Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The unpleasant task of dressing Pear Jack

This is not going to be a pleasant story, so if you're eating breakfast, or you're squeamish, or you just don't feel like thinking too hard, you might want to come back another time.

The tale begins where the story of my Sept. 1 Dove Opener left off. There were so few doves flying that morning that we turned our attention earthward out of boredom and made a discovery: The pear orchard we were hunting was filled with jack rabbits.

Some people won't hunt or eat jacks because they worry about disease, particularly tularemia, which you can get simply from touching the viscera of an infected rabbit with a hand that's cut or scratched. Read more...
But I love eating rabbit, and I know how to take precautions: I always wear gloves when dressing wild rabbits, and I inspect their livers for the telltale striations of tularemia. If the liver is clean, the rabbit goes in the stew pot.

So the hunt was on.

Josh, our host for the day, got the first one, and this rabbit was enormous. We could see as much from 100 yards away when Josh and his friend Paul returned to the group with it. I could feel it when Josh deposited the rabbit in my game vest.

Paul got the next one, which he also handed over to me. I got none, but that was OK - two was plenty, given that it was a work day and I needed to dress them out and get to the office.

Back at home, I donned my gloves and dressed Paul's rabbit first - a good-sized buck. Clean liver. Good condition. No problems.

Then I picked up Josh's monster. I pinched the pelt over the rabbit's back, made a slice big enough to get my fingers in, and started pulling the pelt apart. Rabbit pelts are so easy - a few tugs here and there and the job is done.

It was on my second tug that a milky white substance squirted from the chest area, right toward my face.

Oh shit...

But it had hit my sleeve - no harm done.

This rabbit sure didn't look sick, so I kept going, treading a little more lightly now. I pinched the skin over the belly enough to make another small slice, inserted two fingers to guide my knife, and slit the belly lengthwise to remove the guts.

Immediately I saw an organ like none I'd ever seen before. Long, misshapen, brownish. Oh my God, is that the liver? Are those striations?

Gloves still on, I grabbed the organ. It was hard and lumpy.


It felt like you'd expect a snake to feel after eating a rat. But rabbits don't eat rats. I felt it again, and that's when my heart fell.

I swallowed hard, and slit open the organ to reveal what I now knew was there: a single kit. Enormous. So well developed it must have been no more than a day from being born, if not hours. If we had gutted this doe in the field, this bunny would've hopped away.

That milky white substance that had squirted at me? Milk. Dammit.

I felt utterly deflated, too sad even to cry, though that's what I wanted to do. I finished dressing the doe in grim silence, looking back from time to time at the kit.

I wasn't the one who killed it.

What a stupid first thought. I could've been the one who'd killed it, if I'd been presented the opportunity.

But that was just one of those thoughts that pops into your head to distract you from the real issue, which was this: If I'd already made the decision to kill animals, why did this death bother me so much?

I often look to the animal kingdom to find answers to many of my questions about the why's of hunting, but I found no solace there on this day. Animal predators kill pregnant females and infant animals without any qualms whatsoever.

But I had qualms, and it had nothing to do with game laws designed to spare animals during their birthing seasons, and nothing to do with the sterile notion that letting an animal rear her young ensures that there will be more for me to hunt down the road.

This kit never had a chance... Potential cut short. An enormous kit - easily twice the size of your average jack newborn - that never got to fulfil its genetic destiny to be an enormous, pear-chomping jack like its mother.

I called Boyfriend, who'd already headed to work, and walked through it with him. "Innocence," he said. The mother had a chance to use her wits to evade us, but the kit didn't; there was no fair chase involved.

Good point, but it wasn't what was eating me.

I think what it comes down to is instinct. I remember reading once a long time ago that all mammal infants (and birds, for that matter) have characteristics that trigger nurturing responses in adult mammals. The sight of a proportionally big head and big eyes, paired with little ears (in the case of mammals), is designed to tickle the soft spot in our hearts, to make us extra protective.

You know you've seen it a million times. Who doesn't crumble at the sight of a Lab pup? Or ducklings? The most heartless "if it flies, it dies" hunter wouldn't hesitate to stop and help make sure ducklings get safely across a busy street. We love babies. We want to help them.

But we hadn't protected this baby; we'd killed it inadvertently.

Once you've made the decision to hunt, things like this can happen. Rabbits breed year-round, and you can't spot gender from shooting distance, much less whether the animal is pregnant. Same with pigs, until they get really big. And if we still hunted in a natural state (i.e., as cavemen, ungoverned by seasons), things like this would happen with a number of other game animals as well.

When you boil it down, the instinct to hunt is just as strong as the instinct to nurture babies. Biologically speaking, both are essential to our survival as a species. It just so happens that in this case, two legitimate instincts were in conflict with one another.

