To Hunt Or Be Hunted

by Mary Richmond
Mary Richmond Illustration Mary Richmond Illustration

With the advent of late fall and early winter in New England comes hunting season, for human hunters that is. Animal hunters, large and small, have no season. They hunt all the time.

Many animals don’t hunt for their dinner of course. These are the vegetarians of the animal world. They eat seeds, leaves, flowers, bark, seaweed or other algae, fungi, or a combination of any of the aforementioned.

We cannot forget the omnivorous detritus eaters and decomposers as they feed on dead things, not live. Although hunting is not their game, they compose a huge group of organisms and should not be discounted or ignored. Many of these also qualify as prey.

Animals that hunt for their dinner are either carnivores or omnivores, the latter eating both meat and vegetation. Most of these hunters qualify as predators as they hunt, kill, and eat other animals, including birds, fish, insects, crabs, and other living creatures, even the most minute ones. We tend to think of the large predators such as coyotes, big cats, wolves, sharks, killer whales, and other such animals, but many predators are much smaller, such as praying mantises and spiders.

Hunting season gets a lot of people upset but it wasn’t that long ago that if a person wanted food on the table they had to go out and get it. They fished, trapped, and hunted. Not only did they eat their prey but they used other parts of the animals and birds as well. Fur, bones, skin, and feathers were all used for various things. Some, like turtle shells, were used as bowls.

They also grew a lot of food or foraged wild fruits, nuts, and berries to fill out their cupboards as well as their medicine cabinets. These days enormous, well-stocked grocery stores and farmers markets have more or less made the need for hunting far less pressing, and that is where the disagreements begin. Is hunting necessary?

Many conservationists, though not fans of random or unbridled killing, will admit that some populations of animals, such as deer, need to be monitored and controlled. Without many natural predators due to habitat loss, deer have proliferated in suburban areas and many are either starving in the winter, eating crops in the summer, or dying on the roads and highways. Not only are the roads and cars perilous for the deer, but the size and heft of the deer make them perilous for drivers as well.

Deer hunting season is short, and many will argue, necessary. Most deer hunters kill, dress, preserve and eat the deer they shoot, whether by bow or gun, which means the deer do not die in vain. This is what happens in the rest of nature, the hunter may say, and they are not wrong.

What we don’t see in nature is senseless killing or killing for fun or sport. No animal or bird stands on a jetty and shoots dozens of defenseless eider ducks in a canal, leaving their lifeless bodies to sink to the bottom.

Nature also doesn’t stock fish or game birds just so they can be killed for sport. If you’ve seen a ring-necked pheasant around this fall it is a bird raised to be shot and killed. Perhaps you’ve seen one standing by the side of a road or in a path looking confused. Of course they are confused. They were raised in pens, fed and watered like domestic chickens, and then released one day into the wild with no experience outside their pen. Although pheasant was once eaten along with wild duck and goose, it is a rare hunter that serves up pheasant at home these days.

Before anyone gets too excited or defensive, I understand the stocking. Populations were overhunted or overfished and harvested and needed to be replenished. It was a way to compensate for those losses. I humbly ask that we reconsider this. Perhaps we need to rethink the way we do or don’t put limits on the taking in the first place. This can’t be solved overnight, and nature is taking so many hits right now that in some instances restocking by humans or oversight by humans may make sense.

Hunters, by and large, are actually responsible for huge tracts of conservation lands, both public and private. They tend to be knowledgeable not only about their prey but the environment as well. They understand balance and are often advocates for legislation that protects endangered species and creates good spaces for animals, birds, and fish to navigate across busy roads, waterways, and other human-related obstructions to natural migrations.

In nature it seems that most organisms are either the hunters or the hunted. Humans tend to think of themselves at the top of this chain but in truth we are still quite vulnerable if outdoors with no protection or weapon, especially in areas where large, predatory wildlife proliferates. Our urge to hunt is probably as natural as that of a coyote or fox. So is the urge to protect ourselves and our loved ones. The question is then whether this urge is outdated or still relevant.

For the next few months, it is hunting season here on the Cape, except on Sundays. Hunting on Sundays is still illegal in Massachusetts. Please keep in mind, however, that Indigenous people may hunt any day, anywhere. It is wise to wear orange or red if you are near or in the woods over the next few months. And make noise. Have your dogs wear bells and wear orange vests. Be cautious and smart.

And, if you do see or meet hunters, please be courteous. They have every right to hunt, whether you would do so or not. Most hunters are kind, giving members of our community. Please treat them with respect.