A gunshot echoes from the silence as I breathe in the dawn. If my ears could perk and swivel like a deer, I would alert myself to the source of the sound. It’s November and then December – hunting season in the Hilltowns. Echoing shots have become such a familiar sound to me and I catch myself wondering will dinner be on the table for the hunter or did the prey get away?
About 12 deer hunters out of 100 are successful in killing a deer in Massachusetts. According to MA Fish and Wildlife there are approximately 70,000 hunters of the approaching 7 million people on the 5 million acres that make up Massachusetts; that means that hunters comprise just 1% of our population in the Commonwealth. Women hunters are the fastest growing demographic, both in MA and nationally, most siting feeding their family as the top reason why they became hunters. Approximately 5,000 people take the Hunter Education course annually and over the past decade about 1,100 of those graduating students are under 18.
Growing up in suburbia New Jersey, I never heard gunfire, except on the television between bad guys and good guys. I hadn’t associated the sound with the possibility of food. I didn’t even know if knew any hunters. But living in Ashfield, I know that gunshot sound equals either sustenance for a neighbor and her/his family or a relieved deer counting her/his blessings. It’s the unknown drama that plays out in one’s mind. Was the deer hit? Is the hunter tracking his/her quarry? Will there be venison for the human family throughout the long winter?
Not that I heard many shots throughout the fall, and the last one I heard was the day after Christmas, but January brings a closure to deer season and the now antlerless bucks regroup – thoughts of competition, sex, and the two-leggeds fade from their memories as they contend with winter weather and searching for food to survive. Starvation and malnutrition is no pretty way to go. It’s not just that you’re getting too skinny. You lose muscle. You lose energy. You waste away. You keep trying to find food but don’t get enough. You succumb to parasites and the cold. And then predators and scavengers finish you off.
Your heart can break over the death of another, human or non-human. And so it is not surprising why so many of us humans mourn the death of wildlife. It’s tragic – whether we see a raccoon on the side of the road or see a deer leg peeking out from the back of a pick-up truck. A human caused that death. But how do we feel when we see a turkey vulture plucking at the insides of a squirrel? Or a bobcat gnawing on a rabbit? Is it then, “just the circle of life?” Do we worry over the starvation of the predator? The prolonged inability for a successful hunt eventually will wear out the predator and she or he will perish.
Though the US is not a subsistence hunting culture, folks need to be able to put food on the table and wild meats do contribute to the array of available foods. When I was at the Ashfield Rod & Gun Club meeting in October, there was talk of communities disallowing gun fire. “How are hunters supposed to hunt,” I wondered. One of the members stated, “Just don’t be a*holes. Remember you represent this community. We need to bridge the gaps so that non-hunters aren’t anti-hunters.” This is true. I may not yet be a hunter, but I am no longer an anti-hunter because the more hunters I met, the more I learned we had more in common than not. I learned putting food on the table was one of their top reasons for hunting. The other was the joy to be outside with their wild neighbors and to feel a sense of kinship with them. Kindness and compassion are worth the time to be neighborly and bridge our differences with understanding why we chose what we do. I have found that taking the time to listen to another’s story makes all the difference.
Being an omnivore, I do appreciate the taste of meat. And I am grateful for the generosity of my neighbors who give me wild meats and bones to supplement my diet. Also being an omnivore, it makes me hard-pressed to know who to root for – the predator or the prey. I was watching “The Hunt” a BBC Planet Earth series with David Attenborough, and sat through most of the episodes tearing up. Little baby birdies taken their first flight only to plucked off by gulls and fox. My heart strings switched their tune watching fox kits eating those same birds. My eyes streaming again watching an emaciated polar bear making desperate attempts to catch seals only to not have enough energy to continue on when that final seal escaped her claws. Grief is not mutually exclusive.
When the snows finally come this winter to Ashfield, they will not bring reprieve for predator or prey, just more chance for starvation. I track the deer in my yard and they are not just skirting the field; they are coming close to the house. I see their heart-shaped hoof tracks in the driveway and I know there is not enough to eat in the forest and so they are passing by the house, foraging for nibbles in the yard. Bobbi (the bobcat) is also back, close to the house because that is where the rabbits are choosing to stay.
You can root for both predator and prey. Hoping they all experience a full belly in turn. And though it is unrealistic to state, “May you never hunger or thirst”, I wish that you each only experience enough hunger and thirst to appreciate feeling sated. Enjoy the winter!
Thanks to Marion E. Larson, Chief, Information & Education, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife for providing the statistics in this article.
Into the Outside is a bi-monthly feature in the Ashfield News. This article appears in the January 2019 edition of The Ashfield News.
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