A deer on our land

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.

6 responses to “Deerslayers

  1. Ron,
    The guilt of killing an animal is a normal feeling and perhaps your father dealt with this feeling at a young age because hunger and his own need to survive overrode his guilt and he didn’t know how to express this to you or simply felt there was no need to express it you because one day you may be in a position where starvation is very real feeling and you would get it on your own. I am not really a hunter myself I am more of a fisherman but one of the lesson of hunting is that life is fragile and nothing should be taken for granted and every morsel of what feeds us should be used and appreciated.

    Animal lovers come in all forms and believe it or not hunters and fisherman are some of the greatest conservationist and animal lovers this world has ever known. Look at Ducks Unlimited and various other hunting organizations that have saved countless animals from extinction, and wild lands from bulldozers. The money that hunters and fishermen pay in extra taxes, permits and fees practically pays for the DEC to operate. I am inclined to believe that it’s important for people to hunt and fish at a young age because it teaches us the value of meat, the fragility of life both our own and that of animals. Meat is not just a steak on a diaper from the supermarket it was once a living breathing being.

    The whole world can no live on vegetables because we would have to knock down and remove many diverse habitats in order to grow our plants and there by killing off thousands if not millions of other animals and plants. Life needs to have a balance and any for of extremism leads to an imbalance. To be in harmony with nature is the key. To avoid becoming gluttonous in any way is where balance is found.


    • Hi Tom,
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment and I realize I’m in the minority on this issue. It’s more of an emotional issue than a logical one for me. I do believe that humans are predatory by nature. Technology has allowed us to become the ultimate predator. I agree with you that some hunting organizations have preserved certain species. On the other hand, hunters have wiped out many species, and made many others endangered and on the verge of extinction. I’m not a vegetarian. I love my hamburgers as much as anybody. But I don’t eat wild animals. Maybe that’s just a rationalization. Christian doctine says man has dominion over the animals, but I’m not sure that’s such as good thing because we may not be very good stewards. It’s a knotty issue. Appreciate your input and for reading and commenting. Ron

  2. my cousins were big hunters, mainly deer. when i was about 7 i went to my aunt’s house and saw something in the yard i couldn’t understand. as i approached, i realized it was a deer hanging upside down from a tree. its neck was slit, and it was bleeding out, or already had done so. it was a ghastly image, and i haven’t shaken it. you can’t just let a kid walk into a yard where that is present. you have to warn people, keep them away. however, if that moment has shaped my protections towards animals, then i’m glad it happened early on.

    • Thanks for your comment, Rich. I think you could probably tell from what I wrote that this is a personal issue and I experienced a similar reaction to you. I was actually self conscious about telling these stories about myself but thought I needed to say something. On a positive note, deer season ended today here and the deer we feed on our land survived. Ron

      • where i lived for the past 8 years, up until this past summer, there were lots of deer and a farm behind where they’d roam the fields. occasionally, the farmer would give permission to friends to hunt. it was not fun to see a guy about 50 yards from my back fence, standing there with his bow and arrow, quietly waiting for a deer to stroll by. there were also many turkey, and it was fun to sometimes see the turkey chase the deer away from the leftover crops they’d all feed on.

        as for sharing, this goes with what i’ve said about just writing what moves you, not as if you didn’t already know that, but it’s good to see it in action.

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