Monday, August 29, 2011

Dove season? Already? Ack!

I went to the range Sunday to shoot a little skeet - my last chance to polish up before dove season starts on Thursday - and while I didn't totally suck, I had to concede that I wasn't as sharp as I was this time last year.

For a while, this really bummed me out.

Last year, my extensive time at the range served me so well: I had my best dove season yet, and my best duck season yet too. I mean, I shot more ducks last year than I did my first four years of hunting combined.

The thought of backsliding because I couldn't make enough time for the range was discouraging. I mean, I had a good excuse: I was traveling with Hank on his Hunt, Gather, Cook Culinary Mayhem Tour this summer. But somehow I doubt that'll make me feel better when I go on my first big missing streak this fall.

Hank tried to reassure me. "I think you'll be fine when the season starts - you'll snap into it," he said.

Hmph, I thought. You wouldn't know that from some of my misses today.

That was yesterday. Today, I didn't have so much as a minute to think about it, because it was the first day of school. After three months off, it's crunch time.

And the start of my semester is especially frenetic, because I manage the campus newspaper. It's not just a class with a new roster; it's a business that re-opens twice a year.

There's hiring paperwork to handle, and there's always someone who forgets to bring in vital documents (no problem, Sweetie, it's just federal law for me to get this stuff). There are problems to solve, like the fact that our golf cart, which we use to deliver the paper, won't start (a million thanks to the automotive guys on campus who came and towed it away - with another golf cart!). And, of course, there's the usual last-minute cajoling, trying to get the young rockstars of our major to commit to a job that's way more work than any 3-unit class should ever be (please, please, please ...).

But it's my sixth year of this, so while individual challenges may be new, I've learned to handle them with more aplomb. No crisis here, folks. I know the drill. It all just falls into place. More quickly and easily than ever before, in fact.

You wouldn't even know I'd taken three months off.

Wait. Maybe Hank is right - maybe I will just snap right back into dove season. It's going to be my sixth year of hunting, too. It's not like the last five seasons of experience is going away.

And besides, attitude is everything.

I mean, I'm sure I could talk myself into shooting like crap when I head out for my first dove hunt of the year.

But I'd rather tell myself, "Thank God dove season is almost here!" I'm going to hunt when I can, bring home what I'm lucky enough to hit and fire up the grill to enjoy the fruits of my labor.

Yep, I think it's going to be a good season.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Coyote crap, a stranger's off-the-cuff comment, and the problem with 'sport' hunting

I had about a dozen errands to run this morning, and one of them was a visit to my pharmacy in Folsom. No more than two steps out of my car, I spotted a dung heap on the pavement.

Dog? Nope. I could see from the fruity contents that it was coyote poop - no surprise, given that my medical center abuts some undeveloped land with plenty of connections to waterways.

No more than two steps after that, I heard a woman farther back in the parking lot exclaim, "That's a coyote!"

Damn, she could tell from there?

No. I looked up and she was pointing. There was a young 'yote trotting down the sidewalk adjacent to the medical center.

"He'd better get out of here before he gets dead," she said, and I agreed as we started walking toward the building's entrance.

"I like coyotes," I told her. "I'm a hunter, but I'm not interested in killing them."

"You're a hunter?" she said, starting to size me up, as I did the same with her. She was, like me, a middle-aged white woman, typical suburbanite.

I nodded.

"For meat or for sport?"

I grinned. Thank you, God. You couldn't have sent this woman to me at a better time.

"For meat," I told her. In the remaining steps of our shared path, we discussed various types of waterfowl's tendencies to mate for life. She really hoped I didn't hunt geese; I admitted that I did. Then we parted company with a couple pleasant have-a-nice-days.

Why was I so happy she said "for meat or for sport?" Because she perfectly illustrated a point I've been making recently over at Tovar Cerulli's Mindful Carnivore, where there's been a spirited discussion about the merits of calling hunting a "sport."

