Friday, March 27, 2009

Harlequin and the near-death experience

We are deep into spring here in Northern California, and the silver maple in our back yard is covered with its "fruit" - those cool seeds that look like little helicopters when they fall to the ground. Squirrels love them, and Boyfriend and I can spend hours watching the little buggers climb out to the ends of the most perilously thin twigs to get a mouthful.

Of course, we aren't the only ones who love watching squirrels. Harlequin, our backyard kitty, thinks they look absolutely delish. So it was really no surprise when we looked out the window this morning and saw two squirrels munching away in the tree - and Harlequin crouched on a limb trying to figure out how to get a bite herself.

Never has it been easier to read animals' minds.

***

Harlequin: Five feet away. Five feet away. How dare you! I have slain finches at greater distances. I have plucked hummingbirds out of thin air. I have pulled lizards from deep inside wood piles. I am going to eat you, you arrogant fuzzy bastard.

Read more...Squirrel 1 to Squirrel 2: Hey, check this out! That stupid cat thinks she can compete with us on our own tree. Ha!

Squirrel 2 to Squirrel 1: Awesome. Watch this...

Squirrel 2 jumps onto a tiny branch right over Harlequin's head, climbs out to the end and starts munching seeds, dropping the shells so that they float right past Harlequin's face on their way down to the lawn.

Harlequin crouches.

Harlequin: I am a coiled spring, you foolish rodent. I will leap and you will be dead before you finish chewing...

(To herself:) Oh shit. I am in a tree. Ten feet off the ground. This requires some careful planning.

Harlequin shifts into a more favorable leaping position.

Squirrel 2: Oh, I don't think so! (Boing.)

The squirrel leaps nimbly to another tiny branch overhead. Harlequin is now on the absolute worst limb for the pounce.

Harlequin: Mr. Squirrel, I am a CAT. I am nimble. Watch me as I simply slink down this limb and walk right up the limb that leads straight to you. See? Ha!

Squirrel 1 and 2 continue munching contentedly, clinging to the ends of tiny twigs that sway under their fat little yummy bodies.

Squirrel 1: Oh, Ms. Cat, are you still here? Funny, so am I (munch munch munch). Isn't it cool how I can walk out to the end of this twig and bouncy bouncy bounce while enjoying these delicious seeds?

If you weren't such a COW, I'd invite you up here to join me, but I do believe you'd break this twig and fall to the ground in a horrible mangled heap.

Harlequin: Oh, I do not need an invitation, my minsinformed little bucktoothed friend. I am a CAT. I eat what I want, when I want. And I am going to eat YOU.

She crouches, ready to spring. The squirrel leaps over her head to yet another seed-laden twig.

Harlequin (to herself): Drat!

I must face the truth: There is no way I can catch him. How can I possibly get out of this with dignity?

Harlequin glances toward the big clear sliding thing that the humans use to move between the house and the yard.

Harlequin: There they are! But, oh, the shame! The humiliation. Me, just feet from a delicious meal, impotent and powerless. Oh.... HELP! HELP!

Inside the house, the female speaks.

NorCal Cazadora: Man, she's gonna get hurt if she tries to pounce. I'm gonna help her out.

The female opens the door and walks onto the deck.

Harlequin: Oh look, stupid squirrels, my human wants me! Sorry, you insolent flea-ridden varmints, duty calls. I have to go. Bye-bye.

Harlequin leaps out of the tree and bounds joyfully into the open arms of the female, who scoops her up and takes her into the house.

Squirrel 1 to Squirrel 2: Oh thank God!

I was so full I didn't think I could eat another bite. Let's get the hell out of here.

Squirrel 1 leaps to a fence and starts running toward the back of the yard. Squirrel 2 is right behind him.

Inside the house, Harlequin watches anxiously.

Harlequin: Let me go! Let me go!

The female opens the door and lets Harlequin out. She bounds down the fenceline, just ten feet behind the speeding squirrels.

Harlequin to the disappearing squirrels: Boy are you lucky my human needed me. Do not EVER come back to my tree!

She turns back toward the humans.

Harlequin: Hey, I don't suppose you have any food?


© Holly A. Heyser 2009



Monday, March 23, 2009

Cheers to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook!

I learned long ago that life doesn't play favorites. No matter how good you are, or how good you think you are, it will periodically smack you in the face, as if to say, "Hey pal, no one gets a free ride."

But then there are those moments when talent and hard work actually seem to matter, and you get to revel, for a moment, in some well-deserved acclaim.

Today is one of those days for Boyfriend. If you've been to our house, you know that boy can cook. If you've been to his blog, you know that boy can write. And if you've been to this website, you know it's not just you and I who are in on this secret.

Read more...
That's because the announcement came today: His blog, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, is a finalist for a James Beard Award.

Yeah, it was sweet when he was featured in the latest issue of Field & Stream - great that the hunting world recognized his writing on wild game cookery. But the James Beard Award is a big deal in the food world, which is considerably larger than the hunting world.

It would be a big deal for any food writer. And hell yes, I'm proud of him. He works hard, and he's got skills, and I love that he's getting some attention for that.

