By Donald J. Barnes, Ph.D.

I was born during the Great Depression to uneducated and hardworking parents.  My father was from the Hills of Arkansas, my mother was from the brushy vales of Kentucky; each came from a desperately poor family of a dozen or more children.

Life was not easy in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, but my parents believed in the American Dream, i.e., work hard, be frugal, follow the Christian ethic, and the “chicken in every pot and car in every garage” promised by FDR would be assured.  Dad traded an old pistol for a tank of gas in 1937 and, with my mother, brother and I crammed between our few possessions in a 1932 Chevrolet, headed West to California, following the promises of John Steinbeck’s handbills in Grapes of Wrath.

Our little family fared well, and in the early 1940’s, we found ourselves eking out a living on our own 20-acre farm in Southern California.  I was 8 years old in the fall of 1944, and while I could weed the crops, slop the pigs and gather eggs from the hen house, I couldn’t drive the tractor or engage in other heavy work.  Instead, I assisted in the raising and slaughter of animals, in the curing of their flesh, as well as the churning of cream from our 2 milk cows for butter, and other light duties associated with both animal and plant-based agriculture.  As an additional responsibility, I was given a bounty to trap and kill “varmints” who competed with us for our crops.  Armed with steel-jawed leg hold traps and an old single-shot .22 rifle, I set out to eradicate the gophers, ground squirrels and weasels from our farm.  I was given $.10 for a gopher and $.25 for a ground squirrel (I never shot a weasel) and I managed to save a few dollars each month for school clothes, bullets or a treat.  I was proud of my prowess as a “hunter,” and even prouder that I was helping the family in our still-precarious existence.

In the early 1950’s, having abandoned the rural environs for the questionable urbanity of Colorado Springs, Colorado, I continued to hunt and kill animals for their flesh, eagerly awaiting each fishing or hunting expedition with my family and friends.  I was about 15 years old when I shot my first mule deer.  She was a large doe – with no head – after my .270 caliber 130-grain silver-tipped bullet exploded inside her skull, splattering her brain over half a Colorado mountainside.  I must admit to a momentary queasiness as I gazed upon her steaming remains before performing the hunter’s responsibility to eviscerate her with both hands and arms plunged deep into her body.  “Meat for the table!”  I exulted, but the real victory was in the kill, in the competitiveness of the hunt.  While the demands of work, university and my own family soon – took me away from the killing fields to other pursuits, I tried once to revive the thrill of hunting upon reaching my early thirties.  I had moved to Texas and was visiting a friend on his ranch during deer season.  While I had not intended to hunt, my host told me, “Look.  The deer are eating my crops.  I have a certain number of permits; they will be filled, no matter who actually kills the deer.”

I borrowed his rifle and prepared for my first hunt in Texas.  The rules had changed.  In Colorado, we walked into the mountains and hunted for our prey; in Texas, a land of fences and private property, one sits in a tiny blind and waits for the deer to come.  I didn’t have long to wait, for the deer were literally trained to feed in that field, and – as soon as daylight appeared, they were there.  I picked out a fat doe – my family had never hunted for trophies – and squeezed off a round.  She dropped immediately, but as I walked toward her, she tried to rise, her rear legs paralyzed, her front legs desperately trying for a purchase in the soft grass of the field.  Just before I put that final round into her head, she let out a long moan, looking at me with her soft round eyes.

There was no thrill.  There was simply pain and suffering and death in that field as I stood in the lush grass looking down on this wonderful creature whose life I had just taken for no justifiable reason.

I’ll not hunt again.  I’ll neither eat nor wear the flesh or by-products of another animal again.  I’ll not imprison another creature for my curiosity.  Instead, I’ll try to find ways to walk very softly upon this shared earth; to respect rather than use all animals, humans and non-humans; to accord them the basic rights which all sentient creatures have by virtue of their very existence on this planet, i.e., the right to be free, the right not to be tortured, and the right to life.

The animals that I don’t shoot, trap or eat will not be the only winners in this ethical system.  I have already won back a little of the sense of humanity I lost as a child – a child who was conditioned by an erroneous perception to kill.

Perhaps at one time, humans were forced to hunt to survive.  Perhaps even in my youth, we had little alternative but to kill the gophers and squirrels that made our survival more difficult.  Perhaps my ancestors had no choice but to eat and wear the flesh and skin of other animals.

Maybe – just maybe – biomedical scientists of years gone by perceived no choice but to subject other animals to stress, pain, suffering and death for the hypothetical sake of humans.  But those times have passed.  I’ve come to realize that perceived needs are often significantly different from actual needs.  Without a pressing and immediate need, there is no justification for killing innocent creatures.

Dr. Donald Barnes is Director of Education for the National Anti-Vivisection Society.  He can be reached at 722 West Kings Highway, San Antonio, TX 78212; 210-736-2439.


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