I was going to drop this anecdote in a comment over at Tovar's place, but I realized that while I have made many comments about how much I hate the term "sport hunting" on this blog and on others', I have never written a post devoted to the subject.

This chance meeting with a stranger gave me an excuse to rectify that. Plus, it gave me the chance to start a story with a description of coyote feces, which not only satisfies my need to be unusual, but also provides a point of contemplation for people who like to read deeply into writers' messages.

Time to get to the point: For this woman, there were two types of hunting: You either hunt for meat, or you hunt for sport. The two are mutually exclusive. Based on my extensive monitoring of what non-hunters say about hunting, I believe she represents a LOT of non-hunters.

That, in a nutshell, explains my loathing for the term "sport hunting" as a description for what hunters in America do. Non-hunters - who constitute a vast majority in every state in the U.S. - often hear "sport" and think we're just killing for shits, giggles and heads on our walls. (Some people do, in fact, hunt just for thrills and heads. But I've found them to be an extreme, albeit highly visible, minority.)

Anti-hunters hear "sport" and say, "It's not a sport if the animals don't have guns, too."

I just don't see how clinging stubbornly to this term does us a damn bit of good.

I have heard a lot of defenses of the term "sport hunting." My good friend Phillip has argued - lucidly, as always - that hunting is recreation for most Americans. We don't have to do it. We don't hunt just for meat; we hunt because we enjoy it.

While I prefer to turn that argument around and say, "We don't have to get our meat at grocery stores," I still have to agree that Phillip is essentially correct, and very honest, in his assessment. Hunting is something most of us choose to do in our free time, not something we are compelled to do.

But I still don't like "sport."

I also know that "sport hunting" was used more than a century ago to distinguish between that notion of recreational hunting and "market" or "commercial" hunting, which we don't do anymore because that was wiping out game species. We still see vestiges of these mutually exclusive terms in fishing: it's either commercial fishing or sport fishing.

Even so, I think the fact that "sport" means something entirely different - and entirely negative - to people who aren't part of the hunting community makes it a poor word choice for us.

I'd always read and heard that sport hunting v. market hunting was the origin of the term, but over on Tovar's blog, Jim Tantillo informed me that there was a deeper history of the term, tying it to concepts of fair chase. Here's an excerpt:

The ancient Greeks hunted for recreation and had a concept of “sport” that went along with it. Sport is where the rules of “fair” chase come from. Greek hunters were critical of later Roman hunters who hunted in so-called “Oriental fashion,” i.e., from elevated platforms, simply waiting to sluice animals as they were driven past the platform. This offended the Greek sensibilities of what was fair/unfair.

Fast forward to the middle ages, and you see fair chase developed in mature form and associated with honor and chivalric behavior generally. Again, hunting as a highly ritualized activity with arbitrary rules designed to restrict the hunter’s advantage–as opposed to poaching with crossbows, sluicing animals in mud wallows or water, etc.–basically is present in virtually all aspects by the 12th or 13th century.

This did not change my opinion. I don't think that non-hunters hear "sport" and think of noble Greek hunters, as opposed to lazy Roman hunters. And personally, I prefer commonsense rules (e.g., the North American Wildlife Conservation Model - the very basis of modern American hunting laws) over arbitrary ones.

In short: I don't care about the history of the term, recent or ancient. I don't care if it's being misused, or unjustly maligned. The reality is that people who aren't familiar with hunting hear "sport" and think, "Ew, that's disgusting. Why would you kill living beings just for sport?"

Language changes. Words we love take on different meanings over time. That's when we retire them - which is precisely what we should do with the term "sport hunting."

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Monday, August 22, 2011

Doves: Painfully stupid, or not?

When I started trapping mourning doves in our front yard last summer as part of a state research project, I quickly concluded that these birds aren't smart.

Spying on them from my home office, I would watch them looking for a way to get to the big pile of safflower seed in the wire cage trap. When they couldn't find the trap's door, they would literally walk face-first into the wire. Over and over again.

And while being trapped was a little traumatic for them - the young ones literally whimpered when I reached in to grab them - there were two doves that I trapped three times last summer.