So where does that leave me?

I'm not going to stop hunting. I guess I'll just be much more cognizant that this is one of the potential unintended consequences of hunting. (And I know there is no diet or lifestyle free from unintended consequences.)

But I won't lie: I'd be quite happy if I never again have to see a sight like this.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009


Blessed said...

I hear you. I hope I never see a sight like that either. It's the mothering instinct in me - the wish to protect and nurture the babies.

I'm not going to stop hunting either though, it's just one of those things - I choose to eat meat, I choose to hunt for the meat that I eat, so this is one of those "unintended consequences." I am thankful for the game laws that prevent most of this type of thing.

Phillip said...

That's a tough one... especially the first time it happens to you.

My first experience was with a late season whitetail doe, back in NC. It triggered an uncomfortable reaction, but the reality at the time was that I'd just done exactly what I was supposed to do... it's the reason they wanted us to shoot does in the first place... this was wildlife management. In one hunt I'd taken two deer out of contention for habitat, farmers' crops, and further reproduction.

It's happened several time since with whitetail does and a couple of pigs. I doubt I'll ever get over that little tinge of guilt when those undeveloped babies are laying there, but it's part of predation. I would never, knowingly, choose to shoot a pregnant female, but like you mentioned, you can't always tell.

In the case of your jackrabbit, perhaps overpopulation isn't a major problem out here in CA, but there's certainly no shortage of these animals either. Nothing wrong with your reaction, because despite anything else of our predatory nature, we're still human. It's OK to feel.

SimplyOutdoors said...

Thankfully, this has never happened to me, and I hope it never does. I think we feel this way, because we're human; and we always want to protect - especially babies.

You should feel no guilt, though. You were doing something that is naturally part of your make-up. And it just goes to show how compassionate we humans (hunters) are - we actually feel remorseful about this whereas a wolf or a bear wouldn't think twice about it.

I'm glad I've never had this happen to me, and our hunting seasons fall at times where hopefully it never does.

Another great post, though.

Josh said...

I shot her.

I feel awful about it, and I especially feel awful about giving her to Holly. Had I known, I never would have done so.

Your feelings aren't just mothering instincts, most men also feel a visceral reaction to finding dead little ones. It's a love for life and for experiences on this Earth that I have that flashes through my mind, and how it won't ever get to have those.

I am so very sorry, Holly.

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks, everyone, and Josh, I hope you're not apologizing to me, because there's just no way you could've known.

And I'm still planning to make a jack rabbit-and-pear stew with these two rabbits, so I'm still grateful you handed that rabbit to me.

Holly Heyser said...

OK, I can't believe this didn't occur to me earlier... I just remember the video I posted around Mother's Day - the one about female mammals taking in babies of other species, even though those were species they might normally eat. I guess I can find company in the animal kingdom on this, if not solace.

Josh said...

I immediately thought of those videos, and other stories. Thank you for them.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

So I'll chime in here. As some of you know, I grew up as a fisherman, and I've caught and eaten dogfish (a little shark) my whole life. Well, early on in life -- I can't remember when, but early teen years -- I was fishing in March (or maybe even February) off the coast of New Jersey and, when we drifted off the rockpile we were fishing (for ling, black seabass and cod), I caught a big dogfish. Great fun to catch, and we were all set to make fish-n-chips out of it.

When you catch a shark you need to gut it immediately and bleed it out. When we did it to this one, out fell about a half-dozen little sharks, pups they're called. I was horrified; it was just like that movie "Orca" when that baby whale hits the deck. Not wanting to be stalked by angry dogfish, I picked up the dogfish pups and chucked them into the water.

Mercifully, they swam away as if nothing had happened. Still, I'll never forget that moment.

Josh said...

Okay, your reference to "Orca" was just... I don't know what it was, but I do know why we are friends!

I have a similar story, catching a huge surf perch in Monterey Bay a couple of years back, and she having a good number of babies, like little silver dollars, right there on the beach. I rushed them, tears streaming down my face, back to the ocean, swearing to her I'd get them to safety, and they took off into the surf.

My wife was pregnant with our daughter, and I tell her now that she is made of wild rainbow trout, and rainbow surf perch, and coast blacktail deer. One day, I may tell her how a mother perch gave up her life, and I helped her babies and she helped mine.

Holly Heyser said...

That's very cool, Josh. I'm sure when the time comes, she'll appreciate that story.

And thanks to everyone for sharing your stories. One of the reasons I wrote about this was that I needed to hear from my people on the subject - to know what's happened to you and how you've handled it. Makes me very grateful I have a forum populated with such good friends.

Unknown said...

