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Man is a creature of astonishing contradictions and enormous moral range. The same species that produces fools, knaves, cowards, a massive number of mediocrities, and assorted monsters of depravity, also gives us geniuses, saints, and heroes of exemplary virtue. The spread of behavior is so vast as to be almost incomprehensible. But maybe the most interesting thing about humans is their capacity to travel from one point of the moral spectrum to another, from evil to good, and from good to indifference and often tacit acceptance of evil. 

Modern-day hunters and people who callously use animals for vanity and or “recreation” (remember Michael Vick) fall into an especially troublesome category. In the vast majority of cases the person in question is simply a victim of unexamined assumptions and cultural traditions, and a pitiful lack of empathetic imagination, a total failure of compassion.  Such individuals commit disgusting acts, but the baffling thing about the horrors of this world, what some call the sheer “banality of evil”, is that committing an evil act does not per se signify the person is utterly evil. People are often not only contradictory in their behavior, they also change their ways and undergo redemption. I’m not a conventionally religious person, at all, but the idea of redemption —in a secular, not Catholic form—I find powerful and touching in the extreme.  For by showing that humans are indeed capable of understanding their wrongful deeds, that, despite all the muck that surrounds us, decency manages to survive somehow, and that in consequence they indeed aspire to live in peace with their conscience, because, if nothing else bad actions do in fact bother them, deny them rest, redemption underscores the possibility of a better world grounded in real peace and justice for everyone, none the least for the most exploited and brutalized creatures on this earth, the animals. 

The personal document I reproduce below has special significance for me because it is about redemption, a hunter’s redemption. Although I have always been familiar with weapons of various types, I never took to the “pleasures” of shooting animals, “live targets.”  I never could see the “sport” in it at all. And never will. Thus the hunter’s mind, a person who sees absolutely nothing wrong in killing a beautiful, innocent, living breathing creature for his own personal pleasure, or some other frivolous reason or pretext (and I should tell you that after more than three decades in the animal defense movement I’ve heard just about all the pro-hunting arguments ever crafted by this fraternity) remains a baffling mystery.  I was therefore immensely excited when, back in 1986, when I served as editor at large for The Animals’ Agenda, the first independent US animal rights publication, I got this unsolicited testimony from Dallas Gragg, a former hunter.  

Dallas’s words are effortlessly eloquent and they remain true to this day. The strong personal conscience and integrity that illuminated his journey of moral self-discovery was there all along, only momentarily suppressed by the pressures of conventionality and cultural norms. I am therefore confident you’ll find his testimony as moving as when I first read it more than 20 years ago. The truths he speaks about can never be extinguished. For they define what the transformation potential of human beings is all about. I am happy to be able to share Dallas’s story with our Cyrano audience. We all owe him a debt of gratitude for coming forward.

—Patrice Greanville, The Greanville Journal


BY ROY DALLAS GRAGG | [Original dateline: Animals’ Agenda, November 1986]*

I WAS BORN in the mountains of North Carolina near Grandfather Mountain and Mt. Mitchell. Hunting, killing and butchering animals was a way of life for the mountain people. I killed my first hog at age eight. I had expected the animal to fall as if by magic when I squeezed the trigger of my grandfather’s old .22 caliber rifle. I was both surprised and alarmed when the animal screamed with pain and agony. “More carefully,” my uncle said, “You have to hit him in the head.” When the rifle cracked the second time, the animal fell dead. 

I couldn’t sleep that night—I could still hear the animal’s screams.  The adults laughed the next day when I told them it just didn’t seem right to shoot an animal when he was locked helplessly in a pen. 

I dreaded October each year-that was the month when the hogs and steers were killed and butchered. Early in the morning barrels of water were heated over roaring fires to scald the animals so that their hair could be scraped off. I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when a butcher knife slashed the hog’s throat and the blood ran across the ground as the pitiful animal convulsed and kicked. The air smelled of death, especially when the hogs were gutted. I noticed that the horse, a huge Clydesdale mare named Bell, would sniff the air, and with big eyes run away. She too smelled the death. I always stayed outside whenever possible because the stench of lard being boiled on the woodstove was unbearable. 

Rural life, often steeped in poverty and cruel traditions, does not make it easy to cultivate compassion toward our fellow creatures.