When the trapping season arrived this summer, the stupidity continued. I trapped three doves on my first day of trapping, and six on my second day of trapping. Suckas! I'd slap a band on their right legs, record some age and gender data, and launch them back into the air. This summer was gonna be big!

Then something happened. I'm not sure what it was, but the trapping shut down almost completely. In the next month, I trapped just three birds.

Two of them were doves I'd trapped and banded last summer (and yes, one of them was one that I'd trapped three times last summer). But the unbanded doves just would NOT go into my traps.

I quickly noticed a big dent in one cage, like something heavy had pounced on it. Had a dog attacked when birds were in the cage? I couldn't see that deterring doves for too long - that safflower seed is yummy and irresistible.

Was it the neighborhood cats? In late afternoons when the doves loved to feed, there always seemed to be a cat nearby. But the same thing happened last summer, and it didn't seem to matter then.

I just don't know. All I can say is that fewer doves were landing in the yard and feeding, and while they fed all around the traps, I just couldn't get them to close the deal and walk into the traps. They'd gotten wise to me. Perhaps they weren't so stupid after all.

Adding insult to injury: At dusk on Saturday - the last day we were allowed to trap doves - I did get a bird in one of the traps. A blue jay.

I suppose I shouldn't complain. I banded 11 doves this summer, and collected valuable data when I re-trapped two live birds from last summer. (Usually, a bird has to die for researchers to get the data.)

I just wish I could have figured out what was going wrong.

Oh well, my favorite dove season starts on Sept. 1 - and those doves I get to eat. I sure hope I'll have better luck then.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Attack of the killer tomato plant - seriously!

One of my favorite things about summer is being able to walk out to the garden and devour Sungold tomatoes right off the vine. The plants are prolific, the fruit is sweet and no cooking is required. What a perfect summer snack!

But today, I discovered the Sungold's dark side.

When I sat on the edge of the raised garden bed and started looking for ripe tomatoes, I noticed something strange: The main stalks of the plant were covered with corpses. Mostly ants, but also a few winged insects here and there.

What the ... ? We don't use ant poison!

Being a woman of a certain age, I couldn't see what was going on. I thought about running inside and grabbing my reading glasses, but decided to grab my camera and macro lens instead. I've been obsessed with photographing ants up close this summer (I'm even selling a few of those shots on my photo site), and that lens totally beats the hell out of wimpy reading glasses.

Here's the graveyard I found:

Every single one of them was dead. If you look closely, you can even see that their little ant bodies have become a bit desiccated.

So here's what I could piece together: Tomato stems tend to be really sticky, and if you brush up against them when you're picking the fruit, you tend to get a bit itchy from the sticky stuff. It looked like the ants had gotten stuck on the plant, like flies on fly paper (or mice on glue boards, which you may recall from last week's post).

But one picture made me think there was a little more to it than that. Check this one out - click on it to see it larger. Do you see what I see?

See how there aren't any droplets around the ant? Looks to me like that ant might've been chowing down on that stuff. This, of course, isn't based on a single shred of scientific knowledge. Mostly it occurred to me because of a photo I took earlier this summer of an ant "milking" and aphid for its honeydew:

Perhaps the plant was poisoning its attackers? That's exactly the kind of thing I'd expect to see, thanks to having read Stephen Harrod Buhner's amazing book, The Lost Language of Plants. The book goes into great depth about how plants may lack the big brains and opposable thumbs that make humans so super-duper awesome, but they get a LOT done by moving chemicals around - including chemicals that harm their predators.

I tried Googling this phenomenon, but got only page after page of angst-filled gardeners wondering how to kill the ants that were preying on their tomatoes - quite the opposite of the situation in my back yard. I love ants. I don't want to kill them.

So, are there any ant geniuses out there with some answers? Where's Mark Moffett when you need him? OK, I'd settle for some uninformed speculation too. Thoughts?

