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Picture a hunter. Who comes to mind? Millionaire playboys or big truck owning folks? Maybe so, but there’s more to it. Because if you love nature, value sustainability, abhor the pollution and inhumanity of factory farms, you could be a hunter in the making. And if you’ve never even considered hunting, The Shotgun Conservationist reveals all the reasons you should. Brant MacDuff makes us rethink who hunts and why. Growing up an animal lover with no hunting background, MacDuff himself would seem an unlikely advocate. Yet a lifelong love of the outdoors and a restless curiosity compelled him to investigate a simple question: is hunting conservation? So convinced, he consistently holds a hunting license in multiple states and gives lectures on the positive impact hunting has on conservation efforts nationwide and around the world.
MacDuff tells the story of how he became a hunter and the colorful characters, big personalities, and firsthand research that helped change his mind. His journey led to a deeper understanding of how hunting protects public lands, supports sustainable ecosystems, encourages biodiversity, and can help bridge social and political divides. Along the way, he introduces us to a new generation of hunters, different from timeworn stereotypes and preconceptions. And who better than MacDuff? A trans man living in Brooklyn, he defies expectations of who hunts and invites people of all backgrounds into the field.
Whether or not you decide to take up hunting, The Shotgun Conservationist provides a new perspective and appreciation for those who do.
Meat, Animals, and the Environment
When we arrived at the butcher, it was clear I wasn’t the only one finding success in the early days of New Jersey’s archery season. I filled out a form with my hunting license information and what I wanted done with the meat from my deer. It was likeI asked for predominantly whole cuts and ground but couldn’t stop myself from requesting some specialty items like kielbasa, landjager, and hot dogs (I really love sausages). Before leaving, I asked the butcher if I could keep my deer’s head. I planned to clean and keep the skull as a memento of my first successful hunt. He strolled over to my deer and, with one swift and butter-soft knife motion at the base of the skull, removed the head. Luckily, I had another bag on me, and, after wrapping it up, I slipped my deer’s head into my backpack next to his heart.
If you’d told me as a kid that I’d grow up to be a hunter, I would never have believed you. It would have been such a stretch of the imagination as to not warrant a second thought (though looking back now, I see all the signs were there). When I was a kid, all my opinions about hunting were shaped by my unconditional love of animals and my politician-level commitment to avoiding the investigation of something I was sure I was right about. I was so emotionally invested in animals that I was unable to, even momentarily, entertain the thought that there might be anything else at play in the mind of a hunter beyond a monstrous desire to kill.
Other kids, knowing my affinity for all creatures great and small, quickly found the best way to torment me was to torment animals. As my mother would say, I have a memory like a sieve, but I have vivid and haunting recollections of kids at camp trying to swat and kill all the dragonflies I was coaxing to land on me, an older boy taking the leopard frogs I had caught to show him and putting them in hard to escape places I couldn’t reach to save them, or the time a few kids stomped on the head of a glass lizard I was following through the grass. Surely these horrid little sociopaths were tomorrow’s hunters? Now I look back and see that childhood adoration for animals was what made me more likely to start hunting, not less.
When I used to think about my relationship to meat, I often felt like one of those drug addicts in recovery who’d visit our school and try to scare us kids straight. Only I’d never kicked it. Around the fifth grade, I truly faced the fact that the meat I was eating came from an animal that had to die because I wanted to eat it. I was practical about how I would handle this uncomfortable truth and simply told my parents that I was a vegetarian now and would no longer be eating any meat. They sort of shrugged their shoulders and dinner went on. Sitting at our kitchen banquette, I was left with the decidedly unsavory realization that my decision meant dinner now consisted of just potatoes and broccoli. I knew my parents would never adjust their cooking to suit my new dietary restrictions, and a cursory mental scroll of all my favorite things to eat revealed that every one of them was meat—hot dogs over cake 100 percent of the time. Or as Anthony Bourdain put it, “All my happiest moments seem to revolve around meat in tube form.” My stint as a vegetarian lasted the pathetic minutes between my declaration and the point at which the smell of caramelized rotisserie chicken skin became too great for me. Perhaps six minutes if I’m being generous.
