My friend's six-year-old child asked me why I don't hunt.
I know her daddy does. He owns a high-powered Russian designed, Chinese made, assault rifle that can drop a deer from a hundred yards away. Of course, I've never really seen him kill an animal, but he is deadly with aluminum cans, plastic milk jugs, cardboard boxes, and paper targets. I went with him recently to set the scope on his assault rifle.
I asked him why he hunts.
"I like the taste of wild meat," he replied while trying to figure out whether to turn the horizontal screw on his scope up or down—the instructions were Russian, translated into Chinese, translated into English. "It goes deeper than that, though. I have this masculine urge to provide for my family. When I kill an animal and place it on the table, I get this incredible sense of accomplishment." He turned the screw up one full turn, sighted through the scope at a beer can about twenty-five yards away and slowly squeezed the trigger the way I have seen professionals do it on television. The bullet smashed into the dust about ten feet to the left of the beer can. The loud report startled me, and I pulled the earplugs from my jacket pocket and placed them in my ears—too late. My eardrums went numb and started buzzing. The strong gunpowder smell stirred something in me—I was reminded of Christmas and Fourth of July.
My friend cursed and took up the screwdriver again. I unplugged my ears to hear him better. This time he turned the screw two full turns down.
"At least when I kill something," my friend said. "I know where it came from and how it was prepared." He shot again before I had a chance to plug my ears. The bullet hit about ten feet to the right of the beer can.
I used to feel like my friend.
I was the friend of hunters, the cousin of hunters, the nephew of hunters, and the son of a hunter. I was the terror of Chataignier, where I grew up. No wild bird was safe from my BB gun. Cardinals, robins, mockingbirds, sparrows, and blue jays all fell before my BB barrage. Then one day, Momma saw me kill a cardinal and made me eat it. Cardinals are tough and rather tasteless, so I stopped killing them. When she made me eat whatever I killed, I became more selective. Mockingbirds tasted a lot like cardinals, so I stopped killing them, too. Blue jays were tough, unpalatable, and loud and spiteful, and although I felt that removing one from the earth was a good thing, I knew that if Momma found me with one, she would force me to eat it, so I stopped killing them, too. Robins were very tasty, but it was illegal to hunt them, and I couldn't chance the stiff fines they carried, so I tended to leave them alone unless the opportunity was one I could not pass up. That left sparrows, which were small but tasty, especially when cooked in a jambalaya with plenty of onion,garlic, and a generous helping of cayenne pepper. There was a certain satisfaction in knowing that what I was eating and enjoying was stalked, killed, and prepared by me.
My friend turned the horizontal screw back to where he had found it and turned the vertical screw a half turn to the right. He sighted through the scope and fired. The bullet ricocheted off the ground about ten feet beyond the target. He turned the screw a full turn to the left. The bullet slammed into the ground about ten feet before the target.
"These rifles are not very well made,” my friend said. “This is actually a Chinese copy of an excellently designed Russian assault rifle. It probably is not accurate at less than seventy-five yards." He popped out the clip and cleared the chamber. He placed the rifle on its side on the little table that acted as a shooting stand.
"Let's go set up some targets out at the hundred-yard mark."
"Where is that?" I asked. My ears had stopped buzzing, but they rang loudly now, over a distant rumbling.
"Out by the hill." He nodded with his head toward a large mound, the only protection the park goers had against assault rifles and pistols. I followed him through the smoky autumn mist. I could just hear the cars whizzing by on highway 65 about two hundred yards behind us. A lone Mocking bird bravely perched on a branch above the hill and whistled a tune, which played well with the ringing and rumbling in my ears.
When I turned too old for the BB gun, I moved up to a .22 caliber rifle.
The sparrows breathed a collective sigh of relief because now I was after bigger game, squirrels. I must have killed, skinned, and eaten hundreds of squirrels in those two years I owned that rifle. My favorite ways to fix squirrel was stewed and jambalaya. I was proud to be providing meat for my family. My mother loved squirrel meat and often called me the little provider.
