Hunting season opened this weekend.
My view on hunting, like my opinion of organized religion, has changed mightily over the years. It’s not that I’m a strict vegetarian who shuns the consumption of meat. Or that I think hunting is barbaric. Rather, it’s the callous entitlement permeating the ranks of hunters that has me dreading the season.
I don’t have it in me to kill an animal. I could never take aim at a living creature and purposefully pull the trigger. But I don’t begrudge others the right to do so. In fact, the man who shares my bed has hunted his entire life. He fills our freezer with deer, and when he’s lucky elk, each year. I don’t hunt with him now, but I did when we were dating. I’d bundle up and head with him into dark and frigid November mornings. Moving slowly and quietly, we traversed the Montana backcountry – his eyes scanning hillsides and draws for ungulates, my lips silently praying that we would not encounter an animal. He cradled his rifle; I carried my lunch.
Then as now, I cheered for the underdog and in my mind, innocent and unarmed animals count as such. Yet I knew, as we silently stepped over fallen logs and skirted rotten stumps, that if a shot promised to be true, this man would not hesitate. He would kill the deer or the elk, and as he reveled in his success, I would surely cry. I would avert my eyes from the kill, struggle for control, and then blink through the tears I knew I would be unable to stop. My shoulders would heave, my nose would drip and my heart would crack into a million shards of hurt.
Witnessing an animal in pain produces in me a pathos that squeezes my soul so tightly that the only salve offering a hint of relief is the passage of time. Lots of time.
My pre-marriage hunting forays were uneventful. Nothing was killed. The underdog won, the man complained about his empty freezer and I ate my lunch.
We live, now, in the middle of prime hunting country. Throughout the year, I’m lucky to see big game critters out my kitchen window. We often cross paths with elk and moose as we hike the hills and cycle the old logging roads. I’ve learned to recognize the musty smell of large game animals and to identify scat. Rainy days promise fresh prints, a discernable sign of those who share their rural enclave with us.
So it is a feeling of resigned dread that precedes hunting season. The invasion of the orange-clad is inevitable. While I welcome the handful of ethical hunters, those who respect the land and its inhabitants and who will take a shot only when they know it will be true, I’ve seen too many who embody the other end of the spectrum. These people will invade this rural valley. They will trespass on private land, toss beer cans along logging roads, squat and leave their mess unburied, dump carcass waste near neighbors’ homes, and take ignorant shots, wounding animals who will wander off, untracked, to suffer a private agony.
During the season I will continue to hike familiar routes with my dogs, and because I fear the idiot who might think they are elk, the dogs will wear orange. When we hear the occasional boom of a .30-06, the dogs will gather closely around my knees, circling nervously and looking up at me for assurance. I will close my eyes and picture the underdog, browsing quietly and contentedly until the crack of the bullet exploded from the rifle. I will hope the hunter missed by a mile, giving the animal time to dissolve into the trees and to live in this beautiful mountain valley for another day.