How I Went From Vegetarian to Deer Hunter

May 29, 2024 By: Elizabeth Kligge

I wasn’t raised vegetarian. In fact, I loved meat so much as a child that my Dad nicknamed me “The Meat Eater.” Vegetarianism was something I adopted in high school, with complete disregard for the fact my mother now had to cook two different meals for every dinner (Sorry, Mom!). I was at that age when people often decide they want to stand for something, and I had vegetarian cousins who were the perfect age to be role-models for me. The imagery I’d seen coming out of factory farms plus the fact I was a life-long animal-lover sealed the deal. I was going to stop eating meat. After all, if you love animals, why kill them?

Though I never had a desire to convert others, having a principle I lived by gave me a certain sense of pride. I felt I had discovered a meaningful place to be in the grand order of things. I’m living the right way, I told myself. 


Fast forward through college, and I was now attending a primitive survival school, first as a student, and eventually as an instructor. Though still a strict vegetarian, I began to gravitate toward deer as a species and soon found myself delivering hide-tanning lectures and field-dressing demonstrations. To acquire demonstration subjects, I would routinely drive the local roads looking for roadkill I could wrestle into the trunk of my Nissan Sentra. 

Sometimes those roadkills were extremely fresh. One day, a friend of mine convinced me to try a piece of backstrap he had just seared in a cast-iron pan. This animal was not intentionally killed. It was accidental, and the deer would only go to waste on the side of the road. I couldn’t really argue with that, so I gave it a try. It tasted as good as it smelled, and that was the end of me being vegetarian.

Elizabeth teaches a primitive survival class, including how to start fire with a bow-drill. She was still a strict vegetarian even while teaching deer field-dressing and hide-tanning classes.

I was now a scavenger. Roadkill deer became a regular menu item. It was so abundant that hunting would have seemed excessive. But working at a primitive survival school planted a number of seeds in my brain. We made bows and arrows from natural materials – turkey feathers, sinew, wood, charcoal, tree sap, and stone. We practiced using natural camouflage, covering our entire bodies with mud and other materials to blend into our surroundings. We tracked animals and each other, sometimes blindfolded, gently reading the ground with our fingertips. We learned how to respect wildlife, even when killing was the goal. The skills and values of hunting were deeply and irreversibly embedded into my system. I loved hearing hunting stories from anyone who would share them, but like many others, I never hunted while I was there. 

Hunting, unlike other hobbies, presents some significant and unusual hurdles – namely that the taking of a life is necessarily involved. While hunting is easy to romanticize about, if you didn’t grow up doing it, clearing that hurdle is intimidating as hell. Oftentimes, a catalyst such as a mentor is needed. I didn’t have one. So I took in the parts that were easier – the skills and the stories – and for a long time, that felt like enough.

Eventually I returned to the “normal” world where picking up roadkill on a Friday night was not something you did, and the freezer began to forget that venison was even a thing. But I could feel a little voice tugging at my insides, calling me back to experience the wilderness in a new and deeper way.

The Cabin

I ended up joining a local group that practiced bushcraft and primitive skills, and I soon became part of the organizing team. One day, another organizer invited a few of us up to his hunting cabin for the weekend. That was the first time I ever held a modern crossbow or compound bow. It was also the first time I ever carried a rifle or a shotgun. Target practice quickly transitioned into hunting, and I felt the woods come alive in a way I had never experienced before. 

Even though I had lived in a primitive shelter for over a year, something about putting a weapon in my hands and actively looking for wildlife flipped a switch in my brain that made me feel as though my eyes had opened for the first time. Everything seemed so vibrant, and I thought to myself This is how human beings are supposed to feel. That voice that had been tugging at my insides – it was hunting. Hunting was calling me. And I couldn’t ignore it any longer. Part of me didn’t feel ready, but I was past the point of no return. I didn’t need hunting in the sense that I was hungry, but I needed to understand what it really was and what it had to teach me.  

Why People Hunt

Sure, there is a litany of logical reasons why a person might learn hunting. Ask a hunter why they hunt, and they’ll most likely tell you it’s about the camaraderie and time in nature. But there are a host of other reasons that I also commonly hear.

If you consider free-range organic meat to be both healthy for you and humane to animals, there is no better example of that than wild game. Whereas “cage-free” chickens might never actually see daylight and might be squeezed into a filthy barn with thousands of other chickens, the daily life of a wild turkey is filled with fresh air, sunshine, an organic diet, and all the space in the world.

Elizabeth Kligge with a gobbler from a recent spring turkey hunt.

Consider also that all living things eventually die. Wild critters will eventually succumb to disease, starvation, predation, drowning, wildfires, or maybe getting hit by a vehicle. Often, they are eaten alive. Of all the ways they could possibly die, being killed by a hunter is one of the least painful ways to go. The goal of a hunter is always to ensure the quickest death possible. This is not only ethical from an animal suffering standpoint, but it helps the hunter recover the animal and makes for higher-quality meat.