But even if none of that moves you, this should: The most prestigious awards program for food writing is recognizing a blog that's largely dedicated to the wild game diet. Boyfriend's ethic in the kitchen, and his bread and butter for that blog, is honoring the game we are privileged to hunt. And for at least this moment, that ethic is rippling out beyond the little pond occupied by the 6 percent of American adults who hunt.

And that's pretty cool.

I hope you'll take a moment to send your congratulations to him - he wrote about the award in an irritatingly humble fashion here.

And we'll get back to you May 3 to let you know how it goes. We'll be in New York City to find out.

Wait... I can't end it there. Someone's bound to ask why, even when he has received this great honor, I still don't call him by name.

The answer is ... habit. In my first month of blogging, I told a story in which he was the star. Or perhaps "villain" is a better word. When I got to the part where I needed to quote myself swearing at him, I looked over my shoulder - toward the kitchen, of course - and asked whether he was comfortable with me using his first name in the story.

Given the nature of the story and the horrible thing he'd done, he said, "Uh... No." And from that day on, I've just referred to him as "Boyfriend."

Click here to read that story. But first, please click here to send him your best wishes. Despite what he did in that story.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Conversations with an anti-hunter

She called me evil.

I called her stupid and naive.

And thus, ingloriously, our conversation was born.

Read more...I got two pieces of hate email last week after the Sacramento Bee published my story about spring turkey season. That's not bad at all, really - I got far more fan mail.

But as prepared as I was, it still pissed me off, so I responded to both of them.

One woman - and yes, they were both women - fired back at me with a cut-and-paste from Humane Society of the United States propaganda about hunting.

Oh really, honey? Don't play with me. At least change the fonts and pretend you thought it up yourself. Smack, done, end of conversation.

But the other one? She was more interesting. Here's how it started:

Excerpt from J's email to me: "... As a human being I find you to be despicable and pathetic. The elation and joy you feel when you coldly kill is a sign that you lack all elements of compassion and hope. Your public pride in hunting is a sad and transparent way of justifying your evilness. The animals whose lives you take are not capable of evil or malice. I wish I could say the same for you and those like you."

Ouch! Lack compassion and hope? For the love of God, I cry when I watch presidential inaugurations because I love the peaceful transfer of power. I nurse robins who smack into my kitchen window. I salute ducks who make a fool of me by flying right through my blind. I beat myself up over bad shots.

Excerpt from my email to J: " ... do you actually know anything about wildlife, such as the fact that animals commit 'evil' acts against one another all the time, whether it’s bucks bludgeoning each other to death to win mating rights, or drake mallards gang-raping hens, sometimes to the point where they die? Not to mention the simple fact that animals eat other animals every day of the year, because that’s how this planet works – life sustains life.

"And did you spend any time reading my blog, or did you just rush to find my email address so you could (pass) judgment? Wait, I know the answer to that one. You did not, or you never would have made that stupid comment about compassion.

"It really doesn’t trouble me that you believe it’s wrong to kill and eat animals. I’m fine with you making that choice. I have publicly saluted vegetarians and vegans many times. It is only your na├»ve and ill-informed opinions that offend me."


Take that!

Excerpt from J's response: "The fact that some animals are thought to commit 'evil' acts does not change the fact that you kill for the pure pleasure of it. While I hold no degree higher than a BS, I do understand that life does sustain life in nature. However, I have yet to witness an animal (except the human ones!) load a gun and blast another animal away for pure joy.

"What I don't understand is why someone (yes I'm going to say it), ESPECIALLY a woman, would betray her life giving nature and kill for the elation. That sickens me! I am aware that a lot of people hunt, and I just can't even come close to understanding how you can sit there and wait with eager and titillating anticipation to blow away a clueless animal. I completely don't get it. I just can't imagine that as pleasure.

"You are right. I spent no time reading your blog. Nothing you say would change my opinion of the sport of hunting anyway."

OK, crap. So here's the deal about that story: When I wrote it, I said twice what I think is the most important thing non-hunters need to hear: that we hunt for food. This is not thrill killing.

But I also made a conscious decision to make no bones about how I feel when I am successful. My tale of last spring's turkey hunt ended with these two sentences: "I pulled the trigger, and down he went. I was relieved and elated."

I could've elaborated ad nauseum that I was relieved because he'd died instantly, and that is my holy grail. No suffering. Just no more. But I chose not to because this story wasn't about my personal emotions about hunting; it was about spring turkey season.

In retrospect now, I could see that adding "relieved he died instantly, without suffering" would not have hurt.

Not that I was going to admit that, though.

Excerpt from my response to J: "OK, you are still missing the point. I told you I’m fine with you believing it’s wrong to kill and eat animals. I respect vegans. ...

"What’s silly is you thinking you can assess my capacity for compassion while deliberately avoiding any information that you could use to properly assess that. Had you read my blog at all – had you read the post from the day before that story came out – you would see that I put enormous thought and honest self-evaluation into what I do all the time. I even spend a lot of time exploring and writing about why I enjoy hunting – what is it about a pursuit that ends in death that is so innately pleasurable to the predator? I’m not stupid – I know it seems weird to anyone who’s never done it. I think about it a lot, because I myself started hunting only two years ago."


