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The Deer Hunter

Hunting is a religion in the states of Montana and Wyoming. It is big in other parts of the country too but these states have a particularly low population density making for greater expanses of wilderness. Since a huge amount of the plains in the US are either farmed or too arid, wild-life has been penned in mountainous states within state-owned National Forests. The result is that Oregon, Washington, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado (the states I am travelling through) are thick with both wild-life and their predator, the hunter. As a city-boy I have no real concept of animals. Also, being European I have no understanding of wild-life. Europe is both over-populated and over-cultivated resulting in the disappearance of the kind of wilderness that wild animals need to thrive. Europeans are aghast at the notion that a human can take a thrill from hunting down an animal, this despite the fact that we have been doing it for centuries. Their view is so pronounced that it is barely possible to trap and kill a measly fox while on horseback. Such European sentiment killed the fur industry. Farmers may take matters quietly into their own hands for the protection of live-stock but aside from that hunting is considered almost barbarous.

I don't understand this point of view. Is there any difference between killing a cow in an abattoir and killing an elk in the wild? Hunters take their kill to a game-cutter to harvest the meet. An elk or a deer that has been processed could last them a whole winter from the freezer in their kitchen. If they have too much they typically pass the meat on to family and friends. The reality is that Europe has no wilderness to speak of making it too disconnected from the wild to be able to offer a legitimate point of view. As far as most European children can tell, meat and fresh produce come from the supermarket, not the countryside. When one considers the terrible conditions that some live-stock experience during their short time on the planet European attitudes don't have a leg to stand on.

I am not a hunter. I realised this when a squirrel decided to jump under my front-wheel. I heard a crack and then realised what had happened. He lay in a pool of his own blood panting heavily. If you think he was traumatised you should have seen me. I love these tail-flicking friends of mine and so I waited to be with him for his last moments. He wouldn't pass and suddenly he was up trying to move around in a very distressed state. I had snapped his spine, he couldn't move his front paws and he couldn't lift his head from the ground. Having waited for ten minutes I had to make the decision to remove him from life-support. However, I couldn't take him out of his misery. Squirrels are too pretty and I just couldn't fathom finding a rock to make a blow to his head. I decided to bike on and leave nature to deal with him. I was pretty sad about it to be honest. Clearly I am a gatherer.

I met plenty of hunters on my journey. I was as curious about them as they were about me. The truth is that we are both just mountain-men who enjoy being out in the wild. Hunters are only allowed to hunt for very limited periods in the year. This makes them seem like little kids who have been cooped up indoors all day and are finally being allowed to run around a playground. They are so excited to be pitting their wits against the animals that you can't help but get a great buzz from them. Wild-life is called 'game' for a reason. It is no easy thing to kill one. Often the opportunity presents itself but there are strict restrictions in terms of what animal and which sex can be shot. There are also strict quotas and park rangers monitoring the action. The season depends on the state but it typically kicks off in late September and runs sporadically through October. The early season is for bow-hunting. This takes a huge amount of skill as the tension of a bow requires a hunter to get closer to prey to release the arrow. There is huge respect amongst the hunting community for good archers as to elude the heightened senses of a wild animal is extremely difficult.

The animals get a break between bow-season and rifle-season. It is a little comic to see hunters who were once wearing camouflage now having to sport bright orange caps and vests so they are not inconspicuous to other hunters who may be preying on the same terrain. Of course, the skill in releasing the trigger from 300 yards is nowhere near the same as firing an arrow from forty. The result is that less-skilled people can hunt and therein lies the potential danger. Hunters consider hunting herd management. If they weren't in the woods the deer and elk population would grow to the extent that they become rodents. Skilled hunters are extremely active in terms of gun-safety. They teach their children the same and often teenage sons and young boys join their father on the hunt. They are not necessarily armed but guns become much more familiar to them.

