Shooting Deer for the Homeless

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Robert Nickelsberg / Getty

Two men come back from a deer hunting trip in Shaftsbury, Vermont.

Hunting may seem a cruel and heartless activity to animal-rights activists and many Americans. But hunters are trying to show they can be compassionate people too. A growing number of American hunters are donating part of their bounty each year to people who need it most, the poor and the homeless, through nationwide campaigns like Hunters for the Hungry, which delivers game meat to local food banks and shelters. In Georgia, where the group was founded 15 years ago, more than 1,000 hunters delivered 5,000 pounds of meat in 2006, making 25,000 meals. Nationwide, the group is on track to deliver its one-millionth meal in December. "It's really vital now because it's the holiday season, and there's more need during the fall and winter," says Glenn Dowling, executive vice president of the Georgia Wildlife Federation. "Now is when this influx of high-quality protein needs to come into play in the food banks."

Hunters for the Hungry and other programs like it operate in nearly every U.S. state; in the past year, total pounds of food donated increased 30%. Rick Wilson founded his Maryland-based ministry, Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry (FHFH), 10 years ago while on a hunting trip in Virginia, soon after he witnessed a poverty-stricken woman collecting road-kill in the woods. After soliciting tens of thousands of dollars in donations, Wilson and volunteers began providing what Wilson calls "God-given resources" to the homeless. The organization has since branched out to 26 states, with more than 100 chapters. "We see ourselves not as a hunting organization, but as a feeding ministry," says Wilson, who is now FHFH's executive director.

Supporters of such campaigns say their benefits go beyond feeding the needy. In Georgia, which has one of the largest populations of deer in the southeast, hunters say their pastime doubles as an ecological good, by thinning out overcrowded forests. Victor DeVine, a hunter all his life, volunteered with Hunters for the Hungry last year at Georgia's Fort Yargo state park, where he says deer overpopulation had become unmanageable. "It was the first time the park was hunted in 50 years," he says. "It was even affecting other critters because the deer were taking too much food."

But to animal rights activists, feeding the hungry with animals killed for sport is not a justifiable end. The Humane Society of the United States says that most hunters are pursuing a recreational activity whose purpose is not food gathering. "Rather than spending money on a recreational pursuit and donating the byproducts, spending that money on other types of charitable programs or food for the hungry would be a great alternative," says Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the Humane Society. "If hunters are donating the spoils, [feeding the hungry] is really a secondary issue." Markarian says there are also non-lethal ways to avoid conflicts between deer and human populations, like installing reflectors to prevent roadside collisions.

Another concern with donated game meat, the Humane Society says, is the risk to human health. Unlike farm-raised meat, which undergoes a federal government–controlled inspection process before it can be sold, meat from wild animals may end up on a plate with little regulation — increasing the risk of contamination. "Because goose and deer and other suburban animals feed on lawns and flowers that are treated with pesticides, meat from those animals could be unfit for human consumption," Markarian says.

Still, hunters' donations remain constant staples at shelters and food banks. In Georgia, for example, thanks in part to the state's generous bag limit of 12 deer per year, venison steaks (not to mention venison burgers, lasagna and chili), are not only abundant, but well liked. "It's very popular and it's very similar to beef," says Sarah Robertson, who coordinates food donations at the Atlanta Community Food Bank, the state's largest food bank, which distributes to more than 800 shelters each year. "It's been a huge win-win for us."