I'm a Shotatarian: The Diet You've Probably Never Heard Of
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Like many in the good ol’ Midwest, I grew up around hunting. Every fall, my uncles and cousins would slap on their camo outfits and orange vests and trek out into the great outdoors at the crack of dawn in hopes of bringing home a deer. As a kid, their hunting trips made me sad. Bambi burned brightly in my young, impressionable mind, and I couldn’t imagine taking an animal’s life. The thought alone was enough to make me cry, even as I devoured a double cheeseburger from McDonald’s. Oh, the irony.
Now all grown up, my relationship to hunting has been completely transformed. As I’ve learned more about factory farming over the years and its horrendous treatment of animals, treacherous impact on the environment, and contribution to global warming, I find myself more and more turned off by store-bought meat. When my fiancé told me he was a “shotatarian” — meaning, he only eats meat he hunts himself — I resonated with the primitive lifestyle. And being that he’s an amazing cook, the minute I took a bite of the lean game he had prepared in a savory wine sauce, I found myself continually craving the delectable game in our freezer.
But what really rooted me back to my ancestral diet was knowing my protein source had lived a good, humane life, rather than spending its entire existence afraid in a cage.
And I’ve been a shotatarian ever since.
Hunting Connects Us to Nature and Our Humanity
Hunting and gathering is in our DNA, and it is because our primate ancestors ate cooked meat that our brains evolved into the intelligent human beings we are today. Back then, we were a part of nature and connected to our food because we lived among it, respected it, and relied on it for survival. Today, we have a detached relationship with our food, because all we have to do is head to the supermarket down the street.
While these modern food conveniences definitely have their perks, they also threaten our connection to the earth and life around us. I remember being in a store and overhearing a disturbing conversation with a mother and her 5-year-old son. The mother was looking to pick up a few steaks for the holiday weekend, but due to high demand, the meat counter was freshly out. “Can’t they just make more boxes?” Her young son asked. To which his mother replied, “Unfortunately not, honey.”
Make more boxes? I was appalled. This poor child had no idea that his food came from a living, breathing animal, and Mom completely avoided an educational opportunity. He thought meat was just made in a factory (and to a degree, he wasn’t wrong). I couldn’t help but hurt on the inside knowing this kind of thinking would shape how he sees food and his relationship to it. He showed me that day just how disconnected from our food we really are, and why it’s so easy for us to thoughtlessly indulge in the abundance of environmentally damaging, factory-farmed meat that awaits us in supermarkets and chain restaurants. We don’t see that cow being raised to be killed. We don’t see it born in a cage, living its life in a cage or dying in a cage — or spending its entire life afraid. We just see a delicious quarter-pounder.
Now, I’m not trying to make you feel bad about your food choices. Truly, I’m not. I still indulge myself, but my hope is that we create an open, safe conversation around conscious eating. Consuming meat we hunt from the natural world around us allows us to respect the life of our food. A wild-game animal lives a great life. It spends its years wild and free in its natural home. It only experiences pain in the last 30 seconds of its life versus a lifetime. Hunting your own food also comes with a deeper connection to it, an experience my fiancé describes as a profound moment of spirituality.
If more people were mindful and could remember what it’s like to look face-to-face with their food, they wouldn’t consume it with a lack of thought because you form a personal connection to that animal.
“Every fish I’ve caught, deer I’ve caught, elk I’ve caught — none of them wanted to die,” he says with a glimmer of solemn remembrance in his eye. “The smallest fish tried to swim away as hard as the biggest elk tried to run away. None of them wanted to perish so that I could consume them. You respect your food differently when you personally take that animal’s life. If more people were mindful and could remember what it’s like to look face-to-face with their food, they wouldn’t consume it with a lack of thought because you form a personal connection to that animal.”
The argument I hear all the time is, if your main concern is animal suffering, why eat meat at all? Why not go the vegan and vegetarian route? Well, to be completely frank, I like meat, and my body feels its best when I consume clean, animal protein. Period. And though others may not agree, I don’t feel I owe any further explanation. Plus, as I’ve learned for me personally, the vegetarian and vegan lifestyle looks like a lot of processed, store-bought products. Think black bean burgers, veggie burgers, tofu, etc. And they, too, have a negative impact on the environment.
A veggie burger has a larger carbon footprint than that of a free-roaming, several-hundred-pound elk. And you get around 40 meals out of an entire elk, versus just one meal out of a single veggie burger.
According to Marco Springman, senior researcher with the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (cited in Forbes) “Among meat substitutes … veggie burgers are associated with the highest [greenhouse gas] emissions, at 4.1 kilograms of CO2 equivalent per kilogram of product.” He also notes that typical plant-based meat alternatives produce the same amount of emissions as poultry. While not as high as red meat, factory-farmed poultry is still a contributor to greenhouse gases. Which means their comparative, highly processed veggie burger counterparts aren’t helping much either.
And I love my Chipotle black bean burgers as much as the next person, but it’s something to think about.
Hunting Is Conservation
So, apart from reducing our contribution to factory farming and, therefore, global warming, how does hunting endorse conservation? Hunters contribute to a majority of the funds that go into governmental protection of wildlife land. In 1937, the Pittman-Robertson Act was passed, through which hunters voluntarily imposed a tax on themselves, ensuring that a portion of the sales of all firearms and ammunition would be dedicated to managing the wildlife entrusted to the public (Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation). Today, this act generates $700 million annually, which is given by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to game agencies across the United States. And according to the U.S. Department of the Interior, sportsmen and sportswomen generate nearly $1 billion in conservation funding a year.
It is also crucial to know, for those not familiar with the rules of hunting, the number of animals allowed to be hunted each year are strictly determined by science. The number of tags given in each state and region is based on herd sizes and scientific research of that specific area, so as not to deplete herds or harm the natural landscape. Hunters are also not allowed to frivolously kill for fun.
“In North America, individuals may legally kill certain wild animals under strict guidelines for food and fur, self-defense, and property protection,” says the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “Laws restrict against the casual killing of wildlife merely for antlers, horns, or feathers.”
And while poachers and abusers exist in our imperfect world, a majority of hunters respectfully abide by these laws, making the United States one of the most successful and progressive wildlife management leaders in the world.
So, when I put dinner on my plate at night, I sleep easy knowing that not only am I fueling my body with Mother Earth’s finest, but I’m also contributing to her safety and well-being. And I always whisper a prayer of gratitude to the animal who lived a good life before he blessed me with another day on this earth via his nutrients. Because we share this natural world, he is a part of me as much as I’m a part of him.