Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Torturing Small Animals

I grew up on a small farm. Unlike many farms in the area, we did not view our animals strictly as commodities, akin to cereal crops. They were, in some sense, more like members of our little farm community. Most of our animals had names, and we knew their personality quirks. But, most of them were on our farm to serve only one purpose - to provide food. And many of them became food partially or wholy at my hands.

So, I'm no stranger to killing animals to eat. I have looked into a rabbit's eyes, I have killed and dressed the rabbit, and I've eaten him with no qualms. In fact, as most of my friends have heard at least once too often, I think everyone who eats meat should, at least once in their life, kill an animal they eat. I think doing so reminds us of something that we do our best to forget - that humans are animals too, and, like every other animal on this planet, like every other species, we are part of a web of life. We do not exist in isolation.

Now, don't get me wrong. I didn't enjoy killing animals on the farm to eat, although I did enjoy eating them. I don't think killing should be a hobby or a game. It's a serious thing to kill. And I certainly don't condone making animals suffer needlessly. When we killed animals on our farm, we did it as quickly and painlessly as we were able. If your going to kill something to eat, I think you owe it that much. These ideas constitute a part of my ethical framework which I value very much. But lately, I've struggling to reconcile these ethics with another prominent aspect of my childhood.

As many rural kids do, I spent many of the days of my youth fishing and, occasionally, hunting as well. In fact, I partially put myself through one of my undergraduate years of university with money I earned that summer as a fishing guide on Great Bear Lake. Although I've gone fishing only a handful of times in the last fifteen years, and not hunted at all, I find these occasional fishing outings really help reconnect me to my childhood roots, and I enjoy them immensely. Now that I'm a father, I feel a powerful urge to share these sorts of activities with my children when they become old enough.

But these days, I have doubts about how fishing and hunting fit into my ethics. Because, if killing is not a hobby or a game, then why do I hunt or fish. Although I eat what I kill, I'm not doing it for the food - food is easier to obtain and ultimately cheaper at the supermarket. And unfortunately, although I have a greater affinity for fishing, I find it objectively even less ethical than hunting, because I am terrorizing the fish. First, I insert a sharp piece of metal into it's mouth. Then I drag it via that metal as it struggles to get away for a few minutes before landing it and killing it.

Indeed, in sport fishing, the longer this terrorizing lasts, the more successful the event is considered. And to top it all off, many of the places I once fished are now "catch-and-release", which means one terrorizes the fish and then doesn't eat it. Whatever facade of a subsistence activity fishing might once have had has been stripped away entirely. Now, it's just torturing small animals for fun.

What, then, should I do about the urge to go fishing with my sons. We go on weekly walks in the woods, and learn to appreciate nature together, but I'm not sure that's a replacement. Hunting with a camera seems like a fine substitute for hunting with a rifle - if we ever feel the urge to go hunting, I'm sure that's what we'll do. But fishing is harder to figure out. Just standing knee deep in a river for a few hours doesn't quite capture the experience.

So, if, in a few years time, you see a man and his two sons standing in a trout stream with fly rods in hand, casting hand-tied dry flies that have no hooks at all, that might be us. I'm sure we'll look silly to the other people fishing the stream. But when a trout rises to our offering, we'll be getting all the excitement that anyone else on that stream is getting. And we'll get it without torturing small animals.


Kara D said...

I just stumbled across your blog and want to let you know that I really enjoy your writing. I wish you would start it up again! I agree with most everything that I've read of yours so far. You find the words that I have a hard time expressing, myself. Thank you.

Warren said...

Thanks Kara. Between working on very exciting physics, volunteering and trying to keep my family going, I just am having trouble finding the time to write on my blog. I hope to get back to it someday, just not sure when. But thanks for the encouragement!!

Anonymous said...

While I agree with your sentiment regarding fishing and hunting, carrying on these apparently barbaric traditions preserves and passes on skill sets to a new generation.

One day, the supermarkets may crumble and these skills may be put to use again. Hunt with a tranquilizer gun instead of the camera and fish with a barbless hook.

Terror may be inflicted, but such is the price of enabling your offspring with the skills to survive.

I quote 'The Road'..

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains.. On their backs were vermiculate patters that were maps of the world in its becoming.. Of a thing which could not be put back.. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

Warren said...

I think the idea of preserving skill sets is an interesting one. But if we are going to do that, we should do it consistently. My children are much more likely to benefit from learning to grow vegetables and cereal crops, from learning to preserve and to mill. And how about those blacksmithing skills. And in the post-apocalyptic society, where are they going to get cordite and caps for center-fire rifle cartridges? Where are they going to get fly line, and who will make the graphite fishing rods? So in fact, they'd be better served if I teach them to bow hunt with homemade bows and arrows. And to spearfish or build willow fish traps. In fact, I was teaching them how to flake rock to make primitive blades a couple weeks ago (not in preparation for an apocalypse, but so they could appreciate what homo sapiens (and homo habilis) did to survive so that we could be here today). This is how pre-industrial North Americans survived. If I'm going to take the apocalypse seriously, that's what I guess I'd be teaching them (instead of how to extract DNA from strawberries).

danwlewis said...

I grew up on a ranch as well, and while I rarely fish anymore (as I dont see the point of catching and releasing), and almost never hunt, I have to diasgree with the idea that teaching your childen how to hunt and fish is pointless. While I doubt that we will ever go through some sort of apocalypse where we will have to return to surviving off the land, it is still a good idea to know that you can take life if necessary. You say that the original inhabitants of North America grew crops for food... Well, some of them did, but of the native tribes that survived, they were the hostiles. The hunters. There are still Sioux, Apache, and Cherokee people nowadays, but when is the last time you met an Esopus Indian? Or a Massachusett? The reason is that hunting teaches more than a way to provide food. It teaches one that unfortunately, sometimes death and violence are a necessity for one's survival. And I do agree, if you hunt, do it the right way. Most peoples idea of "hunting"- with scopes and heat finders and even "fishing" with fish finders- is just a sick imitation of the real thing. Feel free to respond, danwlewis@yahoo.com.