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Navigating the Fire Swamp of hunting ethics

By Mike Leggett
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

When we muck around in the never black-and-white shallows of hunting ethics, it's like Westley and Buttercup tiptoeing through the horrid Fire Swamp.

Like the lovers in "The Princess Bride," we could get burned by the flame spurts, disappear into the lightning sands or get eaten by the Rodents Of Unusual Size, in a metaphorical way, of course. Nothing's ever easy.

When Westley was attacked by one of the mythical beasts, he rolled it over a flame spout and then skewered it with his sword. In other words, he killed it because it tried to kill him.

If an animal was trying to kill us, then we'd have mostly universal approval for killing it. There are some who would claim total nonviolence and say they wouldn't try to stop such an attack, but they're full of it. We'll pass on even addressing them. However, when we kill rodents of any size, or deer, or ducks, or any game animal, we must address the ethic that led us to that place and that allows us to move on.

I say this because of a conversation I had with a friend , another writer, who was saying he'd been surprised by the negative responses he'd received on a story about a woman who killed an alligator with a crossbow. It was legal. She and her family planned to eat the good parts and make wallets and boots out of the rest of it. But some people took offense, and he was a little surprised by it.

"I've hunted alligators," I said, "and it's not a hunt. It's a harvest. I wouldn't do it again. And I have to say, there's an odd feeling wearing something made out of an animal I've killed."

I should have said wearing something decorative. Here's why:

I have an elephant tail-hair bracelet given to me by a friend. Native trackers weave one when a hunter kills an elephant, and it's worn as a sign of mojo or medicine. As Native Americans would say, I've been close enough to count coup on an elephant. But I could never kill one, so I can't wear that bracelet even though it's a beautiful piece of workmanship and absolutely legally acquired. I would love to wear it, but hunters just don't do that.

I would wear an arrowhead necklace or give one to my wife. I would wear a bear-claw necklace, if I could kill a grizzly bear, but I can't bring myself to do it. I might kill a black bear with a bow, but I haven't done that. I'm working up to it.

My friend then asked about Cape buffalo. "You've killed a buffalo. How much of that did you eat? And you've got the skull in your house. That's like having some alligator skin boots."

We ate part of the buffalo the night I killed it in Tanzania, and the natives in camp for sure finished off every last particle of that battle-scarred old bull, including some of the innards.

But I don't wear the skull around on my head. That skull is a trophy, sure, but it's also a reminder of my face-to-face with one of the world's worst-tempered, willing to take another bullet to kill you, animals. I did it. I stood on my own two feet within yards of a herd of 250 that could have stampeded right over us. I took the shot, and then followed it up to finish the job.

I deserve that skull. I earned it. It's in my living room along with dozens of other trophies from other special hunts, and I don't regret killing the buffalo or any of the others for a second. I'm going back to do it again.

This week, I finished what's likely my 57th or 58th consecutive season of squirrel hunting. Though they are the tiniest mammal I hunt, I don't regret that either. Not because they'll die if I don't hunt them that's a poor excuse for any hunt but because my grandfather and father took me squirrel hunting as soon as I could walk. They taught me the woods and the animals, how to sneak through the trees and how to cook and eat what we killed. And it's still legal.

But most of all, I squirrel hunt because that's when I can still feel that connection we had, even though they've been dead for more than 15 years. That's why I squirrel hunt.

Other animals, I mostly hunt because I must. Not must kill, but must hunt. It's as much a part of me as breathing. I get kidded about it, and I'm often ridiculed for it too. So what?

Nothing worthwhile could ever be gained if we turned and ran every time someone looked at us through squinted eyes and said they thought we were wrong.

And so we come to the other side of the Fire Swamp, having dodged some ROUS and jumped a flame spurt or two but not really any closer to a clear definition of hunting. We've also not clearly stated a universal hunting ethic.

Maybe it's this: A hunter with nothing in his heart but a love of the chase pursuing a legal game animal. I can live with that.




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