However, it was always my job to turn the handle of the hand-operated sausage machine. Spring brought another dreaded time, when the man came to castrate the pigs and dehorn the cattle. I would hold my ears to shut out the sound of their agonized screams. “Don’t be a sissy-you’ll get used to it,” I was told, but I never did. 

Sundays usually brought another unpleasant task: catching a chicken and “wringing” its neck. The sight of the unfortunate creatures’ bodies jumping high in the air with a broken neck is still fresh in my mind, even though it was over thirty years ago. 

To make matters worse, the butchered birds and animals had often been pets. I had a pet chicken named Red. I trained Red, a big red hen, to sit patiently on a fence post or other object for hours until I set her down. I also had a pet turkey named Fred. As is the fate of most turkeys, Fred ended up on the Thanksgiving table. The crowd roared with laughter when I said, ”I’m not thankful. Fred was my friend and I’m not going to eat him.” My cousins taunted me until I finally ate a small piece of breast, but I felt like a cannibal. 

I rather enjoyed hunting because I didn’t have to butcher the birds and animals. By the time I was fourteen I was a “crack shot”. I never missed. Squirrel hunting was my favorite because the elusive gray squirrels were hard to hit. One day I grazed a big gray squirrel and he fell right in front of my dog Rex. The squirrel was putting up a furious battle against the dog who was many times its size. I sat down and thought for awhile. I couldn’t help but admire the little animal. He had wanted to live! 

The mountain people often shot the red squirrels or “boomers” for shooting practice. The red squirrels were not good to eat so they were thrown away. But that didn’t sit right with me either. I doubted that God made his boomers just to shoot at.

One morning, as I sat on top of a steep hill waiting for the sun to come up and the game to start moving about, I noticed many small oak trees on the hill. Acorns are heavy, especially this variety. They were as big as chestnuts and probably weighed several ounces. I hadn’t seen this particular variety before. 

I strolled down the hill and crossed a small valley to another hill and found the parent tree, a huge oak about four feet in diameter. I was puzzled. How did the acorns travel across a valley to another hill? The wind didn’t blow them, that was for sure, and floodwaters don’t run uphill. I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. It was a gray squirrel leaping from a huge oak heading across the valley. I dropped the squirrel with a single shot. Imagine my surprise when I picked up the squirrel and he had one of those huge acorns lodged in his mouth! I had been shooting the planters of the forests! On the way home I said to myself, “So that’s why God made squirrels.” 


“The sight of the unfortunate creatures’ bodies jumping high in the air with broken necks is still fresh in my mind, even though it was over thirty years ago.”


A few years later, I joined the army and became qualified as an expert rifleman. “I have never seen anyone shoot like that,” I overheard the sergeant tell the lieutenant.

“He dropped 16 men (targets) in less than 20 seconds!” Later the lieutenant said to me “You could do that in Vietnam, too. The slant-eyes are just bigger game.” But I didn’t make it to Vietnam. An ulcer got me a medical discharge and I returned home to the mountains. 

I still hunted some but I thought about the squirrels. If they were nature’s planters, what were the other animals’ jobs? Later I noticed holly bushes in sheltered mountain valleys, over 20 miles from their natural growing range. It was quite obvious that birds had carried the seeds this great distance. 

By the time I was thirty I had quit hunting entirely and began studying the birds and animals. I read books on ecology and the environment. And I returned to the forests—this time with a camera instead of a gun. I watched the squirrels carefully. They would always follow the same path through the trees, swinging like trapeze artists. Occasionally I would see a flying squirrel gliding silently through the trees or a ruffled grouse blasting away like a rocket. 

I marked the spots where the nuts carried by squirrels fell and returned in the spring to find small trees growing in those areas. I also observed the “worthless” red squirrels burying nuts. It occurred to me that nut-bearing trees, oaks, hickories, walnuts, chestnuts and many, many others all depended on the little animals to transport their seed throughout the forests. 

It should be obvious to any thinking person that nature is a powerful but delicate force. Each living thing on the planet is striving for survival in one way or another, and striving to keep its kind from becoming extinct. Various species of plants, birds and animals have survived earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, floods and many other kinds of natural catastrophes only to fall victim to uncaring humans. 

