This summer, an aspiring hunter sent me an e-mail.
Had I, he asked, ever wounded an animal but failed to kill and recover it? If so, how did I deal with that?
He was contemplating taking to the field for the first time, and didn’t know how he would handle such an experience. Yet he knew it might happen someday. The thought troubled him.
My answer, thankfully, was no. That hasn’t happened. Though my first, foolish rifle shot at a whitetail failed to kill, I’m ninety-nine percent certain it was a clean miss: The bullet struck a spruce branch, the animal pranced off with his tail high, and two hours of examining the area yielded not one sign of injury. Since then, I have fired four bullets in the woods and dragged home four deer.
To the larger, implied question—how would I deal with wounding an animal?—I had to say I wasn’t sure. It’s a question I have wrestled since I started hunting, but not one I have resolved. So I remain a cautious hunter.
Our e-mail exchange reminded me of my book talk in Omaha a month earlier. There, someone had asked about wounding. I said I dreaded it, had managed to avoid it so far, and thought it less likely to occur if a hunter is skilled and experienced. An experienced hunter spoke up, pointing out that the longer you hunt, the higher the chance that you will wound an animal eventually. From reading my book, he knew one of my early thoughts on the matter:
If even longtime hunters could be sickened by such an incident, I had a good idea how this greenhorn would fare. If my first shooting of a deer resulted in an endless blood trail, it would be my last.
He asked how I thought I would react if it happened now, with several years of hunting under my belt. I replied that I did not know.
In choosing to hunt, I have accepted the risk of wounding an animal. But I have not accepted, and do not want to accept, the reality of it.
I run a similar risk, of course, every time I get into a car. Driving down a back road or cruising down a highway, I might maim a squirrel, raccoon, or deer at any moment.
In hunting, though, there is intent.
As a hunter, I can set aside that intent, by choosing not to shoot when I see an animal. When that happens, no harm is done.
I can also enact that intent well, by killing swiftly. When that happens, the pain, if any, is mercifully brief. I can make my peace with that more easily than with all the other harm I do—all the messy, unintended, often-unseen ravages of my driving, eating, and living.
But what of intent gone wrong? What of a deer struck in the leg or abdomen, running deep into the woods, perhaps to recover, perhaps to linger in pain until death comes? How would I react to that? Could I hunt again the next day, or even the next year?
Would I look upon local farmers’ chickens with renewed appreciation, knowing that none of them will ever escape on slaughter day, maimed and limping?
As this hunting season approaches, I still don’t know. The possibilities trouble me. I hope they always will.
© 2012 Tovar Cerulli