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Monday, August 15, 2011

Good reading: 'Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals'

When I read books about the relationship between humans and other animals, I'm looking for several things: Insights that help me understand my thoughts, emotions and actions; ammunition for my rhetorical battles with anti-hunters; and, believe it or not, facts or ideas that challenge my thinking and assumptions.

I got all three with the new book, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals by anthrozoologist Hal Herzog.

When someone from TLC Book Tours asked me last month if I'd like a copy of the book for review, it took me about two seconds to say, "Yes, please!" From the title alone, I could see it'd be right up my alley.

Once it arrived, I tore through it, and I loved it. Mostly.

The big take-away from this book is that we humans are wildly inconsistent and hypocritical in our attitudes toward, and treatment of, animals. Moreover, the more we try to be moral purists in our regard for animals, the harder it is for us to behave consistently toward them.

I suspect many vegans can relate to that, because it's just hard to live in a way that doesn't use animals at all. I found I could relate to it as well: Hunting has taken me on a journey that has soured my view of agriculture because of how it manipulates nature - both animals and plants - but I find it pretty much impossible to escape ag and live up to my own ideal.

This book has lots of other intriguing ideas and facts that, combined with Herzog's conversational writing style, make this a good read. Here's one of my favorites:

We have some really wacky inconsistencies arising from our use of animals in research, which Herzog illustrates with the distinction between "good mice" and "bad mice" in a lab at the University of Tennessee.

The use of mice in a research projects at the lab is allowed only after a committee weighs the potential benefits of the research against the harm that will be inflicted on the mice. Once a project is approved, there are strict guidelines for the treatment of mice. Those are the good mice.

Then there the bad mice: the vermin running loose, threatening the hyper-clean conditions of the lab. The people running the lab can do anything they want to eradicate these mice, and the method they use is sticky traps. Here's what Herzog says about them:

Sticky traps are rodent flypaper. Each trap consists of a sheet of cardboard about a foot square, covered with a tenacious adhesive and embedded with a chemical mouse attractant - hence their other name, glue boards. In the evening, animal care technicians would place glue boards in areas where pest mice traveled, and check them the next morning. When a mouse stepped on a sticky trap, it would become profoundly stuck. As it struggled, the animal's fur would become increasingly mired in glue. Though the traps did not contain toxins, about half of the animals were dead when the were found the next day...

Animals caught in sticky traps suffer a horrible death. I doubt that any animal care committee would approve an experiment in which a researcher requested permission to glue mice to cardboard and leave them overnight. Thus a procedure that was clearly unacceptable for a mouse labeled "subject" was permitted for a mouse labeled "pest."

Here's the kicker: The "bad" mice were not wild animals; they were escaped "good" mice.

Bonus points to Herzog for admitting to the same hypocrisy in his own home. When his son's pet mouse died, the family held a respectful funeral for the little rodent and buried him in the garden with a slate headstone. A couple days later when Herzog's wife discovered mouse poop in the kitchen, "She looked at me and said, 'Kill it,'" he wrote. He did, with a snap trap, and he tossed its corpse under a bush not far from the pet mouse's grave site.

One recurring theme in the book - what struck me as the biggest consistency in how we treat animals - is that we give the most respect and courtesy to the animals that are considered family (i.e., pets), and the least to animals that are generally out of our sight (i.e., farm animals).

Personally, I think we treat humans the same way. I'm not gonna lie: The plight of a human in my family or my community means way more to me than the plight of a human halfway across the country, or on the other side of the world.

This certainly explains how I can be a devoted slave to my cat Giblet at one moment, then head out to slaughter wild animals that are pretty close to her in size, and even charm, the next. Giblet is family; ducks are not.

It also explains why I might never raise animals for meat, despite the fact that I grew up in a household that did so: I'm not sure I could keep an animal in my care (making it like family), then slit its throat.

It's totally irrational, and totally human, that I feel that way.

Or wait, maybe it's not just human. Check this out:

Herzog wrote about some research aimed at determining whether mice would react to pain being inflicted on other mice. What kind of pain? Oh, injecting mild acid in their stomachs, injecting irritants into their paws and heating the surface mice were standing on until they lifted their paws to get away from it.

