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Any time I need a creative way to cook a creature from the wild, I turn to Hank Shaw’s website honest-food.net for inspiration. He’s a hell of a chef and an excellent photographer, but believe it or not, he’s an even better writer. Reading through some of his recipes, you can tell that the entirety of his soul is wrapped up in hunting, foraging, cooking, and enjoying nature. As I poked around his website the other day looking for some inspiration, I found two articles he’d written that absolutely floored me. One from 2011 titled “On Killing” and one from 2013 called “The Hunter’s Paradox: Loving What You Kill.” Before you read any further, follow those links and go read both. Take your time. My incoherent ramblings will still be here . . .

The typical format of most blog posts it seems is to find something you like, include some snippets, and add your own commentary. Both of Hank’s pieces are so good that they can only really be consumed in their entirety. And out of respect for Hank, I won’t cross post any of his thoughts here. But I will add my own commentary about the sort of visceral reaction that his writing brought forth in me.

First, I’m married to a hospice nurse. She spends her days caring for the dying and then comes home to tell me about it. We talk about death a lot in the Kee house. So to hear Hank talk about the distance modern society puts between itself and death struck a particular chord for me.

My wife has spent a great deal of time outside of work researching the various ways that modern and ancient cultures approached death and dying. While some might consider it a morbid fascination to have, it makes her a better nurse to understand the ways in which opinions about death have changed.

She has told me on many occasions that not too long ago, families would prop up their dead loved one in the home, have a big party, and people would come by to see their friend, family member, or coworker in peaceful repose. Participants in the ritual described a great feeling of closure at seeing the person they had known in a state of death. Modern American society has largely abandoned this process in favor of cremation or expensive mortuary work to make the dead look alive. As a society, we’ve pushed death out of our lives to only be dealt with at the very end.

I come from a very different place. I grew up around farmers, ranchers, and hunters. Death was a nearly constant component of life in rural Texas. I still distinctly remember sitting down for dinner at my friend Andy’s house at the tender age of 10. It was my first time eating cabrito. I remember Andy’s dad leaning back from the table after we’d finished, patting his belly, and saying, “Peanut was a good goat.”

Horrified, I realized that I had just eaten one half of the dynamic goat duo of Peanut and Norman, who had provided me many play opportunities over the last year. But alas, they had not shown well at the local stock show, and both had quickly gone to the butcher.

I was far too young at the time to understand the concepts of organic, antibiotic free, ethically raised, humanely harvested meat so popular with my fellow Austinites. All I knew at the time was that my mom and dad went to the store, and meat came in foam packages. But then I ate Peanut and later that weekend, Andy gave me my first piece of Axis jerky. Death was now a part of me.

It wasn’t until many years later, at the age of 16, that I killed my first deer. To this day, I remember crouching in an awkward kneeling position in the middle of an open field while an ancient eight point buck stared back at me through the scope. My friend Will calmly guided me over my shoulder. He told me where to put the crosshairs, walked me through clicking the safety off, and plugged my ears with his fingers when I broke the shot.

I still remember the roar of that old Ruger 7mm Mag. The smell of gunpowder, the way I could see my breath fogging the early morning air, and the shocking silence after the deafening roar. And I can still hear Will whooping behind me. I remember shaking uncontrollably, and the detachment I felt while we cut that old buck up into his constituent parts. I didn’t mind the blood, and the meat, and the smell of burning bone while we cut through skull to retrieve the antlers for my wall. We were boys playing like men.

Oddly, the thing I remember most from that experience was picking up my deer from the processor. I remember driving my thoroughly busted jalopy home with boxes of neatly wrapped packages in the back seat. And I remember sitting down for my very first bit of dried sausage from a deer I had killed on the land that I lived on.

Looking back now, I hope that one day, I’ll have a son who will come home with meat for the table. Because in that moment, I became a man. Death had not forced itself upon me. I had sought it out and further made it a part of me.

