Friday, January 5, 2018

Why We Hunt

Photo credit: Adventures Plus Outfitters

Just before Christmas, hunter Michael Taylor shot and killed a massive black bear here in Edgecombe County, North Carolina. At 640 pounds, this black bear weighed 150 pounds more than the average black bear. It yielded over 300 pounds of processed meat.

A kill like this is big news in a small rural county like ours. We see black bears from time to time, sometimes crossing the highway, or out in a farmer's field, or sometimes casually strolling down some small town main street. News of this monstrous black bear traveled and was even picked up by a big news outlet from Raleigh.

As pictures of the hunter and his kill plastered local papers and social media outlets, the self-righteous came out in droves to criticize this hunter (and hunters in general) and to whine and cry about how black bear lives matter. #blackbearlivesmatter #BBLM

Photo credit: Eva Shockey
It isn't unusual for hunters to receive this type of backlash. In 2014, professional hunter Eva Shockey killed another North Carolina black bear. This one was a measly 510 pounds but apparently still warranted massive repercussions, including some 5,000 death threats.

According to much of the loud and ranting public, the lives of human hunters are worth far less than the animals they harvest and eat.

I can't help but wonder how many of the individuals slinging death threats at the likes of Eva Shockey and Michael Taylor have recently enjoyed a chicken sandwich or picked up a package of hamburger from their grocer's cooler. Because if you think attacking hunters for harvesting big, cuddly, unpredictably dangerous bears is okay, while exploiting acceptable "meat" animals, often raised in inhumane and dirty conditions, is perfectly acceptable...well, there is a deeper moral issue here than I thought.

I understand that the general public doesn't understand hunting. We are so far removed from our food sources that most people have never looked their dinner in the eye (unless you've picked a crustacean out of the tank at Red Lobster). We tend to think of meat as something that comes sealed in neat little plastic and Styrofoam packages. It is easy to forget that the meat between our hamburger buns was once an actual living, breathing animal.

The thing is, if you aren't a hunter, it is difficult to explain why we hunt, and it goes far beyond meat. Words fail to describe why we get up before the crack of dawn to sit for long hours in often uncomfortable conditions to harvest game, when we could just roll on down to the local Food Lion and pick up a pack of steaks. We wouldn't even have to wear sensible shoes.

I am a hunter.

In fact, the day this bear was killed, I was hunting in another part of Edgecombe County.

I won't apologize. I won't act ashamed because you think I should. And I will proudly take pictures of the game I've been lucky enough to tag.

I hunt because I love hunting.

Not because I love killing, although that is definitely a part of hunting.

I'm lucky to have spent large portions of my life in the woods. My father started toting me along on his hunting trips as soon as I was old enough to sit on a five-gallon bucket, pink-sneakered feet swinging inches above the ground. Yearly the woods call me back. Stepping into the forest on opening day feels like coming home.

Sitting on a deer stand, I thrill at every new morning, watching the darkness turn murky gray. Hearing the first songbird chirp out a song so strong it starts up a whole chorus. There is overwhelming satisfaction in knowing that the majority of the world is missing it, tucked tight in their comfortable beds in their climate-controlled buildings waiting for the shock of the alarm clock.

Sitting alone in a tree stand, you become part of the landscape as the creatures around you either forget you are there or accept you as one of their own. And you know that everything is good. There is no wasted time in the woods, whether you release on arrow, squeeze the trigger, or go home with nothing more than the experience.

I've heard people wonder why hunters can't just take pictures. Couldn't we enjoy nature and the experience of being outdoors without harming any wildlife?

Pictures are nice, but taking pictures isn't hunting.

As a photographer, you are an observer of nature. As a hunter you are a participant. Hunters are part of the drama and the dance that is life in the wild.

We are predators, but the humane sort. Nothing dies easily in the circle of life. Don't let The Lion King fool you. It's not some sunshiny musical in the wild. Animals die every minute, with or without the help of a hunter. Most lives end in violence. Whether by the jaws of a coyote, the talons of a great horned owl, the claws of a cougar, or by merciless disease and starvation. All life comes to an end. Often death caused by a human hunter is the most humane. I choose to make my kills quick and clean, something Mother Nature isn't particularly good at.

While it is true that hunting is an essential part of wildlife management, that hunters are the largest source of funding for wildlife agencies and conservation efforts, I won't use these reasons to justify why I hunt. These are just side benefits, the reasons that sound good enough to justify hunting to the uninitiated.

I hunt because I love it.

Plain and simple.

With every fiber of my being.

And I know that these are just a smattering of words that you will read on a computer screen, and they are unlikely to change one single mind. Because mere words can never explain the magic or the drive or the feeling of being alive that accompanies the hunt.

If you are a hunter, you already know. We are kindred spirits, you and I, a misunderstood minority that will continue to be spat on, hated, and threatened. The masses will try to humiliate and threaten us. They will try to outlaw the sport that we love most.

But to be honest, I feel sorry for those people. Because they have no idea of the common yet breathtaking beauty that is alive in the woods. They have no idea what it feels like to have every nerve in your body thrumming like a live wire as you line up your sights on an animal you've been waiting for your whole life.

I hunt because I am.

I am proud to be a hunter, and I'm not going to apologize for it.

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