I guess we all do things that defy definition. One of the things that I've learned over the years is that my definition of hunting and the experience I'm after varies substantially from what most people define as hunting. It's winter and a the time inside has gotten me into a contemplative (my spouse would say melancholy) mood and I find myself asking a lot of questions starting with "why...?"
A study done several years ago by Yale professor Dr. Stephen Kellert reveals that there are generally three types of hunters in the American woods. For lack of anything better I'll use Kellert's broad categories of what drives hunters in the field. The "why..?" if you will.
The first type are "meat/utilitarian" hunters. Hunters who are primarily in search of meat for their table. I'll briefly excerpt Dr. Kellert- "Hunting to obtain meat was the most frequently cited primary reason, accounting for 43.8 percent of persons who hunted ... Utilitarian/meat hunters were significantly more likely to have been raised or presently living in rural, open-country areas. Utilitarian/meat hunters also reported much greater experience with raising animals for either slaughter or non-slaughter purposes, and had fathers employed in farm-related occupations. This hunting group includes a disproportionate number of persons over 65 years of age and significantly more respondents earning less than $6,000. "
"Utilitarian/meat hunters appear to perceive animals largely from the perspective of their practical usefulness ... The utilitarian/meat hunter views hunting as a harvesting activity and wild animals as a harvestable crop not unlike other renewable natural resources."
To this group I would personally add a couple of other groups- subsistence hunters and fur trappers. I think subsistence hunters don't fall cleanly into the "meat hunter" group despite food being the primary goal of their hunting activities because a significant amount of their hunting is socially driven as well. I would also add trappers to the list because they are utlilizing animals in what is commonly a commerical venture (I will acknowledge there are some recreational trappers) even though meat from trapping activities is seldom eaten by people.
The second most prevalent type is "sport hunters". Hunters for whom hunting is a form of recreation and sport complete with a scorecard in the form of a recognized system of classifying animals and so on. Again I'll quote Dr. Kellert-
"Sport hunters constitute 38.5 percent of all those who hunted ... They were significantly more likely to reside in cities, and to have been in the armed forces. Additionally, they differed from utilitarian/meat hunters in reporting far less experience raising animals for a product, and from nature hunters in reporting significantly less backpacking and bird watching activities. One outstanding characteristic was their low scores on the knowledge-of-animals scale. Interestingly, only anti-hunters, of all animal activity groups studied, had equally low knowledge scores. "
"It appeared that competition and mastery over animals, in the context of a sporting contest, were the most salient aspects of the sport hunter's interest in the hunting activity. This group did not reveal strong affections for animals. "
"The hunted animal was valued largely for the opportunities it provided to engage in a sporting activity involving mastery, competition, shooting skill and expressions of prowess. They were not items of food but trophies, something to get and display to fellow hunters. For the sport hunter, hunting was appreciated more as a human social than as an animal-oriented activity."
The third category of people were defined as "nature hunters" and it appears to contain a substantial number of people who are difficult to categorize. For a final time I'll let Dr. Kellert define this category-
"Hunting for the purpose of close contact with nature was the [least often] cited primary reason for hunting, accounting for some 17.7 percent of those who hunted ... Demographically, nature hunters included significantly more persons under 30 years of age and far fewer over 65. These age characteristics may suggest possible trends in motivation for hunting. Nature hunters were also of higher socioeconomic status, as indicated by more college-educated respondents and more fathers employed in professional and business executive occupations. "
"Nature hunters reported by far the most adult and childhood wildlife interest, more backpacking and camping-out experience, and more bird-watching activity. Importantly, nature hunters had far higher knowledge-of-animals scale scores particularly in comparison to sport hunters. "
"[Nature hunters also] ... indicated strong concern and affection for all animals ... [However this affection is] ... somewhat generalized and not specifically directed at pet animals or manifest in the feeling of ‘loving’ animals. The desire for an active, participatory role in nature was perhaps the most significant aspect of the nature hunter's approach to hunting. The goal was the intense involvement with wild animals in their natural habitats. Participation as a predator was valued for the opportunities it provided to regard oneself as an integral part of nature. The hunt was appreciated for its forcing of awareness of natural phenomena organized into a coherent, goal-directed framework."
It is this third category containing about 1 of 5 hunters in the U.S. in which I solidly fall. While there is continual debate about the ethics and morality of killing animals for meat or for trophy this minority group is something of a conundrum- even among the hunting fraternity. While I cannot speak for the rest of this 17%, I can reveal to you some of the things that motivate me while in the field.
I do fit the classical model of the "nature hunter" that Kellert so aptly defined. My father was a businessman and I have had the benefit of an education. I demographically fit on the youthful side of Kellert's scale as well. I am compelled by conscience and law to utilize the meat of any animal I take and I enjoy eating game meat but for me it is at best a fringe benefit to hunting. My family neither depends nor craves wild game for sustenance or satisfaction of their palette and I would be nutritionally sound if I never consumed a moose backstrap or carribou steak for the rest of my life. That is not to say that eating game meat is not an important part of the hunt, only that the nutritional value is more for the soul than the body. Something very humanizing exists in eating something you've killed with your own hands on its terms.
Neither am I a sport hunter comparing the relative antler size, weight, girth, height or any other measurement of any animal I take with those of another hunter. While I thoroughly enjoy the companionship of other hunters and love to discuss hunting, I find the whole idea of scoring an animal based on the measurement of some physical attribute rather macabre. For one an impressive mount or entry in a record book tells little about the hunt on which it was taken, the beauty (or lack therof) of the area in which it lived, its cunning (or lack therof). In short, a complete amateur could step out of a pickup and kill an abnormally large deer and win himself a place in the record book. I think game records have some value as historical documents about game animals themselves but as a record of hunting achievement they fall woefully short. Horns for me are only a rather interesting artifact of a hunt and other than carrying a memory of the hunt itself within their beams serve no useful purpose.
So why go at all? If meat is not what I'm after and I have little interest in the sport of hunting why would I do it? If pressed I would have to quote extensively from Ortega's excellent work "Meditations on Hunting" that is worthy reading for anyone interested in the subject. the subject is why and I guess the short answer is that I am a predator by design and the only way I can truly interact with nature in a natural way is to be that predator. Not to say that I want to artificially skew the hunt in my favor- quite the opposite, I actually hamper myself so that the hunt is truly that. Often the act of hunting ends with an animal being seen and not taken- once the quarry is sighted a seperate decision is made to fire or not. Once the prey has been in the crosshairs the hunt is successful whether the cartridge is fired or the rifle lowered. If the experience has been good and situation is right the animal is taken in an ethical manner. Last year I passed on a carribou that I practically drove over with an ATV. Although the animal was legal and could have been cleanly taken- I passed. The hunt was over and I was merely on the way back to the road to end the day. Our meeting was a complete accident and the animal was released. I wouldn't have felt right about it and probably shouldn't have as it would have been little more than a road hunt.
Some years earlier I pursued a deer for several hours through the hills. Although the hunt lasted hours the quarry and I played a cat and mouse game that only covered a half a mile at best. Finally only minutes before sunset the buck moved from behind a tree into full view- the rifle boomed and the hunt was over. It was a memorable experience although I don't remember the points, the weight or anything other than that animals ability to move silently among the oaks much more so than I.