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Hunting Season

About 100 years ago in rural America no one gave much thought to hunting. In the fall, ranchers and farmers and other country folk, thoroughly familiar with the terrain near their homes, would go out for a couple of days to where they knew the deer hung out, track the herd, select a buck, shoot it with their old single-shot rifles, and pack home the carcass for butchering. Ideas like ecology and animals rights were unheard of.

Things have changed.

In Oregon each year, from August through November, someone is shooting something somewhere, using every conceivable weapon from bows and arrows (longbows, recurves, and compound) to guns (handguns, centerfire rifles, shotguns using slugs or buckshot, and muzzleloaders). The only restriction is that the weapon not be “fully automatic.”

The Big Game targeted are deer, bear, pronghorn (antelope) cougar, elk, bighorn sheep, Rocky Mountain goat, and (big game?) the western gray squirrel. Birds designated as Upland Game are blue and ruffled grouse, sage grouse, chukar, Hungarian partridge, cock pheasant, valley quail, mountain quail and turkey. Migratory game birds in the gunsights are mourning dove, band-tailed pigeon, ducks, merganser, coot, black brant, Canada goose, snipe and crows. Some species, such as coyotes, marmots, chipmunks and other “unprotected animals,” require no tags and can be shot at will.

The biggest invasion of the back country comes on the third of October, the opening of the deer season, when hundreds of trucks, trailers and opulent recreational vehicles, often with ORVs strapped to the rear, or towing specialized four-wheel drive vehicles like Yamaha’s BearTrack or Deere’s Big Game Hunter, parade through Prineville, Oregon, and other rural towns their way to Western hunting grounds. Many camping rigs are so luxurious, and so many roads have been cut through the wildlands, that these descendants of Davy Crockett will never have to face the outdoors for any longer than is necessary to aim their high-tech weapons at some docile ruminant. Hunting is a “sport” which has even given rise to magazines devoted exclusively to the killing of wildlife. These publications include photographs of hunters, wearing smug, self-satisfied grins as they pose with their kills. The victim invariably is a fine specimen of its kind, whereas the hunter is often an ugly, fat-faced, pot-bellied individual who suffers greatly from the comparison — species versus species.

To make up for a lack of funds, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is now on a campaign to encourage more women and children to take up the sport. (With its own unfathomable logic, the government funds Fish and Wildlife by the tags it charges to destroy the wildlife they are supposed to manage and protect! Ironically, hunters provide 80% of the funding for wildlife programs, which is a lot more than one can say of the animal rights organizations.)

Due to dwindling habitat caused by the increasing human population moving to the Northwest, a special “First Time” program exists for Oregon kids 12-17 to guarantee them a good chance of a kill. In fact, the slaughter of wildlife and fish are billed in the tourist brochures as two of the main attractions of Central Oregon.

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Over the years, many people's gut reaction to the sport of hunting has changed from acceptance to tolerance to sickened disbelief. While this disillusion and even disgust may have been caused by a minority of the hunting community, unfortunately these types seem to be growing more numerous every year. I doubt if this anti-hunting attitude would have developed if all hunters were competent marksmen who made sure of a clean kill and never left wounded animals to a slow and painful death, and who ate what they killed — the kind of hunter described by Aldo Leopold and other ecologically sensitive writers. But unfortunately not all hunters observe the sportsmanlike restraint — what Leopold describes as the “Conservation Aesthetic” in his Sand County Almanac — and it is the poor example these outlaw hunters leave behind that fuels the antagonism felt by many of the current protesters.

Most numerous and dangerous are the “meat hunters” described in E.R. Jackson’s “Mule Deer” chapter in The Oregon Desert. “As days go by and they have no deer, a kind of madness falls upon them and they get to pulling the trigger when they see a movement on the hillside.”

Another problem is the “trophy hunter” — trying always to kill the biggest and most magnificent specimens. Unlike natural predators like eagles, pumas, bobcats, wolves and even primitive man, trophy hunters select the very animals that ought to be allowed to survive as breeding stock — the largest and presumably the healthiest and strongest specimens.

(There are trophy heads of elk and other game on display at our local True Value hardware store, proudly mounted over brass plagues identifying their killers and the date on which they were killed. They date mostly in the 1930s and 1940s. These record trophies never seem to be broken anymore, which may indicate that these entire species are now smaller in size.

If this is really the case, it is certainly not due to less effective weapons. Binoculars, telescopic sights, variable power scopes, and repeating rifles are now the norm rather than the exception among modern “sportsmen.” Also used are mimic deer calls, one which advertises that it issues “a sound of bleats like a fawn in distress” to attract the so-called “antlerless deer” (a euphemism for does and immature deer).

Then there are the boys (of whatever age) who indulge in random killing, gratuitous annihilation, mass murder, using the excuse that they are ridding the earth of varmints (pests, vermin, trash, or otherwise undesirable species) by instituting hunts without any limits as if animals or birds were nothing more than inanimate targets. It doesn’t take long for such indiscriminate and unregulated killing to move an animal from being designated “common” to “endangered” and eventually “extinct.” This is rapidly occurring with prairie dogs and has already occurred with several varieties of ducks and pigeons.

