This is the question I have come to expect from many who do not hunt. Long ago, Keith graced me with his question (read “Memories”) and the invitation to hunt with his family that followed. This question is different. It is not a matter of grace. It is usually asked with incredulity and sometimes a large measure of disapproval.
Before I joined the ranks of those who enjoy the hunt, I had read stories and heard about those who didn’t like hunting or hunters. Yet the criticism and condemnation from the anti-hunting crowd had no bearing on my life. I was not yet a hunter. Back then, it was a matter of freedom as I saw it.
Let those who disapprove of hunting have the freedom to say so. After all, this is America. My own father had served in the military to protect our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness…which includes freedom of speech. At the same time, I believed hunters have the freedom to hunt even if some of our fellow citizens didn’t approve of it. In my mind, it was much like football or motorcycling. Some like to watch and play football. Others think it is a waste of time. Some like to ride their motorcycles on the open road and find great joy in it. Others are of the opinion that motorcycles are death traps and a foolish mode of transportation. To each his own, I thought.
Not until I became a hunter did I realize that such a spirit of respectful disagreement is hardly ubiquitous. The tired cliché of being labeled as a “Bambi killer” is rather mild compared to what some think and say about hunters. Recently I received an unsigned letter from someone accusing me of being “worse than Hitler” as a participant in the “ongoing holocaust against millions of innocent animals who have a right to life.” This individual indicated that I could not call myself a Christian, let alone a pastor, and continue “murdering” my fellow creatures “in cold blood.” He or she went so far as to tell me that I would spend eternity in Hell unless I repented of my heinous sin.
Most of my non-hunting friends are glad that I enjoy what I do. Many of them hope I am successful because they look forward to feasting on the wild game meat that I share with others. They wish me luck and tell me to “be safe out there.” Yet there are those who accuse me of superseding the evil of the Nazi regime because I hunt. They believe I am unworthy of heaven…all because I am a hunter.
“Why do you hunt?”
I cannot send a written reply to those who mail unsigned letters with no return address. I can…and do…engage in conversation with those who actually care to hear and think about my reasons for hunting. There are many reasons I choose to hunt, just as there are many reasons a group of friends would spend the afternoon playing touch football or tailgating in the parking lot of their favorite NFL team stadium.
On that first hunt with Keith and his family, I discovered a part of me that I did not know existed. Historians and anthropologists remind us that humans have spent more time hunting for and gathering their food than they have driving air-conditioned and heated automobiles to the grocery store to buy a bag of assorted and pre-packaged products.
When I hunt, I am doing something that humans have done for eons. I can drive my truck to the grocer to buy a pound of hamburger, but I prefer hiking in the woods and taking home the meat of a deer or elk. Just as the “Sons of Norway” and other heritage groups enjoy eating the foods, singing the songs and wearing the clothes of their ancestors, I enjoy hunting. Only some people can claim Norwegian ancestry, but all of us are the progeny of those who hunted for their food.
While some find it strange that I would enjoy the hunt, those who have no interest in or curiosity about hunting strike me as the true peculiarity. Hunting for food is part of our DNA as members of the human family. When I am in the woods or on a mountain with my bow and arrows, I feel connected to my ancestors in a way that is both powerful and palpable.
Many of the people who look down on hunters as “primitive” and “unsophisticated” are the very same people who spend extra dollars of their hard earned money in order to buy free range, grass-fed, organic meat. They do not want to settle for animal products that contain chemicals, additives or hormones. I don’t blame them. But someone has to take that grass-fed critter from the open range to the freezer. To my knowledge, the cows, chickens and pigs do not voluntarily commit mass hari-kari in order to end their happy lives in wide open spaces and provide organic meat for selective suburbanites.
Someone has to kill the animal. Its life must end in order for its meat to be made available to the customer in the grocery store. Most people just choose (and pay) to have someone else do the killing for them. They think they are innocent of something unsavory if they do not slaughter the creature with their own hands, but this is wishful thinking at best and outright denial at worst. Hunters know better and are unashamed of ending an animal’s life in order to consume its meat.
During a recent hunt for elk, my daughter, Melinda, was with me. It was extremely hot during those first days of September when our hunt took place. Water holes were bone dry and temperatures soared into the 90s each day. The bulls were not bugling or moving by day. We covered over 40 miles on foot in five days without seeing or hearing a single bull. As this was an archery hunt, we were allowed to take a bull or cow elk. I managed to coax a mature cow from a canyon far below me to a mountaintop by using diaphragm calls in my mouth that mimic the sound of cows trying to locate other elk. This took over two hours. When I finally managed to call her within 30 yards without being detected, or “busted” as hunters like to call it, I was able to draw the string on my bow and let the arrow fly. Its flight was true and the arrow passed through both lungs. I watched as the cow ran back down toward the canyon. Then it stopped 50 yards from where I had shot it with my arrow. She looked back in my direction trying to figure out what had just taken place. She stood still for about twenty seconds before falling to the ground. Once I released my arrow, the elk was down in less than one minute.