I did my best not to think about it. I felt bad about the animals but used my perfectly good kid-logic to temporarily assuage my guilt. Lions rip apart little helpless frightened baby antelope and I wasn’t doing that, so that was something, right? But as I got older and learned more about meat, how it was produced and its broader relationship to the environment beyond the animals themselves, I became more conflicted.
Factory farms are so worried about people seeing inside their industrial meat monoliths, full of noisy uncomfortable animals all squashed together, that they have lobbied for and successfully passed “Ag-gag” laws at the state level, which prohibit the undercover filming of slaughterhouses and other agricultural related industries. They’re afraid that if you see the reality of where your meat comes from, you’ll be so disgusted and heartbroken you might never eat meat (or at least their meat) again. I like the idea that this might be true. I hope it is. I hope people would be so distressed over disturbing images of factory “farming” that they would give up their cheap, nondescript grocery store meat in favor of something better. But hasn’t everyone heard the factory-farm horror stories at this point? Haven’t there been enough “shocking reports, tonight at nine”? I’ve seen PETA hand out flyers with graphic slaughterhouse images on them to unphased New Yorkers in Union Square who take one glance before tossing them in the closest trash bin on their way into the market. (To be fair, New Yorkers might not be the best audience, as we’re nearly impossible to unsettle. We have seen too much.)
When I was younger, the known and the unknown of large-scale meat-production industries made it difficult for me to reconcile my own meat-forward diet. I felt like I needed it more than I wanted it, and that was confusing. Vegetarians became a big turn on for me. I dated four of them (and to this day they represent a substantial portion of my friend group). I liked that they had made a conscious choice to not eat meat. They had thought about their eating habits and adjusted their diets accordingly. I practically considered them a more evolved people. The same way some folks are born without wisdom teeth, there were some people out there who were physically and mentally capable of being vegetarians—unlike myself, a hairy, club-dragging troglodyte. I think most people who eat meat don’t think about it at all, it’s just part of the meal, something on the menu. I’ve heard people who are far less meat obsessed than I am say things like “I can’t stand vegetarians. Not eating meat is weird.” And while it might very well be weird in our evolutionary history, I wondered why they cared so much. Had they missed all that media coverage of the environmental toll modern meat production was taking on the earth? I felt like we should all be kissing the asses of every vegetarian or vegan we met, for taking even the tiniest strain off the very planet we were all living on.
A 2017 study published in the journal Science calculated that, “eating no meat cuts an individual’s carbon footprint by 820 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2) each year, on average, about four times the reduction they’d get by recycling as much as possible. (Emissions generated by eating meat result, in large part, from the large amounts of energy needed to grow, harvest, and process feed crops.)”
I don’t know what meat they were calculating. There are big differences between how cattle are raised and where they are coming from. A 100-percent-grass-fed steer that lives on a regenerative grazing ranch close to home is a world away from the environmental impact of cattle fed on lots that used to be rainforest and shipped overseas (the blanket term “recycling” is also unclear, as only 8–9 percent of plastic, 25–27 percent of glass, and 65 percent paper actually gets recycled). Still, as an average media consumer trying to make informed choices, I found myself inundated with reports on the environmental impacts of meat, from the land and water used to grow livestock feed to the land and water needed for the animals themselves.
The study in Science went on to reveal a more significant data point: “By choosing to have one fewer child in their family, a person would trim their carbon footprint by a whopping 58.6 metric tons—about the same emissions savings as having nearly 700 teenagers recycle as much as possible for the rest of their lives.” In The Climate Diet: 50 Simple Ways to Trim Your Carbon Footprint, Paul Greenberg cites the amount as “sixteen tons of CO2 per year for the rest of their life,” for a kid born in the United States.
