Since the earliest days of our existence, humans have stalked and scouted animals with the goal of providing nourishment for their families. But over the past few decades, the perception of hunting has changed dramatically and is often considered an outdated barbaric tradition, leaving the 20 million hunters currently in the United States, fighting an uphill battle over public perception vs. the reality of the world they live and breathe.
Two people that are currently living in that world are Matt Katsolis, Founder of Interpret Studios, and AJ Neste, the team’s senior photographer. Both work with the motto of “stories without borders” but that motto also rings true for them at home, where they take what goes in their fridge and bodies as seriously as an organic, GMO-free vegetarian.
Neste, has been a huntatarian for six years now. A term he coined himself, a huntatarian is a person who only eats the meat he hunts himself. As someone who ate meat for the majority of his life, he explains the change to vegetarian was made suddenly after he discovered the cruel, behind-the-scenes world of mass meat production.
“When I lived in California, I would drive by slaughter houses and chicken farms and each time, I would get this uneasy gut feeling that something just wasn’t right,” said Neste. “It was a feeling so powerful that I started researching online and found documentaries like Food Inc. and Koyannisqatsi. My suspicions were correct as I discovered the inhumane and unethical ways animals were being treated, which is why I became a vegetarian immediately.”
After six months of being a vegetarian, Neste started craving meat again, but he didn’t want to support the big business of slaughterhouses. Once a thriving part of American business in the 1970s when thousands of slaughterhouses existed, today there are only 13, creating a monopoly of the system and standards.
Katsolis felt the same way after learning what Neste had discovered.
“We discovered that chickens were pumped full of growth hormones so they would mature quicker and as a result they grew too heavy, too quickly and the legs would break because their body couldn’t support the unnatural weight,” he said. “Pigs were penned next to one another, literally unable to turn around, and food and waste would mix. They would be overfed, injected with hormones, then slaughtered. Sadly, the consumer, oblivious to all this, would walk into a store, see a well-branded package of meat, and assume it was ‘naturally’ raised or came from some random happy farm. This broke our hearts and raised some serious ethical questions.”
In the 1970s, the top five beef packers controlled about 25 percent of the market. Today, the top four control more than 80 percent of the market. Considering the average American eats over 200 lbs. of meat a year, a majority of the country is being directly impacted by what a few companies decide what we should be putting into our bodies.
So Katsolis and Neste made a change. Instead of supporting big business, they went back to their roots of hunting. Neste, went through the proper licensing in California to earn his right to hunt in the state. After moving to Florida a few years ago, he obtained the rights to a private hunting property of 600 acres with Katsolis and seven of their closest friends.
Depending on the season and regulations, both Neste and Katsolis make it out to the woods at least 2-3 times per week..
“I was lucky enough to get four bucks this year and that will supply my family with venison steaks for 3-4 months” said Neste.
In addition to deer, Neste and Katsolis hunt year-round for wild boar as they are extremely overpopulated and a nuisance to farmers in the area.
At the base camp of the property where they hunt, which can only be reached with 4-wheelers and 4-wheel drive vehicles, is a small one-room cabin. The property belongs to a logging company and it took over six months to clear enough land to make the property navigable. Both hunters pride themselves in stalking prey based on wind direction, feeding habits, different phases of the moon and countless other variables.
But just as owning a camera doesn’t make you a photographer, owning sophisticated hunting gear doesn’t make you a hunter. Natural instincts are also necessary.
“Out in the woods, your senses are heightened. You’d never believe how loud a leaf is falling from the trees until you’re forced to put down the phone and focus on your surroundings. Being in the wild forces us to unplug from the busyness of our careers, turn off email, turn off our phones, and be in tune with nature and live in the moment,” said Katsolis, adding there are times in which the hunter can become the hunted. “One night we were out in the woods, we were stalking a giant boar we had just shot. Following the blood trail, we suddenly lost the track. And at the very same time, our flashlight died. We heard some weird noises that sounded as if someone was speaking spanish. We started laughing and then our flashlight cut back on. Standing right in front of us was the boar we had just shot. It ran straight toward us and eventually took four more shots before it was finally taken down. That’s why when we walk around at night, we always stay armed and ready.”
Once a prey is taken down, Neste and Katsolis take great pride in what they just accomplished and enjoy the cleaning process; not because of the gore or “manliness” of killing, but for the great respect they have for the animal.
“A sow can walk by with a group of piglets and we won’t take the shot. We’re big into conservation and if we choose to take a shot on an animal, we make sure the shot is precise because we don’t want the animal to suffer. When we are cleaning the animal, we know this will eventually be eaten by our families so we take great care in making sure we do it right,” said Neste.
Hunting has gotten a bad rap over the past couple decades and both Katsolis and Neste hope to change that perception every time they step into the woods.
“Though changes have been made on a national level towards a more organic lifestyle, the same grass-fed cattle are sent to the same slaughterhouses,” said Katsolis. “They’re still electrocuted and it’s always stressful on the animals. In the assembly line, the cattle hear the panicked cries as the ones ahead of them are slaughtered. This fear sends a shot of adrenaline throughout the cattle, which taints the meat produced no matter if they’re grass-fed or pumped with hormones.
“Which is why we’re so passionate about hunting. We’ve become so tied to the ‘process’ and feel so close to what we put into our bodies because we know exactly where it came from. It lived a free, healthy life, and we hunted it in an ethical manner. Each dinner is a story and memories from the hunt. It’s an addictive atmosphere that becomes ingrained in your soul from the very first time you step out into nature with the intent of hunting.
Neste is unwavering that hunting is not all about the kill, but rather about getting out in nature and keeping it thriving so future generations won’t be locked indoors. “Everytime I come out in the woods, I learn more about myself and always come out a better man. Just like life, everything about hunting isn’t easy. But the payoff is praying over a beautiful meal with your family. And you learn quickly that by stepping outside, you’re actually stepping in.”
To learn more about becoming a licensed hunter, visit http://myfwc.com/hunting/