Lawlessness has also alienated many citizens. Hunters who boast of “bagging” over the limits, poaching, or killing out of season. Hunters who shoot anything that moves for the sake of shooting. Trespassers who ignore No Hunting and other postings to kill game on private property often endangering domestic pets, livestock and children and tearing up roads and driveways.; shooting game from the comfort of their vehicles while still on public roads and highways.

Greed has also led to another, even more brutal motive for killing wildlife — hunting animals to sell their body parts for profit. Not only is the motive based on greed without any regard for future generations of man or beast, but the numbers of animals slaughtered for their body parts is far greater than if the animals were killed for food or if they constituted a threat to livestock. This gory traffic will probably exterminate the rhinoceros and elephant of Africa, India’s tigers and has already decimated many other species. Oregon has very few bears, but this is a result less of legal hunting than of their being killed for their paws and gall bladders by poachers for sale to Asian buyers.

Wild animals have been destroyed for many reasons. For food, sport, because they threaten man, his crops or his livestock, and also for their feet, their heads, horns, antlers, fur, feathers, bones, internal organs, teeth or whatever part of their anatomy man can sell for profit.

But even this grisly commerce disturbs animal rights advocates less than the practice of so-called “canned hunts.” In these activities, hunters pay large sums of money ($3,000, $5,000 and more) for the privilege of shooting big game either raised on “hunting ranches” or obtained “used” from zoos and circuses. It has been documented that a dead Bengal tiger, shot while chained up to prevent its escape, a de-clawed black leopard and a brown bear found on one of these establishments were on the Endangered Species List and therefore illegally killed. Other animals were legally sold from zoos and wild animal ranches to entrepreneurs who organized the hunts for profit. A tired old lion, for example, bought for $1,700, was shot by someone who paid $3,500 for the privilege.

Those who engage in these killings do so because they want trophies to hang on their walls and lack the time (most of them are “busy professionals”) to go abroad to get them. They want a “guaranteed hunt.” So, backed up by two other shooters, they shoot animals who are chained up, cornered by packs of dogs, or actually still in their cages. One operator said the reason these hunts are so popular is that a trophy from a big game animal “isn’t something you can get at K-Mart.” Another said that there were “lots of people out there eager to shoot.” “The Mighty Buck” was the openly acknowledged motivation behind those providing this “service” to their “customers.” (Even the shooting of helpless and terrified wolves and coyotes from helicopters pales in comparison.) As if the defenselessness of these animals wasn’t bad enough, and the motive (a stuffed trophy) wasn’t stupid enough, the fact that most of these animals are hand-reared and therefore tame (Or at least unafraid of humans, who, up to this point, have been their keepers) makes both the providers and users of this activity beneath contempt.

One doesn’t have to be a fanatic animal rights proponent to see that unless wild animals are also protected by man, they will eventually be displaced and then hunted out of existence, as they already have been in most areas of the Old World.

Living in the country, one soon learns that “civilization” is a myth, and that in the depths of our own being, lurks the soul of the most dangerous predator of all.

The distance between children happily stuffing cherrybombs down gopher holes, or pot-shotting sparrows or squirrels for fun, and too many of today’s adult hunters are not distant in either motive or result.

Seldom discussed is the reason why men hunt. (I use the term man and men for mankind, as not only do men hunt, but traditionally in most cultures hunting is a masculine activity.)

It is argued that a quick death from a bullet wound is better than a slow death from starvation and perhaps the brutal, old-fashioned shooting of the wild horses was kinder than the present BLM practice of rounding them up and putting them into animal concentration camps or selling them dirt cheap to endure God-only-knows-what fate at the hands of inexperienced, neglectful or uncaring owners.

The most common reason given for hunting is that the “Balance of Nature” is so skewed today that, unless game animals are killed by hunters, they face starvation from overpopulation. (That this sorry state of affairs came about with the systematic and government-sanctioned killing of natural predators, even so symbolic a creature as the American bald eagle is seldom mentioned.) Nor does it explain why bears, cougars and coyotes are still legally hunted “big game.”

The real reasons for the killing of predators are probably far less benign. Predators compete with us for game, or threaten our financial investment in domestic animals. Less acknowledged is that man is still scared to death of them, so he feels compelled to kill them to prove his courage. After all, for most of our sojourn on the planet, we were prey and scavenger more often than hunter, and although science sneers at the idea of racial memory, our exaggerated fear of large predators seems some atavistic heritage buried deep in our unconscious. The fact that animal predators are now scarce, and lack weapons (other than tooth and claw) evidently doesn’t seem to lessen either the fear or the fury of the challenge.

