I took my first deer at age 16. I had hunted duck and dove for years but I had never invested much thought in deer. My father and uncle reasoned that deer hunting would be a healthy enterprise for a boy who was prone to flatcaps and shell-and-leather chokers. (What? I was hip, just ask Hollister circa 2002.) Also, venison jerky is unspeakably tasty…
So, somewhere northwest of Dallas, Texas, I saddled-up in a blind — like those pre-fabricated sheds that you’ll see in any Home Depot parking lot. It was spray-painted “camo” and situated in a clearing engulfed by pine. I waited 30 minutes before a buck and a doe pranced out of the brambles to graze below a battery-powered corn dispenser that sprayed kernels twice a day, at sun-up and again an hour before sundown. I had my pick.
I chose the buck and steadied the bead just above and behind his shoulder. It dawned on me that I had never shot this rifle or (really) any rifle before. My experience with firearms did not extend much further than two hand-me-down shotguns, each nearly a century old. Would this rifle fire true? What were its quirks? My shotguns had many but this rifle felt weighty and expensive. It was my uncle’s and, knowing him, I surely wielded a finely tuned instrument. Still, I stalled and thought. The deer browsed long and unbothered. I tapped the plywood wall of the blind with the toe of my boot. No response from the deer. I kicked the wall, making a sound like a kettle drum. Still, no response. I shouted, “Hey!” I suppose that I felt obligated. I wanted to like this. My dad wanted me to like this. I closed my eyes and squeezed the trigger…
In just 30 minutes, I had become a deer hunter. Dad beat my time, though. He was well into his 50s before he gave deer hunting a whirl. From the same blind, in under 15 minutes, he took a doe. Deer hunting is the easiest thing in the world.
Last week (amid the madhouse that is American happenings) the Huffington Post published the following headline, “Man Kills Elk, Elk Impales Man Moments Later.” What?! Sensational! But how did a dead elk spring back to life to exact vengeance upon its would-be killer? I took the bait and clicked the link.
Quite the headline, but the pesky facts put Oregonian elk hunter, Gary Heeter, atop an ATV, dragging the possibly gutted (but otherwise whole) carcass of a bull elk up a steep hill. The ATV flipped backward and Mr. Heeter fell atop the elk’s antlers. Life flight coptered Heeter to a hospital where his condition stabilized. (Damn! And we were so close to that Darwin Award. Oh well, here’s to an honarable mention.) So, despite a slightly sensationalized headline, gravity did the work. The dead elk’s antlers were merely the tools of impalement.
Accidents happen. Mistakes are inevitable. Still, in accordance with the quick and merciless culture of the “Internet,” battle lines were drawn and comments ensued. Scott Satellite writes, “I can’t say I feel any sympathy to anyone injured while killing for pleasure or sport.” To which Tom Carter and Denny Wilson respond with the most boilerplate of pro-hunter arguments… hunting for food and necessity is justified and good because, otherwise, herds would exhaust available resources and starve. Ergo, non-hunting, omnivorous hypocrites should venerate do-good hunters for culling the few (sometimes to extinction) thereby saving wildlife from widespread suffering. Remember, this is all just so damn necessary.
So, who the hell are Tom Carter and Denny Wilson? Why do their opinions matter? Like me, they are no one in particular — just some thinking-folk who choose to stick their necks out online (*gulp*) — but their zealotry matters because it echoes a common battle cry: hunting is a form of conservation and, further, a mercy. Granted, there’s truth in their rhetoric. Predators serve a necessary function in any ecosystem. In a landscape where wolves, large cats, and bears have been persecuted or annihilated, responsible hunters could (maybe, sort of, kind of) fill that niche, though imperfectly and at great cost.
Without apex predators, prey animals change their natural behavior. They settle in instead of migrating over large corridors; they keep their heads down in the vegetation and eat and eat and eat instead of picking their heads up to scan the landscape for threats; and they overgraze and leave little else for other foragers. Re-introduce predators (like NPS did in Yellowstone National Park) and ungulates move. Vegetation is not overgrazed to the roots but has the opportunity to bounce back. Other foragers are not out-grazed by all-too-comfortable herds.
This is a well-documented, well-researched phenomenon known as a trophic cascade (where the top predator benefits those “below” them in the food web). Human hunters do not affect ungulates in this way (possibly because humans are not always in the fields — tracking and pursuing the herds — but take long breaks away from stands and blinds, and humans generally attack undetected via projectile ambush from a distance thereby not alerting deer to their presence).
I hope Mr. Heeter has a speedy recovery, and I do not wish to vilify him. Hunting is his choice. (ATVs are obnoxious but whatever.) However small and anecdotal, I would like to use those comments on his story to help debunk the myth of the inherently noble hunter. That’s not to say that no hunters are noble, simply that a hunter should not be held in high esteem merely because he/she hunts. Hunting is not a necessary civil service but a pastime — a worthy pastime for those who hunt with conservation and sustainability in mind but a pastime all the same.
Nor is hunting some grand, masculine endeavour that forges hardened men out of puny boys. Deer hunting with a high-powered rifle, all the brains of our species, and the endless gear and gadgetry of the market is as difficult as playing Madden on Rookie as the Patriots against the Browns.
Imagine that you arrive home from work one summer afternoon. There, on your doorstep, is an icy bottle of your favorite beer. That’s odd. You ignore it. Next day, there are two bottles. You ignore the beer for as long as you can. But everyday, at the same time and same place, there is another fresh bottle of brew waiting for you. Condensation beads down the glass and label, sweating in the sun. Why not? Work is rough. Life is hard. You deserve a treat. You sit on your stoop and pop a top. By autumn, your daily doorstep brew becomes routine. Come home from work, sit on the stoop, and drink a cold — BAM! Some unseen bastard picks you off from a treehouse in a yard down the street.
That’s deer hunting. Sorry if I’m not impressed.
Some hunters are great conservationists but the modern hunter recast as some surrogate wolf — a civil champion or janitor of living things — only illustrates the great imbalance that humankind has imposed upon the Earth. The world needs predators and, yes, humans are predators but part-time predators (dividing their hunting/gathering exploits between the fields and the Piggly Wiggly). Humans are not the predators that the world needs. The world needs wolves in the woods, large cats in the mountains, raptors in the skies, and bears fishing in the streams. The world needs full-time predators, ever-predators, roaming vast corridors. Only then, with all the pieces (millenia in the gathering), can something akin to balance be restored.
*Featured Image source: WikiMedia Commons