Being Irish, guns are not familiar to me at all. Our police force do not even carry them on the beat. Guns are for gangsters and our paramilitary forces. I have done some clay-pigeon shooting but it wasn't challenging enough to be of any interest to me. Practice is all it requires. Coming from a culture without guns it is kind of shocking to be in one where people keep them under the bed for self-defence. If you kill someone breaking into your property you must make sure to drag him onto the porch. If the police find him in the garden it's manslaughter but if they find him on the porch the law assumes self-defence. Within a culture of guns it is possible that they get into the wrong hands. The European view is that the less prevalent guns are the less likely someone is to be wrongfully shot. In Europe one can rarely be rightfully shot. The result is of course, that school shooting incidents take place in America as opposed to Europe. Naturally this is down to the prevalence of guns in America but is a responsible gun-owner to blame for the actions of an irresponsible gun-owner? Is an irresponsible gun-owner to blame for the fact that a kid got access to the gun and went on a killing spree? Kids don't take such action lightly. They do it because they are in pain and have exhausted their patience in being able to deal with it. The gun becomes a means for them to express it. I'm not suggesting that their actions are excusable, simply that society likes to blame others for its own problems. There are kids and people suffering emotional trauma all over the world. Not all of them have access to guns but not all of them have access to more humane structures to deal with their trauma either. Europeans have taken the view that it is best not to have a gun culture just in case. However, Europe does not have the kind of wilderness that America has such that people might actually like to go hunting. It is difficult to fathom that the amount of people in the US that love to go hunting is not replicated in Europe to some degree.

I have already established that I am no hunter. However, I was more than happy to have hunters for company in the woods and mountains with me. My journey would have felt particularly solitary without them. I met one guy who asked me what piece I carried in my packs. He was flabbergasted that I didn't have one. “What if a mountain-lion comes for you?” he asked. “Why would he?” I retorted. From what I can make out wild-life wants to have nothing to do with me. Of course, I hang my food. This prevents them from sniffing me out and getting so excited about the treats I carry that they can't help themselves. The only other precaution I take is to tie the guy-lines of my tent to my prone bike lying at the head of my tent. This creates an area that is inaccessible to animals around my head. If a bear did decide he wanted to kill me he would do so by first trying to break my neck. Having the bike and guy-lines behind me as trip-wires gives me that extra moment to get out of the way of the noise. I might be naïve but I just can't get my head around an animal trying to kill me without having first been antagonised. I sleep peacefully in my tent every night not giving the animals a second thought because it seems that they don't give me one. Like when I am awake, they tend to hide in the shadows when I'm asleep. Of course, one of the reasons they keep a wide berth is that there are plenty of humans wandering around the woods trying to kill them during certain weeks of the year. Animals are not fools and are very much a part of their environment. They have a totally different skill-set that allows them to elude predators. If man didn't carry a gun there would be very few animals lost during the 'game' season. Man is so disconnected from nature that all bar a few would be able to have the patience and skill required to actually claim one. Often the only way to snag a deer is if you have been in the same spot so long they just happen to switch off to you. Most mature animals would be able to smell you a mile away. Unless the wind was in your favour you have very little reason to be optimistic. Of course, the rifle changes all that but as long as the game is processed it is very difficult for carnivores to complain about hunters.

I do feel sorry for the animals. I understand that there is a need for them to be harvested but I do think our infatuation with meat is a little over-the-top considering how much damage to the environment is caused by increasing our supply of grazing land. As capitalism encourages more and more less-developed countries to become more middle-class the world's demand for meat is rising with catastrophic consequences. This is a whole other post in itself but I do think there has been a disconnect over time between man and the animals. This is man's doing. Naturally, some animals are part of a particular food-chain but a lot of omnivores only eat meat when they can't get something easier from a tree or the ground. It is possible that man once had the same view but since he can no longer live without meat the animals have rightfully distanced themselves from us.

My simple solution to the whole gun-debate is for hunters to trade their rifles and bows for a camera. To execute a good wild-life photograph requires all the same skill as a good archer. It requires a great deal of patience, a sense of timing and the ability to get close to wild-life without them feeling threatened. You even have to keep the camera steady to get a clean shot. The skill of the 'game' is being able to take great wild-life shots without resorting to a telephoto lens. The shorter the focal-length the greater the skill-factor. This would allow animals to feel safer in their own habitat and for hunters to use their skills.

I hope you are all sleeping safe at night, I am.


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