My friend set up two plastic milk jugs, a plastic bleach bottle, and a life size cardboard target in the shape of a man riddled with bullet holes against the hill. Then we marched back to the stand and the waiting rifle.
"The reason I like this little gun is because the barrel and the stock are short. It's not as accurate as the original Russian design, but it allows me to move around freely in the underbrush and that's important when you're out there in the thick of it, hunting deer. The difference between a freezer filled with venison and an empty one is often that split second between sight and shot."
He picked up his rifle and pushed in the clip. I plugged up my ears. He fired five times, carefully squeezing the trigger. After he was done, he pulled out a pair of binoculars and sighted toward the targets.
"Nothing. Not even a nick." He paused and stared off at the hill with his naked eyes. "Maybe if I think like a Chinese," he mused. "After all, they read and write differently than Westerners."
What finally changed my mind about hunting was the owl.
Charles shot it when it surprised us as we crossed through the old cemetery between a rice field and a soybean field. We were already nervous enough about being in the old cemetery, and when it suddenly materialized among the gnarly moss-covered oaks with ghostly silence, we thought for sure the spirits had come to haunt us. Charles reacted first. He shot from the hip; his twelve-gauge shotgun reverberated loudly through the trees. He winged the owl, and it dropped to the ground a few feet beyond us. The bird gathered itself and stood up. It stared at us and hissed loudly. The broken wing hung useless at its side. I tried to help it, but it wouldn't let me past its sharp beak and claws.
"Let it be," Charles said throwing a small stick at the wounded bird. "It's just a stupid owl." He turned and stomped away.
I stayed behind. I knew the owl would not survive the day and would suffer miserably if I didn't do something. I stared into its dark eyes set deep in its heart-shaped face and tried to decide.
The owl did a strange thing. It moved its head back and forth several times and gave a long wheezy cry. I raised my shotgun up to my shoulder and sighted at the owl's lightly spotted chest. I squeezed the trigger slowly like I had seen the professionals do on television. The owl stood still and waited. It blinked once. When the shotgun went off, the recoil and the report nearly caused me to drop the gun. I took the owl's limp body and gently lowered it in one of the caved-in graves. I stood over the broken tomb and mused at what I had done.
For the first time in my hunting history, I had allowed an animal to communicate something to me, and sadness and regret washed over me like water.
My friend finally figured out the scope on his assault rifle. The vertical screw controlled the horizontal sighting. The horizontal screw controlled the vertical sighting.
My friend shot twenty more rounds, and toward the end, he was hitting the targets regularly. He offered the rifle to me, and I fired off five rounds. I felt a thrill in the smell of gunpowder, in the recoil of the assault rifle, in the ear-shattering report of the explosion, at the sight of the round tearing through the shoulder of a man-size target. I handed my friend his assault rifle back—the adrenalin forcing my hands to shake—and thanked him.
I hunted a few times after I killed the owl.
But each time I killed, it took me longer and longer to pull the trigger, until one cold winter morning I came face to face with a magnificent buck with shrewd old eyes that seemed to pierce my soul. I raised the brand new assault rifle I had just purchased to my shoulder and slowly squeezed the trigger. I imagined the bullet ripping into his chest until it tore through his still beating heart, and I could not squeeze anymore.
I returned the rifle the next day. I had not fired a round from it.
"Why don't you hunt?" my friend's child asked me once we returned.
I don't know. I like the smell of gunpowder. I like the thrill of the hunt. I like the taste of wild meat, especially in jambalaya.
Why don't I hunt? Because to do it right, one has to slowly squeeze the trigger and that gives me too much time to think about what I'm doing. But I didn't tell her that. I don't think she would have understood. I know her father wouldn't have.
"I don't hunt because I don't own a gun."
That made sense to her.
I wrote this many years ago, and although I have not hunted in all that time, I have nothing against someone killing an animal for food. However, I do not condone trophy killing. Not hunting is a personal preference, and I have never regretted my decision. I love fishing, though--the quiet, solitary, patient process of it—and I do so whenever I have the chance.