Hunters are directly responsible—to name a few—for the extinction of the passenger pigeon as well as many kinds of island-dwelling birds. The buffalo very nearly became extinct after hunters [retained by commercial interests] went after them largely to wipe out the Indians’ [main] food supply.  Starve’em to submission. 

This strategy left more than 50 million of the great creatures on the plains to decay in the sun. Hunters have brought the mountain lion, the grizzly bear, the whooping crane, and even the symbol of our nation, the bald eagle, to the brink of extinction. 

I began studying hunters from “the other side of the fence:’ When working with hunters I would ask their opinions of hunting. One hunter’s reply was, “God made animals for me to eat – what else are they good for?” Another said, “It makes me forget my troubles to hunt and fish.” I thought long and hard about his statement. Humans vent their stress and their frustrations from daily life on innocent wildlife. Hunting is a one-sided game with only one winner—human beings. This is why hunters refer to birds and animals as “game”. When the hunter has hunted down and killed an animal, he has “won” the game. More often than not, the creature is killed for pleasure instead of for food. A certain sadistic pleasure is derived by killing another creature. When a human kills an animal the act fuels his ego: he has mastered the creature by taking its life. 

Why else would a trophy hunter spend thousands of dollars, hike through steaming snake- and insect-infested swamps or climb steep cliffs to kill a magnificent member of another species? Why else would he cut off the head of his victim and leave the body to rot? Why else would he take the head to a taxidermist and mount it over his fireplace? He has dominated and killed the “beast”, and therefore hangs its head up for all the world to see that he is the mighty and fearless hunter. It is nothing but fuel for the insecure ego of small men. 

The hunter, with the scent of death in his nostrils, has little respect for his neighbor who enjoys seeing the creatures on his property alive. “No hunting” and “No trespassing” signs are torn down or shot full of holes. A hunting license is a permit to kill indiscriminately. Our government sells out our wildlife for the price of a hunting license. Soon after becoming an anti-hunting advocate, I found my tame mallard ducks shot and floating on their pond. They too had enjoyed living and I enjoyed them. But some pervert found pleasure in their death. Once I observed hunters exterminating a covey of Bob White quail. Their cheerful calls can no longer be heard around the small mountain community where I grew up as a child. 

TRADITION is perhaps the worst enemy of the animals: even our holidays call for the killing of birds and animals. These barbaric traditions, including hunting, rodeos and other cruel sports, are taught to children and thus passed down from generation to generation. Only a little more than a century ago blacks were considered to be animals and were treated as such. Similarly. during the second World War, Jews were considered to be subhuman by the Nazis, or perhaps even subanimal, and were killed by the millions. 

Even today we abuse our fellow humans through boxing, wrestling and other cruel sports. How can the perpetrators of cruelty among us be expected to respect animals when they do not even respect humans? Before we can understand animal abuse we must understand ourselves. Humanity lives not by reality but by habits— often anchored in selfishness and staggering ignorance. It is this aspect of human nature we must work against. 

If my story can, in some small way, influence the traditional way of thinking and the ignorant beliefs about our fellow creatures, 1 would be greatly pleased. This story is to aid our fellow creatures who have long suffered at the hands of mankind. May they someday live in peace, without suffering and fear. 

Roy Dallas Gragg worked as a housepainter. He used to live in Montezuma, N.C.

NOTE: The image of the boy and his dog and of a family living in poverty are from James Agee and Walker Evans’ classic Let us Now Praise Famous Men. They do not represent the author or his immediate kin or environment.

12 comments on “WHY I QUIT HUNTING
  1. What a clear -eyed, big-hearted, and rational summation of one man’s evolution. The larger implications and impact of his decision are laid out so that anyone can grasp it in a practical sense, and really FEEL it, too. And feeling it is often the place where change begins. Greanville’s intro gives a soaring and scary sense of what we as a species are capable of, good or bad. I imagine that anyone reading this is a seeker, and also mighty pissed off at the injustices in the world for both man and beast. We are all in it together, and it’s all connected.