J back to me: "You think that I am missing your point and I think you are missing my point. Maybe this makes us even. I do not remember ever having 'confronted' someone like this - it's not my nature, and I am intelligent enough to understand that no one changes their mind about something in which they strongly believe. I thank you for responding, though, as civilized dialogue in never a waste of time.

"... I read the 'Thoughts on Hunting' section of your blog and tried to have an open mind. Honestly, your statement that you hate suffering both heartened and baffled me. I was shocked, really, that a hunter would state that she hates suffering.

" ... I do judge you, yes. There is no denying that. However, I am not stereotyping you and am not sure why you would say that except to strike back. Fair enough, but did you really expect to write about your elation when you shoot the life out of a turkey and have people (maybe I am the only one, joke is on me, then) not take issue? Through this dialogue I have come a bit closer to seeing some humanity behind a hunter. Your bird rescue story was nice, but I still just do not get how someone who cares enough to cry over and feel for a wounded bird can lie in wait for a wild animal and mercilessly take its life for the thrill."

Oh boy, yeah, I'm well aware of that issue.

Me back to J: "I recognize the inconsistency of crying over a robin one day and killing pheasants two days later. But I know I am not alone in the animal kingdom. I see extreme tenderness in my cats’ behavior, and I watch them (one of them, anyway) delight in hunting and killing.

" ... Yes, I was well aware that the 'elated' line would piss off people like you. I would’ve loved to explain the complex feelings about the kill, especially that kill. I was thrilled that I got a turkey, but most thrilled of all that it died instantly, zero suffering. But this story wasn’t about me; it was about turkey hunting. And while I often feel sadness with a kill, or relief with a perfect kill, I’m not going to lie when I’m happy about it. And I certainly won’t lie about the fact that hunting is deeply satisfying.

"The hard part is I don’t know if anyone can understand without actually doing it. Funny thing is, I actually do understand where you’re coming from, because my opinion of hunters used to be just like yours. Until I tried it. Of course, I would never recommend that someone like you hunt – it’s obviously against your nature. All I ask is that you consider it’s far more complex than you realize, and it sounds like you’ve done that, for which I’m grateful."


Breakthrough

J back to me: "Holly, I have learned from this exchange. It is obvious to me now that you put great thought and consideration into what you do. While I still think that is probably exceedingly rare for hunters, it heartens me that your type is out there armed with the written word. ... Maybe your work will help change the mindset of the folks who are out there lacking regard, respect, and compassion for wild animals. You are more on 'my side' than I assumed. I apologize for jumping to conclusions about you personally. Thank you for reading my thoughts and taking the time to respond."

Me to J: "Thank you for bearing with me while we worked from being testy with one another to communicating a little better. ... And thank you for reminding me how we look to non-hunters. I do know; I do remember. But there’s a difference between talking about how non-hunters see us, and talking with a non-hunter. I really appreciate the opportunity."

So the interesting thing about all this is that J still doesn't like hunting, and I still do, but while we started out trading blows, we were (figuratively) sharing a cup of tea by the time it was over. It was such a female discussion.

Does it matter, though, if we didn't change each other's minds?

I think it does. When you work on the assumption that your enemies are driven by evil, no compromise is possible. J bent a lot. She will think twice before calling another hunter evil.

And I will think twice before assuming every anti-hunter is a naive idiot.

And I will sure as hell remember that the people who fight us tooth and nail see us just like J did. Just paying lip service to our humanity and compassion will never be enough - we have to walk the walk, publicly, all the time.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Rx: What hunting TV needs

Hunting TV needs work.

We call it horn porn for a reason: low production values, cheesy music, but we can't stop ourselves from watching it because we're desperate.

But that doesn't mean we don't want better.

What's wrong with it?

- Too much damn hootin' and hollerin' on the kill. Yes, I know we're excited when we hit our target. I've been known to make all sorts of exclamations myself.

But we've got to think about how it looks to people who don't know every thought that's going through our heads - like, you know, sadness. And appreciation.

Steven Wells, a British blogger for the Guardian based in Philadelphia, describes American hunting TV like this in his blog: "It's all about the killing. And it seems staggeringly obvious that the killing is all about sex. I'm not saying that all hunters get sexually aroused by killing animals, I'm just saying all the ones on US TV do. All of them, all the time, without exception."

I disagree with him, but I bet he's not the only one who thinks this.

(And I have to add, my criticism goes quintuple for duck hunting shows, which are usually 30 minutes of non-stop kill shots, so grotesque I can barely stand to look at them.)

- Total lack of intellectual stimulation. In my travels on the Internet, I see anti-hunters claiming all the time that hunters are stupid. Horse apples. I know education is only a proxy for intelligence, not a match, but let's look at the stats from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: Percentage of high school dropouts in the U.S. population: 15. Percentage of high school dropouts among hunters: 14. Point is, our educational numbers are pretty close to that of the general population.

Based on what you see on TV, though, you'd think half of us hunters skipped class on the day God handed out brains. I'm lucky to learn even a single hunting tip in a whole night of viewing, much less learn anything about wildlife or the environment. I don't know a single hunter of any educational level - and my friends come from every part of the educational spectrum - who's satisfied with that.

