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A Hunter’s Heart, edited by David Petersen

Review by Ken Wright

Hunting – December 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

A Hunter’s Heart: Honest Essays on Blood Sport
David Petersen, editor
Published in 1996 by Henry Holt and Company
ISBN 0-8050-4423-X

Can hunters save hunting from hunters?

In this collection of 42 writers reflecting on hunting, it’s clear that these hunters love to hunt. But it’s also made clear that they kill not for macho or sadistic or even “sport” reasons, and not just for food. They hunt for the connection and intimacy with the fully functioning wild world that taking a place in the predator-prey play offers. They hunt, these writers argue, for the unique sense of animal-kin membership that only hunting and killing offers.

Yet it’s also clear in this book that this relationship troubles these hunters, with what one writer calls the “mix of accomplishment and remorse I have almost come to dread.”

This collection of essays, compiled by David Petersen, a writer of natural history and best known as the editor of Edward Abbey’s journals, is not your typical how-to/what-it-was-like hunting stories found in the many sport hunting rags found today (what one writer labels “horn porn”). Instead, this intriguing, inspiring, and thought-provoking anthology fills an empty niche that today is in desperate need of filling: hunters who ponder why they hunt.

This is in desperate need because hunting is now more than ever threatened by a combination of habitat loss from urban and industrial growth, and laws that limit hunting arising from citizen ballot initiatives.

Both threats are compounded by inaction in the form of hunters not rising to become advocates for land and wildlife, and in the form of ethical hunters refusing to denounce the many unethical hunting practices that prompt the citizen initiatives. Clean up hunting or it’ll be cleaned up for you, this book argues; and if that cleaning up is left to non-hunters, then hunting will suffer some tragic losses.

The key to solving this problem, to creating a constituency of ethical hunters that will act to save hunting, is for hunters to figure out what hunting means — personally, socially, and culturally — and to act in ways that show non-hunters that meaning.

But to do that, hunters must first have the courage to confront and answer for themselves the Big Question, a question hunters so far have avoided, at least publicly: Why kill?

It is that question these essays seek answers for. But be forewarned: This book does not answer that and the many other associated ethical and moral questions hunting raises — at least not clearly and concisely, as a specific set of directives to be followed. Like Zen koans, the stories and reflections in this book try to merely indicate directions, point down some paths that each person may follow, by describing, rendering, and mulling on what is ultimately a feeling — a sensibility — that cannot be conveyed in words.

Still, this is not a failing but rather a strength of this book; it doesn’t shirk the tough questions, yet it avoids the pretense of dictating and doesn’t resort to the usual pro-hunter defenses that gut the spirit from hunting: population numbers and harvest figures and the dollars and cents of the hunting industry.

The ideas presented in here are not a debate, and not even a defense, really; this book is more of an extended discussion among thoughtful hunters that lets readers draw their own conclusions and choose their own courses of action. But conclude and act all hunters must, the writers agree. “Conscience,” muses one writer, “is not created by decree or consensus, nor is morality determined by legality or tradition.”

What is most impressive in this collection is that the ultimate paradox is left intact — this is where the “honest” part comes into the title: How can you love something yet deliberately kill it?

Nobody really can say, but that doesn’t weaken the fact that the hunter-prey relationship works to keep ourselves, our society, and our culture in touch with a human lineage and perspective that reaches beyond the TV wildlife documentary and amusement park sense of nature warping our modern view of the wild world. Hunting is more natural, real, and rewarding than hiding our need to kill behind grocery store labels and clothing manufacturers that let unseen industrial killers reduce non-human life to products.

In that sense — that this book appeals to this shared experience and perspective — then, this book will speak primarily to other hunters, as a rallying cry to stand up for the deeper values of the sport and for a call for ethics in those who may not have thought about it before. There is certainly a lot for non-hunters to garner from reading the ideas and experiences presented here, but for the goal of the book — to rescue hunting — the writers agree that ultimately only hunters can save hunting from hunters.

Let’s face it: Some folks ain’t gonna wanna hear this. “Slob” and mere “sport” hunters, if they read this at all — and even if they don’t, since most will respond to the negative propaganda this book is bound to generate — will rail against this book, guarding jealously the battered rampart that says any attack on hunting is an attack on all hunting. But it is exactly this rampart that this book seeks to dismantle.

This is not just paranoid speculation; this already happened, even before the book’s release. When an excerpt from the book, an essay that pulls away the camouflage of science cloaking the sickness of spring bear hunts and baiting, was accepted for publication in Outdoor Life, a preemptive strike of letters and phone calls prompted Times-Mirror, which publishes the magazine, to kill the article. In June, Outdoor Life’s two top editors quit over the action, which one editor called “gutless.”

The essay was dubbed “anti-hunting” by its attackers, even though it was written by Colorado Division of Wildlife biologist Tom Beck, who is perhaps the nation’s foremost black bear expert — and is a hunter. The fact it was called anti-hunting showed that the so-called “hunters’ rights” groups that helped censor the article missed Beck’s ultimate point, which is also the point of this book:

Most hunting can be ethically defended. Some cannot. It’s easy to pick out the bad bits: just listen to the antis, who tend to throw stones at the most visible and vulnerable targets. Listen to them and honestly examine their criticisms. Change, when necessary, is our only hope for survival.

And that’s where A Hunter’s Heart’s greatest potential lies: to bring together those who should be allies — wilderness advocates and ethical hunters and wildlife defenders — and to show who the greatest enemy to hunting — and therefore wildlife and wildlife habitat — is: Hunters without heart.

— Ken Wright