I admit I have been feeling uncomfortable, even troubled by the recent attention being paid to the issue of wanton waste as it pertains to hunting. States such as Vermont are considering legislation to make it a crime to “waste” animals. I take it that the intent of such legislation is to motivate hunters to search longer and harder for downed animals before giving up the search.
But I believe that the idea of creating a “law” against wanton waste may open up more problems than such laws might solve. Part of the difficulty as I see it is the nearly-impossible task of defining such basic concepts as “waste” and “use” as these terms typically are employed in discussions of hunter ethics.
For example, consider the website for the Oregon hunting advocacy organization, Back Country Hunters and Anglers. The group credits Jim Posewitz of the Orion Institute with advising them on organizational matters, and their site includes the following excerpt from one of Posewitz’s books on hunting:
Field Dressing an Animal, (from Beyond Fair Chase):Now, in what follows, I don't mean to pick on Posewitz or to appear as overly-critical of his book, which I greatly admire. But what caught my eye was the apparent contradiction in the first paragraph:
In the beginning, humans hunted to live. Today some still live to hunt. Originally it was a matter of survival to utilize what was killed. Today, using what is killed is essential to ethical hunting.
After you have taken possession of the animal you have killed and taken time to appreciate it, it is then time to care for your gift. The task at hand will vary. For some animals it is simply a matter of putting it into your game pouch and continuing. For big game there is field dressing and properly caring for all the useable parts.
Under all circumstances, the ethical hunter cares for harvested game in a respectful manner, leaving no waste. Field dressing has several advantages. It reduces the risk of spoiling edible parts, and it returns parts of the animal to the earth where it found life.
Field dressing begins the natural recycling process that involves scavenging birds, insects, and decay as the unused parts return energy and nutrient cycles to the ecosystem. This is a marvelous process of renewal, and surplus parts of what you harvest should be thoughtfully returned to the earth (http://www.backcountryhunters.org ).
“Under all circumstances, the ethical hunter cares for harvested game in a respectful manner, leaving no waste.”
This absolutist admonition to “leave no waste under all circumstances” is then followed by a paean about recycling the dead animal’s body parts to the earth. “Field dressing has several advantages,” Posewitz intones. “It reduces the risk of spoiling edible parts, and it returns parts of the animal to the earth where it found life.”
Here is where I believe hunters such as Posewitz are inconsistent in their views about “full utilization” of the resource. Notice how Posewitz defines an ethical hunter as one who conscientiously uses the animal he/she kills. But there is an unaddressed threshold question here for Posewitz: where should we draw the line between conscientious use and wanton waste?
Consider the fact that for many bird hunters, “breasting out” the bird is the norm. I myself consider the practice to be fairly abhorrent. But I am also aware that for serious waterfowlers who may shoot and consume upwards of 100 ducks in a season, the idea of laboriously plucking each and every duck in preparation for oven roasting seems to be an unrealistic expectation. Would Posewitz insist that as a moral rule, “under all circumstances, the ethical hunter cares for harvested game . . . leaving no waste” should apply to the dedicated waterfowler who only breasts out his ducks ? What about the drumsticks? What about the feet? (my wife showed me a recipe for Casserole of Braised Duck Feet in the cookbook, Working a Duck –perhaps I’ll post it here).
Or take big game hunting. Is Posewitz really insisting that under all circumstances, the moose or elk hunter must leave no waste? What about the tongue? Heart? Other organ meat?
Or what of the bone and sinew? One could always save every bone to make soup stock. Why not clean the intestines and save them for use in making elk sausage? “Under all circumstances . . . leave no waste.”
That’s a pretty all-encompassing moral injunction. But a fairly hopeless one it seems to me.
The plain fact of the matter is that industrial factory farming practices do a far better job of “full utilization of the resource” than recreational (or subsistence) hunters will ever do. As William Cronon’s history of the Chicago meat-packing industry shows, meat companies like Armour and Swift have always excelled at using 100% of the animals they killed: “The meat packers used every part of the pig except the squeal.”
And aboriginal peoples don’t necessarily do any better than today’s recreational hunter. “In the beginning, humans hunted to live,” Posewitz tells us. “Originally it was a matter of survival to utilize what was killed.” Well, as anthropologists have shown, survival doesn’t necessarily guarantee utilization. Shepard Krech’s book, The Ecological Indian: Myth and History, provides numerous examples of buffalo being killed by American Indians just for their tongues and other select body parts, with the rest of the animals’ bodies left to rot. Thousands of buffalo stampeded over the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump were likewise left to rot—although this was likely more an indicator of Indian butchers having run out of time than of any conscious intention on their part to waste meat. The point being, however, the fact that nineteenth century market hunters were not the only ones who could waste buffalo meat. American Indian hunting done for survival (not sport) was no guarantee that hunted animals would be fully utilized.
