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Natural Born Killers 

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Up in Michigan the men go hunting every fall, and my father is one of them. Some of his buddies are particularly enthusiastic about deer hunting, but my father prefers to hunt birds. And for that you really need a dog. It's possible to hunt birds without a dog, but few hunters would consider that much fun. The dog is important because not only can it find the birds but its companionship and enthusiasm are a large part of what makes the hunt meaningful for the hunter. My father has always had dogs around his house but seldom in it--he relates to them less as pets than as livestock. His affection for a given dog pretty much depends on how well it works the birds. Like many hunters, he tends to buy and sell dogs, always searching for one with a better nose and field performance. As a kid, I learned not to let myself grow too attached to any particular one.

When I was young, my father tried to expose me to his hobby in the hope that I would catch the bug and go hunting with him. In late summer and early autumn he would take me with him and his friends to "run" the dogs, which meant turning them loose in a field. Running the dogs differs from hunting mainly in that there are no guns and the birds fly away unharmed. I participated in these excursions out of a sense of obligation. For hours we would follow the dog, making our way through brush that was often taller than me. I was often bored, but now I look back fondly on these trips. They exposed me to the cool air and warm colors of fall, the innocent joy of a bird dog doing what it loves most, and the company of men focused on something elemental. It was male bonding all right, and there's nothing wrong with that. Men should bond.

My father sometimes took me to his gun club to introduce me to the sport of trap and skeet shooting. I gained a superficial appreciation for shotguns--their style, workmanship, and history. I mistrust the facile contention that guns appeal to men who are insecure about their virility, though there may be a small grain of truth in it. But I've also known several women who like to shoot, so I don't know what that says about the virility thing. As for myself, I can only say that a loaded shotgun in my hands makes me feel very serious. I'm conscious of being in control of an implement that--like a kitchen knife, baseball bat, or automobile--has the capacity to kill. My father hammered this awareness into me long ago with an almost fanatical insistence on safety, safety, safety.

Holding a shotgun, I have no desire to harm a living creature--all I want to do is nail that little clay disk flying through the air about 30 yards ahead of me. As I peer down the barrel trying to steady my sight, I strive to empty myself into a Zen awareness of my own breath and heartbeat, my finger on the trigger, the loud twang of the trap-spring mechanism, and the flight of the clay target. When I pull the trigger, the blast kicks the gun's butt into my right shoulder. I can feel the power, and it's pleasurable, but that pleasure has nothing to do with wanting to hurt anything. It has more to do with the excitement of Independence Day fireworks, the spicy smell of gunpowder, and the spectacular fury of a rocket rising from a launching pad. And when the clay target shatters in midair, I experience the satisfaction of having successfully threaded the needle. It takes practice to hit that thing, just like nailing a three-point jump shot or hitting a curveball. You strive to improve your score as you would strive to better your performance in any other sport.

I never caught the hunting bug, but I did develop a lasting fondness for many aspects of the ritual: the smell of a cornfield in late autumn with the dew rising from the brush in early morning, the rustle of a good dog nosing her way through the brush in pursuit of a bird's scent, the sudden explosion of a pheasant taking to the sky. I now like nearly everything about bird hunting except for the part where the lead pellets enter the bird's body. On occasion I even enjoy the taste of wild pheasant and quail, though I'd rather not think about how the bird made its journey from the sky to the end of my fork.

While I never became a hunter--I spurned all of my father's attempts to take me on a hunting trip--I often find myself defending the sport when it's attacked by my city friends. Hunters are stereotyped as beer-drunk ignoramuses ready to shoot anything that moves. Of course, some hunters are really like that, but the ones I know are all good people who operate in accordance with a strict and almost courtly moral code. I've watched hunters approach the killing of game with a sobriety that clearly acknowledges the sacredness in nature's order and the gravity inherent in its harsh laws. Few of my vegetarian friends seem to know nearly as much about animals and their lives in the wild.

To her credit Danielle could at least discuss her views. She was a confirmed vegetarian, and once claimed that the amount of land needed to raise enough beef to feed one person could support enough vegetables or grain to feed several people. I questioned the validity of that statistic, because it seemed built on the assumption that all land was the same. A good garden plot will yield a lot, but the western United States has endless miles of arid plains that can grow little more than sagebrush. Some farmers in those areas are able to irrigate the land for crops, but only at a high environmental price. While humans can't eat the tough weeds that normally grow on those plains, some animals can. The vast herds of bison that the Plains Indians once harvested in a sane and sustainable manner have since been replaced by ranch cattle that have no trouble digesting the tough vegetation. The problem, of course, is that these cattle are part of a grossly vulgar meat industry that reduces them to an industrial product, turns humans into walking tubs of fat, and takes over land that could be better used for other things or left alone.