Another thing that a lot of people don’t consider is that if you eat meat – and most people do – an animal must die. Packaged store meat is no exception. The fact we, as hunters, directly participate in it does not make us killers any more than people who hire others to do the killing for them. It simply makes eating meat a more honest and conscious act. I like to think of it as reclaiming my place in the natural world, like a hawk killing a mouse or a bear killing a rabbit. It’s not violence. It’s just nature being nature, the way it is designed to work, and the way it must work to continue existing.  

And then there’s the impact on habitat. This is especially easy to illustrate with deer. Unchecked populations wreak havoc on ecosystems. Native flora are decimated, invasive species thrive, and biodiversity declines. And when the population is so dense, disease spreads easily. Hunters can help keep wildlife populations in balance through regulated harvest. 

Hunters are also uniquely concerned with the survival of the species they hunt, and they provide more funding for conservation programs than any other segment of society. They do this by way of hunting license fees, a self-imposed 11% tax on hunting equipment, and membership in conservation non-profits. This benefits many non-game species as well, such as birds, butterflies, turtles and countless others. 

There are two primary ways people see wildlife – as individuals and as a species, and this directly impacts wildlife management. While seeing animals as individuals is only natural – hunters do it, too – the downside is it can lead a person to make poor decisions for the species as a whole. A common example would be to allow a species to overpopulate itself into starvation because each individual is “too precious” to harm. So while I do like to get to know animals on an individual level, I try to zoom out once in a while to keep the broader perspective in view.

So yes – I could give you a long list of logical reasons why I decided to hunt. These logical reasons are now part of how I see hunting, but in all honesty, it wasn’t logic that led me to the decision. It was a feeling. In a nutshell, I decided to hunt because I needed to understand. Then I continued hunting because I understood. And now it’s my job to help others make those same connections.


There’s a certain sense of satisfaction that comes from the technical know-how of it all – fine-tuning my gear and skills for the time they will be needed. But I also enjoy the grit and grace that comes from the rawness of being in the natural world. That first year, I harvested a deer and a handful of squirrels. Now my freezer is packed full of venison, turkey, wild pork, and – in a few days – hopefully salmon. I know where all that food came from. I sat out in the rain, cold and heat to earn it, waking hours before sunrise, hiking for miles, and processing my harvests sometimes well after midnight. 

I also took the time to smell the scents of wildflowers, listen to birdsong, and watch all manner of wildlife going about their normal routine. There’s a connection to the seasons as well, a proper time for harvest, and getting to know the land in all its various phases. With each passing year, I get to know the animals a little bit better too – what their lives are like, how they think, and what must be done to ensure their health and survival. 

So why do we kill the animals we love? Well, it’s complicated. Hunting is a paradox, and I’ve learned to be comfortable with that. Too often we try to affix easy labels onto complex situations and overlook the truth in the process. But think about it this way – if the paradox did not exist, if we simply killed for the enjoyment without a sense of stewardship, we would never stop killing. 

Elizabeth (left) now helps others discover the natural rewards of hunting through NDA’s Field to Fork program.

Certainly there have been times in human history when people, due to their ignorance and greed, did eradicate entire species. But we’ve matured a lot since then. The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation now guides wildlife policy across the United States and Canada. It operates on a set of principles which ensure that decisions affecting wildlife are science-based, and that wild animals are no longer harvested for profit. 

Hunting can conjure up all kinds of paradoxical emotions, too – happiness, pride, sorrow, gratitude, the list goes on – and I probably feel all of them to some extent. But no matter how a hunter feels, the connection they have to the meat they consume is always going to be far greater than if they had never seen the living creature it came from or spent time in the place where it lived. Being able to share those moments with others makes them all the more special. 

United For Deer

At the end of the day, we all want to celebrate life, food, and togetherness. We want to feel ourselves learning and growing. With hunting, we get all that plus a generous dose of adventure. And at a time when so many forces are trying to divide us, it has a remarkable capacity to unite. Red, blue, rich, poor, young, old, black, white – at our Field to Fork events, I regularly witness hunting bring them all together under one roof. And we always have a good time.

Hunting isn’t for everybody. I get that. People do what they do for a variety of legitimate reasons. But hunting has changed my life, and only for the better. It has introduced me to some of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met. It has made me a more informed steward of the land. It has taken me to beautiful places, fed me, inspired me, and humbled me. And I’m grateful this former vegetarian now has the opportunity to help others who feel the same tug inside them that I once did.

About Elizabeth Kligge:

Elizabeth Kligge is NDA’s Field to Fork Coordinator for Pennsylvania. As a gardener, forager, angler, and hunter, she enjoys sourcing a variety of foods from the land and water around her. Elizabeth earned a bachelor's degree in visual arts from Gettysburg College and has studied and taught primitive survival skills at numerous locations around the country. She sees hunting as a way to connect people to their food and the natural world.