Can a vegan hunt?

An essay by Henry Mance

Today I’m happy to bring you this essay by Henry Mance, chief features writer for The Financial Times, about wrestling with the moral dilemmas of living humanely with animals. It is adapted from his new book, “How to Love Animals: In a Human-Shaped World.”


By Henry Mance

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by cat videos. It was the golden age of the internet. The cat videos said something about us. We consider ourselves animal lovers. We soak up wildlife documentaries and heart-warming stories of animal achievement. We warm to politicians who cuddle animals; their pets would be re-elected more easily than they would.

Being the reporter I am, a few years ago, I decided to delve deeper into this love for animals. I wanted to work out whether it is actually reflected in our societies or whether, like my own love for arthouse films, it is mainly theoretical. And I wanted to find an ethos that I could pass on to my daughters, who have been accompanied since birth by animal toys, storybooks, and cartoons, but who will grow up in a world of factory farms, extinction, and climate chaos. 

So I worked in a slaughterhouse and on a pig farm, I visited zoos and an animal research laboratory, I talked to scientists, activists, philosophers and pet owners. Before I started, I was vegetarian with an unfocused love for nature. I am now a vegan who thinks we need to set aside half of the planet for other species. 

Of all the topics I investigated, perhaps none is as controversial as hunting. And perhaps none changed my preconceptions so much.

It was a cold Monday afternoon in November when I first went to kill a deer. This wasn’t something I ever expected to do. As far as I remember, I had never killed a mammal or a bird, and never wanted to. I’d never flushed a guinea pig down the toilet as a child or hit a fox with a car as a teenager. Whenever I found my cat Crumble toying with mice, I — like any limp-hearted liberal — tried U.N.-style humanitarian intervention. I had once shot a few clay pigeons, and even that just felt like a waste of pottery. 

This probably all started with Bambi. The Disney film was just about my only childhood experience of hunting. It’s the story of a young deer who frolics freely in the forest until a firearm intervenes. You don’t actually see Bambi’s mother being shot, but you do see the buck realizing that the center of his world has disappeared. It’s unmistakably human: Disney animators drew inspiration from pictures of baby faces. 

When Bambi was released in 1942, it outraged American hunters and lost money. The funny thing is that Walt Disney wanted it to be harsher: he wanted to show the hunter being burnt to death by a forest fire. You can imagine why that didn’t make the final cut of a kids’ movie. Even so, Bambi inspired animal activists and seeped into the mainstream. “I think that made me grow up thinking hunting isn’t cool,” Paul McCartney has recalled. In 2018 a judge in Missouri ordered a deer poacher to watch Bambi at least once a month, while serving a year-long sentence, to realize the seriousness of his crime. (Bambi also shaped our attitudes to forest fires, contributing to the counter-productive practice of suppressing fires in the western U.S.)

Bambi’s legacy stuck with us. When Cecil the lion was shot by an American dentist in 2015, the internet exploded in fury at his agonizing death. “How is that fun?” vented Jimmy Kimmel. “Is it that difficult for you to get an erection that you need to kill things that are stronger than you?” 

Even hunting’s supporters seem to have been losing the faith. Between 1996 and 2016, the number of American adults who hunted fell by 2.5 million — to fewer than 5 per cent of the population. More Americans go on birdwatching trips than go hunting. In 2019, 85 per cent of British people said they backed a ban on trophy-hunting, which makes banning trophy-hunting more popular than drinking alcohol. Ricky Gervais says hunters are psychopaths. I guess that means that hunting tours are holidays for psychopaths.

But after working in an abattoir and on farms, I felt less comfortable on the bandwagon. Both farming and fishing had reminded me that some form of death was inevitable. What repulsed me about farming wasn’t death so much as pointless lives. What repulsed me about fishing was the indiscriminate, inhumane methods. Was I against any human killing any animal? No — I was against humans thoughtlessly killing animals on a massive scale, especially if they’d been deprived of a good life first. Unlike animals on farms or in zoos, hunted animals live in the wild (with some exceptions). They could more easily have the lives for which they had evolved.

What’s more, in theory, hunting had a rationale. The U.S. has too many feral horses, Italy has 2 million wild boar, and so on. This is largely our fault: we have killed some predators, spread invasive species, and built over natural habitats. If we don’t cull animals now, we save the individuals but ruin the ecosystem. We have removed the predators; we have to replace them. We have interfered so much already that we can’t step back. Hunting exposes us to the complexities of the natural world, and of the variations in how we treat it.

White-tailed deer were once wiped out from much of the U.S., but there are now an estimated 30 million of them, largely free from predators. The country has nearly 2 million vehicle accidents a year involving animals — three-quarters of them involving deer. In Colombia, where I once lived, it’s rare to see a deer. In the U.S., it isn’t even rare to hit one: every year, one in every 150 drivers doThat costs more than $1 billion in damage, as well as perhaps 150 human lives.

Deer have a hefty effect on other species. In areas where they graze, there are around 40 per cent fewer insects above ground and half the number of spiders’ webs. The browsing deer eat the shrubs and saplings on which the spiders can spin their webs. There are fewer places for songbirds to nest. After forest fires, deer can prevent regeneration. 

