Monday, April 9

Sick Bastards

Not long ago, driven by what can only be called morbid curiosity, I picked up a copy of a magazine called Field & Stream. For someone who likes animals as much as I do, this kind of publication evokes a kind of nauseated fascination, similar to what one might feel while reading a newsletter from a Nazi concentration camp.

Most of the articles I read dealt with fishing. To judge from the photographs humans appear to enjoy this activity. It was harder to tell how the fish felt about their role, but I suppose that being dragged from the water with hooks and drowning in air isn't much fun. This was a common theme throughout the magazine: hunting and fishing are distinctly one-sided amusements.

After reading the fishing reports, I thought I could handle anything that Field and Stream might throw at me. That was before I encountered a one-page article entitled "Knockdown Power." Its author, David Petzal, began by lamenting the time he wasted in high school memorizing data on muzzle velocity, shot weight, and kinetic energy of ammunition. (Picture a sullen, pimply faced youngster, backpack stuffed with gun magazines and shell casings, striding silently along school corridors, while girls giggle and whisper. Did scenes like this occur at Columbine, I wonder?)

Eventually young Petzal found a role model: a man named Warren Page, who preceded him as author of the column I was now reading and who had "killed more animals than I had dreamed of." (This evidently passes for flattery among readers of Field and Stream.) What wisdom did Mssr. Page impart to his idealistic protégé? According to Petzal it was "the dirty secret that no projectile actually takes an animal off its feet." Petzal illustrates this revelation with examples from his own experience. Quoth he, "I killed … I killed … I killed ... ." Get the idea?

Well, no. You can’t truly understand something like this without subjecting yourself to the details. Here’s Petzal on shooting a deer. For those of you who didn’t spend your high school years as profitably as he did, ".270" is the weight of a bullet in grains.

A few years ago I killed a white-tail doe with a .270 that entered the rib cage on the left side and ranged forward to exit the right shoulder, breaking it in the process, and demolished both lungs and the heart. The bullet almost cut the poor creature in half but did not knock it down. That doe ran for 70 yards.

"Good taste," Petzal continues primly, "Constrains me from going on, because good taste is everything to me." [I didn’t make this up!] If you're wondering where there's evidence of good taste in the passage, I can't help you. Nowhere is there a hint that Petzal has any conception of what animals experience, when he pulls the trigger, or that he cares. In the caption of a photograph showing a magnificent bull moose he asserts that animals "don’t react to bullet impact. They look bitter and resentful for a while, then keel over."



For non-hunters the callousness and brutality implicit in this "sport" may be hard to credit without actually reading a magazine like Field and Stream, but a word of caution. If you’ve previously bought into the hunting community’s propaganda, that animals don’t suffer, when they're shot, that they die quickly, or that hunters rarely miss, prepare to be disabused. Among their own, hunters are more honest. The rates of animal wounding by hunters are absolutely appalling. Even presumably "good" shots routinely describe shooting animals which survive for minutes or even hours. Some manage to elude a second shot altogether, only to suffer a protracted and agonizing death from blood loss or infection. Others will eventually succumb to thirst, or starve, or fall prey to carnivores.

And some, terribly mutilated, live on for years. I remember a beautiful little doe who lived for several seasons in the woods behind my house in Virginia. A hunter’s bullet had crushed her shoulder – the scar was still visible – and her leg, limp and shrunken, dangled pathetically whenever she moved. She’d managed somehow to reach the protected environment around Great Falls Park, but life must have been difficult for her even there. It broke my heart to watch her limp slowly after the other deer, as they bounded away through the forest.

For some reason hunters are immune to pity or at least they're able to turn the emotion on and off at will. They seem to regard wild animals as mere things, devoid of fear and untouched by pain, that have been placed in the woods for their amusement. The ability of hunters to distance themselves from the horrors that they inflict resembles what soldiers do in warfare, a process of extinquishing sympathy by redefinition called "depersonalization." Thus hunters, who often enjoy warm, loving relationships with their dogs, can without the slightest compunction put a bullet through an inoffensive creature differing in no crucial respect from their canine buddies.

How do they do this? I have no idea, but I’m bothered by the similarity between this kind of emotional disconnection and that shown by mass murderers and other sociopaths. Although hunters and the organizations that represent them vehemently dispute this, there is evidence for a link between childhood exposure to hunting and various types of violent crime.

In the long run none of this may matter. According to recent statistics, hunters today constitute a dwindling minority in the United States as well as in Europe. While I may not live long enough to see it, I rejoice to think that someday this repulsive activity and the ugly periodicals that celebrate it will disappear from the planet. It can't happen too soon.