Danielle and I both disdained the meat-centered diet so common in America. We agreed that it would be great if people could limit their consumption of animal flesh to an occasional side dish, which might bring down the demand for meat to a level that could be met solely through organic ranching on land unsuitable for other agriculture. Still, Danielle wondered whether humans had the right to eat other animals at all. As with abortion or capital punishment, Danielle's question turned on morality--not economics, land conservation, or public health. As such, it rendered our cattle-versus-grain acreage argument irrelevant. She thought that since we can get all the nutrients we need from plant matter there could be no moral justification for the killing and eating of animals.

Danielle also believed that hunters shouldn't be allowed to keep guns at home. She even found it distasteful that I enjoyed shooting at clay targets. I explained my support for the Brady Bill, for bans on assault weapons, and for much tighter controls on the ownership of guns, especially handguns. But this didn't satisfy her--the Second Amendment be damned.

"I don't care what their hobby is," she said of hunters. "Let them keep their guns at the shooting range."

"You don't shoot birds at a shooting range," I replied. "And if I owned a gun, which I don't, I really don't think I'd want to entrust such an expensive and potentially dangerous implement to some goon who works at a gun club."

Danielle's mind was made up. I wished she'd been with me the night I'd met a group of Tibetan monks who had come to Chicago from Dharmsala, India, to draw attention to the Chinese occupation of their homeland. They were the guests of honor at a lavish Lake Shore Drive reception where a buffet table groaned with Tibetan and American delicacies. As I engaged one of the saffron-robed monks in a conversation about Tantric Buddhism, he went straight for the roast chicken.

"We believe that all sentient beings have the potential to achieve Buddhahood," he said as he munched on a chicken leg.

"Including that chicken you're eating?" I asked.

He smiled. "Yes."

I told him I was surprised to see him eating meat.

"Normally we do not eat small animals," he said. "In Buddhism we believe in respect for all living beings, so it is better for people to eat large animals, like yak or cow, than to eat small animals like chicken or fish."

I confessed that I didn't understand the reason for such a distinction.

"With a cow, you can feed many people while only killing one consciousness," the monk explained. "You can feed everyone at this party and only one cow must die. But to feed the people with chicken, you must kill many consciousnesses."

I knew I'd never come to a conclusion about the morality of hunting until I had gone on a trip myself and seen it with my own eyes. I didn't want to criticize something I didn't understand, and discussing it with other people only left me frustrated. So when my father and his friend Jack invited me to join them in killing a few consciousnesses up in rural Michigan, I accepted.

The night before the hunt I had a long talk with my cousin Brad, a microbrewer, video producer, bowhunter, and aficionado of American Indian lore. Over a stein of his excellent bitter ale I confided to him my ambivalent feelings about hunting. I asked him to explain how he could reconcile his reverence for wildlife with his enthusiasm for cutting down a deer in its tracks.

"Like you, I live in a modern world built by human beings," he said. "I own this house. I drive around on wheels and walk on sidewalks. All day long, everything I touch is artificial. But when I go hunting, I feel like I'm truly part of nature. I pick my way quietly through the trees and brush. I smell the different smells on the wind. I learn to listen to every tiny sound for the information it may give me. I adjust my own rhythms to the rhythm of the woods, and I become part of something very large and very old."

"But can't a person do all that without killing animals?" I asked.

"Well, yes and no. You can do it, but it's not really the same. Don't get me wrong--it's great to go hiking and just watch the deer and look at the birds. And I do a lot of that. But in a way it's not really enough."

"Why not?" I asked. "Could it be that your contact with nature only puts you more closely in touch with your own natural, hormonal, aggressive impulses?"

"I don't think that's really it," said Brad. "I can only explain it this way: When I'm just watching the wildlife, I feel the presence of an invisible wall between the animals and me. I see them living their lives as God intended. They fight and breed, they eat the plants around them, and sometimes they eat each other. OK, fine. I walk around in my boots and watch them. It's nice, but still I feel I'm just a passive spectator. Do you understand? But when I get my bow and go into the woods to actually take my place in nature's food chain, then I'm not just a spectator anymore. I'm a participant."

