This weekend, an estimated 280,000 hunters are out in the woods in Arkansas trying to kill deer. Deer hunting is a deep-rooted tradition. I’m posting this as an alternative view of deer hunting.
My dad grew up in a desperately poor family in a small town in eastern Oklahoma. My grandfather was a tenant farmer and money was scarce, and even having enough food was a struggle. It didn’t help any that grandpa liked to blow off some of their precious little cash on drinking and gambling.
So, often, whether there was meat on the supper table depended on whether or not my dad or one of his two brothers were able to kill a rabbit or a squirrel. To my dad, shooting, butchering and eating wild animals was just an everyday fact of life.
But I didn’t grow up that way. I was mostly raised on the outskirts of a city, and I never remember going hungry. To me, meat came from the grocery store, not from the woods or fields.
My dad always had guns, but he didn’t hunt much by the time I was growing up, but occasionally he’d go out to the Verdigris River bottoms east of Tulsa and shoot some squirrels that lived in the pecan groves. I wasn’t invited to go along, but he did ask me to help him clean the squirrels. By clean, I mean butcher. There’s really nothing clean about it.
My job was to hang onto the squirrel’s back paws while my dad did the knife work. He’d begin by slitting the belly, throat to tail, and scooping out the entrails with his fingers. Then he’d cut off the head, the tail, and the paws. After that, he’d grab the edge of the skin at the neck and peel it off the carcass. He’d toss the skinned corpse into a pan and then we’d go on to the next squirrel.
My dad did all this expertly and impassively, with no more reaction than if he were cutting up an apple. But, though I hid it, I was horrified. It felt like he was desecrating the squirrel bodies. Actually, that’s exactly what he was doing. That’s what butchering any animal amounts to. He was desensitized to it but I wasn’t and found it a disgusting violation.
I didn’t object or say anything, because I was afraid my dad would think less of me. I didn’t want to disappoint him, and it didn’t happen very often, so I endured it.
Like all the boys of my generation, I owned a Daisy BB gun and I enjoyed shooting it as much as any other boy. But unlike all the other boys, I never shot at or killed birds. I didn’t know why I didn’t, but I had a vague misgiving that there must be something wrong with me because I was different.
When I was in seventh grade, we moved to the country, to six acres of prairie a few miles out of town. At some point, my dad described to me how he used to build rabbit traps. It was basically a long wooden box you baited with food with a trigger that dropped a door when the rabbit bumped it. Using my dad’s description, I built one and put it out in the fields. A few days later I checked it and found a rabbit in it. I grabbed up the whole thing and took it to the house for my dad to see. He came out in the yard, opened the door, grabbed the rabbit by its hind legs and dragged it out. The rabbit thrashed around struggling for its life. My dad gave it a hard chop to the back of the neck with the edge of his hand, using so much force that the rabbit’s head flew off its body and landed over the fence in the field and he was left holding a spasming body with blood pouring out of the neck.
I felt deeply guilty. I hadn’t actually killed the rabbit, but my actions had led directly to its death. I knew these feelings were wrong. I should have felt proud of putting meat on our table, but I felt sorry for the rabbit. Mom cooked the rabbit for dinner and dad urged me to eat some, but I just couldn’t and I never put the trap back out in the field.
I think I might have been about sixteen when we made one of our trips to my Arkansas grandmother’s house. She lived right on Highway 22 in New Blaine, a tiny little town in Logan County. Dad sometimes went hunting with my mother’s brother and her sisters’ husbands, so he brought his rifle with him. One afternoon during our visit, he let me borrow his .22 and go out hunting on my own. I walked through the swampy land behind my grandma’s house to a point where the land began to slope upward and tall pines grew thick and the ground was a soft carpet of pine needles. I hadn’t been out in the pines long before I spotted a squirrel in one of them. I crept up stealthily, sighted and shot and the squirrel tumbled out of the tree and landed dead in front of me. All that target practice with the BB gun had made me a crack shot.
But immediately, I felt terrible. Here was this squirrel, happily living out its life and I had come from 200 miles away and made the effort to hike into the woods and kill it. Looking down at its lifeless body, I was ashamed of myself. Maybe the worst part was that I knew something was wrong with me for feeling the way I did. Men were supposed to hunt and kill. That’s what men did. What kind of a man was I if I felt guilt for doing what men did? Something about me was definitely off.
I left the squirrel where it lay and walked despondently back to grandma’s house. I didn’t brag about killing it. I didn’t want anyone to know. I felt like a murderer and I also knew that my shame made me some kind of screwed up misfit. But there’s no denying your emotions. I knew right then I wasn’t a hunter and never wanted to kill an animal again. It was the final lesson about myself that I had been moving toward for most of my young life.
Eventually, I figured out that, unlike anyone in my family, I was an animal lover. I had no idea how I got to be that way, but I had a sensitivity to animals that others just didn’t seem to have. When I married, I was extremely fortunate to marry a woman who was, if anything, an even bigger animal lover than myself. We’ve channeled this love for animals into taking in stray cats, so many that we spend way more than we can afford on their care. We also feed birds, deer and raccoons, though I’m not sure feeding wild animals is a good idea because it makes them dependent on humans and perhaps lessens their fear of people and makes them easier targets for those who seek to kill wild animals.
But it all springs out of something that is a good quality, I believe, the desire to see animals live and thrive, instead of the desire to enjoy seeing them die. And I don’t think of myself as having anything wrong with me anymore. Just the opposite. I think people who want to go out and kill wild animals have something wrong with them and I don’t understand how they can take the life of a wild innocent animal and feel good about it.
They don’t need the meat like my dad’s family did when he was growing up, it’s not a sport when the hunter has a deadly weapon and the animal only has teeth and claws and it’s not wild animals that are overpopulated, it’s people.