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Wounded animals, Uncomfortable hunters

Back in November, a fellow hunter and I talked about an essay he’d written. In it, he described stumbling onto a deer that had been wounded by someone else. When the piece was published, he heard from some disgruntled hunters. They didn’t like seeing that kind of story in print.

A couple months later, I was at a public hearing about hunting. During it, a woman voiced concerns about the wounding and loss of deer and moose in archery seasons. When she spoke, disgruntled hunters started muttering loudly. They didn’t like hearing that kind of talk.

A month after that, a filmmaker and I talked about a film she’d made. In it, she showed several hunting scenes, including one where the animal did not go down with the first shot. When the film was shown, she heard from some disgruntled hunters. They didn’t like seeing that kind of story on screen.

I wonder how such disgruntlement sounds to the non-hunting majority. Does it sound like these hunters don’t care about the wounding of animals? Does it sound like they’re trying to hide or minimize something?

It’s not as though wounding is any secret. Hunters have written entire books on how to find wounded animals. Wildlife biologists have done studies on wounding-and-loss rates. You can find discussion threads about wounding on hunting and anti-hunting websites alike.

I also wonder:

  • Do hunters dislike the public dissemination of stories about wounded animals mostly because they fear it will harm hunting’s public image?
  • Or does their discomfort also stem from being reminded that hunting can be messy, that it is not always the clean-killing endeavor we wish it was?

I once saw a broadhead buried in a deer’s skull. The animal apparently survived that way for a year or more.

I once heard a hunter describe a gruesome picture caught by his trail camera: a buck with leg muscles torn apart, presumably by a rifle bullet. He grimaced and shook his head. He doubted the animal would survive.

Do I like seeing such things, or hearing such stories? Hell, no. They make me queasy.

But I think it’s a good kind of queasy. It’s the kind that makes me careful.

© 2011 Tovar Cerulli

Deer: Part of every stew, every salad, every stir-fry

Photo courtesy of NBII

Venison, a forester friend tells me, is the best way he knows to eat trees. He points out that whitetails do a dandy job of converting cellulose into protein.

When Cath and I sit down to a bowl of venison stew, we are eating more than potato, carrot, and deer. We are also eating maple seedlings and cedar twigs. We are eating clover from a nearby meadow and corn from the edge of a farm field. We might even be eating hosta leaves and daylily buds from our own flower gardens.

If we lived thirty miles south of here, the whitetails—and thus we—we would be eating many more acorns.

If we lived where soy crops were common, they and we would be eating many more soybeans. (Given deer’s fondness for soy, I think it’s fair to consider Illinois venison a highly metabolized form of tofu.)

In a sense, though, the flip side is also true.

In my latter days as a vegan, I was shocked to learn how many whitetails are killed by farmers. Considering that deer were being shot to bring us tofu, how vegetarian were our stir-fries? Considering that they were even being shot to bring us greens and strawberries from the organic farm just down the road, how vegetarian were any of our meals?

I was also fascinated to learn about the role that agriculture played in the politics of early deer management.

Take Vermont, for instance: In 1897, when the state legislature allowed deer hunting for the first time in three decades, the move was made largely in response to farmers’ complaints about crop losses as the nearly exterminated whitetail began to recover. Up through 1920, the regulation of deer hunting in Vermont—for both bucks and does—was largely determined by agricultural interests and was aimed at keeping deer numbers low.

By 1920, though, hunting was becoming popular. The political tide had begun to turn and the Vermont legislature established bucks-only regulations that allowed the whitetail population to grow.

As a vegan, I could have argued that hunters themselves created the present situation—in which the successful cultivation of just about every American crop depends on killing deer. I could have pointed out that deer would still be scarce today if farmers had had their way.

But what would I have been advocating for? More intensive hunting in the past, to relieve me of a moral quandary in the present?

No matter how I sliced it, deer would always accompany me at the dinner table.

Note: I got thinking about this post after reading a recent piece by Al Cambronne, wherein I learned one more thing I didn’t want to know about the U.S. beef industry. If chicken droppings don’t strike you as a taste treat, you might not want to know either.

© 2011 Tovar Cerulli

Recipes, death wishes, and hippie hunting ethics

A year—in this case, a year of blogging—goes by in a flash. I can hardly believe it’s been that long already.

Back at the six-month mark, I realized it was high time to acknowledge the many folks who helped get my blog rolling, and to offer a few reflections on the weirdness of Google searches. The twelve-month mark seems like a good time to do the same.

As always, my greatest debt is to my readers.

Thanks, too, to the folks who have posted mentions of my blog in recent months, including Tamar at Starving Off the Land, Phillip at The Hog Blog, Albert at The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles, Daniel at Casual Kitchen, Kate at Living the Frugal Life, and the UMass Library’s Local Food research guide. (I’m sure some folks are missing from this list. If you think of someone who is, please remind me.)

