OK, I know I'm a week late for Mother's Day. I really did mean to write this post last weekend. But first there was target shooting, then there was blogging about target shooting, then there was the massive argument in the comments about target shooting...
All water under the bridge now. About a month ago, my uncle sent me the following video from a Mother's Day newscast that first aired who knows when. It was irresistible. Check it out and you'll see what I mean:
Cute, yes. But it also got me thinking.
Since I started hunting nearly three years ago, I've been on several quests. The first is to be good at it. The second is to combat misperceptions about hunting (many of which I used to hold myself). Both of those are relatively easy: One takes practice; the other takes effort.
But the third one is tougher. Read more...
It's my quest to understand my complex and sometimes baffling feelings toward animals. I kill them and eat them and I love them and respect them, and my respect and love for them has never been stronger than it is now.
How can that be?
Our resident anti in this blog's community - Hutchinson, who weighs in respectfully with comments from time to time - is deeply uncomfortable with hunting because he feels powerful empathy with animals, and he very easily slips into their minds and really feels the moment of being shot, and the suffering that follows if death is not instant.
Funny thing is, so do I.
The difference between me and Hutch is that I love eating meat, I believe it's good for my body, and I'm willing to do the hard work - and by that I mean the emotionally hard work - it takes to acquire meat. So I shut down my empathy during the hunt.
It doesn't always stay shut down, though. Last summer, I killed a Corsican sheep on my friend Michael's property down in Monterey County. It was Labor Day weekend, and Boyfriend was cooking a feast for Michael's guests, and we needed more meat, so I was sent out to get it.
My guide Ed got me about 75 yards from the sheep. We were on a hill, and they were on the opposite hillside. I calmed my heart, took the shot and watched alarmed as all the sheep ran up the hill.
"Did I hit it?" I asked Ed, baffled. Then the sheep stopped 20 yards from where they'd started. One staggered and dropped to its knees, then lurched up and ran back where it had been standing when I shot it, where it collapsed.
My heart was racing. It was down! The shot had gone through both lungs, and the sheep was dead inside of a minute.
But it was a heart-wrenching minute as I watched that animal in its final fight for life. I was in that sheep's head, my world spinning into blackness as blood filled my chest and suffocated me.
Dammit! My empathy had punched back to the surface, and it was awful.
Logic quickly rebounded and subdued empathy. Honestly, the only better death than what this animal had experienced would have been instant death. Having watched my Dad suffer for two years before his death, I can tell you my whole family believes it would've been far more merciful for him to have had a massive heart attack in his garden (which is how his father died). And I'm certainly well aware that dying of old age in your sleep is a fantasy out in nature.
Logic like this is your friend when you hunt and kill animals. To be consumed by empathy is just brutal.
But I know there are plenty of hunters who have moments just like this one, and it's certainly not just the women. When men open up, they'll talk in subdued tones about the awful moments of an animal's death.
And you can't travel far in the outdoors blogs without running into yet another post about animal killers becoming animal rescuers. Albert recently posted about the lengths he was going to to feed a baby mockingbird. And then there was me and my stunned-robin episode back in March.
So the questions Hutch might ask if he were here (I believe he's on an excursion now and won't see this post for a while) are these: How can you continue killing and eating animals if you feel that way? And how can you turn around and express compassion toward a robin that smacked into your window when you might well be willing to eat it on toast if it was killed instead of merely stunned?
And the answer is I don't know.
But the reason I can't get my mind off this Mother's Day video is that it gives me comfort: I am not alone in this paradoxical behavior.
If that Lab in the video were a wild dog, I'm guessing she wouldn't hesitate to kill wild kittens if she was hungry and the opportunity arose. That female cat, if she were bigger, would happily munch on that fawn. And that leopard ... well, obviously she did kill a baboon, but then she nurtured its orphan.
Apparently the animal kingdom is filled examples of this bizarre behavior that shows killing and nurturing instincts live side-by-side in our brains. The only difference between us and most of the other animals is that they probably don't give it a thought, and we big-brained homo sapiens can think it to death.
I still don't get it. But if I take anything away from this, it's that hunters are able to behave more like the rest of the animal kingdom and simply be what we are, rather than over analyze.
And truth be told, that's one of the things I appreciate most about being a hunter: Most of the time, hunting simply allows me to be.
© Holly A. Heyser 2009