One of the main reasons I love your writing -- and there are many! -- is that you're willing to face head-on the things that many of us feel and few are able to express. Your students are fortunate, indeed, to be able to learn what kind of people they want to be by spending time with you.
As a woman, one might think this is a uniquely female response. It is not. Most all of the men I know have exactly the same reaction; it's the Cowboy Way. It distills who we are in a crucible of fire containing both the beginning and ending of life. It's not just a female/mother thing; I've watched the roughest of cowboys risk their lives to save a calf and weep over it when they could not, and the most macho hunters shed tears for an unborn fawn. I've watched my own Papaw struggle into the deepest night to save a calf (the umbilical cord was wrapped around the calf's neck and Papaw's arm was in the birth canal to his shoulder) bound for slaughter; he was not fighting so much for the money the calf represented, but to give that little guy a chance at life. A chance at life on this amazing planet is what we ask, and the unborn do not have it. Fair chase is what we strive for; no wounded animals and no unborn death. I feel remorse -- mixed with joy -- every time I drop a duck or dove.
When I no longer feel this mix of joyous and sad emotions, I will cease hunting, cease cooking, cease lovemaking, cease life.
Thank you for writing such a thoughtful, moving piece.

Albert A Rasch said...

An interesting subject this is...

Let me recount a story from my days as a biologist involved in the cutting edge of monoclonal anti-body production, and collagen making.

I would go down to the slaughter house and collect placentas.

Unfortunately for me, I didn't realize that placentas tend to be attached to little dead cows and bulls. Imagine my shock and dismay as I stood in the lower level of this dismemberment facility, and these small dead animals slid down from somewhere above, onto a stainless steel table.

Stunned, I stood there as the old black gentleman expertly separated the stillborn calf from the placenta and uterus, hung it from its rear legs, and with a deft jab of a needle, inflated the skin off the animal. I few quick incisions, and the skin came off.

I stood there like an idiot.

Sparing a glance at me, he said,"Ain't never seen such a thing have you."

"Uh, uh." I mumbled.

"Well, you don't git sumthin for nuthin. Just the way it is..." He tossed the skin into a barrel of brine.

"You best start on them 'centas if you gonna do anything, ain't got much room for watchin', just workin'."

I grabbed the butchers knife I had and started removing the nodules that we processed into collagen products.

"Don't get something for nothing," I thought to myself as another bloody cow uterus slid to a halt in front of the man. Another pang in my chest.

But you don't get something for nothing is true. I knew that burn patient throughout the world would heal better because of the collagen sheets that protect while their own skin regrows. The death of the calf allowed the child with the potentially disfiguring burns to heal and lead a normal life. You don't get something for nothing.

I'm still working out all the possible meanings of that statement.

Best to all,

Holly Heyser said...

Good Lord, Albert, every time you touch your keyboard I learn something new about you.

It is true, though: You don't get something for nothing.

Matt Mullenix said...

Hunting with hawks brings a lot of this stuff to the forefront--and makes a lot of it moot at the same time. Predators will of course take the easy prey if given a chance, so catching young rabbits is inevitable. Here in the deep south, rabbits breed in every month, so catching pregnant rabbits is also inevitable.

Without wanting to seem goulish about it, a falconer quickly accepts the hawk's view of things and sees the unborn pups as a "bonus." They are fed to the bird, which is just what the bird wants. As for the young rabbits (caught on their own), I put them in the gumbo along with everything else.

A quick story to illustrate a hawk's world: Hunting at the end of the season one year, a hawk of mine raided a nest of gray squirrels and sat up in the tree sucking them down happily. As I stared up at him wondering how I was going to get him down after that mega meal of tender dumplings, he lifted one of the babies out of the nest with his beak and dropped it down to me.

I have no idea if this was intentional or a slip of the beak for him, but I caught the baby squirrel and over the next few weeks, raised it on bottled formula. It lived at my friend's house for about three months before drowing in his toilet one day.

I don't know what this story means, but I'll always remember it.

Holly Heyser said...

Matt, I love that story. I don't know what to make of it either, but it's pretty neat.

Pear Jack's kit didn't go to waste. As you all know, I've been feeding the vultures, and I'm pretty sure that was regarded as a real treat by all my urban scavenger friends.

Matt Mullenix said...

Mysteries and contradictions: life with animals!

Chas S. Clifton said...

Like Phillip, I have had the experience of field-dressing a mule deer doe and discovering that she was still lactating when milk squirted out unexpectedly.

It's disconcerting when that life/death hits you in the face, but perhaps all is cultural. The Paiutes probably would have popped the kit into the stew pot, no?

Galen Geer said...

On the day you no longer feel empathy for the game you kill that is the day you should finally put away your guns. glg