This past weekend was the opening of deer hunting (gun) season in Minnesota. As a vegetarian with 10+ years of meat-free smugness under my belt, you’d think I’d be against such an activity, but I’m not. The main reason for this is my dad, a lifelong deer hunter.
I’ve never been hunting. I was the girl who cried during Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom whenever an animal (usually something of the deer-ish variety) got attacked and eaten by a predator.
“That’s the way nature is,” my dad would say, but I wasn’t having it.
One Christmas, my dad wrapped up a rifle and put it under the tree. He played it off as a big joke when I opened it but part of him wanted me to unwrap it, hug its cold barrel to my chest and then jump up and down yelling, “When can we go shoot? Huh, Dad? When can we go out and kill things?”
What actually happened: I think I looked at him and rolled my eyes.
Still, I grew up in deer hunting culture. Every November, kids (boys) in my class were excused from school to go off deer hunting with their dads. This strikes me now as a big injustice to those of us (girls) who had to attend school but at the time it didn’t faze me. On Thanksgiving morning, my dad would be getting back from hunting with my uncles and cousins by the time my sister and I were up watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
My dad, who owned a produce store, had the space and facilities to process deer for other people. For several years, it was normal for me to walk over to our store, go in the back door and see several deer strung up by their hindquarters, tongues hanging out, dark eyes like marbles. More would be stowed in the walk-in cooler. My dad and grandfather worked at cutting the deer up, their cover-alls coated in blood. There were barrels filled with the discarded deer parts and sometimes one of our dogs would be brave enough to jump up and grab a discarded leg, running back to our yard with the furry spindle, capped by a hoof, in its mouth.
Last week, I was watching the local evening news and they had a story on about hunters getting ready for the big weekend. The first part of the story was about how much hunting costs (apparently, too damn much). This had never occurred to me because it’s not a complaint my father would ever make. You went to Fleet Farm and bought what you needed and it lasted you for 10 years (more like 25+ years).
You didn’t need fancy equipment or an ATV; you carried your deer out on your back if you had to. My dad hunted on his own land and much of the best hunting took place in aÂ swamp. Carrying a deer out on your back while struggling through crotch-high swamp water can give guys a heart attack if they’re not healthy and strong and I believe this is one reason both of my grandfathers were eventually persuaded they should no longer go out.
The second part of the news story talked about how, despite the cost, hunting is rewarding. The people interviewed talked about how they couldn’t wait to get out to their tree stand – and take naps. Or sit and contemplate life. Or enjoy nature. This made me sad. It seemed as if all these people really needed was time at a secluded B&B or a wilderness resort but they thought it would make them less macho or maybe just strange, so they waited until deer season for an excuse to sit out in the woods and get their heads together.
I wanted to tell them that the woods is always there and one doesn’t need an excuse to go to it.
It might be that growing up on a farm is what made me a vegetarian – I took it in the opposite direction than a lot of people would. I grew up eating my fair share of hunted meat (deer, goose, duck, pheasant, rabbit, perch, walleye and, once, I think, squirrel) and I saw death. I watched my grandfather chop the heads off chickens and let them run for a few seconds before collapsing. I found dead cats in our barn. I poked at dismembered rabbits, killed by our dogs, with sticks. Sometimes my dad would help another farmer butcher pigs and, while I was never present when the killing took place, I did find the maggot-filled cesspool where the discarded parts were buried.
My dad and I do have disagreements about when and how often animals have to meet their death at the hands of humans. For example, I don’t think the squirrels that ravage his bird feeder need to die. He does. And the last time I went home for a visit, he was luring deer to a spot in the woods with apples, then going out in the evening, climbing up a tree with his bow and waiting for them to show up for the delicious treats.
One rainy evening while sitting out in the stand he hit a deer with an arrow and it ran off into the mist. He was certain it was hurt enough to die but he couldn’t find it, not that night or the next morning.
“That’s a waste,” I said. “You killed it and now it’s going to rot in a field somewhere.”
“I can’t help it,” my dad said. “That’s just the way it is.” Sort of a “you win some/you lose some” attitude.
I found this drawing that sort of illustrates what happened except imagine that the arrow is sticking into the deer and then imagine it running away. And imagine it being dark and rainy and impossible to see all this:
But I could tell he felt a bit bad about it. If he kills something he does it mostly within the rules (as far as I know – ever since I found out in college that he used to burn old tires to get rid of them I guess I shouldn’t put anything past him) and wants to use the animal as food. I’m not such a bleeding heart that I don’t realize this has literally been going on since the beginning of humanity and will never stop until we run out of wild animals to hunt.
But then we’ll probably start in on the cows, if only we can teach them to walk through the woods and run away when they see us in order to make it feel like something of a fair(er) fight.