I froze, one hand on my meat-grinder’s crank handle, the other halfway to a bowl full of venison. Something glinted dully on the surface of the piece of meat I was reaching for.
A closer look and I was sure. I was staring at a bullet fragment.
The year before, my first deer had gone down with a shot to the heart. The bullet went clean through him, hitting nothing more solid than a rib or two and leaving little, if any, metal behind.
This deer—my second—had taken the bullet in the shoulder. The kill had been instant, but the bullet had not gone through him. Nor had I found anything I could call a “bullet” in his body. There was no textbook “wound channel” leading to the kind of perfectly mushroomed slug you see in ads for hunting ammunition.
Rather, the bullet had disintegrated. Parts of it stayed in the shoulder. Other parts ended up in the lower neck. So I cut carefully and generously, as did the friend who helped me with butchering, and we threw away at least a couple pounds of meat.
Apparently, we weren’t careful enough. Because here was this fragment of toxic metal.
Given the other environmental toxins I’m exposed to every day, a smidge of lead in my meatballs might not matter much. But I still wasn’t keen on munching bullet bits.
After all, one of the reasons I started hunting was the simple fact that wild meat would be healthy food. Unlike many factory- and feedlot-raised animals, wild hares and deer were not pumped full of antibiotics. Even before I became a vegetarian on ethical grounds, doubts about the healthfulness of modern meat had led me to reduce my consumption of the stuff.
Local deer might not be strictly organic. Their diets probably included farm crops bearing pesticide residues. But I felt sure that they made better food than did factory animals, or fish from local lakes and ponds in whose flesh monomethylmercury accumulates, courtesy of acid rain. There was no reason to grind a chunk of lead into my venison burger.
So I disposed of the fragment and picked through the rest of the meat carefully. I hoped none of my bullets would ever come apart like that again. And I promised myself to be more diligent in my future butchering.
The next year, my third buck went the way of my first: a direct heart hit and complete pass-through. I thought little more about lead, until this past spring.
That’s when I read Holly’s post about her decision to stop using lead ammo. Early in the post, she described how Jim Petterson of the National Park Service found a dead deer in 2005:
Three condors, a golden eagle, a bald eagle, ten turkey vultures and ten ravens were all either feeding on the deer or waiting to feed on it when he and his colleagues arrived. They turned the animal over and found a bullet wound in the neck. They decided to have the deer X-rayed and were stunned at what they saw. As a hunter, Jim had always believed that cutting around bloodshot portions of meat would eliminate all the lead fragments. But the X-ray showed that lead had exploded far beyond the immediate vicinity of the wound channel. They stopped counting fragments after they hit 400.
The X-ray made me think of my second deer. Had the meat I cut away from his shoulder and neck, plus the dozen or so metal fragments I found, accounted for the entire bullet? Or had there been other, more widely dispersed pieces, tiny bits too small to track or see?
When I first started hunting, I had wondered about the risks of high-velocity lead-fortification, particularly with a spray of small shotgun pellets. I asked Uncle Mark about it and he said that he, too, had always been curious about the subject. The ingestion of lead shot seemed worth thinking about, and when Mark got squirrels, rabbits, or pheasants with a shotgun, he took care to search out and remove the pellets. Yet, in some forty years of reading hunting magazines, he couldn’t recall seeing a single article on the subject.
I hadn’t thought much about solid bullets. Like Jim Petterson, I figured that cutting away all bloodshot meat would eliminate all lead. But now I was starting to wonder.
According to a 2008 study by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, even a pass-through shot to a deer’s heart-and-lung area leads to bullet fragmentation. Though slower, heavier projectiles from shotguns and muzzleloaders didn’t break up as dramatically as high-velocity rifle bullets, the overall results surprised the researchers:
In counting fragments, only about 30 percent were within two inches of the exit wound….In some cases, researchers found low levels of lead as far away as 18 inches from the bullet exit hole.
Hits to heavier bone were not analyzed in detail, but resulted in what the researchers termed “extensive fragmentation.”
Other studies have indicated that anywhere from 6% to 32% of ground venison packages from professional processors contain bullet fragments.
Like Holly, I wasn’t particularly worried about my personal health. I don’t, after all, belong to a group at high-risk for heavy metal exposure:
- I’m not a young child. When I was, I crimped plenty of lead fishing sinkers with my teeth. It doesn’t appear to have done my nervous system any harm, though I suppose friends and family might attribute any number of quirks to that early oral indiscretion.
- Nor am I pregnant or—last time I checked—likely to become so.
But other people with whom I share venison, including my sisters and young nephews, do belong to such groups. (Following the well-known CDC study conducted in North Dakota in 2008, which showed only slight elevations in blood lead levels among people who consumed large amounts of game, the North Dakota Department of Health issued a recommendation: “pregnant women and children younger than six should not eat any venison harvested with lead bullets.”)
And I didn’t want to feed lead to the animals who feasted on the entrails, bones, and meat scraps I left in the woods. Holly’s heartbreaking description of the video of a lead-poisoned eagle had hit home. The occasional bullet bit might be low on the list of dangers to local wildlife, but if I could keep ravens and coyotes from ingesting such fragments, why shouldn’t I?
This summer, I researched my options online, checked with Holly’s friend and colleague Phillip to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, and ordered a box of lead-free ammo.
It’s expensive stuff, running several dollars per round. But after taking a couple test shots—confirming that my scope didn’t need to be adjusted for the new cartridges—I figured I would touch off only one cartridge per year. If I got lucky.
A few weeks ago, on opening morning, I did get lucky. The buck was quartering away when I fired.
Just inside his far shoulder, I found the bullet. It looked a lot like the perfectly mushroomed slugs you see in ads for hunting ammunition.
Cutting away the bloodshot meat around the bullet’s path, I found no fragments of metal. If I had, they would have been copper: the same stuff through which our drinking water flows.
© 2010 Tovar Cerulli