It made sense to me that fewer people meant less pressure on the planet and its resources, but I hadn’t ever considered adding my child-free lifestyle to my arsenal of environmentally conscious actions, because I wasn’t making that decision based solely on my concern for the planet. I just didn’t want kids.
Tamar Haspel, Washington Post journalist and author of To Boldly Grow made my freewheeling lifestyle sound downright heroic when she wrote, “No amount of bean eating or Prius-driving will compensate for reproducing, and it’s the childless, not the vegetarians, who are more likely to save the planet. Which doesn’t mean that we should ignore the benefits of beans and Prii (plural of Prius) or that we shouldn’t have kids—it just means that we should acknowledge that human survival takes a climatic toll. Our obligation isn’t to minimize our carbon footprint at the expense of all other considerations; it’s to try to be prudent, taking those considerations into account.” Craig Chandler doubled down in 2019 for the Yale School of the Environment, saying, “No responsible series discussing finite global resources or long-term sustainability—and certainly not one on the challenges posed by a human-caused warming of the atmosphere—can ignore what many consider the best-left-unmentioned ‘elephant in the room’: global population. Simply put, it is for many an issue too sensitive to be raised, too divisive to be considered . . . but yet too important to be ignored.”
Studies that quantify the environmental impact of certain behaviors rarely include the consequences of reproduction—tell people they should have one fewer kid for any reason (ecological collapse of our planet included), and they’re liable to flip out. I find it strange when I hear proponents of veganism argue personal responsibility and sacrifice for the benefit of the earth only to discover they’ve produced a bunch of offspring. It’s hard to take an impassioned message of “you must change this core behavior of yours for the good of our earth” from anyone who chooses to have multiple children rather than adopt multiple children. But the fact that people can’t quite explain their reasons for “wanting their own” kid versus adopting one is enough of a statement about our limbic system lizard brain versus the rational prefrontal cortex we like to give all the behavioral credit to. We’re animals, and animal behavior doesn’t get more basic than wanting to eat meat and make babies.
Okay, no kids for me—that was my ecofriendly ace in the hole. I didn’t want that to make me complacent about my eating habits though. This was about my relationship to animals, not people. And I knew my love of vegetarians (in or out of the bedroom) didn’t count as an actionable measure or personal responsibility when it came to being a conscious consumer.
As I researched further, I realized that the alternatives that would have become my norm as a vegetarian didn’t necessarily solve the issues of land use and animal deaths that concerned me either. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan says, “Killing animals is probably unavoidable no matter what we choose to eat.” And “If our goal is to kill as few animals as possible people should probably try to eat the largest possible animal that can live on the least cultivated land: grass-finished steaks for everyone. . . . The vegan utopia would also condemn people in many parts of the country to importing all their food from distant places. . . . The world is full of places where the best, if not the only, way to obtain food from the land is by grazing (and hunting) animals on it—especially ruminants, which alone can transform grass into protein.”