- Obsession with racks and records. Shut up already about points. People like me spend a lot of time telling the whole world it's about the hunt, and that we can be happy as hell even when we come home empty-handed, and hunters out there agree with me all the time, so I know I'm not alone. But TV keeps obsessing on the racks.

Why is that bad? One, it's the image of ourselves that we present to the outside world, even if we know we're something different. And two, it's what our children see, and what they see becomes their reality. Keep this up and before long, we won't be different from the trophy obsession we see on TV.

Who cares? Well, let's just review the data from page 165 of "The Future of Hunting and Shooting Sports," a report produced last summer by the National Shooting Sports Foundation and Responsive Management.


Duh. The public thinks trophy hunters are Class A morons. Part of the problem is misperception: Non-hunters don't understand that just because you hunt for a trophy doesn't mean you toss the meat. But part of it is a legit concern that wanting to hang a head on your wall isn't a good reason for taking a life.

See what gets the highest support? Hunting for meat.

OK, so what do we need in hunting TV?

- Meat. We need to show the connection between the animal we kill and the meals we put on our tables. One show that does a great job of this is American Gun Dog on the Outdoor Channel. No matter where the host Harley Jackson hunts, the episode always ends back home with a chef preparing the game he brought home. Jackson's not the only one who does this, but his show does it best.

Why do this? One, it shows the non-hunter that yeah, meat matters. Eating the game we've killed completes the circle.

And two, hunters could use a little inspiration. I think too many hunters are stuck in ruts, and much of their game ends up as jerky, which is probably not the highest and best use of some of the magnificent animals we hunt.

I know, with Hunter Angler Gardener Cook as my boyfriend, I'm biased. But if hunters were able to transform their game into more amazing meals, they'd be talking about that in their daily lives ... and reminding the public that the meal that comes from the hunt matters.

- Information. Galen Geer over at The Thinking Hunter thinks we need to push for a hunting news program, and I think that's a great idea. How about professional journalists gathering news that matters to us: What's really going on in the Obama administration with guns? What anti-gun bills have a chance and what don't? What's the latest news on the push to ban lead ammunition? Who are some of the people setting great examples of conservation and hunting ethics in our community?

Of course, my fear is that a news program would become yet another thinly veiled infomercial, like a good two-thirds of shows I see now. And I don't know if the hunting channels are ready to invest in news gathering, which is an expensive operation, when their business model is often based on sticking a camera in one hunter's hand so he can film his hunting partner for the TV show.

But right now, most of our hunting "news" comes in the form of press releases from organizations that have a vested interest in fanning flames, so almost any effort would probably contribute a little enlightenment.

- Quality entertainment. There are three people in the illustration at the top of this blog post: American Gun Dog host Harley Jackson; the Travel Channel's Anthony Bourdain, host of No Reservations, a food-travel show; and Bethenny Frankel, cast member of Bravo's The Real Housewives of New York City.

It should be obvious why Jackson is there, but what about the other two? Bourdain is ruthlessly honest, literate and hilarious. When he eats something that sucks, you know it - he leans into the camera and tells it like it is. Oh, what I would do to see his wit and perception in a hunting show.

And Frankel? Yes, I confess, the "Real Housewives" series on Bravo is one of my faves. I loved the original OC version because I used to work for the Orange County Register, and it was entertaining seeing Bravo's take on what was ever so briefly my stomping grounds. But I really love the NYC version, because the cast appears to have lives that are more than 3 mm deep.

It's not that I'd like to see a show of hunters' wives (though, cable channels, if you're listening, Jody's your gal). It's that most hunting TV these days is "reality TV," and I'd like to see the high production values that Bravo brings to the table. That and I'd kill to see a show about Ricardo the Fabulously Gay Elk Hunter (a line I've stolen shamelessly from Chas Clifton in his comment on another post I wrote about hunting TV).

Also, I've watched as the Food Network - food's equivalent of hunting TV - has degenerated into more and more mindless crap as Bravo and the Travel Channel have claimed the high road and done some really good food programming, and I'm thinking maybe they're the channels that can rescue hunting shows as well.

That's my prescription.

I'm sure I'll keep watching crappy shows for a while, because I'm still learning a lot about hunting, and I'm desperate for even the minuscule scraps that television throws my way.

But it won't keep my attention forever. The only question is, will some innovator steal it away? Or will I just keep turning off the TV and heading to bed with a good book about hunting? Which is what I'm about to do right now.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Who's that chick with the dead turkey?

Oh my, it's ME!

It's been seven years since I was a regular old newspaper reporter, but today I dipped my toes back in that water with an article about spring turkey hunting in the Sacramento Bee's Outbound section.

Read more...And I've got to say: Hats off to the Bee for having the huevos to run hunting stories at a time when most major metropolitan daily newspapers in this state ignore it, or choose to cover hunting only as a problem, or a political issue.

Now, there's no need to tell you what's in the story - you'll either click over and read it yourself, or you came to this blog because of the story. (And if you came here because you read the story and you're horrified that I hunt, please feel free to comment on this or any other post. This is a civilized blog and we've had some very vigorous and fascinating discussions with non-hunters. As long as you're not rude, you will not be attacked here.)

What I want to do in this post is share with you some of what isn't in the story.

