The hunter and the hunted

One of the joys of spending time in the great outdoors is to observe wildlife, especially game animals in their natural habitat.

That’s why scouting for deer during the pre-season generates so much excitement. That’s why stand hunting can be so rewarding. You hunker down in one spot for hours and scan your surroundings for legal deer, but you also keep a sharp eye out for wild turkeys, black bears, raccoons, squirrels, and other denizens of the forest.

When my hunting friends and I hike trails or trek ridges in the off-season, we take a keen and non-lethal interest in the animals of the deep woods, and we do everything we can as stewards of the outdoors to improve their habitat and help them thrive. The dollars we spend on firearms and ammunition are subject to the federal Pittman-Robertson excise tax, whose proceeds since 1937 have been distributed back to state wildlife agencies for conservation projects. We support wildlife-friendly political agendas, we join conservation organizations, we battle poaching and urban sprawl and land abuse and pollution. In conversations with our non-hunting neighbors, we stand tall in defending nature and its creatures.

But during the hunting seasons, that interest in wild animals becomes lethal, intense, and complex. Those of us who hunt embrace the traditional role of humans as predators, carnivorous consumers, active participants in the real-world food chain, not just passive cogs in the artificial supermarket chain. But it’s a difficult role, especially with deer, because we truly kill the thing we love. We act with dispatch, skill, and respect, but there’s no getting around the fact that we take the lives of living creatures, a truth that all of us who hunt must come to terms with.

I don’t like the inference that we “harvest” game. It’s a euphemism that we sometimes see in magazines and newspapers and even in state hunting commission publications. Game animals are not bushels of corn or bales of hay to be planted and harvested as mindless foods, although some of our practices with hatchery trout and stocked pheasants and especially with fenced-in paid hunting preserves border on those activities, which is why I don’t support them.

Given a “fair chase” chance in the wild, deer and other game animals are vibrant living beings in a parallel universe to our own, and their superior senses and instincts make them worthy adversaries to those of us who, during certain designated weeks in the fall and winter, knowingly behave as predators. We hunt them, we kill them, we eat them, and so nature provides. It’s a way of life that has been almost universally accepted worldwide until the past few decades, when animal rights groups began to gain traction.

I respect individuals who choose a vegan lifestyle for philosophical or nutritional reasons.

However, those who eat only vegetable foods but also shop in supermarkets should never be deluded into believing they don’t kill animals. Modern industrial farming practices create massive destruction of habitat and displacement of species with their gigantic monolithic operations.

Compare a 5,000-acre field of nothing but commercial soybeans to a mixed-vegetative tract in a State Game Lands, such as the ones we have and cherish here in Pennsylvania. They are paid for by the Game Commission and individual hunter license fees but are open and available to non-hunters for hiking, fishing, and other outdoor recreations. Game Lands are protected from commercial development and enhanced by selected regeneration clear-cuts with various plantings to render the second growth process so important to delivering food and shelter to wildlife in wild places. Walk one of these public tracts on a winter day and study the snow for the tracks of a diverse and thriving wildlife culture. Then try the same thing at an industrial farm.

There’s an old saying that, if you want to rescue an endangered species, put a hunting season on it. That seems ironic but rings true, because hunter organizations will take action to rejuvenate the endangered species’ populations before initiating hunting. The hunter’s ethos is to kill the individual animal for the meat but to protect the species, an idea profoundly expressed in a 1966 James Dickey poem “For the Last Wolverine,” which concludes with the line “Lord let me die but not die out.”

I guess the most natural and wildlife-friendly existence would be to own a few acres and provide your own food. Keep a few cows and chickens for the eggs and milk, hunt the nearby woods for venison protein, fish your local streams, harvest your gardens and orchards for fruit and vegetables, and gather wild berries, mushrooms, and nuts. That sounds like your great-grandfather’s lifestyle, doesn’t it? Too bad we’ve made such “progress” since his time.

“The Evening Campfire” from The Herald, January 15, 2017.

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