The results? Yes, mice who were subjected to these little tortures writhed more when they were in the presence of other mice being tortured than they did when they were being tortured in isolation ... but only if the fellow torture victims were relatives or cage-mates.

But wait, there's more! Pain was contagious only to mice who could see their relatives or cage-mates suffering. Merely smelling or hearing those fellow suffering mice did not affect them. Out of sight, out of mind.

This book is full of lots of fascinating stuff like this, and it covers way more than animal research: Herzog delves into pets, agriculture, cockfighting and animal rights/animal advocacy.

But I was really disappointed with one aspect of the book: Herzog didn't address hunting in any substantial way, despite the fact that hunters often express the baffling sentiment that we love the animals we hunt - not just that we love to hunt them and eat them, but that we revere and respect them. While I've given this paradox a great deal of thought on my own, I was really hoping to learn more from a researcher.

Moreover, I got the strong sense that Herzog doesn't particularly understand hunters or hunting. For example, in his chapter on cockfighting - which he studied at great length - he says this:

If cockfighters were sadistic perverts, it would be easy to explain their involvement in a cruel bloodsport. But given that most are not, how can they participate in an activity that is illegal and that nearly everyone in America thinks is immoral? The answer is that they construct a moral framework based on a mix of wishful thinking and logic in which cockfighting becomes completely acceptable. In this regard they are no different from any other person who exploits animals - hunters, circus animal trainers, even scientists and meat-eaters.

I don't object to his conclusion about the moral framework we construct. I accept that we do that. For some people, killing animals is justified by God giving mankind dominion over animals. I don't personally buy that; I justify my hunting by the fact that hunting is a fact of life in nature. Other people don't buy that either. And I know a vegan who eats oysters, despite the fact that they are living beings, because someone gave her an article in which someone said it was OK for vegans to eat them.

I don't object to the term "exploit" either, because I take it at its literal definition (to use), not with its emotional connotation (to abuse).

What bugs me is that he lumped hunters in with circus animal trainers, while he put scientists and meat eaters in a higher class. Yes, I'm really parsing words here, but I don't think I'm wrong. Hunters are meat eaters who go out and get their own, but I'm not sure he groks that.

If Herzog has spent any time researching hunters personally, it's not apparent in this book. I think every mention of hunters references someone else's research.

And funny thing? Because he spent a lot of time with cockfighters and got to know how they pamper their birds, he acknowledges that cockfighting produces far less suffering than producing broiler chickens. Yet, while he doesn't advocate the end of broiler chicken production, he does advocate the end of cockfighting. "It is time for rooster fighters to close down the pits and swap their gaffs for golf clubs and bass boats," he writes.

Bass boats? Those instruments of contest-driven, high-speed torture-and-release fishing? Really?

I guess Herzog suffers from the same moral inconsistencies as the rest of us.

Now, I don't think any of this should dissuade you from buying this book. If you're interested in how humans relate to and interact with animals, you'll learn a lot. And you'll probably think more carefully about your own views. Just don't expect to learn much about hunters.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Hiding in plain sight: A tale of two tricksters

My friend Josh and I had completed most of the circuit on my rabbit-hunting grounds without firing a single shot yesterday when he turned to me.

"I hope this isn't one of those days, 'Remember the day we saw a rabbit?'"

Josh is notoriously unlucky in hunting, so much so that I'm not sure why his name isn't Jinx instead of Josh. It's a standing joke that he's lucky even to see game on a hunt, and actually shooting something can be out of the question.

I laughed. "I'm a little surprised. I usually see way more rabbits here."

We walked back toward the car, and decided to keep walking past it because Josh was pretty familiar with the territory beyond.

As we approached a spot where a road came over the levee into a parking lot, I spotted it through the wild mustard and star thistle: a set of ears, moving right to left. Hop hop hop. Hop hop hop.

