Life, Death and Deer
FROM MY COZY SPOT on the couch, I looked up to see my father wiping his blood-smeared hands on his fluorescent orange coveralls, light reflecting off his bald head.
“Please, I need your help. I can’t do this alone,” he said, resorting to guilt when the “now means now” technique had failed. I begrudgingly followed him into the cold garage, my pajamas dragging as I walked.
I carefully navigated my socked feet through the mess. Wall-mounted road bikes overhanging a motorboat and canoe, mismatched poles balancing between cross-country skis, boxes of Winchester shotgun shells stacked along the stairs, a scarcely used clay bird launcher supporting a shopping basket that my dad had impatiently walked out of Totem with, fresh blood pooling on the grimy concrete. In the middle of it all, on a cardboard covered workbench, was the moose.
My task was simple but not easy: hold up the leg by the ankle as he carved off the layer of fat and silver skin to harvest the meat. Moose are not small creatures, even once skinned and gutted. So my young arms went numb from exertion as my fingers went numb from the near-frozen meat.
In the morning, I awoke to the sound of the meat grinder. Dad pushed hunks of flesh through the mouth of the grinder, creating a stream of spaghettified meat falling out the other end. “Raw and wriggling,” he would say, over-pronouncing his Rs. The meat smelled fresh but not bad; perhaps I am just used to it. What smelled bad was when he boiled the skulls to preserve the antlers. The flakes of scalp would turn grey as they cooked, filling the kitchen with the putrid odour of death.
This was routine. It happened every hunting season, but the experience varied slightly with species. In the fall, he would pull me out onto the driveway, next to the neighbour’s fence, to help pluck ducks or invert the skin of a rabbit. Sometimes, he would have me smell a ruffed grouse
crop—an organ that stores extra food before passing it through digestion—filled with aromatic clovers and snowberries. As my young mind investigated death and anatomy, I would slowly open and close a duck’s bill, looking at its limp tongue and comb-like pectens. Clasping a duck by the throat, my father would scold me, “Stop that, you’re being ghoulish.” Around us, the snow became a stew of feathers and blood.
My sister is a vegetarian now. I’d still never pass up a steak. We lived in a small but urban city. Our Grande Prairie home backed onto the forest and golf course of Country Club West—a neighbourhood straining to appear luxe. Ignoring suburban standards, Dad had a habit of leaving rib cages and hooved legs in the vegetable garden, until a coyote would inevitably drag them away. Two doors down lived the devout Christian family who mowed their lawn four times a week into perfectly parallel lines. They had a golden retriever but no fence, so you can imagine the gifts the dog brought them. Next door lived the older, childless couple and their pair of prized Dalmatians. One year, we had a weasel living in the yard. We were thrilled, constantly gathering around the window to watch, until we saw it steal scraps of meat and head into Dalmatian-man’s camper. None of the neighbours have ever confronted Dad so I can’t be certain of their judgements, but I do wonder who reported us to the city.
I knew we looked weird. I knew from my friends’ faces when I manoeuvred past a dead deer to reach my scooter in the shed, or when they saw the pile of antlers locked together on our never-used treadmill. Even less subtle were the looks from Safeway shoppers when my bloody camo-clad father needed to grab milk on the way home from hunting. But from the inside, it seemed normal. It was how I grew up. Don’t all dads adjust the scope of their rifle in front of the TV on Sunday mornings or store an antelope head in the freezer ready to pop out at you while you’re looking for a Fudgsicle?
When we stayed at my paternal grandmother’s house, after lengthy bickering, the unlucky sibling would get stuck with the pull-out couch in the basement directly underneath the taxidermied bison head. In the creaking darkness of that old house, I would fall asleep feeling small, thinking about its death and mine—assuming it would fall and crush me in my sleep. Next to the couch was a dark wood room containing heads of ungulates—some now illegal to kill—equally spaced along its perimeter. In the middle were two bearskin rugs. There, we would play house, one of us taking the grizzly, the other taking the black bear, resting our heads on their heads as we pretended to sleep. Death was merely a prop to our childhood.
Those rugs belonged to my late grandfather, who introduced Dad to hunting as a child. In a time when women raised the kids, hunting was how my dad connected with his dad. Every fall, they would do duck hunts at the lake with the men from neighbouring cabins. This is where Dad’s lifelong connection to nature began. He has since earned degrees
in zoology and works as a Fish and Wildlife conservation biologist, trying to help the species he grew up watching. Now, he shares this interest with his own kids, taking us hunting in the same place his dad took him, connecting us to his past and to our Canadian heritage.
He’s never been the drive-your-pickup-truck-around-until-something-jumps-out-and-you-shoot-it type of hunter. He cares about the process of hunting. As a kid, he would grab his .410 Bore shotgun and English setter and head out into the woods stalking grouse, pretending to be Davy Crockett. Now he scouts out the perfect location, sitting every night among aspen trees, rose bushes and willows, watching the deer that he’s not going to shoot, observing the predators in the woods, listening to the birds in the hushed winter air. He even likes dealing with the animals after, knowing where the meat came from, knowing that it was butchered to his standards. Each set of antlers in that pile on the treadmill reminds him of a story—an experience from a year. It’s this lifetime of experience that has ingrained hunting into part of who he is. And let’s be honest, he also likes all the guns.