And another shout-out to Holly at NorCal Cazadora, who gave my blog a big boost in its very first weeks. I make special mention of her here, both to say thanks and to tell anyone who hasn’t heard: her partner Hank Shaw’s book Hunt, Gather, Cook will soon be out, featuring Holly’s fine photographs.

A few words about Hank’s recipes: Two months ago, I got lucky in rifle season and thought back to one of Hank’s posts about braising venison shanks. Instead of trimming and grinding all those small, tough muscles, I decided to freeze the deer’s lower legs whole. This past weekend, I thawed a shank and tried a variation of one of Hank’s recipes. The result?

Unbelievable. You could cut the meat with a fork. If Cath wasn’t already committed (and married) to me, that dish might have won her heart.

"Beginnings" by Tommy Ellis

Thanks are also due to the many fine folks who have welcomed me to the world of Twitter. Like any good semi-Luddite, I’m wary of newfangled social media, so it has helped to receive such a warm reception. As one benefit of joining, I’ve come across some wonderful images, including Steve Creek’s wildlife photography and Tommy Ellis’s watercolor landscapes. The one at right reminds me of the brook that tumbles through the woods behind our house.

Finally, I cannot resist—okay, I relish—the opportunity brought my way by Google bots, ubiquitous scavengers of the web that they are. Here, with commentary by yours truly, are a few favorite search strings that led folks to my blog over the past six months:

  • “I want to be snake food” – There’s probably a cure for that. Other than the obvious one.
  • “Approx how long would it take a large snake to swallow and digest a small human?” – A while. If you want a more precise answer, you could arrange an experiment. You may have a volunteer above.
  • “What would be the term for extreme fear of porcupines?” – No clue. Porcuphobia? Quillophobia?
  • “Why am I not seeing deer in Vermont 2010?” – That depends. What were you doing when not sitting at your computer, Googling? If, like one of my friends, you were sitting by your living room window instead of sitting in the woods, then I have a theory.
  • “Are woodchucks invertebrates or carnivores?” – Um, neither. Wait, do you mean the kind that raids gardens, or the kind that hunts deer?
  • “Vegan falconry” – What does the falcon chase, a tofu pup on a string? Does the bird get a say in this?
  • “Vegetarian hunters organization” – If you’re starting one, please let me know. I want to be a founding member.
  • “Words of wisdom for vegans from hunters” – Hmmm. Unlike most of the other Googlers above, you might actually have come to the right place.
  • “Hippy ethics for hunting” – You definitely came to the right place. Technically speaking, I was never a hippie: I was a generation too late, didn’t pop psychedelic mushrooms, and never owned a pair of bellbottoms. I was, however, a peace-loving vegetarian who wore his hair long. In light of recent demand for evidence of that last fact, please see photo at right.

© 2011 Tovar Cerulli

Zen and the art of deer hunting

Don’t try too hard, some folks say. Desperation can drive the deer away. The less you expect, the more animals you see.

How this philosophy dovetails with the undeniable value of perseverance, I’m not sure. But there may be something to it.

In my first few years as a hunter, I dragged home exactly zero pounds of venison. It was only in my fourth autumn—after I gave up on getting a deer and decided to focus on just enjoying my time in the woods—that my first buck came along.

The next year, I had no expectation of repeated success so soon. Yet a deer came. The year after that, with less time to hunt, my expectations were even lower. Again, a deer came.

There are limits to such luck, however.

This fall, I would be too busy to spend much time in the woods. (Of late, I’ve been too busy even to spend much time in the wilds of the internet. As fellow bloggers can attest, my forays there have left few traces in the form of comments.) I felt sure our freezer would hold no venison this winter. But I promised myself I would get out for a few mornings, just to feel the forest wake at dawn.

A week ago, on opening morning of rifle season, I was doing just that. I had reached the woods a full hour before sunrise: half an hour before legal shooting light.

In the dark, I heard one deer somewhere behind me, its hooves crunching leaves. But its meandering, start-and-stop movements sounded more like a doe browsing than a buck seeking a mate. Here in Vermont, only the latter are legal game in rifle season. Slowly, the animal wandered out of earshot. Probably the only deer I would hear that morning.

No matter. My aim, as meditation teachers say, was to “just sit.” And, as woodland deer hunters say when the leaves are that dry and frosty, to “just listen.”

The rustle of a leaf.

The swishing of wings, as a pileated woodpecker moved from one tree to another.

The sounds of the forest breathing.

I can’t recall ever taking so much pleasure in simply sitting, eyes closed. My mind went still, letting go of its churning thoughts about the next chapter I would be drafting for my book, or about the research I’m doing in grad school, interviewing hunters who came to the pursuit as adults. I was hardly even thinking about deer.

