This is not a manly confession to make, but I killed a caribou last week and felt bad. Or maybe bad is the wrong word. Uncomfortable would be better.
Bad is what you feel after doing something wrong. Killing the caribou was not wrong. It was an animal destined to become food. It’s all cut up now, its flesh vacuumed packed and frozen until needed.
A human couldn’t ask for better animal protein on which to subsist.
And the discomfort is gone. It disappeared somewhere in the process of field butchering and backpacking meat to the truck. Hard work is good for focus: Stop thinking and get the job done.
But I didn’t forget the emotions and have been pondering them off and on still because they have been on-going for years.
Old man regrets
At one point, I started to worry about going down the track of an Alaska hunting guide or two who killed mercilessly for years only to morph into an anti-hunter in retirement.
These guys always had some excuse for their change of heart: Hunters weren’t as pure or as tough as they used to be; hunting was too easy in the age of mechanization; it was somehow better to watch the animals than to kill them.
The excuses always reeked of hypocrisy coming as they did from old men who’d lived to kill right up until the time they didn’t.
Telling others they should not hunt seems no different from telling them they must hunt. Just shut up and let people figure these things out themselves. It’s really none of your damn business where anyone comes down on the ethics or morality of hunting or not hunting.
But then I’m biased. I love to hunt. Lars and I have just come back from the field. He’s curled up still wet on the floor beside the chair. He couldn’t be much happier. Labrador retrievers know no remorse.
And I confess I seldom know any when out with Lars. I might feel a hint of discomfort when a duck goes down with a broken wing, and Lars tracks it down and brings it back alive. It’s not fun to ring a widgeon’s neck to end its suffering, but it’s a bird.
Birds die regularly. Song birds fly into the window of my home and kill themselves every summer. People run over more of their kind on the highway. And there’s no guessing how many of their like the neighborhood cats kill.
An estimated 500 million birds are killed by cats in this country annually. It’s totally wasteful killing. Most of the time, the cats are killing for fun and nothing more.
I find pleasure in killing birds, too. I confess that. There truly isn’t much I enjoy more, possibly nothing to be honest, than tromping the marshes with Lars and shooting a bunch of mallards.
Fine lines, very fine lines
Mallards are tasty birds, but they’re birds. On the evolutionary scale, they’re barely a step above the many salmon killed every summer, and I’ve never really had a second thought about killing a salmon.
The salmon killing is easy: Catch one; drag it ashore; bash it on the head; go get another.
It would not be so easy if salmon had big brown eyes and fur like Lars. I don’t know when I started thing about big-game hunting in that context. I don’t think it was always so. I don’t remember thinking this as a teenager or a young man.
I remember being excited about every kill in those days. Somewhere along the line that changed. Maybe it was the body count. Over the years, I’ve killed and eaten more animals than I can remember. At some point, it’s probably unavoidable for a man to wonder if this is right because its most definitely not fair.
Nearly all of the animals I kill are prey, and I am a predator. The game is stacked. They’re destined to lose. I’m destined to win. It is the way of nature.
There was no real thrill in killing this caribou. It was business cold and methodical. I remember wishing it would turn sideways in the brush to give me a better shot. At 100 yards shooting offhand, I wanted a big target, but the caribou wouldn’t cooperate.
So I shot it straight on in the neck. The sound of the slug from a .30-06 caliber hitting the vertebrae was almost as loud as the gunshot. And then it was over.
I walked over to the caribou and stared into the dead brown eyes of an animal that had been vitally alive only seconds earlier, and I felt uncomfortable.
I think that is the way one is supposed to feel. Taking the life of any animal should mean something. It shouldn’t be like walking into the grocery and grabbing a steak without a thought, without a feeling, without any connection to the realities of life and death.
Most Americans live sanitary, disconnected lives today. They have no idea from where comes their food. They feel no discomfort in its death. And that is the thing that truly is bad, because it is hard to know the full richness of life without understanding the meaning of death and your place in the cycle of both.