A year later, I got an invite to go hunt Axis at a ranch out in Junction, Texas. I brought along a good buddy of mine for the hunt. And at the time, I’d spent a lot of time shooting. I was a real Top Shot and I’d be the first to tell you about it. At 100 yards, off of sandbags, on a clear, windless day, I could keep ’em inside of a silver dollar with boring regularity. Again, just ask me about it.

So when an Axis doe stepped out on the road in front of me, I knew she was as good as dead. I lined up the crosshairs on her forehead, squeezed the trigger, and watched as our worlds fell apart. I’d hit her squarely in the jaw, stunning her, but definitely not dropping her. She stood, head down, front legs splayed out, but still supporting her, looking up at me with pieces of her ruined jaw hanging by pieces of tattered hide. It has been more than a decade and I still remember the sucking sound she made as she suffered in the last moments of her life.

I was completely stunned. I tried to reload, but I was shaking so badly that I couldn’t manage. The owner of the land brought his gun to bear, and quickly finished her. And as my tunnel vision started to open up, I saw the yearling that had been hers. Panicked, the yearling ran back and forth, first from her now dead mother to a spot twenty or so yards away. As we approached her mother’s body, she finally, reluctantly, left.

In that moment, death took hold of me. We were no longer casual acquaintances. We were bound for life. In those brief few moments of terror, confusion, and panic I realized that death wasn’t always swift, and I resolved to only take shots I knew I could make. 

Once that Axis doe was gutted and in the cooler, we made the quiet trip back home. I handed the deer-filled cooler over to my good friend and asked him to make sure the cooler stayed packed with ice. We made plans to grind sausage together under the watchful eye of his very old, very German grandmother.

Two days later at school, the day before we were supposed to get together, he revealed that he’d forgotten to tend to the ice, and that the entire deer had spoiled. For the first time, I felt that I’d truly failed as a hunter. I had been given the gift of a life, and due to my recklessness, not only had that life endured suffering at my hand, it had been taken in waste. I resolved to handle my own processing from then on.

Killing is brutally hard. Anybody who tells you different is either psychotic or full of shit. Taking a life — from the smallest squirrel to the largest African game — is hard work. There’s this oft repeated mantra in the world of hunting that pulling the trigger is the easy part. I’ve recently found that to be downright absurd.

Oh sure, I “get it” but the truth is that the hard part is taking the life of something that had every right to it. And doing so means taking ownership of that life. Pulling the trigger means taking that life in every sense of the word. The gutting, the cutting, the grinding, and the smoking are my favorite parts. Those parts take hours and provide me with the catharsis to dispel the hurt from killing. Putting that work in equalizes things in the world.

I guess that over the years, I’ve “gone soft” when it comes to the killing part. I’ve had plenty of great deer and even an antelope or two in my sights over the past few years, only to put the gun back on safe. To kill tears me up inside, but it’s necessary.

I am human. I eat meat. It has always been this way. I find, and I feel that other hunters agree, that my yearly expeditions allow me to hit the reset button. It is so easy to go to the local grocery store, select pounds and pounds of meat, swipe my card, and go home. Taking to the field gives me that stark reminder of where my food comes from. And while I like a high dollar steak, nothing tastes so good as a hot slice of duck pastrami.

40 Responses to On Hunting…The Killing Part

  1. It it just me or does Kee’s posts get more and more touchy feely liberal by the day. Jeez, not everybody who kills yotes for fun is psychotic.

    • I got to agree. As someone who’s spent much time hunting and participated in slaughtering animals on my grandparents farm, I have to say it’s really not that big of a deal. I certainly have respect for animals and nature, but honestly I don’t get why it’s got to be this huge emotional experiance. We’re the apex predator on this planet for a reason. I’m sure the plants we eat have feelings too.

      • Agreed 100% Animals kill each other for food everyday. We are animals too. This is normal. It’s been this way forever. You don’t see lions getting all emotional and sappy about killing zebras, do you? Man up, take the shot, eat what you kill (unless it’s a pest like feral hogs, woodchucks and coyotes) and stop whining like a little bitch. Men are not men anymore.

