This Spring we hosted a close group of friends out at ROAM Ranch for what was to be a life-changing experience. The intention set behind this event was to connect in a deep and meaningful way with the animals in which we consume and the land on which they are raised. We choose to perform a bison field harvest so that each of our guests could experience the end-of-life transition and come to celebrate the ultimate sacrifice given by these life-sustaining animals. It is through death that all life is created, and the desire to provide a sacred space to experience this firsthand has always been near and dear to our hearts.
The responsibility and pressure to field harvest North America's largest native land mammal are tremendous. There is no margin for error, and the shooter can have no question of their ability as well as my willingness to do it. For this reason, we asked Tim Kennedy, a highly skilled and proficient Army Ranger Sniper to be the man behind the trigger. Tim has been a longtime friend of our ranch and is the most accomplished marksman I know.
I have previously been tasked to be the shooter during a bison field harvest and this is a job we do not take lightly. My palms still sweat when I think about it. Weeks before I would pull the trigger and harvest a whole bison for my family, I wanted to bury the emotions deep and hide from it, but I continued to go to sleep and wake with my upcoming duty top of mind. I found myself questioning, breaking down, and re-thinking my ethics and values. How is it that I can love something and take its life in the same breath? Why is it so different if it’s at my hand versus someone else’s? I tried to distract myself by focusing on the details of my day, so the complexity of these questions didn’t overwhelm me. The thoughts were like uninvited guests that had worn out their welcome. I wanted them gone and yet I continued to entertain them, hoping they hold the key to some great revelation.
We as humans have this strange condition where, in an aloof sense of superiority, we question the natural order of things. We get especially dodgy in the presence of anything thing that reminds us of our relative insignificance as individuals, or worse, of our mortality. It is as if our society believes there is the natural world and the human world and that we are just exploring for the first time if it is possible for the two to co-exist.
We are part of the natural world, and life is so much bigger than the individual—or any species for that matter—and it’s so much more than the moment that any single flame burns out. The process of life, death, decay, and new life repeats itself in a beautiful chorus that has evolved to play in harmony with nature’s plan. We regard this process with great awe and admiration. We love everything about nature’s wonder and beauty with one glaring exception: death. We obsessively fixate on this one aspect of a much larger picture to the extent that we often fail to appreciate how spectacular the whole thing is. Further, many of us are so removed from the powerful reality of this cycle that we think it unnatural, cruel, or even grotesque for a human to take part directly in the process. We can accept a wolf or a lion dismembering its prey while still alive, but a human taking an animal’s life—even if in a humane and controlled environment—is seen differently. What is just a part of a beautiful equation far greater than our capacity to comprehend is often perceived as ugly, taboo, and even unethical.
Large ruminant animals were put here for an incredible purpose—to sustain life. They support the ecosystems to which they belong, provide food for predators (including humans), and even help rebuild the soil with their innate behaviors. To honor an animal, we can celebrate how that animal was able to fulfill its purpose on this earth. I’ve always accepted this view of our role in the food chain. However, my experience begins and ends (or so I thought) with hunting for my family in a wild and fair chase setting.
As we collected ourselves before today's field harvest the energy was palpable. Many of our guests would be experiencing the death of a large animal for the first time and the overwhelming flooding of unfamiliar emotions pulsed through each and everyone's soul. As we collectively contemplated our upcoming responsibility, it was becoming clearer that the only thing unnatural about this story was our society's perception and continued insistence that what is glorious in all of nature is a dark secret to be hidden and silenced within the “human world.”
Together our group came to the understanding that it doesn’t matter if Tim Kennedy was behind the trigger today or simply taking a seat at the table tomorrow. We are all complicit and therefore responsible for everything that happens before and everything that happens after Tim's small part of the story. All the food we have ever eaten and every product we have ever used has all been at our hands—trigger or not.
As consumers, that is the awesome power we’ve always wielded. The only difference is that we’ve delegated the dirty work and grown comfortable with the blinders that hide the harsh realities plaguing the systems we continue to support. With this field harvest, we are removing those blinders, celebrating this animal, and empowering consumers with the knowledge to support a better way.
Every time you make a purchase, you are all pulling the trigger, advocating for the actions of whatever systems brought it to the shelf. Even though Tim Kennedy was holding the gun today, all our guests are sharing the moment, participating in the processing of the carcass, and telling the story so others can wake up and take responsibility for supporting a better system—one more aligned with their values.
Armed with a new resolve, our group's entire perspective on the day had shifted. This was not for sport, and there was no joy in the action of harvesting a healthy and beautiful animal. While we love and care for these animals, we also accept and respect their purpose on the earth. Nonetheless, even in taking this animal’s life, we wanted to protect it from suffering. We didn’t want to let it down. If an Army Ranger sniper has the emotional capacity to be nervous, I would say that Tim did an amazing job of concealing it. Through years of training and an unwavering intimacy with the transition into death, Tim seemed to embrace and take solace in the pressure. The responsibility of what he was tasked to do seemed to remind him how much he cared for and appreciated this incredible animal and his contributions to the earth. We have a role to play as human predators, but we also have the capacity—and perhaps a responsibility—for empathy and compassion within this role.
As we collectively moved out towards the herd my heart was racing as we approached the bull we had selected for harvest. We had rehearsed the details, checked, and rechecked equipment, and been through a thousand mental repetitions. However, this time it was real, and the stakes would never be higher. We ease to a stop at a comfortable distance to minimize any pressure or stress on the animal while simultaneously ensuring it was close enough to all but guarantee an immediate and painless death, free of any suffering.
As we eased to a stop, the bull immediately presented himself. It was as if the animal understood that his time to transition into its death had come and he was at peace with it. Standing on a regenerating pasture, chewing grass and surrounded by its herd mates, the image of that bull in a state of total contentment will forever be ingrained in my memory. I am grateful for the life he lived and the life he will sustain.
After Tim took the shot, congratulatory remarks for a job well done were offered. We exchanged handshakes and hugs while buzzing from the swelling tide of emotions. However, the only approval we truly sought was from the animal now laying in the field for one last time. We worked hard to create an incredible environment for the bison to express his natural behaviors and realize his potential to heal the land. After a lifetime of him doing his job, Tim harvested the bull in a split second with the pull of his trigger.
This bison will not become part of the 40% of food in the U.S. that ends up wasted. There was a tribe of eager people there to ensure a more worthy celebration. We honored the animal by giving him the respect deserved as a sentient creature by using his sacrifice as a teaching tool and by celebrating his life through the conscious consumption of the nourishing meat and resources provided.
A few hours later, not one piece of that animal had gone to waste. Bones were kept for broth-making, muscle meat for grind and steaks, and scraps for dog food. The most nutrient-dense organs were consumed fresh and warm, and even the brain was kept to tan the hide. There was an energy in the air that I can’t quite explain. It is as if we tapped into something deep within our DNA—a sixth sense that has been starved for attention. It is every bit as tangible as the other five but exponentially more elusive in the modern world. We’ve not only reignited a connection to our food, but we have also shared a powerful and emotional journey alongside it.
Those of us who were there will understand. It may be tough to appreciate if you are simply reading this account, so I encourage you to get on the land and experience it for yourself. Remove the blinders, push beyond your comfort zone, and step behind the curtain to form a real relationship with your food. Armed with the deeper connection that such a profound experience provides; you may find that you reconsider your convictions for all of the food you eat. It’s worth exploring because, after all, we are all behind the trigger.