationships with animals are with domestic animals, and whether they're pets or food animals, they've all been reduced to a perpetual state of childhood, not just in their dependency, but often in terms of their mannerisms and behavior. The more I saw wild animals, though, the more respect I had for their amazing capabilities (and the more respect I had for wild humans, too). In addition, I look at wild animals and see many of the same forces of behavior at work that you see in humans. For example, human courtship behavior is governed by the same irrational forces that govern animal courtship, and male humans do a lot of silly things - sometimes fatal things - to get girls, just as male animals do.

Some people might argue that I anthropomorphize animals, but I reject this. I think too many people anthropomorphize humans. We ain't that special, folks. We just have big brains and opposable thumbs. In short, I now recognize animals as our kin, deserving of our respect. Before I started hunting, I just accepted that they were inferior, and other.

Given that, how can I rationalize hunting them? Because that's just life on earth. Life sustains life. Hunting is part of the natural order of things. What's unnatural is agriculture: We take away animals' freedom, breed them without letting them touch each other, stuff them with whatever makes them fattest fastest, then slaughter each and every one of them. I accept agriculture because to banish it would be to condemn billions of humans to a quick death. But I don't like it, at all.

And here's where I get really radical, and risk offending a lot of people: Many defenders of both agriculture and hunting argue that these practices are not only justified but required because, we are told, God gave us dominion over all the animals. I don't buy it. I think the concept of dominion is just a salve for our guilt over enslaving our kin for our convenience. (Now, let the hate mail flow.)

Do you think that being a female hunter changes the experience for you, as opposed to men who hunt? How or why?

There are definitely differences between female and male hunters. One is emotional: Men often razz each other for bad shots, while women usually reassure each other. Another is practical: Taking a leak out in the field is much simpler for men than it is for us, and of course, men don't have to worry about dealing with their periods.

But I think taking up hunting as an adult has had far more influence on my experience as a hunter than being female. If you grow up hunting, you are taught a set of ethics and values by your parents, and you probably take them for granted. I have had to develop those ethics and values on my own, and I've really enjoyed that process. I don't have to do anything just because my dad did it that way: I explore issues and decide what makes sense for me. As a result, I've developed a set of ethics that are rooted in making the quickest kill possible to minimize animal suffering; I will not do something that's more challenging just because someone else has decided it's "sporting." If I think it will result in a sloppy shot, I won't do it. And I don't shun "easy" shots - an opportunity for a quick, clean kill should not be wasted.

What advice would you give to women who want to try hunting, but are unsure, intimidated, or any number of other feelings that might keep them from picking up a gun?

Let's take these one at a time:

Fear of guns? I get that. But a gun is a tool, like a kitchen knife. You can cause tremendous harm with it if you're careless, but there are rules that keep us safe with them, when we follow those rules. A huge part of learning to hunt is learning gun safety, so you can't start hunting without learning those rules. A key one is always knowing where the muzzle of your gun is pointed, and making sure it's not pointed at a human. I've had new hunters accidentally hit the trigger of their guns twice in the past few years, and the fact that their muzzle was pointed in a safe direction meant that the mishap, while disconcerting, was not harmful.

Intimidated? A lot of women worry about looking stupid shooting or hunting around more experienced people, particularly around men. For them, there are lots of programs where they can learn to shoot, take their hunter education course and even go on their first hunt in women-only groups. California Waterfowl does a ton of programs like that. I work with Cal Waterfowl on one held each autumn in which women do hunter education, shooting instruction and a first hunt in one weekend - a process that took me six weeks when I first started. It's worth noting that Cal Waterfowl also has programs to help adult men, who can be equally intimidated, possibly even more so, because as men, they're expected to be comfortable around firearms.

Unsure? This is the most important one. Can I kill? Can I gut an animal? Many women I meet say, "Oh, I couldn't do that," and I tell them they'd be very surprised about what they can do. That said, hunting isn't for everyone. I strongly recommend that women (or men, for that matter) go along on a hunt before deciding to commit to hunting. They're either going to hate it or they're going to feel that electricity that I felt when I went along on a hunt - the feeling that told me I must do this. If it's not for you, that's fine. You don't have to apologize for it. There are other ways to acquire meat that's been raised outside of the factory farms that many of us find so repugnant. And frankly, going vegetarian is an option too, if you really find the killing that upsetting.

One obstacle you don't mention is money. Hunting isn't cheap. Licenses, stamps and tags are expensive. Guns are expensive. Ammunition is expensive. Guides are expensive (you don't have to hunt with them, but you'll learn faster if you start with them). Gas is expensive, and unless you live in a place where you can step outside your back door and hunt, you're going to have to drive to your hunting spots.

I won't lie: The meat we eat in our house costs more than the meat we would buy at the store. It's worth it to us because the meat is so good, and the experience adds so much to our lives. The upside is that we can take pride in the fact that the taxes and fees we pay on equipment, the hunting license fees and the public land use fees go directly into supporting habitat, not just for the animals we hunt, but for all the animals in those ecosystems. It isn't a stretch in any way to say that the tremendous rebound we've seen in many wild animal populations is due to the contributions of hunters, not something achieved in spite of us. Urban and suburban land development takes habitat away; hunters give land back.

How has hunting changed the way you live, overall? I'm talking beyond the food you eat.

In practical terms, it has caused me to fill much of my free time with hunting, and to organize my seasons, travel and recreation around hunting seasons. For example, I went skiing once and thought it was fun, but I would never risk breaking a limb during duck season.

The bigger change for me, though, is spiritual. At the risk of sounding sappy or "woo woo joo joo," as one hunting writer put it, I feel like my rightful connection to the earth has been restored. This isn't to suggest that hunting is the only way to re-connect; for some people, fishing and foraging work. For others, it may be hiking or photography, though for me, it's important to participate in nature, not just observe it. I look at people on all the city streets around me, and I pity the poor bastards, because they don't even know what they're missing. I truly pity them.

Obviously, my hunting is not as authentic as my ancestors', so that connection is imperfect. I use guns, scopes and fancy duck calls. In many cases, the law prevents me from living that authentic life. I'd much rather net ducks than blaze away at them with shotguns, which make too much noise, result in too much wounding (as opposed to killing), and fill my meat with steel shot. But the law doesn't allow me to net them.

So I hunt in the manner required by law, constrained by the realities of human civilization, and I'm grateful that I can at least come close to the life we were meant to live.

Resources - Finding Out More

I have reached all the opinions I've expressed here through not only my experiences in the field, but through extensive reading and conversations about that reading with my blog community. Here are some of the books and sites that have influenced me the most:

For more about Holly, visit her blog, NorCal Cazadora and check out this additional interview on KQED's Bay Area Bites: Holly Heyser: Becoming the NorCal Cazadora.

Photography attribution: All images compliments of Holly Heyser.