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.