I had been there an hour, listening, when the hoof steps came, moving not into the faint breeze, but with it, so that the animal’s scent was carried my way, rather than vice versa. Again, the sounds stopped and started.

A doe, I thought, maybe the same one.

But when the deer stepped into view, just ten yards off to my right and behind me, I saw antler. And—more surprising—I made out a pair of points on one side. A legal buck.

I saw, too, why the animal’s movements sounded sporadic. The buck was so hopped up on rut-time hormones that he could hardly take a step without stopping to hook a sapling with his antlers or to paw at the earth.

A few more steps, as the buck crossed behind me. An ambling turn that would take him away, yet gave me the chance to raise my rifle unseen. A clear view as he angled off. A moment’s pressure on the trigger.

Crouching beside him, I offered thanks and apology—poor compensation for what I had taken—and thought how strange this brief hunt had been. In years past, I had never even seen a buck on opening day.

The next morning, returning scraps to the forest, I paused by a pair of crisscrossed logs. The moss was festooned with clumps of fine, downy fuzz. Puzzled, I leaned over to look more closely.

Red squirrel. The ephemeral traces of another, winged, hunter’s kill.

© 2010 Tovar Cerulli

Coyotes, deer, and the very idea of ‘game’

Photo by Christopher Bruno

A few nights ago, coyotes yipped and howled nearby. I was delighted to hear them.

Granted, I was in bed at the time. My sentiments would, I suspect, be substantially different if I was, say, deep in the woods with a turned ankle and no flashlight.

The next day I got thinking about those wild yelps, and about coyotes.

Here in Vermont, some hunters are happy to have coyotes around, and never think of killing them. Other hunters despise coyotes and shoot them at every opportunity. Still others are somewhere in the middle: perhaps ambivalent, perhaps hunting them occasionally, perhaps happy to co-exist as long as Fido and Sylvester aren’t getting snatched from the backyard.

These hunters would, I imagine, respond in various ways to Aldo Leopold’s thoughts about predators on the land:

Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left. That is to say, you cannot love game and hate predators; you cannot conserve the waters and waste the ranges; you cannot build the forest and mine the farm. The land is one organism.

Photo courtesy Charles & Clint Robertson

What catches my eye in that passage is the word “game.”

As a broad category,  of course, it simply indicates creatures that we hunt or catch. “Game” says deer, not shrew. It says grouse, not egret. It says bass, not minnow.

But doesn’t it also say something else?

By saying “game,” don’t we stake some kind of claim on these creatures? Don’t we define them as somehow different from other “wildlife,” perhaps one step closer to “livestock,” to “property”?

When hunters talk about what impact coyotes do or don’t have on white-tailed deer numbers, isn’t the entire discussion built on the very idea of “game”? On the notion that deer—almost like cows and sheep, or Fido and Sylvester—are, at least in part, off-limits to coyotes?

What are the consequences of believing that certain wild animals should be killed and eaten only—or at least mostly—by two-footed predators, not four-footed?

© 2010 Tovar Cerulli

Hunting with Gandhi

In college, studying Mahatma Gandhi’s moral and political philosophy, I was impressed by the twin commitments of his lifelong quest for truth.

On the one hand, he lived according to what he saw as the truth, which must, he wrote, “be my beacon, my shield and buckler.” On the other hand, he had the humility and wisdom to recognize that his truth was incomplete, that it was only “the relative truth as I have conceived it.” Closing himself off to new insights would obstruct his search.

At the time, in my early years as a vegan, I was confident I had a lockdown on dietary truth. Lacking Gandhi’s humility, it never occurred to me that someday I might have to lay down that particular shield and buckler.

Had I paid closer attention to Gandhi’s experiments with diet, they might have been instructive. He tried eating meat in his youth, returned to the traditional Hindu and Jain vegetarian diet on which he was raised, then went vegan.

Eventually, though, recovering from an illness, he found he could not rebuild his constitution without milk. In his autobiography, he warned others—especially those who had adopted veganism as a result of his teachings—not to persist in a milk-free diet “unless they find it beneficial in every way.”

But I wasn’t ready to hear that then. Nor was I ready to hear that other great teachers of compassion—the Dalai Lama, for example—were not the vegetarians I imagined them to be.

It was only later that some faint echo of Gandhi’s wisdom tempered my certainty.

It was only when I found that my body, too, was healthier if I consumed animal products that my truth changed. It was only when I learned that the production of almost every food I ate depended on controlling cervid populations—that is, on the annual slaughter of millions of deer across North America, by hunters and farmers alike—that I began to see a bigger picture.

Now, I wonder: How would Gandhi have responded if he had found that his body, like the Dalai Lama’s, thrived on meat? What would he have done if it turned out that even the cultivation of the fruits and nuts he ate depended on the constant killing of large, charismatic, wild mammals?

© 2010 Tovar Cerulli