Fascinating statistic. I pored over all sorts of hunting stats, and I can tell you that hunters in this state bag an estimated 24,600 turkeys per year - about 80 percent of them during the spring season, when we can take three.

But here's something that will freak out all you whitetail fans on the other side of that big mountain range: We take only 28,600 deer per year.

People have hunted deer here since forever because they're indigenous. Turkeys, on the other hand, are planted, and regular hunting has been going on only since 1968, when we opened our first season on them in San Luis Obispo County. I really expected deer bag numbers to be much higher than turkey numbers.

P.S. If you go over to the story, be sure to click on the "California turkey hunting statistics" link - there's a ton of stuff besides statistics in there, including a how-to for people who want to start turkey hunting, safety tips and a list of places to hunt in the Sacramento region.

Good metaphors. I asked everyone I interviewed why turkey hunting drives us wild. My buddy Phillip at The Hog Blog gave me the line I used in the story: "Call and response." I figured the non-hunting readers at the Bee could relate to that best. And that was my goal: I had to write a story that was accessible to any reader who had interest in it.

But two other people couched it in terms hunters would really relate to: "It's the bull elk of the bird species," said Andy Bauer, a sales rep at my local Sportsman's Warehouse (Rocklin).

And Jim Garcia, owner of Garcia's Hunting Preserve (a local guide service with access to 15,000 acres of private land from Lincoln to Maxwell), totally nailed it: "It's like a poor man's elk hunting." Yep, that's it. The same excitement without the same travel requirements, and without the same physical requirements. Still hunting instead of hiking all over creation. Gentle terrain.

Favorite line out of a government report. There are two groups of people in California that hate turkeys: grape growers (mis amigos!) and people in neighborhoods with Turkey Problems. A lot of people in California live adjacent to turkey habitat, and some people go out of their way to feed the birds, then freak out when the gobblers get a little unruly during mating season. (Or, just as realistically, some moron in the neighborhood feeds them, and the neighbors who don't have to put up with the gallinaceous incursions.)

So, California produced this massive "Strategic Plan for Wild Turkey Management" in 2004, and the section dealing with problems spurred by human feeding notes, "Turkeys that are fed by people become habituated to those food sources and may become a nuisance."

I thought immediately of Berkeley.

'Nuff said.

OK, not 'nuff said. When I was a young reporter, I covered the homeless in Palo Alto (home of Stanford University), and efforts to curb the unruly behavior of some who thought it was a good idea to panhandle aggressively at ATM machines. I'll never forget what the guy at the local homeless service organization told me: "Holly, we gave more to the homeless this year than we ever have before, and this is the year they've been the most demanding and pushy." Or something to that effect. I was pretty liberal at the time, but that taught me an important lesson about human behavior. And this report reminded me: Human behavior is an awful lot like animal behavior.

Moving on!

Funny reaction. I tried taking a few photos for this story at Sportsman's Warehouse after I interviewed the resident turkey experts there, and had a hell of a time. Part of it was challenging lighting, but part of it was that - surprise, surprise - hunters are pretty distrustful of anyone who works for a newspaper.

I didn't want to ambush shoppers, so if I thought they were going to step into the frame, I introduced myself and told them what I was doing.

So, when two men walked up to the turkey decoy aisle, I stuck my right hand out to one of them and said, "Hi, my name is Holly Heyser and I'm working on a story about spring turkey hunting for the Sacramento Bee." The guy stared at my hand like I was offering him a coiled rattlesnake, or perhaps a cup of cyanide, and just walked away.

People always want to know if I'm treated rudely by men when I'm out in the field, but I have never been so rudely treated by a hunter as I was by this man. Not impressed! Manners, son, manners!

Indigenous or not? Turkeys are not indigenous to California - at least not the ones we have here today. We've planted many different kinds, and the Rio Grandes are what really took root. We have some fantastic habitat - the oak woodlands that ring the Central Valley are Turkey Heaven.

But there's actually archeological evidence that another species of turkey lived in Southern California about 10,000 years ago - they've apparently found lots of turkey bones in the La Brea Tarpits (a favorite geek hangout of mine when I was a kid and aspired to be a paleontologist).

Unlike other introduced species, though, there's no evidence I could find that they're destroying any indigenous plants or animals. Turkeys are "opportunistic omnivores" - they'll eat whatever they can get.

I really wanted to find out where the Sierra Club stands on this, so I called both its Sacramento and San Francisco offices, but no one called me back. Yo, Sierra Club: I tried.

And in case anyone's really freaking out about this, the Department of Fish and Game isn't doing any more planting - it got smacked for that back in the 1990s. The department occasionally relocates "problem" turkeys to established turkey areas, and that's it.

Poop. Sure, why not end with poop.

One of the people I interviewed was Ryan Mathis, regional biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation. He talked a lot about scouting, and I made a half-assed effort to scout last weekend when Boyfriend and I went mushroom hunting in Amador County, which is turkey central (not to mention nice wine country). The problem was that I didn't know exactly what kind of feathers and poop I was looking for, so I emailed him for guidance.

