Happy Hunting Ground: Growing up Eating Wild Meat

I was born and raised in the far north of British Columbia. My father was a hunter, and my diet included elk, moose, deer, grouse — even bear. A considerable portion of the freezer was occupied with packages of wild meat wrapped neatly in brown butcher paper. My parents grew up in families who hunted, and on farms with livestock. From an early age they all became accustomed to animals being slaughtered, sold, and eaten. They raised me to believe that eating meat was intrinsically human – we have been meat eaters for most of our time on this planet. This is reflected in the shape of our teeth, the way our digestion works, and even in the way our mouth waters when we see a medium rare steak grilled to perfection.

I have had lively and intense discussions with vegetarian friends about my carnivorous habits. Some are thoughtful and we ruminate on the political ramifications of eating — or refraining from eating — animals. When I tell them my father was a hunter, one friend launches into self-righteous diatribes against such deplorable activity — those heartless animal killers. I can perhaps forgive many well-intentioned tofu-eating radicals; I humour myself by facetiously believing they are undernourished; they can’t really “think” because they don’t consume enough protein.

But I mentally take exception to my carnivore friends who chastise hunters. As novelist David Adams Richards commented: “ … it is not in any way my policy to convince anyone that hunting is noble, or that hunting cannot be wilfully cruel. My only suggestion to the world is that those who eat meat should be morally obligated to kill at least once in their lives that which they eat.”

Things are never simple. Eating meat is confusing and arguments for or against are often passionate. It is also problematic if you take the time to educate yourself, and learn about the (often egregious) things done to animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses. Writer Jonathan Safron Foer said, “ … eating animals is one of those topics … that cuts right to one’s deepest discomforts, often provoking defensiveness or aggression.” At the grocery store I can quickly become overwhelmed if I try to buy meat in an informed, educated way. There are so many things to consider: organic, local, grass-fed, pasture-raised? What are these terms and what do they mean? It’s easier to distance myself. I can merely pick out packages of meat that are presented in Styrofoam trays and plastic wrap—without evidence of guts or entrails. Most of us don’t really want to consider that it was once an animal; and for those who do, it’s best not to contemplate the gruesome ways in which that animal may have been raised or killed. Factory farming does not bolster my appetite.

I don’t believe my father grappled with these questions like I do now: he killed in order to feed his family, and he confronted the animals he killed — looked them in the eye. Sometimes he butchered them himself. (I remember a moose carcass hanging upside down in our friend’s garage.)

I am not a hunter. But I would sometimes accompany my father on hunting trips. Going back to school in September always coincided with hunting season. My dad would load the back of his pick-up truck with hunting gear: the four-wheeler, his two rifles, pepper spray, bullets, binoculars, etc. These things are somewhat foreign to me now, but I grew up with them; my father’s hunting gear was stored under the stairs (the rifles were always locked up). I was taught how to shoot a rifle, and this too seems strange: I’m a show-tune loving, preppy college student. What was I doing learning to handle a rifle?

The Peace Region of northern British Columbia has the most extraordinary countryside —especially in the autumn when the leaves are turning, and the hills are red and yellow. Winter is coming, but it hasn’t yet announced itself with the first snowfall. But in the morning it is cold and I can see my breath. It was on such a morning in late September — I was ten years old —that I went out with my father (it must have been about 2 AM when we departed—still dark) in the old blue Ford pick-up. We drove for about an hour out of town (we lived in Fort St John) and then we left the pickup, and drove the ATV through woods and trails. Eventually, we left the ATV, and we set out on foot. I had to be quiet, and this was difficult for me, and frustrating for my father. Moose have incredible hearing, and 10-year-olds can be become restless and ask questions. I further annoyed my father by believing that I kept hearing moose in the distant trees. I would perk up and dramatically whisper, “What was that?” I think I thought I was perhaps playing a game as we hunted for game.

I did not participate in the killing itself — I did not hold the rifle, nor did I pull the trigger; but I did participate in the immediate aftermath. We saw two moose in a field, a cow and calf-moose. They were a ways off, perhaps three hundred meters, and my father used his binoculars to see how old the calf-moose was (I don’t know the exact rules, but they have to be so old and my father had to judge by looking at the horns.) My father shot the animal once, and then a second time. The shot rang out and it was loud. Very loud. The mother cow ran away, and my father –  who seemed remarkably calm – approached the animal. I remember the calf’s legs twitching and then they stopped. And as I write this now I am moved. It was the death of a huge, beautiful creature.

My dad gutted the animal there, and he dragged the entrails into the woods. He had to go and get the truck and with rope we somehow loaded the dead animal onto the back, onto a tarp. I remember he now told me to make noise, because he didn’t want the mother moose coming back. So I sang show-tunes from the movie Hello Dolly, a film I was somewhat enthusiastic about at the time (I liked Barbara Striesand). 

My diet doesn’t include as much meat as it did growing up, but I’m still very much a carnivore. When I’m at a restaurant, I will see venison or elk on the menu, and I will order it. The taste of sweet gaminess is etched deep in my memory; I’m catapulted back to my childhood — sitting around the table with my family.

Humans have been meat eaters for a very long time, and I think it’s fine to be a vegetarian, but it’s not for me.