  2. one of the most honest, touching pieces i’ve read in a really long time. i know people who have hunted, some who still hunt, some who grew up on farms and saw terrible things – one a friend whose father asked him to kill the pig one day with the ax. The objective, on a farm, is to “make the animal suffer as little as possible” (on a small farm; ethics come in strange currencies, but i ‘get it’.). Alas, my friend was only twelve and did not kill the pig in one blow and his father, the farmer, was furious because the pig ran about squealing and suffering and the other pigs witnessed this horror. The father, yes, finished off “the job”, but it’s a story i’ll never forget.

    In a strange way, i have some respect for the father for not wanting the animal to suffer so much that he wanted it done fast (this was not a big farming operation, but a small farm in Monroe, so very very small) and they lived off of the animals they killed – much the way many Inuit or Native American tribes will live off of the animal they kill. This is wholly different from hunting “for sport” in my view – there is no “sport” when we have such high-powered equipment. Hunters are hardly running around with bows and arrows anymore and those that do, have high-tech arrows etc. More, many hunts are “canned hunts” – that is hunts in fenced in areas where the animals truly have nowhere to flee – in many places, such as Massachusetts, they opened up the Quabbin Reservoir for hunting after it had been closed for many, many years and the deer were so tame you could hold out your palm with popcorn and they would eat. Some sport that. Come here – BOOM! How very brave; how very manly. How very disgusting.

    It also astounds me that so many people fail to see the commonalities between hunting and rape and abuse of women (yes, really). These people need to read Carol Adams’s work (published by Continuum-Books), or see some of the promotional posters for beef that I have seen…

    Ask a woman who has been assaulted, or a man, if they feel in any way that they were “hunted” and i can tell you, that for many (tho not all) the answer is often an unequivocal Yes. I am not ashamed to say that when I was assaulted I felt almost exactly as a doe must feel when simply running through the woods and “taken down” – the sexual politics run deep and clear.

    For more on this, contact NEAVS, which you can Google (New England Anti-Vivisection Society) where I used to work; Not only did I write a lot about this for them, but they have a great deal of information on the subject.

    Thanks for this: it took a lot to publish this… More power to you!

    Be well,

    Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

  3. I’ve met hunters who have become similarly enlightened. It’s heartening to know people can evolve past their habits.
    Trophy hunting is abominable and there is NO excuse for it.
    While doing some amateur videography for Argus Archives in the 1980’s, I had the opportunity to interview some bow hunters.
    One, in particular, hunted only to feed his family.
    He claimed to be an expert marksman, who always killed with one shot. He described how he used every bit of the animal, wasting nothing. His family, unlike most American families who have meat three times a day, were fed meat only two or three times a week.
    I think I have a far more of a problem with people who go to the supermarket and purchase packages of flesh they forget (or would like to deny) came from an animal, an animal who suffered horribly in a factory “farm,” never enjoyed a moment of freedom or happiness, and died a brutal death. People who do this (99.9999% of meat eaters) deny they are contributing to animal suffering and, when confronted, bluntly let you know that they would rather remain blissfully ignorant than have to change their lifestyle.

  4. What a powerful article. It really gets right into the psyche of a hunter, one who kills mercilessly for fun. Reading these and similar stories about reformed animal abusers, it seems that in order to break the cycle of violence and ignorance, we need to break down these traditions and indoctrinations. We must teach our children that compassion (both to humans and nonhuman animals) is not something to be ridiculed away. It should be nurtured and respected.

  5. I don’t hunt because I didn’t enjoy killing animals, but I have no problem with ethical hunters. My brother and my stepson are avid deer hunters. They never take questionable shots and they eat what they kill. The well placed hunter’s bullet is far more humane than being rolled under an eighteen wheeler on the highway. Most of the hypocrites posting here wouldn’t think twice about setting a mouse trap.

  6. to kurt, I think your wrong that most of these people wouldn’t think twice about setting a mousetrap. A bit judgemental, since you don’t know even one of the people that have posted. Personally, I catch mice and put them outside, better yet keep the house clean. A agree that an ethical hunter feeding themselves and family is part of life, but I think some folks here are mostly addressing those that are NOT ethical, just the small dick dudes that get off on power.
    Dude…..18 wheeler or being shot, a bit simplistic, like if a deers not shot they’re going to be hit by a semi…….duh!!!! Bring back the wolves and let them do some real hunting, best way to deal with the overpopulation of deer.
    Aside from that, this is one of the best written essays I’ve ever read, I wish I was half the writer this guy is.