Industry and their brands try their best to make us feel good about their environmental impacts and our choices. Most are designed to make you feel better rather than do better. It reminds me of the 1990s, when “fat” became the bad guy. We were eating processed crap and the companies that made it didn’t want to take the blame and change their business, so instead they leaned in, rolling out fat-free everything. In order to make up for the lost fat, they used cocktails of sugar to improve taste, making their products much unhealthier. Today, many of those same corporations have invested in “plant-based” products. Plants are much easier to manage than animals and are therefore preferred by suit-wearing conglomerates. New industry has been built within the economy of “greenwashing” in the same way the fat-free health movement was in the 90s. They’re still nudging us toward processed junk food, but this time with greener marketing, feeding off our limited understanding of the natural world that’s compounded by our peculiar human views toward other animals. No doubt we are headed for a similar reconning with processed plant-based foods. Imitation meat is not an environmental panacea, and it’s certainly not a less harmful food choice than meat. Once we start shipping beans to and from energy-intensive processing factories so they can look and taste like chicken nuggets, we enter a state of diminishing environmental returns. If a concern for animals and habitat were the prompts for someone’s vegetarian diet, then they should just eat the beans. As much as people might question the motives of hunters, I question the motives of some vegetarians. Why choose something meant to look and taste like meat if you don’t want to eat meat? If your goal is a lower environmental impact, choosing the nugget because it’s tastier than its vegetable source is hypocritical. And a goal of simply reducing farm animal slaughter, without considering the impacts on wild animals and their environments, seems like a narrowminded motivation to me. A plant-based nugget may be marketed to those concerned about farm animal welfare, but this obscures the environmental impacts of the monoculture industry that produced the nugget, the wild animals displaced or killed in service to the land needed for its raw materials, and the factories needed to change it into its finalIn a piece for the Center for Humans and Nature, Mary Zeiss Stange, author, environmental activist, and conservation scholar, wrote, “By opting out of meat-eating, we cannot ignore the blood that is still, inevitably, on our collective hands. Mechanized farming is lethal to animals and their habitat, and a farmer harvesting a field of soybeans wreaks more carnage in a single sunny afternoon than your average hunter could accomplish in an entire lifetime.”
These days, I like to compare the vegan “hot dogs” at the grocery store to the venison ones in my freezer. I’d pit my venison dogs against them in a battle of the environmentally, ethically, and nutritionally superior any day of the week. Tamar Haspel, author of the James Beard–winning Washington Post column “Unearthed,” had a similar revelation when she wrote about her experience crafting her book To Boldly Grow, “I spent eight months writing a book about the good things that happen when you put down your phone, roll up your sleeves and go outside to find something to eat, so I naturally also gave some thought to the environmental implications of those foods. Turns out, one of them absolutely tops the environmental charts. It’s unequivocally the single most ecologically friendly food you can eat. A food that actually makes the environment better rather than worse. Seriously. Literally. The food is venison. The catch, of course, is that you have to kill a deer.”
For years, I existed as a guilty meat eater, thinking it could only be done one way, and that way was bad for the earth. So, if I wasn’t going to stop eating meat, then I wanted to do all in my power to eat as responsibly and ethically as I could. Once I started to earn enough money, I was able to buy the more expensive meat that came with labels like organic, grass fed, local, certified humane, and animal welfare approved. The changes in our food system that are needed the most to combat the climate emergency and animal cruelty really have to come from larger government regulations, but even if it was just a drop in the bucket, and even though I wasn’t sure if I could trust the labels, I felt good about voting with my dollar. My newfound pride in purchasing the most environmentally friendly meat I could afford coincided nicely with the farm-to-table movement hitting the mainstream. Suddenly people seemed to care about where their meat came from. They wanted heritage breeds of animals from local farms they could theoretically drive to. Farmers markets became chic, and having the name of the farm your pre-pork-chop pig came from was the latest trend on menus. Restaurants started to offer offal. I was giddy when I saw beef heart on the menu at a restaurant in Chicago. As better and more diverse meat became readily available, I started to feel a little less guilty when I bought it.
There’s a good deal of myth surrounding the birth of the farm-to-table movement in America. A generally agreed upon milestone, however, is the 1971 opening of Chez Panisse in Berkley, California, which is regarded as the first farm-to-table restaurant in the United States. According to the Farmers Market Coalition, in 1994, the USDA Farmers Market Directory had under 2,000 listings of registered markets—that number was over 8,600 in 2022. Michael Pollan wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2006, and it continues to be the apogee of revolutionary food writing for a generation. My personal meat revolution started when Camas Davis started the Portland Meat Collective in 2009, a program focused on teaching whole-animal butchery classes and educating students (including kids) on what responsible meat consumption looks like. I lived in New York at the time, but the story of the writer turned butcher who was teaching butchery classes to anyone who wanted to learn spread to meat connoisseurs and conscious eaters quickly. Here was someone who not only believed people wanted more transparency in meat production but also the opportunity to have a hand in it themselves (the Good Meat Project, the nationwide program The Portland Meat Collective gave rise to, is still going strong today). I was eager to learn whole-animal butchery, but classes like those at PMC didn’t exist in New York yet, not that I could find. So, I did what had been successful for me in the past, door-to-door cold calling. I walked into butcher shops that I liked but didn’t frequent and asked if they’d take an apprentice. Most of these places were run by old men who knew better than to waste their time with a slow-learning novice, but I found one place so new that the appeal of free labor must have clouded their better judgment.
