The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.
As summer wanes here in Wyoming, archery hunters take to the fields and mountains. Most of us who hunt with firearms must wait until October, but we’re preparing nonetheless. I’ve been going over my checklist of gear and supplies; I think everything is ready.
There’s also preparation of body and mind. Hunting can be physically and mentally demanding. It requires walking long distances through all kinds of weather across all sorts of terrain, and the discipline to stay focused for hours. You might have to creep low to the ground or crawl over considerable distances. You will need calm control to place your shot precisely if and when the moment comes. Then, you face the arduous task of processing an animal and hauling a heavy meat pack back to your vehicle.
Age takes its inevitable toll, but my father remained sharp and spry enough to hunt elk in the backcountry with a traditional flintlock rifle well into his 70s, so I’m hopeful many of my best hunting seasons are still ahead of me.
Besides preparing our gear and ourselves, I think hunters of religious faith should consider deeper implications. For believers, there’s no avoiding the hoped-for end of our quest is killing one of God’s creatures. Bearing that in mind, what might be the spiritual implications of hunting?
Briefly, it is not only their fellow human beings that the beloved of God must treat with mercy and compassion, rather must they show forth the utmost loving-kindness to every living creature. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 158.
I’ve heard Christians and Muslims speak of similar lessons in their Faiths, and I’m sure we could find such teachings in the world’s other great religions. The spiritual traditions of aboriginal people — such as the Paleo-Indians and Native Americans who hunted these lands long before my ancestors arrived — reflect awe and respect for animals. And from what I can gather, the old Celtic and Germanic hunters of my ethnic heritage revered the animals they pursued.
Considering many sources giving similar messages, I’m forced to conclude that respect for and kindness toward animals is spiritually important. Which raises the question — does hunting run counter to that?
As with many of this life’s paradoxes, I think the answer is, “that depends.” I think it rests on the hunter’s motivation, methods and state of mind. It can hinge on what hunters glean from their religion or spiritual paths. The Baha’i writings say little about hunting specifically, beyond advising us to faithfully obey the hunting laws and regulations of our homelands and “hunt not to excess.”
What “to excess” means, the Baha’i teachings leave open to individual interpretation. My personal view is that I shouldn’t take more than I need to feed my family and a few friends, and that I should avoid the sort of hunting that might threaten wildlife conservation. These two quotes from the Baha’i writings illustrate the balance I try to find in my own hunting:
…eating meat is not forbidden or unlawful, nay, the point is this, that it is possible for man to live without eating meat and will be strong. Meat is nourishing and containeth the elements of herbs, seeds and fruits; therefore sometimes it is essential for the sick and for the rehabilitation of health. There is no objection in the Law of God to the eating of meat if it is required. – from a tablet of Abdu’l-Baha to an individual Baha’i.
Of course, that leaves the obvious objection — how can killing be kindness? Again, I think the answer might be, “that depends.”
When one considers the typical lot of wild animals, and how cruelly nature often ends their lives, being killed quickly by a well-placed bullet or arrow doesn’t seem particularly unkind in the greater scheme of things. Also, the basic order of nature finds no wrong in one entity killing another for food—that, in fact, is the fundamental law of nature.
Most of the species humans pursue have been hunted for the entirety of their biological existence. In other words, it’s not unnatural for them to play the role of prey, and to provide sustenance to humans. That said, the consumption of meat, which in any form requires killing animals, raises ethical challenges for any thoughtful soul:
Truly, the killing of animals and the eating of their meat is somewhat contrary to pity and compassion, and if one can content oneself with cereals, fruit, oil and nuts, such as pistachios, almonds and so on, it would undoubtedly be better and more pleasing. – From a tablet of Abdu’l-Baha written to an individual Baha’i.
While the Baha’i Faith has no specific dietary restrictions, and does allow for hunting, it also clearly calls us to challenge common assumptions about our diets and how we treat animals. However, I don’t think oversimplification should cloud the matter. Going into the field and hunting a free and wild animal that has a reasonable chance of escape is one thing. Condemning livestock animals to a miserable life in “CAFOs” (confined animal feeding operations) is quite another. Many people, including some hunters, find the latter practice not only cruel to animals, but also threatening to the environment. And the effects on human health associated with eating meat from animals raised under such conditions speak for themselves.
I’ve noticed a growing backlash against what’s commonly called “factory farming,” and people are becoming increasingly mindful of what they eat and where it comes from. I think that’s wonderful, and I have no quarrel with people who have adopted vegetarian or vegan diets as a result. There’s also been growing demand for meat, eggs and dairy products raised on smaller-scale, traditional farms and ranches. Again, that’s a trend I welcome. I’ve always lived around family-run ranches and farms, watching with dismay as they struggled to compete with huge conglomerates that tended not to treat their animals nearly as well.
There’s also been a resurgence of hunting, particularly among people who take it up primarily as a means of getting healthful food. Another encouraging sign; hunting has also become less of a “boys only” club. When I first took hunter education decades ago, the classes were almost exclusively male. Now, I occasionally help teach hunter education, and have seen a noticeable demographic shift toward girls and women of all ages.
Regardless, moral quandaries will always face hunters. With rapid advances in optics, hunting gear and the killing range of some firearms, there are debates among hunters over whether this or that gadget or tactic is ethical or falls within the bounds of what we call “fair chase.”
The right way might be difficult to define, but I don’t think we should stop asking ourselves the difficult questions and using our creator’s will and guidance as the standard by which to measure the validity of our answers.