Most people (even the most ardent animal rights advocates) can understand hunting because of hunger. Many others can sympathize with a desire to re-experience the ancient excitement still present in the less cerebral lobes of the human brain. As David Peterson says in his recent book Elkheart: A personal Tribute to Wapiti and Their World: “For all but the last ten millennia or so of our multimillion-year run as Homo, hunting and gathering were all we did.”

The modern male in particular, hemmed in by concrete, having to smile when he feels like screaming, having to dress in a manner that conforms to civilized conventions and otherwise deny his primitive urges, may well feel that “huntin’” is a welcome return to his primitive sense of freedom and self-reliance.

In a perfect world, all hunters would agree with Peterson’s credo that “the essence — and thus the moral justification and greatest reward — of so-called ‘sport’ hunting lies in the challenge, in woodcraft, in humility, in respect (if not love) for the animals we hunt and the country we hunt them in, evidenced by an eager willingness to protect and propagate both.” (Not surprisingly, reviewer Ken Wright reveals that Peterson is best known as the editor of Edward Abbey’s journals.)

Hunting (and all this goes for fishing too) is also a sort of rite of passage or initiation ceremony like others in “primitive” masculine-dominated societies. (Much is made of dads who take their sons hunting.)

A professor of anthropology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, David D. Gilmore, has examined the universal presence of manhood rites in a variety of cultures.

Among other attributes, the male’s ability to provide for his family is one of the signs of “manhood.” Aboriginal tribesmen in the Amazon basin, the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert and the Masai of Africa all are “men” only after passing various initiations, including that of killing game. Lacking the obvious and indisputable signs of adulthood possessed by women (menstruation and childbirth), men felt it necessary to observe some external rite to help them realize their maturity and sexual identity.

Hunting also serves as a bonding rite, when groups of fellow hunters get together to prove their fellowship and virility by demonstrating their ability to kill — a modern day equivalent of the tribal clan rites, the kiva mysteries, or any of the other devices men have used to proclaim their status as adult males. Many male-dominated groups resort to painful and sometimes hazardous initiation rituals: The trials of pain-endurance inflicted on initiates in the jungles; the dueling scars of old Heidelberg; the “cut marks” proudly displayed by gang members; hazing in college fraternities and the military; the tattoos of servicemen — all illustrate man’s primitive need for association. Fraternal organizations are, perhaps, merely more “civilized” substitutes — retaining the rites, initiations and distinctive totem symbolism of more ancient brotherhoods in flags, emblems, pins, rings, handshakes, slogans, mottoes and passwords, while omitting their more brutal and sanguine features.

Except in rare instances, today in the US the need for wild food is seldom a factor. Even the !Kung of Africa still go on ritual hunting expeditions, even though they take eagerly to the more reliable food source of domesticated animals when they adopt an agricultural culture. (In the Northwest as I write this, there’s an ongoing dispute concerning the Makah Indians of the coast preparing to again hunt whales for “cultural reasons” after a 70-year hiatus, although they are being confronted by angry groups of anti-whaling protesters.)

Some people claim to find the taste of game meat preferable to what they can obtain at their local butcher’s store. As long as it is really wild (and not raised by some “game” farmers) who now produce deer, elk, ostrich, emu and other formerly wild meat), it is certainly cleaner, lacking in domesticated factory-meat. (Peterson again: “As a hunter, I eat everything I kill.” He also says he goes “sick at the thought of swallowing ‘alternative livestock,’ butchered from the bones of captive wild animals.”

Not all hunters are motivated by simple blood lust. I once knew a marine who used to go “bear hunting” every year. He admitted to me that he had not only never shot bear, he had never even seen one, or really tried to. Hunting for him was just an excuse for he and his macho buddies for disappearing each year to camp out in the woods alone. This man found delight in nature and solitude and hearing the sounds of the woods at night instead of the roar of traffic.

Most of the men I know have engaged in hunting at one time in their lives. All of them remember that it “just seemed like the thing to do,” and all have now stopped. One possible conclusion may be that once a man feels confident of his virility and secure in his manhood, he no longer has to prove it by killing things.

Hunting appears to be an adolescent pastime, even thought many of those who engage in it are far older. When it is participated in by such a large segment of the population, I think it proves the adolescence of homo sapiens as a species and hope that we will outgrow it before all our native wildlife has been killed off. (Although this is far more likely to come about from loss of habitat than from hunting.)

Certainly the fury with which hunters and animal rights activists now confront each other is immature. Ideally, both sides would see the benefit they would derive if enough wild land could be set aside so that wildlife could live without either being displaced by development, hunted or slaughtered for meat, body parts, fur or glory. Hunters, animal activists and environmentalists actually share the same goals — the continued survival of wildlife.

Both hunters and conservationists should (if humans were mature, reasonable beings) stop demonizing each other and work together for this common goal. Sadly, this is not a realistic scenario. For unless we grow far wiser, increasing numbers of us will eventually compete with every other animal for food and habitat. Greed, human nature, short-sighted management and insufficient protection of our natural resources make it highly unlikely that many future generations will find wildlife anywhere except in Disney-like theme parks.

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