Ben Turley was one of the two owners of The Meat Hook butcher shop in Brooklyn (he left the shop in 2022 for new meaty pursuits). He is also one of the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever met. The moment I set foot inside the shop, I was delighted by what a bright, spotless, shrine to meat it was. I felt like Charlie meeting Willy Wonka and immediately asked if I could apprentice with him. My interview went like this:
Ben: Have you ever worked in a butcher shop?
Ben: Have you ever worked in a kitchen?
Ben: Have you ever worked in food services at all?
Ben: Okay. Can you be here Monday?
I had no illusions about disassembling a pig myself for the foreseeable future and was perfectly happy to do all the lowest jobs on the totem pole while I learned how the shop ran and how the literal sausage got made. To that end, I started with untangling bags and bags of pig guts. Imagine twenty pairs of corded ear buds are thrown into a plastic bag full of thick brine and tossed around by a paint mixer, but instead of ear buds they’re pig intestines. I would open the bags and separate each length of pig gut, wrapping it around the widest part of my hand. Seven or so inches before reaching the end, I’d slip them off my palm and use the last dangling bit to wrap up the center and make a tidy little pig-gut bow tie. This made it easy to grab a length for the next batch of sausages. It was a cathartic process, and I enjoyed seeing myself get faster and faster at it—pretty soon I was blowing through two bags in the time it used to take me to do one.
Look at me, bragging about my pig-gut untangling prowess; apologies.
The shop received beef, pork, lamb, and chicken. And the way everything looked when it came into the shop gave me the reminders I had been searching for: that meat did, in fact, come from animals; it wasn’t just amorphous plastic-wrapped chunks—it was part of a once-living body.
Pig day was always especially meaningful to me. The pigs hang in the delivery truck and are split nose to tail. One by one we (the four to five people working that day) would line up at the truck and each take a cold side of swine on our shoulder into the shop and pile it on the main cutting table. They’re very heavy, and between the weight and the awkward angle you have to carry them, my back was usually spent after three. They looked like pigs too. On the one side, they had skin and a face and one of those wonderfully spade-shaped ears, and on the other, they were a beautiful, pink, 3D anatomical specimen. Pig and pork in one.
Most of the butchers at the Meat Hook said they didn’t eat much meat themselves because they had become so finicky about its sourcing. I began to hope that this ceaseless parade of animals coming in one door and meat leaving the other would curb my own desire to eat meat, perhaps turn me off it completely, but it didn’t. I just became more dug into my personal quest for meat perfection. I was having a real hand in the production of my meat, and when I bought meat, I knew how it had gotten to me—more than any meat I’d ever eaten prior. I didn’t even have to purchase much at all, as meat was the currency with which I was compensated for my work (a deal you should be suspect of unless you’re working at a butcher shop).
Another job reserved for me was carrying the five-gallon chore bucket full of pigs’ blood from the delivery truck to the meat locker. The sides of the bucket were often wet, and blood would smudge the bottom half of my apron and drip onto the toes of my topsiders. One day I was carrying the blood bucket in after taking three pigs off the truck, and the top wasn’t affixed all that well. Blood sloshed from side to side, spilling out from under the lid. I tried to carry it gingerly, but the bucket seemed to get heavier and heavier, and, holding it with two hands, I couldn’t help but swing it a little. Blood is not only thicker than water in a metaphorical sense—it also weighs more. For some reason, I chose to walk through the picturesque event room that was used for cooking classes, instead of through the main grocery door.
