By Lisa A. DeBruyckere
It seemed like a simple enough question—“Why do you hunt?” It came from an eager young reporter with a self-professed bias against hunters and hunting. And while I was confident I could answer the question, I didn’t realize when it was asked that my answer would have to do more with personal relationships, growing up on asphalt, connecting with the outdoors, and yes, even the settling of the American West, than it had to do with the act of hunting itself.
It’s not as though I’ve never pondered the question myself. But how you answer this type of question can make or break an individual’s perception of hunting. And when that individual is a journalist who has the capability of reaching hundreds, thousands and even millions of people, the stakes become very high indeed.
I started to answer the question by going back in time to when I was 13 years old, writing editorials with heavy anti-hunting, anti-harvest attitudes to a local newspaper. Growing up a city kid, I had no exposure to hunting except for the impressionable drive-in movie scenes of Bambi losing a parent to a hunter. I distinctly remember the feelings and emotions of Disney’s favorite deer, and vividly recall the expressionless emotion-deficient hunter responsible for the dastardly deed.
These kinds of influences, coupled with media exposure of baby harp seal killings in the far north, triggered a desire in me to explain to the world that hunting and harvest was a bad thing. It wasn’t until about five years later that I realized I didn’t have the whole story, and that for me to be comfortable communicating the “sins” of hunting to the world, I had to “see” the other side. Only then could I present my viewpoints with balance and understanding.
So in 1981, while I was an undergraduate at the University of Maine, I found the best mentor I could to take me hunting. I found a bright, caring, patient, older male hunter and asked him if he would take me ruffed grouse hunting. I chose ruffed grouse over deer because I had some experience shooting clay birds with a shotgun, and I wasn’t sure of my ability to shoot a deer, or of my reaction should I kill one. Also, I had just finished reading Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac in which Leopold said, “There are two kinds of hunting: ordinary hunting and ruffed grouse hunting.” The father of wildlife management and the first person to articulate a land ethic could not steer me wrong.
We drove to the Maine north woods and hiked along logging roads all day long. My mentor bagged the first few ruffed grouse, and I was astonished at how quickly I became eager to harvest my first bird. I was feeling excitement, anxiety, uncertainty and a very strong connection to the outdoors all at the same time. In this whirlwind of emotion, I shot my first ruffed grouse. And I recall to this day thinking,” Well, this wasn’t as dramatic as I thought it would be.”
In my mind, I thought I would experience some sort of earth shattering epic moment, the kind you often hear people describe as a turning point in their lives. No such thing. I do recall feeling a sense of accomplishment, and a little bit of sadness. I’ll never forget holding the bird in my hand and marveling at the beauty of the feathers. I was appreciating it for everything it was—and no longer was as a result of my actions. On that day, unbeknownst to me, I became less of an anti-hunter, and started a quest to better understand hunting.
Over time, I expanded the quarry I chased. I have worked hard to rise at 3 a.m. to set out decoys for several hours to shoot speckle-bellied geese on the Saskatchewan prairies. I have painted milk jugs black to look like black scoters and braved wintry Maine storms on the coast to have the opportunity to harvest sea ducks. And I shot my first deer with a muzzleloader at five yards.
But despite these descriptions, and the back-slapping and whooping we see and hear when we scan the outdoor television channels and see wildlife hunts, hunting is rarely about the harvest. Most often, these types of programs show what hunting is not about.
I reviewed hunting from my personal historical perspective, but could no longer delay answering the question from the young journalist, “Why do you hunt?” Surely, this would be easy for me to articulate—after all, it’s just one journalist talking to another. So here goes.
Hunting is about spending time with my family. I would much rather spend 10 days a year with my better half then send him off to a “deer camp,” where I stay home while my husband explores new territory and makes memories that last a lifetime. I want to be a part of creating and recreating those memories. Our relationship is strengthened because of the ties we have to hunting.
I hunt because I own a dog and some breeds of dogs were raised over centuries to hunt. Dog training is a rewarding hobby. To acquire a dog that was bred to retrieve waterfowl and work with that animal over time so that it perfects the skill for which it was born, is fun. The dog isn’t perfect, but neither is the trainer. The point is that we have fun and enjoy one another’s company.
I hunt because hunting played a major role in the settling of our country. I’ve had more than one inspirational moment afield when I’ve reflected on the thousands of Native Americans that called the Ochocos home, or stood atop vistas that, according to Lewis and Clark journals, were vantage points for both Native Americans and white settlers. There is a connection that happens, a deepening in the understanding of who I am as an American and an Oregonian.
I hunt because I love to cook and enjoy the health and benefits of eating wildlife. I would much prefer to set our table with elk, deer meat and ducks than I would factory-raised antibiotic-fed chickens and beef. Cooking and serving wild game complements the vegetables and herbs we grow in our garden.
I hunt because I have developed wonderful life-long friendships during the trips that have taken me from Alaska to Maine, and Florida to British Columbia. All of these friendships were developed and strengthened as my friends and I prepared for and carried out hunts of all kinds. I can travel to the far corners of the United States or the heart of the Midwest and recall days afield with friends in pursuit of turkeys, ducks, deer and elk.
I hunt because it brings me closer to the one thing to which I have dedicated my career—wildlife conservation. To most non-hunters, this is the most difficult point to get across. How can destruction of an individual animal demonstrate respect and caring? It doesn’t seem to make sense. Ted Kerasote tried to explain it in his book, Bloodties. Aldo Leopold tried to explain it in his book, A Sand County Almanac. And countless others before and after them have tried to explain it. I have been writing my entire, life, and it is the one topic I am absolutely convinced cannot be explained. And that is because there are some things so valuable and important, and close to the soul that they shouldn’t be able to be explained. It is something that transcends cultures, races, sexes, ages and everything in between. When you are a hunter, and you have experienced this respect and nurturing for wildlife and habitats, while at the same time harvesting and caring for your harvest, there is a richness about life and our environment, and a special, personal closeness and belonging to the outdoors that simply cannot be matched. And while I come close to experiencing this same level of connection when I birdwatch, canoe, hike or camp, these types of experiences fall short when compared to hunting. And the best thing about it is that I cannot explain why.