After he shot off his big toe, my dad lost all interest in guns. He lived to fish, but he never took me hunting.

When I came of age I bought an army surplus British .303 rifle and went forth into the Colorado hills above Loveland to hunt. I had no idea how, really. I walked in the woods for a while. When I heard shots, I sat down by a clearing, thinking a deer might come by. I learned this hunting technique from reading Outdoor Life magazine.

After a time, I heard rustling in the brush, and a deer emerged at the far edge of the opening. When I fired, the animal instantly dropped. Euphoric, I ran to it. A wave of revulsion and remorse swept over me, but like anybody determined to shoot a gun, I pushed my emotions aside and did what I came to do.

It was only after that second shot that I realized, to my dismay, that I had killed a fawn. Not a spotted fawn, like Bambi, but a "yearling fawn" -- one that had probably been born in the spring of the previous year. She was at least as big as a German shepherd. Yet when I aimed at her, she didn't look like a fawn at all. She just looked like a deer.

As I gutted my kill, I tried to convince myself that I'd shot a "small doe." Over and over I told myself that. This self-deception worked until I got back to the car with my prize. There another hunter congratulated me. "Nice little fawn," he said.

My shame and humiliation was not yet complete. When my mother saw the tiny carcass hanging in the garage, she recoiled in horror. "It's a baby," she gasped. "How could you?" Then, "Get it out of here." I no longer hunt, but I don't mind if other people do. Hunters exhibit a certain moral toughness. They accept that eating meat means killing. They understand that the natural world is not Disneyland.

I refer to hunters as those who harvest animals for food, not "sportsmen" who collect heads or amuse themselves by shooting prairie dogs. Hunters act out humankind's oldest provider instinct, while the others seem merely wanton.

I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt to hunters from Texas and Alabama and Kentucky who come out West every fall. I don't exactly understand why they can't just shoot a deer back home (maybe there are none left), but I suppose this must be a ritual they love. They get together with their buddies, sleep in tents, drink some whiskey, play cards and maybe they even get lucky and kill an elk while they're out walking in the woods. If they are fortunate, nobody has a heart attack or gets lost or stranded in a snowstorm. As long as a healthy number of animals remains when the season ends, I don't see the harm. The herds normally need thinning so that deer and elk don't suffer the ultimate cruelty of starvation.

I can also see that hunting provides jobs and income in rural areas that need it. Plenty of farmers and ranchers manage to survive with the help of hunting-lease income.

If anyone wants to feel sorry for animals, feel sorry for chickens raised in crowded little cages. Feel sorry for calves force-fed milk and butchered for veal. Pity pigs "produced" on factory farms. These animals have in common that they usually live in harsh circumstances before we kill and eat them. The deer and elk at least roam wild and free. They fight and mate and raise their young. One day they will die, as we all must, perhaps killed by a mountain lion or a pack of coyotes, a car or starvation or disease. Or a hunter.

You say you never eat red meat? Then nothing I say will make any difference. You also show a kind of morality and my hat's off to you. As for the rest of you, I recommend that you hunt. With luck you'll discover intimately what few people truly comprehend, and afterward, a T-bone on the grill will never look the same.

But when you finally place your quarry in your sights, and you're about to squeeze the trigger, do yourself a favor. Make dead sure it's not a fawn.

Ed Colby is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He writes in New Castle, Colorado.