Killing How I'd Like to Be Killed
No one wants to be killed. But hunting makes me think a lot about how I do (and don't) want to die - and also how I kill.
I have never really understood the allure of hunting big game over hounds. I think my reaction to it is pretty similar to the non-hunting public’s reaction: You put yourself in the prey’s shoes, feel your racing heart, experience the terror of a pack of baying hounds coming closer, closer, closer until you’re out of options and you make your (inevitably doomed) stand.
I suspect hunting with hounds is particularly tainted for two more reasons: It has a strong Southern tradition, and most of this country disrespects the South, and regards Southern accents as a sign of stupidity. And here’s the one no one talks about: We used to hunt runaway Black slaves with hounds. Strike three. Too visceral.
I’ve hunted over hounds once – it’s how I killed my one and only bear to date – and I can absolutely defend it (see “Killing treed bears: Rejecting hype to find out for myself” ). When a bear is treed, you can determine that it is, in fact, what you want, and you can ensure it’s not a lactating sow or a cub.
But holy cow, the moment of the kill.
My Hound Hunt
Here’s how it went down for me: We found a cold track on the side of a logging road in the national forest of western Tehama County and sent the dogs off in search of the bear - that’s what’s happening in the photo at the top of this post. The guide told me to stay put with one of the houndsmen because he had no idea how the chase would go. It could go miles, or it could go in circles. Twenty minutes later, we heard the baying that signaled the bear was treed. That was fast!
The houndsman and I rushed to the location where the bear was treed. It was not difficult – we just followed the growing cacophony of a half-dozen hounds flipping out. I arrived to a scene of controlled chaos. The hounds were barking with great urgency, tied down away from the tree to give the bear a chance to escape without killing them if she came down. Houndsmen were peering up into the tree in mid-afternoon light and evaluating the situation.
My guide pointed to where the bear was. We had to raise our voices to converse.
“See her?” he asked.
She was partially hidden by branches. I could see black fur, but I couldn’t make out what part of her body I was looking at. “I can’t see enough!” I yelled into the guide’s ear. No shot there.
So he shifted me 90 degrees around the tree where I could see her clearly. The rest went in slow motion, and honestly, I had to ask people afterward what had happened to piece it all together:
“She’s getting unstable!” I heard the guide warn, meaning she knew something was going down and she was going to try to escape.
One of the houndsmen sat on the ground facing away from the tree, maybe 10 yards from the trunk. I sat down and leaned against his back for stability – we’d planned that ahead of time because I told them I was a wobbly shooter. Not that it matters at that distance. Another houndsman handed me my .270. I grabbed the grip with my left hand and as I was pulling it toward me, worked the bolt with my right to chamber a round.
The bear was coming down. The roar of the hounds intensified. I disengaged the safety, put the crosshairs just behind her shoulder, pulled the trigger and watched her skid the rest of the way down the tree, legs limp, no longer gripping the trunk. “Good shot,” someone yelled.
The fastest rifle shot I’d ever taken. Less than two seconds from when I went to sit down.
It was over, but the barking continued as we put the bear’s legs on gambrels and hoisted her into a tree to begin skinning and gutting her. It was the grating soundtrack to the afternoon.
It was so loud. The exact opposite of the quiet that makes hunting such a joy for me. That alone is probably the biggest reason I would never adopt hounding as my primary means of hunting big game.
But there’s something else, too.
What If It Were Me?
When you hunt, you think a lot about death, and how you would prefer to die. The killing we do is not always perfect – especially with a shotgun, where the randomness of shot pattern can result in a clean kill, a broken wing or a wound that will let the bird get away and die a slow death from sepsis. But if you spend any time watching wildlife documentaries, you know that predation in nature is far from pretty. Instantaneous death is not the rule. Some predators start eating their prey before it’s dead. Horrifying.
I know that I would like to die quickly. My heart just stopping at the end of a long and happy life would be best. A slow death from disease would be the worst.
But what if I were a prey animal? I think about this all the time, what it’s like to be them, to live free until one day it’s over, that moment of death. If I were being hunted, I would prefer to not know I was about to die. A nice clean shot to the boiler room. Drop instantly, or at worst, think, “Whoa! What just happened? I feel weird. (Collapse.)” I would not want to go as this bear had, knowing she was screwed.
For the longest time, it seemed to me – and I’m sure it does to the general public as well – that houndsmen and women must lack empathy to hunt as they do. Then I had a conversation with a pig hunter who was an avid houndsman. I told him how I’d prefer to die if I were a prey animal – ambush and quick death.
He thought that sounded horrible. If he were being hunted, he said, he’d want the chance to get away. The chase was not strictly an adrenaline rush for him; it was what he would wish for himself if he were the prey.
That was a revelation. I had been wrong. He didn’t lack empathy. His was, in fact, as strong as mine.
It’s so easy to let your perspective trick you into thinking anyone with a different perspective lacks morality. Perhaps that’s the case with some folks, but in truth, all you can really know is that they lack your particular morality.
But … I killed a bear in a way that I would not want to be killed. Where does that leave me?
The truth is killing is rarely ideal, surgical and painless. It’s easy to get worked up about charismatic megafauna being subjected to fear, but is it any different than a duck rearing back as the hunters rise to shoot, watching other ducks go down around it, trying to pivot, then getting shot? Let’s be honest: I have obviously accepted that.
I could run away from hunting and buy my meat at the store, but I know I don’t envy those animals’ lives, or their walk or herd or drive to slaughter, even though their deaths may be swift. I could run away from meat altogether, but I know how much killing goes into all food production. And just plain living. We kill constantly. It is the nature of life on earth.
I honestly think the best we can do is strive to hunt in accordance with our values. And because striving takes many forms, spend a lot more time listening to people who strive differently than we do.
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