My parents are happy living in Grande Prairie because, unlike in Edmonton where they grew up, lots of people hunt, the deer come into our backyard, and we’re closer to the land and the wildlife. Mom doesn’t hunt herself, but she joins him sometimes. While Dad was out with his gun as a child, Mom was sitting silently in the reeds at her own family’s cabin looking at insects. As far as I can tell, she knows the name of every critter in Alberta. When I was young, she would take us on nature walks, identifying birds by their calls and teaching us how to catch butterflies. Dad’s hunting doesn’t conflict with her passion for natural history because she knows that we’re eating everything he shoots. Plus seeing how a deer is put together is as interesting as seeing it interact with its ecosystem.
The years of ecology lessons disguised as nature walks instilled within me a deep respect for living things. The hunting, though, forced me to acknowledge their deaths. I only once killed an animal myself: a duck. I remember standing in the pond among the reeds in my waders, ducks laughing overhead, as I tried to stay balanced when the gun kicked. I didn’t feel sad when I killed it. I didn’t feel proud, either. Dad was excited, but I was more amused to have hit the decoy. It’s still in the garage. It sounds like a maraca filled with steel pellets. We didn’t actually talk about dying, though. It was just a fixture in life. When the pet hermit crabs died, we threw them in the garden. When Grandma died, after a short silence, in a tone of sober acceptance, Mom said, “Well, we knew it would happen,” and that was it. It was a part of life that we had to accept. We moved forward.
Despite our seeming apathy, I think knowing the gory reality of death made us appreciate the life of animals more. There is no Styrofoam packaging to distance you from the fact that it was alive and now, because of you, it is not. When you take a life, you have the responsibility
to do it right. Once at the lake, I stood on the neighbour’s dock with my cousin, who had previously hunted with my dad and been influenced by his views. He held a slingshot and a rock. Drunken adults yelled for him to hit the gull not ten metres away. Inner turbulence shook him as he looked at the bird. You could see the rules laid out by my father flashing through his eyes: do not point weapons—even toy guns—at anything you do not intend to kill and do not kill anything you do not intend to eat. He intentionally missed. The bird lived another day and the adults poured another margarita.
In the summer after eleventh grade, I worked as a research assistant for a university ecologist. One afternoon, with a kiddie pool full of Pekin ducks, an expert came in to show the grad students how to take a blood sample. Grabbing one of the ducklings, she took its blood and it died. It cheeped until it went limp. Probably from stress. She claimed it had never happened before. My co-worker—the other eleventh grader and a girl often afraid to get her sneakers dirty—was understandably distressed, but I was okay. Then, as biologists do, they dissected it. As they did, the other girl was able to identify all of the organs that she had memorized in school, until the expert finally stumped her. “Ah, that’s the gizzard,” I cut in. Dad used to threaten to rip out my gizzard—an organ filled with stones used to crush a bird’s food—anytime my gum smacking got obnoxious. It was a threat we both knew was empty. After the dissection, my boss asked if I was all right, and I said I was used to it. She explained how it’s still important to feel sad. Too often she had seen biologists who had become numb. You should realize that it’s nature and it’s life, but you should still always care.
I know not every hunter cares. When my dad went to a sporting clay workshop in Texas, he met a different kind of hunter. A dimly lit but extravagant wooden lodge contained a full-sized taxidermied elephant and giraffe. The air was saturated with the smell of barbeque. At these fair-chase, high-fence hunting ranches, people pay thousands of dollars to shoot exotic mammals on mesquite-thorn-covered terrain in a one-hundred-square-kilometre enclosure. This type of hunting is not about connecting with nature. There is nothing natural about hunting a grain-fed and human-bred African antelope in a fenced-off field in Texas, leaving it for a butcher to deal with, and heading back to the heated pool. These hunters are driven by the thrill of the hunt and the pride of bringing home a trophy. But for Dad, hunting is not about testosterone or bloodthirstiness or entertainment. He hunts to provide food for his family. Regardless of the appeal of antlers or hide, he simply does not shoot what he isn’t going to eat, be it cougars, bears or those swampy-tasting shoveler ducks at the lake.
Dad has taught me the benefits of hunting: how it helps to control wildlife populations, especially in farmland where we’ve removed the predators that would naturally prevent overpopulation; how it subsequently reduces the spread of disease and protects both native plant
populations and agricultural crops; how, when properly managed, it provides healthy, low-fat and sustainable food with few negative environmental impacts. But when someone sits in their La-Z-Boy in their suburban home, raising an eyebrow at their weird neighbours who bring home dinner still covered in blood and fur, it’s hard for them to appreciate those benefits. And that is why hunting is so important. People need the excitement of hunting to draw them outside. They need to spend days blending into the forest, accidentally crunching the snow beneath them and watching the ears of each deer in the herd twitch simultaneously, slowly raising their rifle and, with a thoughtful hand, firing. When they approach the deer and see it take its last breath, they will be thankful, respecting nature’s sacrifice. Then they want to go back, but to go back they need those species to be protected and their habitats maintained. Now the hunter cares.
I don’t think we should be considered the weird family. Understanding your place in nature shouldn’t determine your place in society. When a wolf chases down a mule deer and sinks its sharp teeth into the deer’s flesh, it doesn’t think about ethics or the reality of death; it is an animal fulfilling its role in the food chain—just like Dad when he hunts. He drives for half an hour out of town to a pre-approved, carefully selected farmer’s field, he trudges through the knee-deep snow in his oversized Sorel boots and sits down in the bush. And he sits, for hours, until dusk, night after night, in the silence, in the fresh air, in the forest. It is about respecting nature. It is about re-joining nature. It is about accepting death as part of nature. As my mother put it, “Humans are part of nature and we continually forget that. We think that we are separate and above it and that we can change it and control it. And then a hurricane comes along.”