Yet Posewitz concludes that leaving an animal to rot—or at least, leaving the parts of an animal that you don’t want—is a natural part of the cycle of life:
Field dressing begins the natural recycling process that involves scavenging birds, insects, and decay as the unused parts return energy and nutrient cycles to the ecosystem. This is a marvelous process of renewal, and surplus parts of what you harvest should be thoughtfully returned to the earth.Why is leaving any animal parts to rot, even if “thoughtfully returned to the earth,” morally okay? By that logic, why wouldn’t leaving MORE animal parts to rot be even better? After all, wouldn’t scavenging birds and insects benefit even more from a bigger amount of unused parts being returned to the ecosystem as energy and nutrients?
In short, there seems to be nowhere within Posewitz’s ethical framework to draw a line between “leaving no waste under all circumstances” and “leaving an appropriate amount of waste in all circumstances.”
So where does this leave us with wanton waste laws? Clearly, as hunters we all want hunters to eat or otherwise utilize whatever they kill. But I don't think we necessarily want to make it a crime for hunters to leave a gut pile in the woods. Or to leave duck legs in the swamp. Or make it illegal for a hunter to leave the heart, liver, or other organ meat of a dead animal if he simply does not care to eat the organ meat of the animal he has killed.
The problem is that one man’s edible drumstick is another man’s wanton waste. Where one hunter sees pickled moose tongue and stuffed elk heart, another hunter sees food for carrion beetles and “the marvelous process of renewal.”
Here is another example where by all means we should try to persuade hunters to “use what they kill.” But by the same token, we should stay out of the business of making it a criminal law to force hunters to “use what they kill.”
I believe that in general we should stay away from wanton waste laws and from preachy sermons about leaving no waste under all circumstances.
Moreover, I also believe that the question of what constitutes “full” or “appropriate” utilization of the resource is best seen as something that ethicists call supererogation. Supererogation is the ethical idea of performing morally commendable acts that are not morally obligatory—rather, such acts are voluntary. The idea of supererogation is well captured by the phrase, “going above and beyond the call of duty.”
An act of charity, for example, is clearly a morally commendable behavior. And yet we as a society do not morally require people to give ten percent, or twenty percent, or ninety percent of their income to charity each year. Instead, we leave it to each individual to decide for herself how morally virtuous she will be each year when it comes to her being charitable. A voluntary act of charity is thus a supererogatory action, in that it is (a) voluntary, and it is (b) good, but it is (c) not morally required.
I believe that the full utilization of a downed game animal similarly belongs in the category of supererogatory actions. A hunter's full use of the hunted game animal is a morally commendable and morally admirable action. But I would argue that the full use of a hunted game animal does not belong in the category of a morally required behavior.
Now, with that said, using as much of the hunted animal as you possibly can is undeniably a morally virtuous act. But we need to remember that the question of how much use constitutes “full use” will vary with each individual hunter. Whereas one hunter might utilize 95% of the animal, another hunter may only use 25% of the animal.
(And, as an aside, how we would measure such a thing anyway? By weight? by biomass? Viewed this way, anyway you slice it, a conscientious and ethical elk hunter would still end up wasting more than a slob quail hunter. And surely, that can’t be right.)
In any event I would argue that the question of wanton waste and of the full utilization of animals that are killed is largely (but not always) a question of supererogatory behavior— behavior that is morally commendable, behavior that should be encouraged, and behavior that we admire—but not behavior that we need or want to force or compel others to follow.
An amazon.com book review of Beyond Fair Chase makes the point succinctly:
Posewitz, though well meaning, sets back our understanding of ethical hunting by confusing "difficulty of taking" an animal with ethics. He further does not seem to know that "fair chase" is a term created by the Boone & Crockett Club to describe their tournament rules for entering animals into their record books, much like golfing's rule that mechanized golf carts cannot be used by contestants. In spite of this, no one seriously suggests that it is unethical for recreational golfers to use golf carts, however. Ethical hunting is hunting that is: (1) Safe, (2) Conserves game populations for future generations, and (3) Respects the choices and rights of other hunters within the same boundaries. Whether I hunt with my bare hands, walking miles to get to the game, or select some easier way has nothing to do with ethics. Posewitz is entitled to hunt as he wishes, but he should not try to impose his views on others (John London (USA) - February 3, 2001).I believe that Mr. London has it roughly correct in this evaluation of Beyond Fair Chase. Posewitz is indeed entitled to hunt as he wishes. It is another thing entirely to try to impose his ethical views on others through legislation, ballot referendum, or other politically coercive means.
This holds for other hunters and their views. Nuisance hunters of woodchucks, prairie dogs, coyotes, or foxes rarely eat what they kill. Must we therefore conclude that the hunting of nuisance species is unethical?
Some but not all hunters utilize the pelts of some but not all of these animals. Must we therefore attempt to draw a line between ethical pelt users who go above and beyond the call of duty and unethical wasters of animal carcasses who simply leave dead "varmints" to rot in the sun?
I for one don't think we should go there, at least not if we don't have to. Again, I think hunters tend to be their own worst enemy: I don't like the way you hunt, so let's pass a law against the way you hunt.
I simply believe we need to come up with better arguments than that.