He obliged me by sending enormous close-up pictures of turkey crap, which pretty much made my day. I'm going to refrain from posting those pictures here, but only because I haven't asked for permission, not because I've suddenly become delicate. Suffice it to say that gobblers and jakes have J- or L-shaped poop, and hens poop in a curled pile. (Strangely enough, he sent me one shot of crap that was both L-shaped and curled. We'll call that one Pat.)

So that's your fun fact for the day: Curly poop = girls. Straighter poop = boys. Makes sense. I think.

Postscript: Just noticed the banner ad over my story... Yikes!



© Holly A. Heyser 2009


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

One day killing them, one day saving them

Boyfriend was getting ready to head out for work this morning, and I to stay in for a day of working at home, when we heard a loud thunk in the kitchen behind us.

"Oh my God!" Boyfriend yelled.

"What?" I said, whipping around to see what had happened.

Read more..."A bird just slammed into the window."

I bolted out the back door to see if it was OK and found a stunned robin on its back, head lolling, legs moving weakly.

"It's not dead," I yelled back to Boyfriend.

When I picked up the bird, it took off and landed on a low limb of our silver maple, but looked like hell, and within 30 seconds fell off, landing gently in the thick spring grass.

"I've got to get him or Harlequin will eat him," I said. Harlequin is the sleek black cat who owns our back yard and has a taste for birds - and the skill to capture them. A robin would normally be too big for her, but she's not stupid - a stunned bird of any size would look like lunch to her.

"You'd better get to work," I told Boyfriend, grabbing the bird, holding it in my palm and stroking its back to calm it. I know that's a mammal-calming technique. But screw it, it calmed me down.

Within seconds, Harlequin was at my feet, meowing. Had I not been there, this robin would've been in her mouth. But it was in my hands, and I was going to see what I could do for it.

Now, if anyone but me were writing this blog post, this would seem like a normal reaction to the turn of events. But this is so contradictory even I marveled at what I was doing as I was doing it. Not only do I routinely kill birds during hunting season, but I actually aid and abet Harlequin. When she has a bird that's crippled but not dead, I often dispatch it. Why? Because it's going to die anyway, and while I know it's stupid to impose my morals on a cat, I don't really want to be a silent accomplice to torture.

So I took the bird inside. Bird in one hand, phone in the other, I called my friend Rebecca - a falconer and expert on all things bird. She didn't answer right away, so I left a message, put the bird in a cat carrying cage (ironically, to save it from our indoor cats) and googled "how to care for a stunned bird."

As I did, I looked into the cage and saw the bird's eyelids drooping, and head dropping. I cried. I didn't want this bird to die.

Between the 'net and Rebecca's prompt call back, I learned I needed to put the robin into a paper bag (dark, calm, safe place) and give it a couple hours to recover.

That left me time to ponder this. Why save this bird when I've killed so many others in my short time as a hunter?

1. I felt bad that it was fooled by our window. Where it hit, I'm pretty sure it could see through to the front yard. I'm sure it looked like a clean flight path.

2. If by protecting the bird from the cat I could give it time to recover, I thought that was the least I could do.

3. When it really comes down to it, I just hate, hate, hate suffering. I know suffering is indigenous to life itself, but I believe acts of kindness make life better.

4. I have a profoundly deep respect for animals - more now than I ever did as a non-hunter.

And all that said, I still eat meat, and I will still hunt as long as I am able and as long as I continue to eat meat. It is a part of my being, my biology and probably a million years of evolution. Being omnivores made us what we are. When I hunt, I feel completely in tune with what it is to be a denizen of this planet - I am isolated from none of its challenges or harsh realities. I am doing what I am supposed to do.

Of course, some people say just because we evolved that way doesn't mean we need to stay that way, that being civilized means we should no longer kill or use animals, and they become vegans. I salute their moral consistency, and their willpower to resist bacon.

I say being civilized means I use everything in my power to minimize any suffering associated with my diet. I believe it is impossible to live on earth without leaving a footprint - even vegans do. The question is what kind of footprint do I leave?

About three hours after this morning's crash, the bird was starting to rustle in the bag on my desk, so I took it outside. The robin burst out with a tweet and sailed straight and steady for a branch in the middle of a neighbor's tall blue oak - exactly what Rebecca said it would do.

I kept checking on it, and after sitting there for about an hour - also what Rebecca said to expect - the bird has finally taken off.

There are probably hundreds of thousands of other meat eaters who would've done the same thing for this bird, given the chance. It's just that for a hunter like me, facing the irony is unavoidable.

So yes, tomorrow, I may help Harlequin finish off a winged snack. And Friday, I'm definitely going pheasant hunting. But today, I helped this robin.


© Holly A. Heyser 2009


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

OMG, that's MEAT! Quick, hide the kids!

I think my least favorite type of story to write back when I was a reporter was a neighborhood dispute. A petty grievance between neighbors festers into World War III - not something you want to get in the middle of.

But reading one of these stories? Highly entertaining. Witness the piece in last week's Dallas Morning News, in which Frank and Charlene Hlatky take on their neighbor, Santos Garcia, for butchering wild game in his back yard.

Read more...There are so many precious little tidbits in this story, but my favorite is something Frank Hlatky says on the video that accompanies the story: "They had a deer strung up over a swingset and they were gutting it from its anus down to its neck. ... What is the first thing any civilized person would do? You dial 9-1-1."

