Why a son won't hunt with his father

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, Unarmed but dangerous critics close in on hunting.

"You always kill coyotes," my father would tell me, with a seriousness that both frightened and fascinated me. "Always. They are bad animals. You shoot them whenever you get the chance."

The words rang through my head as I relived the scene. I was 10, and we were careening in an open jeep across Glade Park, just south of Grand Junction in western Colorado, looking for a likely spot to start a morning deer hunt. A coyote sprinted in front of the vehicle. Then he melted into the adjoining brush. My father and two of his friends fell out of the jeep in their frenzy, spraying the coyote's path with gunfire. My hands began to tremble; my vision blurred as the rifles sputtered to a finish. An anxious silence followed.

"Shit, too slow." "Boy, that one could run." They climbed back into the jeep, dejected, and drove on, much slower now, and with more silences in their conversation. Later that morning, we got our deer, but something about that first hunt died in me. My memory of watching the deer split open by my father's hunting knife seemed a pathetic ending to a potentially exciting adventure.

The next time my father asked me to go hunting, I made up some spur-of-the-moment excuse. I think he realized at that moment that I didn't have what he had - whatever that was - and we both knew that as father and son we wouldn't experience this intimate ritual together again. I felt embarrassed and cheated that I couldn't be with my father on future hunts, but I also recognized some fundamental separation between us. That's not an easy thing for a young boy to accept.

One day a few summers later, lost in the selfish haze of adolescence, I experienced again what it meant to kill. Our gang of four teenagers, with way too much time on our hands and the endless possibilities of my new driver's license, formed an impromptu SWAT team, equipped with pellet guns and a mobile platform of destruction. I drove the VW bus as my friends scanned the telephone wires for targets. With the sliding door of the bus pinned open, we blasted away any songbird we could find from the comfort of our vinyl seats. One friend tried to keep a running count; we lost track after 45.

Our whoops and cheers at each plummeting bird remain clear in my memory today and I recall wondering, is this what my father felt when he killed? When I got home, I felt so ashamed I went to my room and lay face down in my bed for hours. I never told anyone of that afternoon, so alien and disturbing.

My aversion to killing remained a running joke with some of our family friends, who often joined my father's hunts. One, a kind and humorous family physician, enjoyed setting beaver traps in a pond. I'd been reading enough about wild animals by then to tell him its takes up to 30 minutes for a beaver to drown in a trap. He'd just smoke and brush off my comments with an infectious giggle. Sometimes I even hid his traps, hoping to provoke a convincing argument about what he was doing. I wanted to understand how such a gentle man could delight in killing wildlife. In all my experience, this was what my father and his friends planned for and talked about and relished for weeks each year. Why didn't they experience the aftershocks of shame that I suffered?

In college, I spent a month working with a Colorado Division of Wildlife biologist on a mountain lion study on the Uncompahgre Plateau. Here, I thought, was my chance to study wildlife from a scientist's perspective - four weeks to know this predator as a part of a greater whole, as the elusive queen of the food chain. I could experience the lion not as a hunter does, but as a careful observer.

Because the big cat is so difficult to find, the biologist hired a professional mountain lion guide who used hounds to help us tree the lions before tranquilizing them. One day the guide told a story that sent me reeling back to my childhood.

He'd just received $2,500 for skillfully leading a client to a treed lion. The guide related every detail of the hunt with clarity and energy, then described the magnificence of the old male roaring from the top of a twisted juniper tree.

Awkwardly, the story ended there. "Did you shoot him?" I asked.

"Of course! What do you think?" came the gruff reply.

"But that seems like such an anti-climax," I said, thinking out loud. "With such an exciting chase, wasn't shooting a trapped lion in a small tree a terrible ending?"

He hit the brakes of the Ford, looked at me with a ferocious glare, and said, "Let me tell you, son, it's the best goddamned feeling a man can have."

If it is, I probably won't experience it. Only the sound of honking cars on a blistering summer day inspires me to thoughts of delicious violence. I can share with my father the powerful mix of adrenaline and testosterone that leads to thoughts of a kill, but I'll never learn to love the follow-through.

Once again next fall, my father won't hunt with his son.

Craig Heacock is an environmental educator and writer in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He grew up in Grand Junction, Colorado.

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