Brad's rap had me more confused than ever. I had to see the hunt for myself and approach it with an open mind. Brad encouraged me to give it a chance. "Go ahead," he said. "Get a license and go hunt with your father and some good people. Go feel the music."

The next morning, five of us--three humans and two dogs--piled into a 4 x 4 and hit the road just as dawn's first glow appeared in the east. I was carrying neither license nor gun; I was just along for the ride. My father and Jack rode in the front seat, and I squeezed into the back with Fritz and Casey, who crouched in their plastic crates with tongues hanging out. They were German shorthair pointers, two-year-old littermates with little field experience. Neither dog had ever been in a moving vehicle before or had the chance to associate a car ride with hunting birds. I once had known a very smart bird dog who, upon seeing any car door open, would excitedly jump in and park herself on the seat, as if sitting there would inevitably result in being driven to a cornfield.

After a half hour, we turned off the road onto a rough trail and parked under a tree. It was turning into a crisp, glorious fall morning. We opened the tailgate, and as Jack and my father unbagged their shotguns and started packing spare shells into their vest pockets, I wrestled with the dog crates. We decided to turn Fritz loose first, and as I opened the door to his crate he tumbled out and hit the ground running, zigzagging aimlessly through the brush as any kennel dog will do when it gets a taste of freedom. He ranged aimlessly for hundreds of yards, ears flopping as he jumped to clear obstacles in the field. Then as we started walking north, Fritz settled down, fell in with us, and began to hunt. Good bird dogs are born, not made, and Fritz showed his breeding right away. When we arrived at the first row of cornstalks, he moved out ahead, nosing his way through the brush, wiggling his short stub of a tail as he searched for a scent.

My contact with Fritz had always been within the confines of my father's kennel barn, where each dog lives in an indoor doghouse connected to a small outdoor pen. I had always wanted to turn him loose, but since he didn't know me that well, I never felt confident he would obey my call when it was time to kennel up. To compensate, I would always give him some extra attention; I would scratch his head, talk, and slip him a leftover piece of waffle or a hard-boiled egg. Now I was seeing a new side of his nature. My slobbery, friendly pal from the kennel barn was suddenly a cool and businesslike hunter, working the birds with the focus and passion of a practiced veteran.

"Oh, look at that," whispered my father.

Fritz had suddenly slowed down. He'd found a scent in the brush. He had locked on to it. We couldn't tell what it was; such an inexperienced dog was as liable to point a field mouse as a pheasant. He came to a dead stop, his stubby tail fell still, and he brought up his right forepaw in the classic pointer position, faintly trembling with excitement.

Jack and my father clicked off their safeties. I stood still and held my breath. Suddenly my father took a step forward, giving the brush a single sharp kick to flush the bird into the air. A magnificent pheasant rooster flew upward, its wings working with a loud, rapid pumping sound. It rose about five yards, moving first straight ahead and then angling toward the left, doubling back over our heads. Jack reacted fast, took the first shot, and missed. My father swung his 20-gauge up high and followed with two quick shots that blasted the quiet morning with the sudden smell of gunpowder. A spray of tail feathers burst out from the rooster's rump, and its wings stopped pumping--but rather than tumbling out of the sky, the bird held its wings rigid and glided smoothly to a landing in the bushes some 30 yards off.

With the rest of us following, Fritz took off after the bird until he cornered it in the bushes and went on point again. My father reached in and grabbed the rooster by the neck. It was still breathing and appeared to have only been slightly wounded.

My father handed me his shotgun. "Here, hold this."

I took the gun.

My father got a grip on the bird and twisted its neck with one quick snap.

"OK, gimme the gun," he said.

I handed it to him.

"Take this," he said, passing the bird to me.

The rooster's eyes were still open and there was no blood. As I cradled him in my left arm, his head hung limply by his damaged neck. I supported the head with my other hand as Jack and my father started walking. Fritz was excited, already looking for more prey.

"Attaboy, Fritz," my father shouted. "Good boy!"

"He sure made quick work outta that," Jack said.

"Hell of a dog!" replied my father. "Hard to believe it's his first time in the field."

I followed behind them, cradling the dying rooster in my hands. He had bright tail feathers and a white ring of feathers around his neck. If he hadn't been so near death, I would have wanted to give him a name. It wasn't much different from holding a rabbit or a small dog. He was warm and I could feel him breathing.