I then went to find Melinda who was set up not far from me. We hiked back to field dress my elk, also known as “quartering out” the animal. This was no easy task…it never is. Bees and wasps were everywhere as the elk blood was the only moisture to be had in such arid conditions. We moved deliberately and slowly. Neither of us was stung. One should not engage in anthropomorphism when it comes to such things, but I would like to think the bees appreciated the fact that this feast would not have been possible without us. As I was removing the entrails with my arms deep within the elk’s body, Melinda remarked, “Dad, I have never seen you like this. You’ve obviously done this many times, but I never knew this was part of getting the deer or elk meat home for us.”
After we quartered out the meat, removed the tenderloins, backstraps and heart (for our family dog, Max), we then get all of it out of the mountains strapped on our backpacks to our ice-filled coolers that were awaiting such bounty. We had not boned-out the quarters, which meant we were carrying a grand total of approximately 275 pounds between us.
It was a hot, sweaty and hard hike. Once an elk or deer is down, there is always the matter of getting the meat from the field or forest to the freezer. Only those who have actually done this can appreciate the work involved…work that is well worth the time and effort.
A few days later, as we sat at the dinner table with other loved ones and friends gathered with us, Melinda and I looked at each other and smiled as the platter heavy with grilled venison was passed around. Words were not necessary. She now knew what it took for me to provide all the venison that our family had enjoyed through the years since my first hunt in Minnesota. She tells her friends that such food is the original organic meat. And she is right.
Unlike our ancestors, I am well aware of the fact that I will not go hungry if I am unsuccessful when I hunt. I do not pretend to be something I am not. I am not an ancient hunter/gatherer who must kill beasts if my family or tribe is to be fed. If I do not harvest a deer or elk, then I will go to the grocery store and purchase the healthiest foods I can afford. Yet even on those hunts when no venison winds up in the cooler, there has been fellowship and camaraderie. During such hunting trips, we have still enjoyed long hikes in wild places. We have slept in tents that we pitched together. We have gathered around the camp fire at night to share jokes and funny stories. We have heard coyotes calling out to one another. We have seen deer walk through our camp under a full moon. We have watched comets soar across the sky. We have awakened to two feet of snow on the ground when the weather forecast indicated there was a “slight chance of precipitation.” We have savored fresh coffee cooked on a Coleman stove two hours before sunrise, appreciating the heat of the cups that warmed our hands as much as the taste of our pre-dawn brew. This fellowship between hunters is another reason I like to hunt. The memories made are like none other. While some like to make memories on crowded beaches or loud cities full of tourists, I prefer doing so in small groups of three to four…far from the things of man.
The challenge of the hunt is undeniable. Those who think it is easy to kill an animal with any weapon have never hunted. On my last elk hunt, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish reports that only 119 bowhunters were lucky enough to be drawn for tags in the GMU (game management unit) up north where I hunted in the state lottery system. Of those 119 hunters, only 13 succeeded in getting their elk according to the mandatory harvest report. This means that only 11% had venison to enjoy the following winter.
The odds of bringing home a steak from the grocery store are usually 100%. You may get a flat tire or an urgent phone call on your cell phone once you get into your car, but this usually means only a delay in the purchase of your meat. The fact of the matter is this…most hunters do not succeed in tagging a big game animal when they attempt to do so.
To the north, only 21-22% of the hunters harvest an elk each year according to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department. This includes all hunters using rifles, muzzleloaders and bows. In Minnesota, the Department of Natural Resources reports that 38% of the total deer hunters were successful in the most recent hunting season. Information published by Deer and Deer Hunting Magazine (February, 2008) tells the larger story. While deer bowhunters have an amazing 88% success rate in Alabama and 45% in Georgia (the two best success rates in the nation), most states have substantially lower rates. In the great state of Texas only 18% of the archery hunters are successful. In Vermont, a mere 15% of those who hunt with “stick and string” succeed in bringing home a deer. Hunting is a challenge. While many people want everything to be easy, including their acquisition of food, there are some who appreciate the odds that are stacked against them in having a successful hunt. I am glad to be among the latter and smaller group. The meat we bring home tastes all the better knowing how difficult it was to get it.
During my freshman year at a small, private Lutheran college in the Midwest, we were required to read Aldo Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac.” I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about this remarkable man who helped establish the National Forest system as we know it today and our role as stewards of the earth. I hunt because I am a steward. Stewardship means taking care of that which belongs to another. A good steward manages the affairs of a home or the property that belongs to someone else with the same care he would exercise as if it was his own.
As a Christian, I believe God created the world and placed humans on his earth to be faithful stewards. Hunting is stewardship…what some prefer to call conservation. Hunters have done more to preserve habitat and wildlife species than any others. Leopold understood this relationship between those who enjoy hunting and the care of the earth required to protect ecosystems that promote the health and well-being of wild creatures. He wrote:
“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.…I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.” (A Sand County Almanac: With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River)
I also hunt because I have the right to do so. This may offend the sensibilities and assumptions of the anti-hunting crowd, but only because they fail to appreciate and understand our history as a nation. Throughout continental Europe and England, hunting was only for the privileged few. It was tightly controlled by the aristocracy. Common people were often forbidden to kill rabbits that were destroying crops on their own land, let alone hunt big game for food and sustenance. The American colonies had no interest in imposing such harsh European-style hunting or gun-control laws. This would have made it virtually impossible for most people to survive. In fact, colonial laws required households to possess a firearm. This was for service in the militia and civil defense to be sure, but these very same weapons were used for hunting as well. Those who could not afford a gun were often provided with “public arms” to keep and maintain at home.