A few little stumbles caused by the bucket smacking into my shins were enough to ensure a thick steady stream of blood trailed me through the event space, into the butcher shop and meat locker. After putting the bucket away, I rushed to clean up the mess but wasn’t entirely sure how to begin. I started to use paper towels, hoping to sop up as much liquid as possible. Then I brought out the mop. This led to smearing blood all over the floor of the usually Instagram-worthy event room, making it look more like a David Cronenberg film than a Nancy Myers one. Ben seemed unfazed by my melee with the bloody mop and newly red floor. Eventually I cleaned up the mess, and the incident was never spoken of. The Meat Hook offers their own butchery classes now—no more random recruits.
Kris De la Torre, a sustainability fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an expert in the intersection of food, people, and the environment, describes the industrialized food system “as a mechanism for obscuring relationships.” She declares it criminal that “we get away with paying so little for farm or ranch-raised meat,” and explains, “after working on a few different livestock operations [including Dan Barber’s two-Michelin-starred Blue Hill at Stone Barns, chosen as one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2015’s industry-coveted William Reed List], it isn’t only the physical labor of feeding, cleaning, and moving animals that overwhelms me. It’s that the average consumer has no idea, could not even imagine, the dedication it takes to raise animals.” In her experience, “the act of harvesting farm animals starts with the intentional care you give them for months ahead of the slaughter. Knowing all along that these animals are being raised, essentially in service of feeding people, made me acutely aware of how I took care of them and the kind of life they were able to lead up to the
The further we get from the farm, the water, or the woods, the more foreign our connection to food becomes. In her nature-based education work, Kris cares deeply about and tries to emphasize “the importance of fostering a personal connection to the outdoors, both wild and cultivated,” acknowledging that for many people, it’s hard to “know the difference [between wild and cultivated areas] when it all feels abstract, inaccessible, or even scary.” Visiting a butcher shop (rather than the prepackaged meat aisle) might require more comfort with larger cuts of meat or knowledge of animal anatomy than the average urban or suburbanite possesses. People who don’t know how to ask for or cook less-common cuts of meat might not be able to make the connection between animals and food.
- “MacDuff’s conversational writing will keep readers hooked, and his well-considered reflections offer plenty of food for thought. Nature-minded readers will find this full of insight.”—Publishers Weekly
- “A self-described ‘hunter blatherer’, MacDuff cheerfully covers a lot of ground with grace, humor, and plain old-fashioned common sense. Rarely have the connections between hunting and environmentalism been made so clear.”—Jim Tantillo, Cornell University, Department of Natural Resources
- “MacDuff skillfully navigates the choppy waters of modern hunting with humility, sincerity, good humor and authority. Weaving facts and figures into an engaging personal narrative, he explores the many sides of hunting, from conservation and politics to ecology. An excellent read.”—Professor Adam Hart, University of Gloucestershire, author of Unfit for Purpose: When Human Evolution Collides with the Modern World
- “MacDuff provides a wonderfully fresh take on sportsmen and women, and the unique role hunters and anglers play in supporting the foundation of conservation funding in America. I encourage hunters and non-hunters alike to pick this one up!”—Christy Plumer, Chief Conservation Officer, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership
- “All wildlife enthusiasts, whether they hunt or not, should understand hunters’ contributions and that successful wildlife programs would cease to exist without them. Brant paints a complete portrait of the value of hunting to all wildlife species and their management.”—Kip Adams, Chief Conservation Officer, National Deer Association
- “MacDuff present a strong case that birders, backpackers, and everyone else should acknowledge the vital role hunting has played in protecting habitat—and welcome efforts to grow and diversify the dwindling ranks of hunters—even as we explore new ideas for sustaining and growing those efforts.”—Audubon
- On Sale
- Apr 25, 2023
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Timber Press