My father, Jack, and the dog moved on, but for this pheasant all was nearly over. I watched his eyes. He stared out blankly at the field, the cornstalks, and the sky, taking it in for the last time. I ran my hand gently over his feathers, and his breathing grew weak. And then slowly, very slowly, his eyes closed.

As the morning progressed, both Fritz and Casey got a chance to hunt. Several more birds died--some more quickly than the first, and others not. Some escaped with their lives, flying away through a rain of bird shot and gunpowder as I silently cheered them on. At the end of the day, we returned to the car with a bag of three pheasant and three quail. My father cleaned the moisture out of his gun barrel, and I dealt with the dogs. Jack went off wandering. A few dozen yards up the road, he stopped near a pile of dead wood with a small wooden box lying on top of it. I saw him remove the cover from the box, stare at the box for a moment, and then replace the cover. I had just managed to load Casey into her crate when Jack returned to the car. "You should go up there and have a look in that box," he said to me. "You'll see something real cute."

Inside the box, a wrinkle-eared field mouse was sitting quietly in a tiny nest made of dead grass. The mouse froze, eyeing me sideways, his tiny abdomen heaving with rapid breaths. I moved slightly. The mouse flinched but stood his ground, nervously awaiting my next move. He was a hundred times smaller than me. A house cat could have eliminated him in seconds. He looked healthy and clean. I liked him. I gently put the lid back on the box and returned to the car.

The next day I was back at Brad's, trying to explain how I felt about what I'd seen. I told him everything, including the fact that even after having a bird die in my arms I still enjoyed a chicken dinner that very evening. Before the hunt, I had always said that the shooting of game in the wild bothered me a lot less than the methodical butchering of animals in commercial slaughterhouses. But now, after having seen the ritual for myself, I wasn't so sure.

Some hunters deal with death by treating it as part of nature's grave Darwinian drama. "There are some things a man must do," a friend of my father's once told me, as I watched him wipe urine off his face after a deer's bladder burst while he was gutting the animal in his garage. Like Spanish bullfighters orchestrating death to the rhythms of an ancient aesthetic, some hunters find a deeply satisfying expression of manhood in the act of meeting game on its own terms and bringing it home to the family table. Having witnessed both hunting and bullfights, I appreciated how these activities rang the chords of ages in a way that no other ritual could ever match. The trouble was the animals had no idea they were taking part in an ancient rite. My appreciation of the beauty of the hunt was counterbalanced by my sympathy for the prey.

When I was a youngster I enjoyed watching boxing matches on TV until a night in 1977 when I saw Muhammad Ali hammer away at Earnie Shavers. I suddenly realized I could feel the punches. Previously I'd always identified with the man delivering the blows, but now I found myself identifying with the man catching them.

In the field, I had been bothered not only by the birds' death but by the hunters' seeming insensitivity. To not empathize with the agony of a dying bird, you had to get used to seeing birds die, and I wasn't sure I wanted to do that. The hunters had gone beyond growing accustomed to the routine of killing birds--they had learned to enjoy it, and that bothered me most of all. The meat of the bird was tainted by the insensitivity of the hunter who had slain it not just for food but for sport.

That explains how I feel these days about hunting. If you're trying to survive on the wild frontier, or if you're unemployed and living in the country, then hunting responsibly may be part of what you have to do. You enter the food chain and take only what you need, which in any case probably isn't all that much. But hunting for recreation is quite a different matter; it may be bad not only for what it does to the animal but also for what it does to you.

I spent Christmas 1992 in Puebla, Mexico. On Christmas Eve morning I watched a butcher in the market kill dozens of chickens, one after another, using neither ax nor knife. He simply wrung their necks with his bare hands as matrons waited in line with their shopping baskets, anxious to finish the day's shopping so they could get home to prepare the holiday dinner. As I watched the butcher work with the detached air of a professional, I wondered what a job like that must do to a man. He didn't seem like such a bad guy. He didn't look like he was having fun but he didn't look miserable either. He was just doing his job, dispatching each chicken swiftly and humanely with a well-practiced twist of the wrist. I felt a certain respect for him.

But if I had gone into that same market, found it empty, and come upon the same man killing chickens just for fun, I would have thought him the very face of evil.

Wouldn't you?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Russ Ando.

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