The last time I killed another mammal.
That’s what we called the time of the afternoon when the deer would move. Those tiny windows of perfect last-moments right before dark, when they’ve become accustomed to feeding, I guess, and let down their guard just a bit.
We were usually pretty buzzed by then.
My grandpa, Bam Bam, was getting to the age where climbing in and out of deer stands was quite a chore. So on afternoon hunts, Bam and I would generally sit in his parked truck and shoot from the open door window.
We’d sit there, rifles ready, studiously quiet between drinks, except for our rhythmic rooting around the cooler to get ice for fresh drinks.
Usually we’d sit at my stand, where the bend of the road afforded us a perfect angle to the shooting lane, as well as a tuft of tall grass and small pine grove to hide us. We’d get silly, tell stories, have a couple whiskeys, and look forward to getting ourselves some meat.
One prime time, we are relaxing in our spot behind the tuft as two deer walk out of the woods. I have the better shot because of the angle of the truck in relationship to the angle of the shooting lane occupied by the deer.
I pick up my rifle and slowly bring down my scope’s crosshairs onto its body, first using the scope as a telescope to assess the deer’s desirability.
We have a low bar: meat for the freezer. We don’t let many deer walk in our clique. If it’s in my scope, I’m almost certainly going to shoot it. “Deer burritos, tamales, sausage, and chili, bruh!”
My rifle is perched on a perfect resting spot. I sit comfortably, holding the firearm still and secure until the scope’s crosshairs are rock-solid steady. The intersection of those crosshairs covers the unsuspecting deer’s approximate heart location.
Only now do I touch the trigger, having been taught to wait until ready to fire. I am completely ready, at one with the woods, the gun, and the animal that is my prey.
I exhale slowly and give slightly more pressure with my trigger finger. The sound of the shot startles me, as it always does when I’m in the zone, preoccupied with shot placement. I immediately see my deer — my prize, my food, my precious bounty of back strap and tenderloins — lying on the ground.
Bam Bam slaps me on the shoulder from the passenger’s seat. “Nice shot!”, he congratulates.
Our celebration evaporates as soon as we notice that the other deer hasn’t been scared off by the shot. Maybe Bam Bam can get one too!
We freeze in mutual acknowledgment of what is to come . Bam Bam isn’t in a good position to shoot this deer, so he has to wiggle around. He deftly clicks open his door, somehow muffling the sound like a fucking Jedi mind trick. The deer still doesn’t bolt or acknowledge our presence in any way.
Bam Bam shifts his 360-pound body, rolling his ass inboard as he puts both legs outside the truck. His feet find the ground , allowing him to brace for a good shot. But now the deer is walking away.
We can see only deer-ass, as the animal grazes on the feed corn we’ve put them to lure them out. The end of prime time is approaching, so it’d be nice to get started tracking before the afternoon grows too dark. So Bam Bam takes the shot. The deer stumbles and falls. Gets up. Then bounds off into the trees to the left of the shooting lane.
I’ve heard the old guys at the camp talking about if the only shot you have is an “up the ass” shot, take it. So, I suspect that’s what Bam Bam’s done here. He confirms, “I shot it right up the ass.”
This sounds horrible to me. I cringe.
I walk to my deer. She’s dead. I drag and load her on the truck.
I also find a little blood from Bam Bam’s deer as well, so I can see exactly where to start tracking.
As I return to the blood after taking care of my kill, it becomes clear that there isn’t that much blood to track. But I remember seeing where the second deer had entered the woods, through a distinctive patch of young pine trees and thick briars. The thickness of the vegetation is what actually allows me to track the deer as I follow the evidence of disturbed tree limbs and briars and pine straw. There’s so little blood. I think for a second that perhaps the deer has just been wounded.
Then, suddenly, I’m upon him. He reminds me of my dog lying on the floor in the living room. He’s just laying there, breathing heavy, just looking at me with a resigned expression. “I quit. Now what?”
My buddies would probably whip out a pocket knife and cut its throat (or at least that’s how they talk), but I just can’t do it. I stand there, wondering what to do. I think about finding a tree limb big enough to bash his head or break his neck, but only briefly. That seems too brutal, somehow. I leave him resting and return to the truck to retrieve my Bam Bam’s 7mm. The 7 mag at point-blank is probably too much, but maybe it’ll kill him quicker.
I walk back to where this mortally wounded animal continues to imitate my dog at rest.
He is waiting for me. I tell him I’m sorry. I set the muzzle directly on the heartbeat I see in his chest and squeeze the trigger hard. He thrashes and kicks for several seconds, then quiets and goes limp. I poke him with the rifle. Nothing. He’s gone.
I drag him out by his little horns. When I get back to the truck, Bam Bam is a giant grin: “GOT HIM!”
We load him in the truck with his dinner companion. After tagging them properly, we enjoy a celebratory straight-shooter of Crown Royal. Then it’s back to the camp.
I no longer eat meat. I no longer kill mammals for food or any other reason. But I’m not writing this to shame Bam Bam, or myself.
I share these experiences with my Bam Bam because, as different as my life is now, I love those early morning and late afternoon (or middle of the night *cough cough*) memories of strategizing with and being the muscle for the ideas of my eldest living ancestor.
As different as they are from my current life, and cruel as they can seem to those who haven’t been there, they are some of my most fond familial memories.They represent some of the deepest bonding moments I’ve ever had with my Bam Bam.
I can still talk hunting with my buddies. I know all about brow tines and mass and B&C score. I know what a good buck looks like. I know what a desirable rack looks like. I know, step-by-step, how to process that animal into food, from food plot and deer corn to sauce piquant and sausage. We had a lot of fun and made lots of memories in the time between, and during, the chores necessary to create an environment around your lease that may give you the best chance to shoot, and kill. To bring home some meat.