    • On the other hand, if you can take a life and feel either completely happy or absolutely nothing, you’re kind of EXPLETIVE DELETED. Some lives should be taken or must be taken, but if you don’t feel the slightest bit of remorse after doing so, then something is at least a little wrong inside.

  2. Modern society is sterile. To those of us that grew up country, we know better. It gives us an advantage over the twenty and thirty somethings that have never seen the cycle of life. Or death.

    Soft living makes soft people.

  3. “Killing is brutally hard. Anybody who tells you different is either psychotic or full of shit.”

    I take issue with this statement.

    I remember killing squirrels when I was just six or seven years old and sitting in the back of my dad’s truck, trying to figure out how to skin the damned thing. I didn’t think much of the killing part; my brother and I had trapped it, shot it with a pellet gun, and now we wanted to skin it.

    Years later, we owned and operated a dairy farm. We slaughtered turkeys, chickens, pigs, and steers regularly. I was always excited when it came time to butcher something big; it was terribly exciting to me to see all the meat that comes out of a 500 pound hog. As I grew older, I was allowed to be the one to put the bullet in its head. I never thought anything of it; it was simply the first step in the butchering process.

    Likewise, we also killed most of the bull calves that were born. They were either shot, or decommissioned with a swift blow with a hammer. Again, nothing unusual. It was just part of how the farm operated.

    I’ve been fishing since I was just a little boy, too. It was entertaining to us as children to try and club the salmon over the head as they flopped around on the deck. Did that make us psychotic? Hardly. It made us children who grew up understanding death.

    I don’t ever remember experiencing ill effects from killing an animal we’d either caught, hunted, or butchered for meat. It’s just the way things work. Death is a natural part of life, and to us it was not an extraordinary event.

    And here we are, normal, sane adults with a healthy respect and understanding of death. No psychosis to be found.

    • +100000. I found that statement quite offensive. I enjoy hunting, fishing, growing my own plants then eating them. That all the sudden makes me a phycopath because I don’t cry for 2 weeks after I shoot a duck? Humans are built to be predators and there’s nothing wrong with that. I guess fishing makes you a phycopath too, I mean, the fish die, and you don’t really feel sad for fishing do you?

    • Two quick observations:
      First, it seems you got an earlier start on this death thing, and in a different way. I’m guessing you had no personal relationship with any of those animals; they were always living resources, not companions who later had to die for you.

      Second, people have very different ways of relating to the world. It’s difficult for the two to comprehend each other. Tyler’s way is more spiritual, yours is more practical. I know where you’re coming from; a lot of the people I grew up with had the same mindset, and they were (are) good human beings (some of them are also family).

      I also know where Tyler’s coming from, because that’s where I’m coming from. I wouldn’t say I’m spiritual, but it’s difficult for me to understand how so many people just don’t see how profound it is to have not merely the ability to take life, but the ability to *choose* to do it whenever it suits you. But there’s a role in the world for both types.

      • Well said, however, the issue isn’t his personal situation, it’s the fact he called anyone that isn’t like him “psychotic”. Sounds an awful lot like what the antis say about gun owners.

      • This would be incorrect.

        We named every one of our chickens as children. We played with them.

        The first pig I ever slaughtered was one I raised on my own (under the supervision of my parents) in elementary school. It was my summer project for my 4-H Club.

        Second, as AllAmerican said, I don’t care what “relationship” he or anyone has with their animals. I don’t care if they were pets or not; my issue was with him saying that people who disagree with him are psychotic.

        • Ah, well, it was just a guess. 🙂

          Still, it seems to me that this is a misunderstanding that stems from fundamentally different ways of thinking. I can see why Tyler said that, because I’ve thought it at times myself. And far from being some disconnected city-dweller, I grew up in a little farming town where nearly everyone hunted, and I remember following my grandpa through the entire process of killing and butchering several of his farm animals, which we subsequently ate.

