Points North: When A Vegan Goes Hunting

"Tovar's doctor and his wife suggested adding animal products to his diet might help him feel better"

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Tovar Cerulli has AOH, an increasingly common syndrome. The symptoms appeared in his 30s and were somewhat of a surprise. AOH is the acronym for what Cerulli terms Adult Onset Hunting. Prior to developing a case of AOH, Cerulli was a vegan.

Cerulli is among the growing cadre of people who take up hunting as an outgrowth of their desire to eat healthy, locally produced food even though they may have a deep-seated aversion to killing other creatures. The story of his journey from eating no animal products to killing and butchering deer delivers a fresh perspective to the Vermont writer’s new book, The Mindful Carnivore, A Vegetarian's Hunt for Sustenance.

In a recent telephone interview, Cerulli said he enjoyed fishing when he was growing up. As a teen he began to question eating meat due to what he learned about the ethical aspects of animal welfare and the ecological effects of growing corn and other grains solely as livestock feed. At age 20, he caught a trout and while killing it had a profound feeling of doubt and regret.

"Killing the fish felt unnecessary, because I realized I could eat other things," he said.

He became a vegetarian and then a vegan--someone who doesn’t eat any animal products and, by doing so, purports to cause no harm to other creatures. He followed a vegan diet for about a decade, but eventually found himself with low energy and other health concerns. His doctor and his wife suggested adding animal products to his diet might help him feel better.

"So my wife and I took a radical step and started eating yogurt and eggs," Cerulli said.

He started feeling better. Soon he was eating fish and locally raised chickens, too. At the same time, Cerulli developed a growing awareness of the negative impacts of agriculture on the environment and wildlife—land cleared for crop production supports no other life. He pondered how a vegan diet indirectly relies upon animals. Even organic farmers kill deer to minimize crop depredation and use the manure of domestic animals as fertilizer. Such thoughts began to complicate his view of responsible eating.

“Even my garden had consequences,” he said.

To become personally involved in catching and killing his food, Cerulli took up fishing again. Then he started thinking about hunting—quite a leap for someone who once considered eating yogurt as dietary radicalism. But he enjoyed spending time in the woods and thought killing a deer would provide him with free-range meat while causing less suffering for the animal than factory farming and leaving a minimal ecological footprint. At the very least, hunting would deepen his connection to the landscape.

Once he decided to try hunting, he had to learn how to do it. He corresponded with an uncle living on Cape Cod who was a hunter. Taking the state’s hunter safety class, he discovered most of his classmates were 12-year-olds. He read books about hunting and acquired the necessary gear. His first quarry was a snowshoe hare and he decided to wait another year before attempting deer hunting.

Inexperienced and short on confidence, he began deer hunting alone. Cerulli enjoyed the sights and sounds of being in the woods, but wasn’t successful. Once he happened upon where another hunter had field-dressed a deer and discarded a pair of plastic gloves used in the process, which he found offensive. Late in the season he hunted with his uncle on Cape Cod. and helped process a small deer his uncle killed.

Cerulli hunted for four years before he had success and then he wasn’t sure it was worth the wait. Taking the life of an deer triggered unsuspected emotions.

“I was mostly in shock. It took so long for me to succeed in the hunt and suddenly this animal was dead,” he said.

Most hunters say they feel a mixture of elation and sadness when they make a kill, but Cerulli just felt grief and confusion. He was unsure he wanted to continue hunting until he butchered the deer. Something about the process of taking apart the animal and converting it to food brought him to a place where he wanted to hunt again. Since then, he’s killed several deer and, although it remains an emotional experience, he no longer feels what he calls “the intensity of the initial storm.” Instead, for a day or two afterward, he becomes deeply introspective and reflects upon the reality of killing to live.

As a former vegan, this is perhaps the most radical step he’s taken. Once, he believed, as do many vegans, that unintentional harm to other creatures, such as eliminating habitat to create a plowed field, was a better option. Now he thinks otherwise.

“I’ve found to my surprise I prefer the occasional intended killing,” he said. “I face it, deal with it and make my peace with it.”

The biggest lesson Cerulli has derived from becoming a hunter is the moral ambiguity of human existence. He said a basic dilemma of being human is the contrast between a desire to be moral and compassionate and the harm to other creatures or the environment resulting from human actions. In the modern world, we are mostly unaware of the ecological or moral implications of the food and other products we purchase in a store, because we do not see the factory farm or the strip mine where it originated.

“Much of my perspective is rooted in the idea that humans are part of Nature and ecological systems, “ he said. “We are participants, rather than overlords.”

Cerulli intends to remain a hunter and continue thinking about hunting. Having returned to graduate school, his master’s thesis explored the concept of adult onset hunting. Now working toward a PhD, he is examining hunting and its relationship to place and land. He isn’t sure where this academic path may lead, although he expects to become involved with educational efforts and research associated with hunting and, more broadly, the relationship between the food we eat and the landscape. For a yogurt-eating radical, he’s come a long way.

Airdate: February 24, 2012

Photo courtesy of Malevda on Flickr.

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