Meat was our thing.
We still have a big rotisserie pit with four swinging shelves that rotate past a fire box for slow cooking and smoking all kinds of meat. We’d usually load a different thing on each shelf: sausage and boudin on one shelf; brisket, butt, rack or ribs (or turkey wings after I started trying to lose weight) on another.
The animals I killed all meant something to me. It always felt heavy a little, after the excitement of the hunt died down, to dismember our bounty. But it should feel that way. It’s only right to feel sadness, sorry even, for the beautiful thing that died to feed you and your family.
That’s nature, after all: you feel the kill before you eat.
You watch him or her (not it!) die, looking at his or her face; participate in his or dismemberment and processing.
What’s deeply unnatural is to enjoy the flesh while turning your face away from the reality of death, of killing.
There are consequences to this chosen ignorance, of course. The most obvious is a grotesquely unnatural pattern of consumption: way too much, way too often.
That’s why meat eating is associated in modern industrial societies with a plethora of unnatural health outcomes. You don’t see that same connection between animal consumption and disease in hunter-gatherer communities in which a successful hunt was a rare event, or in a Blue Zone peasant culture in which slaughtering animals was reserved for occasional celebrations like holidays and weddings.
In the absence of factory farming, these gigantic warehouses of unspeakable cruelty sanitized with the acronym CAFO (confined animal feeding operation), you would either feel the kill or abstain from eating meat. You would either be in the thick of the reality of life and death, or reduce your consumption of flesh simply by virtue of your distance from the kill.
If that old rule of nature, that you eat what you kill (or what your kin kill on your behalf), were reimposed upon us, how much would animal flesh consumption decrease in this country? Drastically, instantaneously.
That should say something, I think.
And I’ll say this: I am far more ashamed of my copious CAFO-sourced meat consumption than I am of anything I’ve ever done in the woods. The fear and awe and pride and grief that accompanied my hunting sanctified the act, by virtue of simple awareness of consequences.
My behavior toward my prey, as taught to me by Bam Bam and other elders, was at its core informed by courtesy. More than I can say about my attitude toward the burgers and hot dogs and buckets of chicken that I mindlessly over-consumed on my way to 420 pounds of morbidly obese misery.
Bam Bam’s little buck was the last deer he or I killed. Not because I went vegan; that came later.
But that last hunt hurt my heart, honestly. Call me what you like, manly men. If my perceived softness excludes me from the brotherhood of hunters, I can deal with that.
Because becoming fully plant-based was something that was made possible only once I had stopped hunting. I had already started losing weight due to cutting out obvious junk food and taking up exercise, but changing my diet turned out to be the next step in my progression toward health and fitness.
And although the hunting was on hiatus, it was only meant as a temporary measure. We as a family had some big things to deal with around that time. My dad experienced a psychotic break and needed serious love and attention, almost more than we could provide. And Bam Bam was slipping further and further into ornery dementia, getting harder and harder to accommodate, as my mother, my siblings and I brainstormed, considered, and reconsidered one potential home arrangement after another.
That is really why I stepped away from hunting. Life intervened, and gave me space, and gave that final kill time to plant a seed in my heart. While that seed spoke to me, it didn’t turn me into some kind of Biblical prophet against hunting.
As cruel as hunting may seem, It’s not some sadistic cult populated by sick, bloodthirsty murderers; it’s just people getting meat. And eating meat is the part that I think is most important to address.
What we do to animals in order to stabilize the supply of a food source that is supposed to be unstable for our particular type of organism (considering our biological strengths and weaknesses related to the procurement of meat in a world without 4x4s, scopes, and high-powered rifles).
In order to have a meat counter for us to peruse, so we can calmly, cluelessly, unfeelingly pick up delicious carcasses any time we want, we do horrific things in the kill progress that even the hated-by-vegan hunters wouldn’t dream of doing to an animal.
The out-of-sight-out-of-mind cruelty of the slaughterhouse erases the normal, natural relationship of predator and prey, and precludes any feelings of compassion, humility, and most of all, gratitude that humans have always felt and ritualized upon taking a life for sustenance.
Our limitations as hunters and the biological realities of our ecosystems used to cap the naturally attainable quantities of meat we could consume. But it was those highest human emotions, as much as limited skill and supply, that allowed us to balance our cravings with a sense of the limits of “our fair share.” And as it turns out, going beyond “our fair share” comes with a curse upon our bodies in the form of unnatural disease, disability, and premature death.
So, to my hunting buddies, kill quickly, efficiently, and with a naturally attainable quantity in your mind. (If your reaction so far is something like, “Fuck you , bro!”, I hear you. Loud n clear. I understand that sentiment, and six years ago would have chorused it with you.)
But how about this? Maybe consider your hunting as your sole source of meat and stop participating in the meat counter Twilight Zone; not really because deer meat is healthier, per se, but because it’s more humane and would be held in a finite quantity, and takes some inputs besides the arbitrary macroeconomic exchange rate of dollars per given body part, therefore having an effect on consumption.
Our current consumption levels are pas bon, hence all the suffering we endure in hospital wards and nursing homes. Vegans aren’t your enemy; chronic disease and early death are.
To my vegan friends, understand that people who hunt aren’t murderous bloodthirsty monsters; they’re just people living life the way they know, the way they like, the way that reminds of them of the ones they miss. Hunters are not your enemy; the perceived normalcy of unfettered access to unnaturally attainable quantities of meat is.