I was an animal-loving vegan, but I wanted to live in the real world. I didn’t believe the deer’s existence should marginalize so many other species. Maybe someone had to kill the deer. What did it matter to Bambi if the person pulling the trigger took pleasure in it? What did it matter to the animals if the person pulling the trigger was…me?

The Cornbury Park estate is an hour or so west of London and advertises the opportunity to shoot surplus deer. I arrive at a set of stone buildings, where a man my age called Tom shows me into a small office. There are a dozen antlers on the wall, along with a poster that reads: “VEGETARIAN: loose translation of old Indian word meaning BAD HUNTER.” This is not an ideal start.

“At the end of the day it’s a living animal. Some people can shoot it and some people can’t,” says Tom. “There is absolutely no pressure.” Well, there is a bit of pressure — in the form of a regular hunter called Peter, who has stopped by the office before heading on his own deer stalk. Peter is wearing a tweed flat cap, tweed jacket, tweed trousers — an outfit that I have only ever considered wearing as fancy dress. 

Tom and I drive a cart to a small quarry, which serves as a shooting range. It cannot be over-emphasized how pathetic it is to pull the trigger. “It’s quite lackluster,” says Tom. Yes, it is. It takes less effort than cutting through a carrot, but it unleashes the force of a ceiling collapsing. Shooting a rifle is only a bit more physically strenuous than typing a query into Google. You personally kill an animal in the same sense that you personally search the internet.

We are ready to shoot at some targets. We drive to a sitting position — a small wooden box on stilts overlooking an opening in the trees, like a narrow fairway. Two muntjac deer — their bodies low to the ground like large rodents — appear in the bracken 20 meters in front of us. Muntjac, originally from east Asia, were introduced to the U.K. in the 19th century; their numbers spiraled out of control a few decades ago. In front of me, one is chasing the other. Tom moves the gun into position. The larger of the two is a mother — and we can’t shoot her in case she has a dependent fawn, who would starve. The smaller one is a legitimate target. We’re not shooting Bambi’s mother; we’re shooting adolescent Bambi. I take a breath.

It is a principle of deer-hunting that you do not shoot to hit. You shoot to kill. This is a clear difference between hunting deer and hunting birds, where any hit is acceptable and where birds are often “winged,” meaning they will likely be caught by dogs or fly off to suffer elsewhere. No self-respecting deer-hunter is happy to see an injured animal run off into the forest, to a prolonged painful death. The target is a four-inch circle on the animal’s chest. So we need the deer to “broadside” — to present a clear shot. If the muntjac broadsides now, and if my shot is accurate, his or her pain should be momentary. But the deer remains in the bracken, little more than a brown shadow through the gun scope. The deer rustles off, unaware. After this, nothing happens. No deer appears. In the treehouse, Tom and I sit next to each other in silence, connected only by the mist of old-school masculinity. Maybe this is what it felt like when fathers and sons hung out in the 1950s. 

Half an hour passes by, then another half an hour, and we get no nearer to killing anything. If this were a slaughterhouse, we would be going bankrupt. It is so numbingly cold that I wonder if I have fallen asleep and shot myself.

Eventually a deer appears in the distance. I size her up through the gun, her chest is in the crosshairs. In that moment, I feel much less than I thought I would. But the deer is too distant to guarantee a clean hit. She retreats into the forest.

The cold bites, the sky darkens. Eventually, after nearly two hours in the hut, Tom has had enough. “Better knock it on the head, or we’ll lose the light.” He drives me back to the office. My afternoon of stalking plus instruction has cost $250, which feels sharp for the privilege of growing cold in a wooden box.

Later, in the pub, I start talking to a local man, who reveals he hates hunting animals — and the posh folk who do it. “They’re terrible people. Some of them,” he says. This strikes at a truth: in Britain, hunting is about class. More precisely, it’s about an attitude of ownership — of dominance over the land and the other people who live on it. You can trace a line from the medieval kings who declared the deer forests off limits to commoners right through to the men who shoot on large estates today. 

I realized that I hadn’t found the gun, or the possibility of killing, hard to get used to. For me, the biggest obstacle to being a hunter was the feeling that I didn’t really belong at the Cornbury Park estate, that these weren’t my friends. In other words, it was nothing to do with the animals at all. Once I focused on the animals, I see hunting without the baggage or the Instagram filter. It could be a functional activity — game management.

When we’re disconnected from nature, we risk seeing it as a series of individual triumphs and tragedies, like Bambi’s mother or Cecil the lion. The real tragedy is that whole species can slim down or go extinct because of human activity, that whole ecosystems go off-kilter. Hunting means accepting there are times when we can kill an animal, even take pleasure in it. 

I could never expect my daughters to grow up in a world with Cecil the lion. Cecil was thirteen years old, and lions rarely live beyond fifteen in the wild. What I hoped is that they would grow up in a world with lots of wild lions. 

In sub-Saharan Africa, hunting areas cover more land than national parks, an area twice the size of Texas. That is why the researchers who tracked Cecil argue that hunting has a place. It’s why I, as a vegan, agree. Done right, hunting is a springboard to an understanding of other animals and a recognition of our place in the natural world.


This essay was adapted from the new book “How to Love Animals: In a Human-Shaped World” by Henry Mance, chief features writer for The Financial Times. The book is published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Henry Mance.   


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Photo: Boston Globe/Getty