Yeah. Yeah, that's what you do. Sure.

Other highlights? Charlene Hlatky told the reporter that blood from the butchered animals had seeped into her yard and ruined her grass. Yes, that mammal blood, it's highly, highly toxic, you know.

And Frank Hlatky told reporters they spent $3,500 in window dressings in their home to try to shield themselves from the horror that they could witness from the second floor. Yeah, there's a privacy fence between their lots - the Hlatkys have to go upstairs to watch the show.

The most heartening thing about the story is the incredible outpouring of comments backing Garcia - hardly anyone sticks up for the Hlatkys.

Then again, it is Texas.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009


Monday, March 9, 2009

Shoot Yourself in the Foot Award No. 2

After a long hiatus, the Shoot Yourself in the Foot Award is back.

This time, the winner is... Oklahoma hunter safety instructor Kell Wolf.

Wait, make that former hunter safety instructor.

Wolf made news over the weekend after he kicked a 13-year-old boy and his grandpa out of his hunter safety course because Grandpa had voted for Barack Obama.

Wow, that's so smart. Let's make sure everyone who hunts votes only Republican. That will give us so much clout when our side loses. Our letters to the president can all read the same: I didn't vote for you, but you should listen to me when I say that you shouldn't sign X Y Z gun bills.

Also, people who don't hunt will be so much more inclined to listen to our side of the debate when we make it absolutely clear that disagreement will not be tolerated.

Folks, rhetorical rigidity just doesn't work.

Let me tell you a story. When I was getting ready to start hunting - taking my hunter safety class, buying my shotgun - I visited an old friend while I was on a trip to Washington D.C. I told him I was excited about my new venture. He told me he what I was about to do was sick and wrong.

"But Howard," I said, "you eat meat. How can you say hunting is wrong when animals die on your behalf all the time?"

He offered up all the rationalizations that people on that same shaky moral ground always do, and when I tried to argue back, he literally shut me down. Flat out refused to talk about it. He had his opinion, and he wasn't going to subject it to any sort of challenge whatsoever.

When I said good-bye to him that night, I knew it was the last time I'd speak with him. Not because he disagreed with me - I have plenty of friends who don't hunt and can't imagine hunting, ever - but because he wouldn't even talk about it. That's what happens when you draw a line in the sand.

This is why what Kell Wolf did was such a bad idea. The guy "took a stand," and in doing so not only shut down a potential ally, but made hunters look like our guiding principles are so weak that they can't withstand disagreement. Brilliant.

If there's a silver lining to the story, it's this: Within 30 minutes after learning about what Wolf did, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation told him his services were no longer needed.

But the damage has been done. There are more than 400 comments about this story on the Tulsa World's website, and Wolf is getting slammed.

Postscript: I've had a little more time to look over more of the comments, and I can tell you Wolf is getting some support too (and it really turns into a big pissing match between a few commenters). What a shame. But that's OK. Tune in again tomorrow for a heartwarming story that ends with a bunch of non-hunters supporting a hunter.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009


Sunday, March 8, 2009

The magnificent cinnamon teal returns

One of the most exciting days of my 2008-09 waterfowl season was New Year's Eve, when I not only got my first limit of ducks, but when I also got my first cinnamon teal drake.

I was hunting a private club in the Grasslands, a duck-rich area in California's San Joaquin Valley, and the greenwing teal were flying thick as Minnesota mosquitoes.

I'd been having a horrible shoot - I missed something like my first seventeen shots. But I'd finally started relaxing and letting instinct take over, instead of overthinking every shot. My partner Craig and I were sitting in our pits when I spotted something through the grass at the edge of our blind - a red head coming in low over the water and straight at me. Without a word, I stood, fired one shot, and dropped the duck.

Gorgeous.

A brilliant cinnamon head and chest. Feathers of orange and brown on his back. That lovely powder blue on his wings. I was smitten.

For the rest of the hunt, I kept stealing glances at him, admiring the colors that so delighted my eyes.

I was planning to eat him, like I do all my ducks. But back at the clubhouse, Boyfriend persuaded me that this should be my first mounted duck. So I left him in the hands of our host and friend Pete Ottesen, who would deliver him to local taxidermist Terry Shoeffler.

But Pete said something strange that had me wondering if he'd been hitting the Aquavit early that day: I would have my duck back in probably six to eight weeks.

Six to eight weeks???

Hell, Boyfriend had been waiting nearly a year already for his first taxidermied duck, a lovely drake wigeon he'd gotten on a hunt with Pete the year before. Our friend Matt had waited well over a year for his first mount, a beautiful drake woodie.

Either this guy Shoeffler was spectacular, or Pete was sending my duck to a Kmart taxidermist.

I looked around Pete's cabin, though, and I did not see one ugly duck on his walls, so I swallowed hard, left my cinteal wrapped in a dish towel and said good-bye.

Two days ago, my phone rang and it was Shoeffler. My duck was ready! And today was the day I would pick him up.

When I arrived this morning at Shoeffler's place in Stockton, about an hour south of where I live, he took me first through his living room, which rivals the mounted-animal displays you see at Cabela's. I quickly looked around and saw lots of beautiful animals. Nothing cheesy. A couple things that blew my mind, like the bobcat reaching out to paw the surface of a trout stream - complete with trout under a sheet of resin - while a mountain lion perched on a rock over him.

