Harvesting Truth

By Beacon Staff

Every now and then I’m graced with a moment of clarity, usually assisted by some other smart person who offers up a bit of insight. That occurred again recently when a smart person said something so pure and true that it wrapped up about a dozen loosely connected ideas that had been rattling around in my head since I killed my first deer more than 15 years ago.

Temple Grandin was the smart person. We were fortunate to have her “visit” our little Wyoming college in February to chat with a large group of students and faculty via Skype since a nasty blizzard in Colorado had shut down Denver International that day.

The Colorado State University animal science professor is an unrivaled expert in autism, a condition she was diagnosed with as a child, and animal behavior. I became aware of her work on how to treat livestock intended for slaughter in a humane and compassionate way years ago.
What Grandin said that morning seemed mildly off topic, almost a throw away line as she described the design of holding pens and chutes intended to deliver living animals calmly to their death.

“I don’t like it when they talk about ‘harvesting’ animals,” Grandin said. “Harvesting is something you do to grain.”

She was more than 500 miles away, but I felt as though Grandin had reached through the computer and slapped me upside the head. I’ve always disliked it when hunters used the “harvesting” euphemism. Now I knew why.

I started thinking about the animals we raise to kill and eat while working on my masters thesis at Northern Arizona University about a dozen years ago. My topic was the dwindling Anderson Mesa pronghorn herd that lived in the open plains southeast of Flagstaff, and the role many claimed livestock grazing played in the decline from more than 3,000 antelope to just a few hundred.

My focus was on the habitat and the role large grazing animals have in transforming habitat. That was my focus, but I couldn’t shake the idea that there was something more complicated going on up on the Mesa. It wasn’t as simple as the livestock and ranching operation were creating conditions incompatible with wildlife. What I began to sense was that on the public lands of the Mesa, the real problem was that the place had become an intersection of the industrial food system that these rangeland cattle were ultimately fed into, and nature.

In the short run at least, industry always seems to get the better of nature when they meet.

Most folks aren’t happy about that either. And I include people engaged in industrial activities on natural landscapes — loggers, oil workers, ranchers — when I write most folks. I think we sometimes feel a sense of shame over the way the prosperity of our species results in the kind of dominion we hold over landscapes and the wild animals that exist there.

How many times have you heard a hunter use Grandin’s disparaged euphemism to describe the final act of a successful hunt? It’s fairly common, though it’s always struck me as a little odd.

What we do when we hunt is kill. We kill animals so we can eat them. Anyone who has field dressed the still warm body of an animal they have killed has traced the trajectory of destruction a bullet leaves in a carcass. A path of destruction of our creation.

We kill to eat. There is no shame in that. Maybe it’s a function of higher intelligence that we still feel so anyway, and maybe the rhetorical gymnastics tamp down that shame to tolerable levels.

Just don’t suggest that when we pull the trigger — whether it be rifle or stun gun — that what we’re doing is harvesting. The least we owe the animals that die so we may live is to speak honestly of the transaction.

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