Steven Rinella eats meat. Since his days as a squirrel-chasing eight-year-old in Twin Lake, Michigan, Rinella has hunted his own meat--and he eats all kinds. His new book, Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter, recounts his experiences as a hunter of game both large and small; it's a thoughtful meditation on the ethics of killing for food, the influence of hunting on the American experience, and the value of bringing ourselves closer to the meat we eat.
Rinella, also the star of two real-life adventure shows and the author of American Buffalo (an Amazon Best Books of the Year selection for 2008), talks to us about some of the stranger things he's eaten, his collections of skulls and "completely odorless" animal scat, his favorite piece of fan mail, and more.
Adventure, food, ethics, history,
family, violence, wilderness, killing with respect.
was your scariest experience in the wild?
I used to think of grizzly bear run-ins as my scariest moments
in the wild. I started having these encounters in 1997 when I moved from
Michigan to Montana, and they increased significantly once I started hunting in
Alaska around the year 2000. Back then, I would count it as a potentially
hazardous situation even if I had a grizzly stand up and look at me from a
hundred yards away. But over time I realized that the threat of grizzlies lives
mostly in our heads. There's no doubt that they could kill you flat out,
without any trouble, but usually they're tripping over themselves trying to get
away from you. So now I'm much more relaxed about it. Just last week, I was
hunting caribou on the North Slope of Alaska's Brooks Range. There was a moment
when I realized that my cell phone had been destroyed by a leaking bottle of
DEET insect repellent, and I was cursing about that just when I saw this
grizzly heading into my camp and toward a cache of freshly butchered caribou
meat. Rather than going after the bear,
I continued to lament about my phone until a friend urged me to focus on what
he considered to be the larger problem. So what do I worry about now that I'm
done worrying about bears? Falling off mountains, rock slides, and avalanches.
I had a scare hunting mountain goats on some icy cliff faces last fall, and
that's my number one worry nowadays.
I've eaten many strange things. A
few that come to mind immediately are beaver tail, domestic dog, electric eel,
porcupine, muskrat, the contents of a buffalo's gall bladder, the raw fat
plucked from behind the eyeball of a caribou. But I always remind myself that these
things are only strange in the context of contemporary American society. For
other people, in other times, these items were staples and even delicacies. So
to call them weird is to approach the subject from a somewhat limited
on your nightstand?
Right now I'm reading Lone Survivors: How We Came To Be the Only
Humans on Earth, by the paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer. As an avid
hunter, I'm an anthropology buff. After all, the vast bulk of human history is
one big long hunting story. Stringer's book is full of interesting tidbits.
Like how Neanderthal skeletons often demonstrate injuries that seem consistent
with modern day rodeo riders, such as lesions and fractures around the head and
neck. But rather than riding large animals, Neanderthals were highly
carnivorous humans who likely practiced a "confrontational" style of hunting
that resulted in getting kicked, trampled and rolled upon by large critters. He also talks about evidence of hunting
weapons, such as spears, going back some 300,000 to 400,000 years in Europe.
Reading about the deep antiquity of my fellow hunters sets my head reeling. It
inspires me, and helps me to answer that ever-present question: why do I hunt?
I keep around a good number of
animal skulls, mostly from things I've killed and eaten. Right now, on my
walls, I have skulls from a buffalo, a Dall sheep, and a mule deer. On my
mantelpiece I have skulls from two bears, a javelina, an antelope, plus a skull
from a whitetail deer my dad killed in the 1960s and an elk vertebra that I
found in Idaho. The white tail deer skull still has my father's steel arrowhead
rattling around in the brain cavity. He was aiming at the deer's heart but it
swung its head around and then dropped dead instantly. The elk vertebra has an
arrowhead buried into it, just a quarter-inch from the spinal column. The bone
had actually healed around the arrowhead, demonstrating that the elk survived
the wound. It's a totem that reminds me of the very fine line that separates
success and failure in hunting. I used to also collect animal scat. I had a
black bear dropping that was formed around another bear's toe and claw. And a
coyote dropping that was formed around a deer's hoof. I also had these
beautiful grizzly bear scats showing all the different things they eat. One was
comprised of pine nut husks; one was comprised of elk hair and bone; one was
comprised of grasses and sedges; one was mostly insect carapaces. I'd dry them out
and lacquer them and keep them in a glass-topped display case. Visitors would
always be blown away by how cool they were. Completely odorless, too. Now that
collection is if being curated by my brother Matt, who lives in Miles City,
Montana. He takes good care of it, and adds and subtracts specimens as he sees
What's the best
piece of fan mail you ever received?
After publishing my second book, I
got the following email from an elderly man. This guy has the most natural and
beautiful style, and I believe that it's completely accidental. He's one of
those rare people who can just jot down thoughts in a way that's lyrical and
poetic and compelling. That is, I don't think he labored over this email. I
think it just rolled out like this. To me, it reads like a letter you might get
from Cormac McCarthy's great-grandfather:
finished your book American Buffalo and was carried back in memory some 70-plus
years to my youth in Montana. My uncle Buddy and Aunt Alice owned a small
ranch in eastern Montana and a neighbor was a retired pioneer by the name
of Dan Bowman. Dan knew the country like you know the back of your hand
and once took me to place much as you describe in your book where the Indians
stampeded the buffalo off a ledge into a pit some 6-8 feet deep. The Indians
would then slaughter them at their leisure. This pit was full of bones and for
many years I had a buffalo skull with a hole dead center between the
eyes. My father got rid of it when I left for the army at age 22. I
have no idea why he did so since he could not see it having lost both hands and eyes in WW1. That pit is
probably still there untouched although I doubt that I would ever be able
to locate it again."
talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or
I wish I didn't need so much damn
sleep. If I go a few nights without getting eight hours, I start to fall apart.
And since hunting means a lot of early mornings, I'm often thinking about going
to bed before it even gets dark out. It's embarrassing. All those lost hours!