  7. Kathy, I could have worded things better by saying ‘Some people opposed to hunting are hypocrites and wouldn’t think twice about setting a mouse trap.’ It is also true that responsible hunters detest ‘slob hunters’.
    As for the mice, I have the cat do the killing for me. Unfortunately, despite two bell collars, she manages to kill song birds. Nature, without man’s involvement, can be quite cruel. We live in a rural area of Northern Illinois and in the last decade coyotes have become more numerous. Some of the blood curdling sounds that are heard at night are from them killing their prey.
    I suspect that many people opposed to hunting are really opposed to firearms, given that hunters represent a large segment of gun-owners. I believe an armed citizenry is needed to resist a totalitarian government. With Bush and his neo-con buddies trashing the Bill of Rights, we need to have the means to resist as a last resort.

  8. ” With Bush and his neo-con buddies trashing the Bill of Rights, we need to have the means to resist as a last resort.”

    The sheeple are asleep. as usual.
    You idiots should have stormed Wahington on the eve of 911……

    ” OOOOOOO Britney shaved her head!”
    That’s YOUR world.

    The writer of this article has seen The Truth.
    Excellent reading.

  9. To kurt – if there are coyoyes in your rural Illinois area, why would you allow your cat to be outside, killing birds? Cats are perfectly happy, and live longer and healthier lives inside. Don’t you care that your cat could be the next victim of a coyote?

    There is no such thing as an “ethical hunter” – it’s an oxymoron. There is absolutely no need nowadays for subsistence hunting unless you are dirt poor living in a shack somewhere like the writer/ex-hunter’s family.

    I read somewhere recently that when all the deer hunting costs are calculated into one pound of venison, it could go as high as $174, depending on the region.

    Any hunter ‘s claims that he uses every bit of the deer he kills doesn’t admit to how much of that deer can’t be used!

    My father hunted when he was young, mostly wild boar. One day, he aimed at a rabbit in the snow and saw what he thought were tears streaming down it’s face (it was melting snow) – from that day on, he never killed anything, not a bug, spider, fly – he caughte them and released them outside. He has been dead for just over 20 years, but he is still remembered by his friends and family for releasing critters outside when it would have been just as easy to just squish them….

  10. Unfortunately, Kathy seems to be under the very wrong impression that deer need to be killed in order to stop them from overpopulating! Wildlife agencies have done a great job in spreading this misinformation.

    Before so-called wildlife “management” became involved in every state, there were no deer problems, in fact populations were at a steady “normal”.

    Hunting perpetuates hunting and spurs reproduction.

    Yes, natural predators would be agreat idea – but hunters don’t want any…they consider them to be in direct competition by killing what they believe belongs to them!

  11. As much as I agree with kathy, she is under the wong impression that deer popualtions must be managed to keep them from overpopulating. Wildlife agencies have succeeded very nicely in indoctrinating the general public to the need to hunt.

    Hunting perpetuates hunting and spurs reproduction.

    Why would hunters and wildlife agencies agree to natural predators; they are hunted and trapped as soon as they make an appearance. Natural predators are considered to be direct competition for what hunters believe to be theirs to kill.

  12. I have been working on my ancestry recently. Through that process, I stumbled upon this website while researching my half brother’s father. My brother is no longer here with us. He chose to take his own life March 2, 2007. It is ironic and very touching to see these comments made about this article after his passing. My brother was Roy Dallas Gragg. I know he endured things that disgusted him, it was the way my family had had to lived for generations before us. Hunting and slaughtering animals for food was a way to exist for poor people in many areas, including the mountains of western North Carolina where we grew up.

    Dallas was eleven years older than me and I always looked up to him for many reasons, not the least of which was his gentle heart. He had the same gentleness for the “underdog” people that he crossed paths with. I think he always wanted to be good guy that wore the white hat. He wanted to stop the cruelties he saw and had experienced himself in the world and I believe when he began to realize that he could not, it weighed heavy on his heart.

    I personally thank all of you for your comments about Dallas’ experiences. I know he would be very humbled and proud.

    Debbie Dunlap Carpenter

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