          But when I think about all the people I know, grew up with, and am closely related to who would say pretty much the same thing you did about the idea of killing things, I can see that it’s completely unrelated to mental health, much less someone’s ability to be good to other human beings. Tyler is a thoughtful guy, and you were to have a deeper conversation with him about it, you’d probably find that today’s inflammatory statement doesn’t really mean he thinks so many other people are psychos.

    • Yeah, anyone who kills squirrels for fun is a psychopath. I hunt and I completely believe that hunting is murder, but just accept that I am a murderer, but at least I don’t pretend like I’m not.

      • Uhh… Wow.

        I truly don’t know how to wrap my mind around a statement this asinine.

        According to Webster… “murder; verb; the crime of unlawfully killing a person especially with malice aforethought.”

        Hunting does not fit that definition, in any way.

      • Aerindel, you made the same statement in another post here about a week ago. It shocked me then, and shocks me now: Hunting isn’t murder and murder is not hunting. We humans have been raising animals (livestock) and then killing and eating them since the dawn of human existence.

        We have had a very difficult time, we humans, drawing the distinction. Still today there are many people (ISIL, various dictators, some tribes) who find it very easy to kill humans. They do routinely what most men only do during wartime (and out of psychological necessity): They dehumanize anyone that seems to be in their way, labeling them as apostates, saboteurs, spies, or some other category they have deemed worthy of death.

        We have never run the provision of food from game and livestock into the category of murder, and with good reason. It demeans the distinction we draw about the taking of human life. Blurring this distinction does not lead to saving animals, but rather the inevitable devaluing of human life. The killing of humans comes to be seen more like livestock slaughter, something done for a rational need: Ask the serious gang banger. They don’t find killing someone who dissed them to be murder, but rather to be justice done.

        For the vegans amoung us: You can’t harvest ten acres of wheat without also harvesting some mice, voles, a bird or two, and thousands of insects. Wheat purity, BTW, is measured by USDA in terms of “insect parts per million grains.” There is no eating without eating animals and insects. It simply isn”t possible.

  4. I have saved those pieces by Hank. Great stuff.
    I always pause to give thanks after harvesting game.
    It gets me in the proper mind set for the smelly, bloody work that is to follow.

  5. 1. Taking head shots is bad huntung karma, I reccommend against it. Humans have large brains and small heads, most game are quite the opposite. If you want to drop game on the spot, aim high on the front shoulder, upper spine shot. But, this requires you to know the anatomy of your prey (to judge how high), as every good predator should.

    2. “I resolved to handle my own processing from then on.”

    This is the only way to go… It’s not difficult either, cavemen did it with rocks and sticks.

    • I agree. For a few decades we raised Kronhjört, in English “red deer,” a large European deer that looks somewhat like an elk. My brother-in-law took a head shot one day, hoping to make a few dollars more on sale of the meat. He shot the lower jaw off. It took six of us a full day to track the stag, which suffered incredibly.

      The feeling I am subject to when hunting, killing an animal, is respect or appreciation. It doesn’t make me sad or happy. It is simply the way of that nature which produced omnivores and carnivores. Or, if you are religious, the god who decided it should be so.

      • I think every hunter has a story like that, or two… Making the animal suffer at the gain of a few pounds of meat doesn’t seem right to me.

        Buddy of mine took a high neck shot, heard it cough and gurgling blood, but wasn’t able catch it and put it down. He still feels like crap about it to this day.

        Keep it between the neck and flank and you’ll likely never have to make the animal suffer needlessly.

  6. Another excellent post Tyler

    We live in the city, and only last spring the city ordinance was changed to allow 12 chickens per household. My wife is now coming to grips with the idea that our brand new chicks will be stew hens in three years. She does not hunt, but now she understands more of the emotional process hunters wade through.

    It probably helps that we named our chickens “Taco,” “Enchilada,” “Snacky Chan,” “Snack Black,” and other like titles. Its not crass; the names are a constant reminder of the purpose of our animals. Maybe this is one of the reasons your friend’s goat was named “Peanut.”

