…after the recoil, all I could see past the muzzle was a perfect halo of feathers… Ratnose says there is beauty in killing, and of course he’s right.
– from the novel Blood Sport –
A Journey up the Hassayampa,
by Robert F. Jones
Once we are past the “bloodthirsty teenage boy” stage of life, most hunters will admit to conflicted thoughts and emotions about killing.
Inescapably, the kill is a fundamental part of the blood sports, there being no catch-and-release in the taking of those game species we pursue with shotgun, rifle, and bow. Few hunters take joy in killing, at least not in the sense of perverse joy, but when the animal we are hunting has been “reduced to possession” the tinge of regret that we may feel is offset by the elation that comes with this moment of climax during the hunt.
Is there a prehistoric part of our brain that releases a flood of endorphins when we pull the trigger or release the drawstring and see the swarm of shot, the bullet, or the arrow strike with effect? Some primitive strands of our DNA insist that we are still uncivilized forest creatures, surviving only through our skills as hunter-gatherers, and so we are genetically programmed to feel a surge of excitement when we make a good shot, although we know that we will experience a wave of vague and perplexing regret after the dog’s retrieving of the dead bird to our hands, or the tracking of the blood trail that leads us to the downed deer.
Despite our realistic knowledge and understanding of the life and fortunes of animals in the wild, each of us projects some level of anthropomorphism into our relationship with the game we hunt. Oddly, or perhaps obviously, many hunters empathize most with the species of animal they most avidly pursue. As the sociologists who study this dichotomy of human behavior observe, we often kill the thing we love.
Is there a difference in the ethics and morality of killing a whitetail deer compared to killing a ring-neck pheasant? For me, yes, although I cannot explain it in any way except as a personal perception and prejudice.
I have reason to kill the deer on our farm, considering the huge amount of damage they inflict on our trees and gardens each year. I have no reason to feel animosity toward the few pheasants that struggle to survive here.
And yet, although I have never experienced that phenomenon called “buck fever” before taking a shot at a deer, even when I watch a trophy buck slowly wend his way through the woods toward my tree stand, the moment that I see the arrow strike I am totally unnerved by my own version of buck fever, shaking so badly and going so weak-kneed that I am fortunate to be secured in my tree stand by safety harness.
Killing a pheasant never affects me this way. They are miniature dragons, demons that taunt and torment me and my dogs, and when Sasha brings one to hand I feel nothing beyond an egotistical sense of triumph and satisfaction. After a moment’s inspection, the bird goes into my vest and off we go after another.
A deer? I kneel beside it and ask for its forgiveness for killing it, assuring its spirit that its body will be used to nourish me and my family through the winter, trying to explain that I killed it with no malicious or cruel intent but only because the hunt is an essential, almost sacred, part of my character and being. This most elusive and beautiful of creatures in my world, this cousin of the unicorn – how can I justify killing it?
Other hunters in the Over the Hill Gang feel this sense of – let’s call it reverence – for woodcock, pronghorn antelope, ruffed grouse, elk, turkeys, coyotes… Who can say how or why or when we became fixated on one species and hold it above others? Or how we come to terms with killing this thing that we love?
There is a strange inconsistency, a duality really, in our passion. We do not hunt only with the intent to kill a game animal; the enjoyment is in the act of hunting itself. But if there were no prospect of making a kill we would not hunt. Among the writings of the Spanish philosopher and hunter Jose Ortega y Gasset is his well-known musing “One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.”
Some people who do not hunt, especially those who have limited experience in the wild and little first-hand knowledge of the ways of wild things, are made squeamish, even appalled, by the hunter’s attitude about killing – our acceptance of it as part of the sport. Explaining it to them is difficult because we have such divergent views. My attempts have almost always been failures.
Vegetarians and vegans have my respect for their philosophy of the relationship between man and animal, but the most adamant opponents of my passion for hunting (of killing, from their point of view) consume commercially produced meat with no apparent sense of hypocrisy. Is killing a hog or a steer morally better than killing a deer? The clear differences that I see: 1) the deer has a chance to escape while the steer does not; 2) I accept that I am the agent of the deer’s death while the “meat counter” consumer of the steer has paid someone else to do the killing, out of sight and out of mind.
Another hard sell is trying to explain to non-hunters that every wild animal was born or hatched to die a dreadful death. An animal can die of starvation, dehydration, hypothermia, disease, injury, or accident, or it can be killed by a predator. Given those fates, I do not think that death inflicted by an arrow or gunshot wound is somehow worse.
The crux of the matter, it seems to me, is that the non-hunter does not really abhor the death of the game animal (about which he seems to know little) but is repulsed by my enjoyment of sport hunting – wanton killing, from his perspective.
That rationalization on my part does not solve the paradox of hunting: we are enchanted by the game animal, and yet we strive to kill it. I do not think I will ever reach an understanding of this moral incongruity, but I have learned to accept it as part of the complicated and often confusing drama of a traditional rural life on the fringe of a postmodern urban society.
But it’s a helluva note when you can’t even take a full measure of satisfaction from killing a dragon.
More stories about bird hunting, bird dogs and bird guns are published in my collection of essays, Crazy Old Coot, and my novel, Hunting Birds. Both are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com.
How apropos (for me) are the words you have brought to light from Jose Ortega: “One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.” As you are well aware, my shooting ability is far less capable than your own and so might be my golfing skills. It seems to me that a golfer can also relate very well with the words of Mr. Ortega. For many of us occasional golfers, our focus is on the beauty and people we are with and not the score (the kills). When I was age 14 I golfed three times a week in the early spring and fall and during the summers on my grandparents’ farm I shot almost every day. The words of Jose Ortega have reminded me that while my skills at both golf and shooting have atrophied at age 58, my passion for the sheer joy of hunting in God’s glorious creation and for golfing in the beauty of so many wonderful landscapes is in fact STRONGER than at any point in my life. In fact I simply could not care less what the score is while hunting or golfing. It is, for many, a sacrilege to utter such words…in fact unmanly; and yet at this very moment of realization in writing to you….for me it is cathartic to say it. How then, can an experience like walking into a 30+ mph wind onto a grassy marsh with a wonderfully trained companion like Abbey in pursuit of slaying a dragon to be improved upon? By doing so with men (who become like brothers) whom one respects and enjoys such as yourself and Cy and Fred. It is perhaps then no wonder why God loves us as the pinnacle of his creation….as long as we choose Him and seek His fellowship just as we seek each others fellowship while hunting or laughing over venison steaks, perfectly prepared in the after hours.
With much affection,
Phil – as I recall, you shot well on the South Dakota pheasant hunt. If you golf with the same skill, you must have a low handicap. I myself do not golf. I played three times in my teens but wisely sought counseling and was able to break away from this morbid addiction. Agreed: the camaraderie is one of the greatest rewards of the hunt. So is the wonder and magic of dogs working in conjunction with hunter and gun to capture a few dragons. Hope there are more hunts in our future.