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To Hunt or Not To Hunt

jane sanders illustrations

Any day now, I will open up our local newspaper and see the photo that never fails to dredge up the same old mixed emotions. Staring out at me from amongst the gray columns will be a child dressed entirely in camouflage, kneeling beside the carcass of a white-tailed deer. The caption will say something like, “Little Johnny, the son of Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So, recently took his first buck....”

Of course, it is not the same photo every time, the same unlucky animal or the same kid. Sometimes it’s not even a boy. Frankly, in fact, it’s the photos of little girls that unsettle me the most, not because I have a particular problem with letting girls hunt –– I do not –– but because it only underscores my nagging guilt that we may be failing our two sons by not teaching them to hunt.

It must seem peculiar that boys who live on a farm where grown men have been known to squabble like jealous children over the right to hunt do not, themselves, participate in the sport. Our 225-acre farm enfolds fields, woods, ponds and several hundred feet of shoreline on a wild, scenic river. To call it a hunting paradise (especially in a state bounteous enough to be called Sportsman’s Paradise) might be overdoing it, but by any standard our farm boasts a healthy population of deer, turkeys, hogs, rabbits, squirrels and other wild game. People have hunted this farm for all of my husband’s 50 years. Plenty more have wanted to.

If I had to give the short version of why we’ve never taught our kids to hunt, I’d say their instructor just lost interest.

My husband grew up hunting with his father and brothers. Although Harvey is an excellent shot and an intuitive tracker, he never caught the fever. As an adult, he began to examine his motives for hunting. Gradually, he came to feel that the ends no longer justified the means. At the end of the day, whatever fleeting satisfaction or pride he felt in killing more doves than anyone else in the field or dropping a buck just weren’t worth the bloodshed or the hassle that it took to get it.

Farming further heightened his lack of interest in sport-hunting. Once you’ve been in the heartbreaking position of having to shoot your own ailing cows or even your own beloved dogs in order to end their suffering, killing for fun loses some of its sparkle. At heart, I guess, a farmer is a creator, not a destroyer.

Finally, there is just the sheer pain-in-the-butt-ness of deer- hunting. Harvey spends practically all day every day in the great outdoors. Unlike most men, he gets his nature fix at work. Who can blame him for not wanting to spend his leisure time shivering in a deer stand before the sun comes up? Then, should the hunter wound without killing, he is morally obligated to track the animal down and finish the job, no matter how many miles and hours it takes to follow the bloody trail through the woods. Even when there is a clean kill, the lengthy and involved process of retrieving, skinning, gutting, cleaning and packaging the venison (or getting it to a professional processor before the meat spoils) has only just begun. Done correctly, deer-hunting is work.

That is the easiest way to explain why we have never felt compelled to introduce our sons to deer-hunting. The whole truth, however, is more complicated and cuts to the heart of our skepticism about the merits of hunting. As landowners, we’ve seen far too many hunters behaving very, very badly.

Over the years, we’ve had a 12-year-old nephew cussed out by hunters on our own property –– by guests, no less ––  because they believed he was interfering with their hunt by riding a four-wheeler the night before the season opened. More than once, sadly, we’ve had longtime “friends” viciously turn on us without a moment’s hesitation over the issue of hunting here.

That doesn’t even begin to cover the problems we’ve had with strangers, such as the ones who turn packs of dogs loose at the edges of our farm. These poachers lie in wait in trucks or boats for their hounds to chase the deer out of the woods and across our property line into their range of fire. (Never mind that a deer killed on the run is so pumped full of adrenaline that the meat is inedible or that the trophy –– the antlers –– were obtained by cheating.)

We’ve seen a doe break her neck trying to jump a fence while being pursued by these dogs in the middle of the day.

Weeks or months later, we’ve also tried to rescue the hunting dogs that couldn’t find their way back and were left to starve. The pitifully dazed undead skeletons I’ve seen staggering beside the highway are enough to harden anyone’s heart toward their unethical masters.

Back when we were newly married and living in a cabin in a field beside the highway, I was awakened early one morning by the sound of Harvey hurriedly pulling on his clothes in the darkness and angrily muttering a few choice words.  Illegal spotlighters parked on the shoulder of the highway had fired a high-powered rifle at a deer grazing just outside, probably never even knowing our house was nearby. That was not the last time we’ve had to call the sheriff’s department or game warden because of morons with firearms.

Nor are these complaints unique to us. Unfortunately, nearly any landowner with large acreage can tell a similar or much worse tale. Years ago, one of our neighbors was successfully sued for a large sum of money after two hunters secretly trespassed on his property and got drunk and one accidentally shot the other. That is a true story.

Yet, having said all that, we are not anti-hunting. In the past, we have hosted many dove shoots, and we still lease the deer- and turkey-hunting rights to family members. We allow trappers to keep our wild hogs from becoming a nuisance. We love deer sausage. We know that a few bad apples don’t spoil the whole bunch, and we like to believe that hunters who play by the rules outnumber the “hunting slobs” –– as outdoor writers have dubbed the unethical ones.

And yes, in spite of the negatives, we wrestle with the question of whether our boys should be hunting. At the least, I worry that we are depriving them not only of a pastime they may well enjoy and excel at but also of their birthright.  At the risk of sounding like the same dim bulb who thinks that tricking a dumb animal into getting shot makes him more of a man, there is some elemental part of me that wants to know –– and wants my sons to know –– that they can kill a deer if they have to. I’ll even admit that it bothers me (but just a little) to think that, through no choice of their own, my little boys are being out-machoed by little girls. And it bothers me that that bothers me.

I have always found it pretty cool that my husband, like the hero Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, is an adept marksman who quietly chooses not to kill things.

But you can’t make that choice if you never had the opportunity in the first place, and they won’t put your picture in the newspaper for it either.

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