This morning I killed a bird. When I raised the garage door I found the little guy trying to fly through the window. He had apparently been trapped in the garage all night. I tried to direct him to the open door, but he continued to flutter and bang his little body into the glass in a desperate attempt to free himself. My attempts to shoo him out the open door only increased his agitation. He was atop the lower sash of the window so I brilliantly decided to lower the top sash so he could fly away. In the process he was crushed between the two parts of the window. As I removed him from that trap he fluttered his wings a few times, in a final futile attempt to escape.
Watching this helpless little creature die, gave me pause to think about our relationship with animals, and in particular why we humans seem to have this need to kill things, even each other. Is this some primordial hangover from the days when our ancestors decided to add fresh meat to their diet and thus become omnivores? This must have been a time when they became the pursuer rather than the pursued. It would not have taken them long to achieve their present day status as the grand champion of all predators.
This was not the first time I had killed a bird, but this time it was as the saying goes “up close and personal”. On occasion birds have flown into my windshield, and I recall shooting a couple of them with my BB gun when I was a kid. I also shot pheasants, ducks, grouse, and quail back in the days when I thought I was a modern day mountain man. I had hunted squirrels, and rabbits, gigged frogs, and had been on a few coon and fox hunts. The camaraderie of fellow hunters and the dogs combined with the opportunity to be away from it all was the best part of those times. In retrospect, I don’t believe I ever did enjoy the killing part, but if you are macho man you can’t allow that sentimental stuff to be seen. The memory of one incident from many years ago is especially vivid. I was camped with a group of guys in the mountains of Virginia to hunt deer. On the second day, I got lucky and shot a magnificent ten point buck. I plodded up the mountainside and saw him lying there appearing to stare directly at me. I sat there for a time and wondered why I had done that. It was my last deer hunt.
Hunting to Extinction
There are now many species on the verge of extinction. The loss of habitat is usually listed as the major cause of diminishing numbers. Hunting as a source of food is a factor, but often more nefarious goals are involved. Tons of ivory have been harvested from African elephants, and likewise the white rhino has been slaughtered by the thousands so that his horn can be sold in Asia as an aphrodisiac. Now there is only one male white rhino left in the world. He is under constant guard to protect him from poachers.
The extinction of the passenger pigeon may be the saddest of all such stories, for it is an example of how ignorance of our surroundings can have major consequences. Until the mid-nineteenth century it is estimated that there were billions (yes that is with a B) of passenger pigeons residing in the eastern United States. There are reports and even some photos of flocks so numerous that they blocked out the sun. They were a nuisance and also a delicacy, a combination guaranteed to place them high on the kill list for chief predators like us. Nevertheless, conventional wisdom was that the supply of these birds was inexhaustible, a premise that would be proven untrue as the last known passenger pigeon was shot in 1914. Her stuffed body is on display at the Cincinnati Zoo.
Then there are of course the trophy hunters, the most recently famous of which was the dentist who is said to have paid $50,000 to shoot a tame old toothless lion. When I was a kid, I read every magazine dedicated to hunting and fishing that I could find. I was especially fascinated by those stories (supposedly true) in which the author stood bravely in the path of a man eating lion, charging rhinoceros, or rogue elephant. Of course the animal would drop dead at his feet from his well placed bullet (did I mention that our hero was a superb marksman); otherwise he would not have been able to write the story. Perhaps the dentist had been exposed to the same literature as I, but when shown on TV with his keeper, this lion looked to be about as dangerous as a dairy cow.
Do Hunters Serve Any Purpose in the 21st Century?
Lest I sound too negative I should say that I have nothing against hunters. Many of them are ardent conservationists. They also serve a valuable function as the ones who perform the predator function. Over population leads to disease and malnutrition, and the natural predators for many species are no longer available. Last year there were 191,000 deer reported killed in Ohio (note the word reported) yet the deer continue to feast on Barb’s flowers. Hunting is not like shooting a cow in the pasture, but requires skill, patience and knowledge.
This dog don’t hunt…
As for me, perhaps it is my age, but I have lost my zest for killing anything (flies and mosquitoes excluded). My guns have all rested on the wall rack for the last 40 years or so. I like to look at them from time to time and be reminded of those times listening to Pamela, my basset hound announcing in full volume that she was in hot pursuit of a rabbit, or looking for a squirrel I hear chattering of a squirrel as the sun comes up through a clump of shell bark hickory trees, or the sound of a ruffed grouse taking off with a sound so sudden and loud that I might stand there forgetting to lift up my gun.
I don’t remember much about the killing part of those hunts except for that deer whose dead eyes continue to haunt me from time to time. In spite of my squeamishness, I feel no remorse as I bite into a nice juicy steak. There is no denying the hypocrisy when we chastise those who kill “helpless” animals while paying others to kill equally helpless animals in order to satisfy our desires to eat the flesh of those animals. I wonder if a visit to a slaughter house would affect those appetites. But then we frequently use the “out of sight, out of mind” mechanism to deal with such contradictions.
Thrill of the Kill
There are some people who have no similar compunctions and actually seem to enjoy killing things. You might think that an old psychiatrist like me would be able to explain why this is so, but in truth I can only offer conjecture, for it remains for me a mystery.