To say that I was less than thrilled the day my husband and our son walked into the house carrying a bleeding bird in a Styrofoam ice chest would be an understatement.
This was not the way I'd envisioned our 11-year-old's first hunting experience. In response to Matthew's recurring pleas to go hunting, he and his Dad had cloaked themselves in camouflage and headed out to a small field here on the farm.
They soon spotted a dove lighting high in a tree. You never shoot a bird when it's sitting still, Harvey told our boy, but when you see it fly off, take your shot. When the dove took to the air, Matthew did not hesitate. He threw up his shotgun, aimed and squeezed. The bird cartwheeled to earth.
A dove on his very first hunt! Father and son were surely proud about that. There was just one problem: When Matthew went to retrieve his kill, it wasn't killed. As is often the case – even with more experienced hunters – the spray of buckshot only hit the bird in the wing. It was crippled but alive.
The usual fix to this situation is to finish the job by wringing the bird's neck. Harvey could have done the deed, himself, he would later explain, but he thought it was important, for several reasons, to let the boy do it. Harvey showed him how to hold the dove by the head and whip it around in a circular motion to break its neck.
Our son may have gotten caught up in the idea of being the Great White Hunter, but, just as I suspected, he forgot that he is also a total softie when it comes to animals. Nearly every morning, he goes out to the backyard to visit with our cats and dogs before school. He was the boy who could catch the wild kittens nobody else could catch. Whenever we pass stray animals on the side of the highway, I try to distract him for fear I will have to pull over and adopt one. He still gets teary when he sees photos of a stray we picked up in the Winn Dixie parking lot that later vanished. I will never forget the time when he was he came to me as a small boy, opened his fist and proudly introduced "Drifty," his new pet roach.
Despite his tender heart, however, he is also 110 percent boy and, like so many others in this rural parish, very much wanted to prove himself. So, just as his father instructed, he took the struggling bird's body in one hand and grasped it around the neck with his other. Then he froze. After a few seconds, he looked over at Harvey and said, "But Daddy, his neck is so soft."
My husband grew up hunting deer, doves and wild turkey here on his family's farm. In his younger days, he was an excellent shot and a skilled tracker, but he long ago lost any real desire to hunt. There are several reasons, but one is that he no longer enjoys killing for sport. Having to put so many of his own cows and dogs out of their misery over the years probably didn't help, but the truth is he's just gotten downright Zen in his middle age.
At any rate, he quit hunting years ago and only reluctantly dusted off his ammo after our youngest begged and pleaded to be taken to the woods. In other words, Harvey was already pretty ambivalent about the whole thing to start with. So when Matthew balked at killing the dove with his bare hands, Harvey was equally conflicted.
So we ended up with a live dove in a Styrofoam ice chest with airholes cut in the top.
As a person who grew up far from hunting culture (after 23 years on a farm, I still don't really "get" hunting), I guess I should have applauded my husband for not forcing our son to do something potentially traumatic. I should have appreciated his respect for all creatures great and small and the fact that he did not feel it necessary to prove his manhood by destroying a 1-pound animal.
Instead, what I felt was annoyed. Just what a busy farmwife and mother needed was a wild animal in the household. It was just one more problem to solve, one with no easy answers and guilt-inducing implications. What a pain in MY neck!
For one thing, there was the issue of medical treatment. We knew nothing about fixing broken wings. At first Harvey tried securing the wing with first-aid tape. That secured the wing but jerked out a bunch of feathers. The next day we tried wrapping the bird in that latex-like sports wrap that only sticks to itself. That lasted about an hour before the bird squirmed his way out of it.
The dove was amazingly spry for a shooting victim, and he had an appetite like a velociraptor. Much to our surprise, the dove gobbled up the millet seed (leftover from a long-ago crop) that we sprinkled in the bottom of the ice chest every day. I actually began to worry he would get too fat for his legs to support him if he kept eating like that.
Meanwhile, I keep looking for somebody to help us. The idea of explaining to a veterinarian or wildlife rescue worker that you wanted them to mend a bird you had attempted to kill was just humiliating. But after a few days, I didn't care about that anymore. I swallowed my pride and made the call. But our vet was no help. A wild bird shelter near Baton Rouge agreed to accept our patient, but said that if the wing couldn't be fixed, the bird would probably be euthanized. That didn't go over well with my son or, truth be told, with Harvey. The bird stayed. We continued to care for it on the assumption that it would either get better or die. If it got well enough to fly, we would release it. If not, well, that was hard to say. What kind of a life was life in a cage for a wild bird?
As the days turned into one week and then another, we have begun to develop a sort of daily routine with the bird. Each morning before school, Matthew feeds and waters. Later in the morning, my weird husband, (who began to worry about the bird's mental health from being contained in a Styrofoam cooler day after day), would transfer the dove into a box about size of a shoebox and take it riding on the seat of his truck while he went about his morning farm tasks. He just wanted to let the bird see something different and get some fresh air, you know. He began referring to the box as the bird's "car seat." In the afternoons, our son changes the newspaper and gives him fresh water.
Believe it or not, the bird does seem to be getting better – or at least feistier. One day it escaped from its car seat inside the house while no one was watching and hid for several hours. We found it lurking under the pile of rubble in my older son's bedroom. It looked quite peeved when we returned it to the ice chest.
I still don't know how this story will end. Or what life lesson it may impart to our son, the boy who simply wanted to go hunting like his friends. I'm not particularly a huge fan of hunting, but I would never want to deny our children the opportunity to make up their own minds or exercise their birthright as boys growing up on a farm. I rather hope he gives it another try.
Maybe next time he will be a more prepared to face the fact that the pleasure of hunting equals the death of an animal. Or perhaps he will ultimately learn that that life is complicated, that sometimes we make a mess of things and there are no easy outs. I want him to clearly understand that killing the bird is not the only measure of a man. Sometimes being a man means taking responsibility for one's actions and making things right – no matter how annoying, how humiliating or how big of a pain in the neck that may be.