    That blog you linked us to… you were right, it blew my mind. TTAG is the only blog I subscribe to and read (almost) daily, but the other one is now on my daily read list. Thank you!

    Excellent post Ty. Absolutely excellent.

  7. A friend of mine used to put the most recently butchered hog in the bottom of the chest freezer. That way, by the time it got to the table, the kids had almost forgotten her name.

  8. I realized that I had just eaten one half of the dynamic goat duo of Peanut and Norman

    Daniel: “You can’t eat something you name.”

    Julia: “I wish I’d known that. I would have named ice cream.”

    Defending Your Life (1991)

    • Youngster addressing cowboy. “Hey mister, what’s the name of your horse?”

      Reply. “Name? You don’t name something you might have to eat.”

      Culpepper Cattle Company.

  9. “Killing is brutally hard. Anybody who tells you different is either psychotic or full of shit.”

    When I was 14, a friend and I found a mortally wounded crow near his farm house. My friend, startled by the mangled sight, wanted to leave it alone. I said hell no we’re taking care of this humanely. I grabbed my friend’s .22 rifle, put the bird out of its misery with one shot, then picked up a shovel and buried it. That was the first animal I had ever killed, and I felt absolutely fine afterwards; no second guesses or upsetting thoughts. Maybe I was more comfortable with death, having seen one of my dogs succumb lightning quick to heart attack years earlier, but at the time I thought and still do think I did that bird an honest favor. Just because some people don’t have a profoundly philosophical quandry or get the boo hoos after shooting an animal doesn’t mean they’re going to be the next Ted Bundy. I also bookmarked that hunting/cooking blog, really neat stuff and the guy takes beautiful photos of his creations

  10. Sorry hunting is natural to any omnivore or carnivore. Take the emotional shit out of it. Before the convenience of the super market people HAD to hunt to survive there was no remorse for animals other than they were glad they were there to be dinner.

    The wussification of society has truly made people take for granted how awesome the times they are living in. In other parts of the world hunting is still the primary means of putting food on the table. So I’ll be dammed to be made to feel guilty about a successful hunt

    /Rant

    • I’m with you about not having emotion about killing for food… I respect the animals enough to not waste meat and ensure a quick death, but I don’t feel bad about it.

    • When I kill a deer or moose I feel a sense of respect for the bounty of nature. I wonder if a lion would the same thing if it killed and ate me? Nah….

      I think it helps tender feelings to spend time in an area where big carnivores eat other large animals. My wife and I found a Grizzly bear enjoying the remains of a bison in Yellowstone Park many years ago. I’ve seen other animal kills since. I think there is truth to the famous words “nature red in tooth and claw.” And we are part of it. Nature. Anyone feeling smug is welcome to visit a slaughter house, or just watch dairymen kill off the old dairy cattle the day the price of milk falls too low (if you think yoghurt-eating somehow is outside the loop of animal killing).

  11. Well, like Mom used to say, ” Life is cheap out on the farm”. Death is part of life. Kids today just do not understand that killing animals is part of a rural existence. Where does all the meat come from in the grocery store?

  12. Thanks for this. I’m afraid of picking up hunting due to the same reasons you’ve listed, but I know it’s a valuable skill that I must acquire.

    • Dude.. Everyone reacts differently to hunting, and you’ll be no different. Some people can’t get their heads wrapped around the killing, and are perfectly content to let someone else do it for them. And as long as you can be honest with yourself about it, that’s fine. But it sounds like you’re making it out to be something more than it really is. I’ve never shot an animal where I wasn’t affected by it, but it’s a sense of profound gratitude, and a deep connection with nature. If you want to hunt, go learn to hunt. Start out by going on long hikes where you’re trying to spot animals. Learn to read the wind, read cover, pattern animal behavior, move quietly, etc. Read books, talk to experienced hunters, learn to shoot well, learn to care for your kill. Once you can apply all of those things, and you actually make your first kill, the last thing on your mind will be guilt. Once you eat that first venison steak, or duck breast, you’ll understand this. Good luck, see you out there someday.. 🙂

  13. for me, the author’s reactions seem a bit exaggerated, but I do get his point. Ever time I shoot something big, I feel an incredible mixture of excitement, triumph, thrill, but with a small component of regret.
    I don’t completely agree with the author, but I would say that knowing what it means to kill in order to eat is important. If I weren’t willing to get my hands dirty and be part of it, I would be a vegetarian.