Everything was beautiful.

When I'd taken that in, he took me out back to his workshop, where I got to see a few works in progress.

"Your cinnamon teal is right behind you," he said.

I spun around and there he was, just as I'd envisioned him - wings outstretched and parallel to the wall so you could see those gorgeous feathers on his back and wings. Perfect.

"How was he?" I asked.

"Just one shot that went in the head and out the neck," he said.

I beamed, then told him the story. I'm sure every hunter must do that, but he didn't seem to mind.

"So how do you do this so quickly?" I asked. "Everyone I know waits forever."

The answer was simple: He doesn't overbook. The process takes six to eight weeks, and he typically promises ducks back within about three months. It's first-come, first-served - he starts work on your animal in the order it arrived. And when he has taken enough animals (or heads) to keep him busy until the beginning of the next season, he won't take any more, period. He refuses to get into a situation where he's working on last season's animals after the next season has begun.

Wow. Not overbooking. Note to self: Take a lesson from this guy!

We chatted a little while longer, talking about how to take care of this bird, and how to preserve future birds for the best possible taxidermy work:

- Don't wring their necks - it often breaks feathers at the break site.

- Don't put them on a strap, for the same reason. (Oops, I'd done that. But I hadn't realized yet I was going to have him mounted.)

- Don't tuck the bill under their wings - leave the neck straight.

- Though some taxidermists recommend slipping a nylon (yes, as in pantyhose) over the bird, he advised against it, because if any feathers get bent the wrong way and you freeze the bird in that position, the damage can be hard to un-do. He recommends laying them out straight on a piece of newspaper, rolling it up, and carefully folding over the ends beyond the tips of the bill and the feet.

- If you want a mount like mine with wings outstretched, the wing can't be broken near the ends, though a break near the chest is OK. Mine of course were fine, since I'd barely touched the bird.

I was glad for the advice, because seeing how nicely this bird came out - and seeing the spectacular display in Shoeffler's living room - I had a feeling I'd be coming back for more.

So now I'm back home with my bird, who has so far occupied two spots and may yet move again before he finds a permanent home. The challenge in our house is keeping him away from 1) the kitchen area, where vaporized grease travels a surprising distance from the stove, and 2) the cats, particularly my very naughty little calico, Giblet, who has already found and mercilessly tortured my turkey beard from last spring. Little booger.

It doesn't really matter where he ends up. I'm still smitten. And for the first time, instead of having just a story or a photo to help me remember a hunt, I have the whole duck.


My first drake cinnamon teal, mounted by Terry Shoeffler of Terry's Taxidermy in Stockton, Calif.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

CNN, The Hog Blog and lead ammo

Going through all my news alerts this morning, I found one I just knew I'd have to forward to Phillip Loughlin, better known in our little world as the proprietor of The Hog Blog.

The story was on CNN.com. The headline: Should hunters switch to 'green' bullets? Lead ammo is Phillip's big issue.

So I click on the link, and there's Phillip, right in the first paragraph. "Three years ago, Phillip Loughlin made a choice he knew would brand him as an outsider with many of his fellow hunters..."

Cool!

And as I read the story by CNN's John Sutter, I found myself impressed with it because of the even-handed way it was written. I haven't heard from Phillip about it yet, but I can tell you as a journalist and journalism educator that this one follows all the rules - factual and nonjudgmental.

Beyond that, by quoting Phillip - who is both the beginning and the end of this piece - the story does something that I encourage my students to do: When you're writing about a dispute, don't just quote flaming extremists, which is a potentially unethical tactic that can be used to make one side look unreasonable. Phillip is in the thoughtful middle - he doesn't use lead ammo anymore, but nor does he advocate banning lead ammo.

This piece could've really slammed hunters. Don't get me wrong: I understand and believe the arguments that lead ammo poses a negligible health risk to hunters and their families. And I know firsthand that copper is way more expensive, and can be a bitch to sight in. But honestly, I think some hunters are so freaked out about what a lead ban would do to our numbers - a real risk - that they have come off looking like they're in denial about science, and unconcerned about the environment. That makes us easy to ridicule.

That's why I'm really glad to see Phillip out there as the one representing us.

So what do I think about potential lead bans? I've said it in comments on Phillip's site, but I think it's worth saying here: I believe we will ultimately lose this debate, most certainly in California, if not nationwide, so hunters would be best served by focusing on a reasonable transition to non-toxic ammunition.

It will not be reasonable in California. It will be done badly here, because most California policymakers (with some notable exceptions) don't give a damn about hunters.

But Arizona has provided a workable model: Instead of banning lead ammo, it provided free non-toxic ammo and asked for a voluntary switch. That state achieved 80 percent compliance without alienating hunters. Smart, huh? An August 2008 report of the American Ornithologists’ Union and Audubon California - two groups that are very concerned about lead poisoning in condors - praised that state's efforts and called it a model for other states.

I am now ready for the hail of electronic gunfire I will receive for being a capitulator. But don't forget to congratulate Phillip for his appearance on CNN.com. You can see what he had to say about the story by clicking here.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009