"That's a rabbit!" I said to Josh. Unfortunately, he was easily 100 yards from us, not to mentioned skylighted. Even if I could hit something that far away, the risk of blasting a car driving down that road would be unacceptable.

So I started walking fast. Most rabbits stay close to their brambles - blackberry, rose or poison oak - but this one was out quite a ways. If I walked fast, I might be able to reach him before he reached impenetrable cover, as long as he just kept hopping and didn't run flat-out.

I kept seeing the ears bouncing periodically until the rabbit reached a spot of thick cover where he could go any number of directions without me seeing him. I looked around in vain.

Then Josh spotted him briefly. He'd doubled back behind me! Tricksy rabbit.

Josh and I pushed through the thick cover trying to force him out, but we saw nothing. I looked up and caught a glimpse of white tail disappearing into blackberries near a parking lot. Could he have gotten that far from us? Or was that another rabbit?

It didn't matter. He'd won.

But Josh and I were delighted. We had engaged with prey - finally - and the prey had outsmarted us, which we both enjoy. Yes, I love rooting for the underdog, even when I'm the one trying to kill him.

With smiles on our faces, we set out across the big parking lot to pick up a trail on the other side, chatting all the way. About halfway across, I noticed a big brown rock in the middle of the asphalt.

I squinted. "Is that a rabbit?" I whispered to Josh, just as the rock moved, revealing its ears.

The rabbit was dangerously exposed, but she was a good 80-90 yards from us. There was no way we could get to her. Indeed, when Josh and I stopped and stared, she took a few hops closer to cover.

But not all the way.

"Let's just keep walking that way and talking, like we're not hunting," I said to Josh. Animals know the difference between people who are stalking them and people who mean them no harm: We positively radiate our intent.

I quieted my racing heart and kept up the chatter as we walked calmly toward the rabbit, who was now on a little gravel patch between the parking lot and thick cover.

At about 35 yards, I said to Josh in normal tones, "Think we're close enough now?"

"Yeah. You take the shot," he answered casually.


I raised the gun, tried not to think too hard about the shot, pulled the trigger.

It was a fatal hit. One pellet to the head, and as I would later find out, just one more pellet to a hind leg. Dead rabbit, and bonus points for minimal meat damage.

We kept going after that, but that shot would be our last action of the day. I offered the rabbit to Josh, but he declined, so I took her home, where Hank made a meal of her: Sichuan rabbit with peanuts. (Keep an eye on Hank's blog if you're interested in the recipe.)

One rabbit had tricked us, one had been tricked by us. That, my friends, is a good day of hunting.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Monday, August 1, 2011

Introducing 'Butt, Belly, Beak, Bang!'

Who'd've thunk it?

Less than five years after taking up hunting, and less than one year after finally developing a little confidence in my shooting, I've got myself a column in Shotgun Life.

The column is called "Butt, Belly, Beak, Bang!" - a British phrase I picked up from my favorite gun maker, Dale Tate at the Camanche Hills Hunting Preserve in Ione, California. In case you're not a bird hunter, this is a reference to the "swing-through" technique of wing shooting.

I'll confess to a wee bit of irony here: My technique can range from swing-through to sustained lead to - OMG, Dale and my shooting instructor Harv Holcomb will kill me for saying this - holding still and waiting for the target to catch up to my muzzle. Depends on my mood at the time.



Don't yell at me, OK?

OK, while Harv is committing harakiri because of that confession, allow me to say that this column will not be a re-hash of blog material. Some repetition of facts and anecdotes is inevitable, because I can't exactly make up new "facts" about my experiences as a shotgunner and hunter. But the topics will be new.

This month's column, which went online today, is my best guess at how I went from being afraid of guns to having a safe bursting with them.

Next month's column ... well, it comes out September 1, and every self-respecting wing shooter who's lucky enough to live in a state like California will have one thing on his mind that day. You'll see what I mean next month.

In the meantime, though, please head on over to the new column, leave a comment there and sign up for some of Shotgun Life's e-letters. If you're a fellow shotgunner, I think you'll like what you see.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011