Harvest or Kill? Considering Our Choice of Language in Hunting Stories

For many of us, the months spent in between hunting seasons are filled primarily with two things: preparation for the next season and telling stories about past seasons. Story-telling forges bonds and shares learning, and it’s probably one of the most important social spaces of creative and intellectual exploration for hunters.

I imagine that story-telling has always been an inseparable part of hunting. From cave paintings to social media, it’s likely difficult to overstate the role that story-telling has played in the history of human hunting culture. Hunting is simultaneously solitary and social; philosophical and biological; physical and intellectual; scientific and emotional. I think story-telling plays an important role in shaping and conveying who we are as hunters and allows us to explore and refine who we want to be as hunters.

But what do the words we use to construct our stories reveal about who we are and how we see the world?

Language Matters

The anthropologist Paul Nadasdy suggests that the language we use to talk about hunting is structured by a system of metaphors, and these metaphors give some insight into the way we understand our relationship with wildlife. In particular, Nadasdy refers to a question many of us have discussed: do we harvest or kill wildlife?

I’ve encountered many hunters who make it a point to use either the term harvest or kill, and many others who use them interchangeably, perhaps not giving too much thought about the origins and semantics of the two terms. Some might suggest that it’s pointless to spend time deconstructing words that ultimately refer to the same action; however, both Paul Nadasdy and the writer David Petersen believe that our word choice may actually distinguish us as hunters by expressing certain underlying worldviews concerning wildlife.

There are compelling arguments to use one term or the other. Personally, I prefer to use the term kill, for two main reasons. First, on a philosophical level, I think the word kill more accurately expresses how I think about my relationship with wildlife. As someone interested in the evolutionary and ecological aspects of hunting, I like to think of hunting in its most fundamental sense as an interaction between species engaged in a complex predator and prey relationship, in addition to the important role that culture plays in hunting.

Second, some might very reasonably argue that the word harvest softens the act and makes it more acceptable to non-hunters. While I agree that it is important to be sensitive to non-hunters in our representations of hunting, hunting is a practice that is deeply connected to human history and culture that deserves the fullest exploration of our emotions and intellect. Therefore, I don’t think it needs to be softened; we can be honest and factual without being disrespectful and insensitive.

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History of “Harvest”

In 1933, when Aldo Leopold wrote Game Management, he laid the foundation for the field of scientific wildlife management. Leopold referred to wildlife in purely agricultural terms: “Game management is the art of making land produce sustained annual crops of wild game…Its nature is best understood by comparing it with the other land-cropping arts.” Indeed, public ownership of wildlife is a central tenet of the model of wildlife management practiced by North American governments. Today, however, this conceptual representation of wildlife may not be the most appropriate reflection of how many of us think about hunting.

In David Petersen’s poignant examination of hunting, Heartsblood, he devotes a chapter to a 1978 study published by Stephen Kellert. Kellert spent two years studying the attitudes and characteristics of hunters and anti-hunters. While acknowledging that the identities of hunters are highly variable, he distinguishes between three broad categories of hunters: utilitarian hunters, dominionistic hunters, and nature hunters. I would hesitate to lock anyone I know into any singular category, but Kellert’s groups are useful for thinking about different ways we understand the relationship we create with wildlife through hunting.

According to Petersen’s summary, utilitarian hunters are concerned primarily with hunting for food, seeing wildlife in a purely instrumental way. This group, Kellert noted, expressed their relationship with wildlife in agricultural terms — harvest, crop, stock, etc. According to Petersen, these terms are simply euphemisms that “reduce such lovely and lively creatures as deer, elk, and grouse to the level of turnips.” While my view is not necessarily as extreme as Petersen’s, it is worth noting that 44% of Kellert’s study participants use these agricultural metaphors – though that does not necessarily qualify them as utilitarian hunters.

A Perspective From the Yukon

In one of Nadasdy’s book chapters, “We Don’t Harvest Animals; We Kill Them,” he quotes Gùdia – Mary Jane Johnson, an Elder from the Kluane First Nation in the Yukon. Mary Jane Johnson teaches that the use of the term harvest implies a sense of ownership and control over wildlife and does not reflect a Kluane First Nations understanding of our relationships with the natural world. For his part, Nadasdy goes on to argue that the use of agricultural metaphors in hunting are a direct product of the system of wildlife management in North America articulated by Leopold. Further, he argues that these terms reflect and continue to construct a particular way of understanding human relationships with wildlife that I also argue reinforces and recreates colonial relations.

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If the agricultural metaphor signifies a view of wildlife characterized by ownership and control, Nadasdy turns to a Kluane First Nations perspective for an alternative view of wildlife. In a Kluane worldview, wildlife “management” is about the maintenance of social relationships – both among humans and between humans and animals. This view of wildlife proposes that humans have responsibilities towards wildlife. Management, therefore, is about managing our role in upholding our responsibilities rather than exercising our “right” to control and thus kill wildlife. It is only in upholding our responsibilities that we maintain these relationships, and only then can we maintain healthy wildlife populations.

I suspect that Kellert’s third category of hunter is probably the closest in line with the Kluane view of wildlife: the nature hunter. According to Kellert, nature hunters are characterized by their strong knowledge of the animals they hunt, a “desire for an active, participatory role in nature,” and seeking “an intense involvement with wild animals in their natural habitats.” I would guess that many of us fit proudly into the category of the nature hunter.

The Politics of Language

I understand that pride in the North American model of wildlife conservation, including the aspect of public ownership of wildlife is often a hallmark of the wider hunting community. While I understand and acknowledge the policies, regulations, and political movements that the public trust doctrine has enabled in the history of conservation in North America, this doesn’t mean it is ethically and philosophically perfect. I don’t think of wildlife as being owned and controlled. I think we can embrace a more complex concept of “ownership” than thinking of wildlife as simply objective possessions.

It is also worth remembering that one of the colonial projects in North America was to deliberately sever supportive social relations between humans and wildlife and to erase Indigenous cultures that centre concepts of social relations. Remembering this fact, we must also understand that the intellectual and institutional systems of wildlife management developed in North America were all born out of colonial knowledge, ideas, and objectives. Therefore, the way we speak about hunting and the relationships we enter into with wildlife through hunting can be an act of anti-colonialism or can perpetuate colonial relations.

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Therefore, I don’t think the term harvest adequately encapsulates the complex nature of the interaction between humans and wildlife enacted through hunting. At the same time, I don’t think the term kill emotionally minimizes or ethically sterilizes this interaction. On the contrary, I think by calling it what it is, we are being honest and humble. Thought of in this way, by using the word kill, we are placing ourselves within nature as just another species, not above nature as the one in control.


Whether you use the term harvest or kill, the point here is that the language we use has linguistic and cultural meanings, and these connote a particular worldview with regards to human interactions with wildlife. I wonder, what other messages are we sending through the words we use and the way we frame our stories? Are they the messages we intend to send and the ones we want people associating with our ethics and ecological worldview?

The vast majority of hunters I know think deeply about their roles in the natural world and reflect often about their relationships with wildlife. I think it is important, therefore, that we take the time to ensure we are speaking to others in a way that carefully and accurately portrays these emotional and intellectual understandings.

As Mary Jane Johnson says, “We don’t harvest animals. When a bear gets one of us it doesn’t harvest us. It kills us. And we kill them too. We don’t harvest animals; we kill them.”

This piece originally appeared as part of the Hunting Matters series on Meat Eater.

One Comment on “Harvest or Kill? Considering Our Choice of Language in Hunting Stories

  1. Pingback: The Ethics of Killing Animals: There Is No One Answer - Landscapes & Letters

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