  14. I like killing and eating animals. How does that make me a psychopath rather than a normal human being? For millenia man had to kill to eat or starve to death.

    Enjoying it is evolutionarily ingrained in a lot of people and advantageous, whereas some guy blubbering about killing a wildebeest would probably lead to himself and his tribe starving.

    Prey animals are not pets, Kee. You should not agonize over killing them.

  15. “Because in that moment, I became a man. Death had not forced itself upon me. I had sought it out and further made it a part of me.”

    Wisdom from one living in the arena.

  16. Killing and death affect us all differently. The first animal I believed I caused the death of was my Mom’s parakeet. That tore me up. It was an accident but that didn’t matter. My action ended its existence and couldn’t be undone. That was a heavy burden for my 6 or 8 year old shoulders. Taking care of the shrews and mice that like my house as an adult? No emotional component beyond mild disgust as I dispose of them.

    I’m sympathetic to Tyler here. It is the natural order. It is primal. It is good. But I don’t believe it ought to as light a thing as some of the comments make it out to be.

    Good article. Good links. Quality articles like this are the only reason I haven’t stopped checking ttag.

  17. “Killing is brutally hard. Anybody who tells you different is either psychotic or full of shit.”

    I must be psychotic. I have been hurting since I was 11. I feel nothing when I take a deer down. It’s food, plain and simple. I like the thrill of the hunt and I like the taste of wild game and the knowledge that it has not been jacked with hormone BS like cattle is. I make humane shots that put the deer down quickly but that is the extent of my caring about the food I am want to bag and eat.

    I think you missed your calling as the next Walt Whitman. Is this Huffington Post???

  18. I get it. As a guy that grew up on a ranch with several thousand head of sheep, goats, cattle, horses, and a bunch of work dogs, death was everywhere. I was always taught that killing without a cause/purpose was wrong. I’ve put down sick livestock that weren’t going to recover, or ones we were going to butcher. I’ve killed a ton of pigs, coyotes, Bobcats, and any other predators that would kill livestock. I’ve even had to put down my fair share of family dogs that started killing livestock and wouldn’t stop (that sucked the most). I’ve killed plenty of deer as well. Everything was always with a purpose behind it and as swiftly and painlessly as possible. I can remember wounding a doe, in a similar fashion, and spending hours, well into the night, looking for it. I was pissed that I’d gotten lazy on my hold/shot placement, wounded an animal, couldn’t find it, and not able to mercifully put it down. I wasn’t worried about the meat at that point, just wanting to end its suffering. Never found that deer. Still bothers me a little. It’s never happened again, and I’ll do my best to make sure it doesn’t.

  19. As a meat eater, you are no more or less responsible for the animals death whether you pulled the trigger at the beginning or took the first bite of a McDonald’s cheeseburger at the end of the process. The real psychos are the people that take issue with hunting but eat meat.

    I hunt because I like being outside, it’s a challenge, and because the process affords me reasons to spend lots of quality with loved ones. Per Mr. Kee, I must be a psycho because I don’t agonize over the killing and accept it as part of nature. Killing is certainly part of the process of eating meat whether you choose do it personally or by proxy. I am pretty ambivalent about the killing but do love the eating.

    I have had guilt when I have shot an animal and not found it. If you’ve done enough hunting, it will happen to you and it sucks. Last year I shot a Tom with my bow and G5T3 broadhead that didn’t open upon impact with the turkey. He turned up 2 weeks later as a greasy stain and feathers in a spot under a tree 40 yards from where I shot him. My son and I walked by that Tom 100 times in the following days as we spent many hours looking for him. He obviously went to roost and suffered for days before falling out of that tree dead. I regret that.

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