Hunting for the Right Reason

The end goal should never be the kill

By Rob Breeding

“One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.” – José Ortega y Gasset, Meditations on Hunting

This quote from the Spanish philosopher is familiar to most hunters. It’s often repeated, sometimes incorrectly I think, as a justification for hunting. The idea is that the kill is necessary for hunting, that the experience isn’t complete until it’s completed in the mortal sense.

In other words, we haven’t hunted until we’ve killed.

That’s not what I take from Gasset. My focus, at least from an ethical standpoint, has always been on the phrase before the semicolon: One does not hunt in order to kill.

As I see it, Gasset’s point is the end goal should never be the kill. If it were, if we hunted just for the kill, we’d abandon fair chase and head to the nearest game farm or stocked pheasant field or the brooder pond of the nearest fish hatchery. That’s what the hunt-in-order-to-kill mentality promotes: a sense the kill is the end all.

Most hunters and even non-hunters understand such a philosophy is wrong. Fair chase, the hunting of wild animals in wild places where those animals have a chance to escape, and the human predator faces the very real prospect of going home empty handed, that’s what makes hunting hunting.

The focus is on the act rather than the outcome. That’s why a part of me was conflicted during my December quest to hunt all six U.S. quail species. It’s a journey I’ve wanted to take for decades, and I finally did it last year. Weather and family issues interfered with the final leg, however, and I ended up hunting, but not killing the two species I’d left for California.

The trip was an exciting, revealing experience. Chasing two species I’d never killed before – bobwhite and scaled quail – took me to new places. I hunted grasslands in Oklahoma punctuated with stands of shinnery oak chasing bobwhite, and I found scalies in the boot heel of New Mexico. Those were places I’m almost certain I would not have visited if it wasn’t for quail. And since I was hunting, I engaged those landscapes with an intimacy mere sightseeing is unlikely to foster.

The intensity of the quest was thrilling. There was tension, drama, especially on a couple of days when things went wrong. At one point when my quest looked in doubt, one of my hunting buddies worried that I seemed to be taking the whole thing a little too seriously.

“Too seriously? That’s exactly the point,” I told him.

In a way it was almost like the buzz journalists get around the newsroom when we’re putting together an especially compelling edition. Pushing yourself beyond normalcy. Yes, sometimes that is the point.

But there is a dark side too. Obsessing on an artificial goal like a quail slam can lead to poor choices, to cut ethical corners in service of the quest.

Our obsession with trophies is even more likely to foster shameful conduct. Remember when Walter Palmer killed Cecil the lion? That dude just had to have his trophy lion, killed by bow and arrow. Trophy lust led to a despicable act.

I focus on the first part of Gasset’s quote, but the phrase after the semicolon is also important. When I read, “We kill to have hunted,” it reminds me that the final, mortal act remains integral to the intensity of the experience. You aren’t really hunting if you have no intention of killing; you’re just on a nature walk with guns.

If your intent isn’t to kill you are never fully engaged as a participant, as a hunter, in the landscape. You’re a spectator, and while there’s nothing wrong with spectating, that’s not how I choose to engage nature.

I kill to have hunted, because, ultimately, a hunter is what I am.

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