The Emotions of a Hunting Life
** This essay contains graphic descriptions of hunting and the death and butchering of animals. **
Generally speaking, I do not enjoy deer hunting very much. That is not to say that I don’t love being outdoors, especially on late fall mornings, when cold sunrises are breathtaking. Despite all of that, deer hunting often feels too much like work. I sit for hours, checking my watch frequently. I feel more of the morning chill than normal because I can’t move around. I have no hunting buddies to talk to. I start to hallucinate. Tree limbs in the distance play tricks on my senses and begin to look like antlers. I have to worry about scent and the wind direction, and so I sit in a cloud of vanilla, which I have sprayed on everything in hopes the deer will not notice the smell of the suburbs on me.
Despite my lack of enthusiasm for deer hunting compared to other things I hunt, I do enjoy having the meat in the freezer. I am slowly trying to shift my meat consumption habits to only a day or two per week, and I would eventually like to get to the point where I only consume wild game. I don’t have any illusions about changing the factory farming industry with my choices, but I do like the idea of mostly consuming things that lived a wild life.
This past year, for the first time, I butchered my own deer. I have always processed my own game when it came to geese, ducks, turkey and the various small game that I hunt, but traditionally Dwyers take our deer to the processor. I remember going with my dad to drop his first deer off and it was a bit surreal to see it returned to us a couple of weeks later as steaks, sausage and roasts. I always intended to learn how to do this myself, but expedience and convenience seemed to get in the way. That and fear. I feared I would make mistakes in the butchering and not give my deer the full respect it deserved.
Even after 30 years, hunting remains an emotional experience for me. I am constantly vigilant against the day I cease to feel good about what I am doing, or feel anything at all. I know if that ever happens I will put my guns away and take up a camera. Killing deer is especially hard. There is a always a moment shortly after the shot where I swear I will never hunt deer again. They are beautiful animals and their general appearance reminds me of my dogs. Luckily most of my deer have gone down quick, but this past year I had to watch my deer fight against death for what seemed like an eternity. Legs were kicking and the deer kept raising it’s head because the wound, while fatal, was not ending its life as quickly as I had hoped. I silently pleaded to the universe for its suffering to end. After five minutes, I could take it no more and sent another round into the base of its neck, killing it instantly. Ultimately I lost some meat from the extra shot, but it was worth it to end things. It was an unpleasant experience only made possible by a lifetime afield and the ability to compartmentalize in the moments when hard work needs to be done.
After field dressing the deer and bringing it home I began the slow butchering process. As I said earlier, I have butchered plenty of animals. I understood the basic technique but with deer you are trying to produce very specific cuts, similar to a cow or pig. I went through dozens of latex gloves as I would go back and forth to my laptop to consult the YouTube video that was guiding me. Hours later the deer had been reduced to roasts, steaks and burger. Most went in the freezer but I saved the tenderloins for dinner the next night.
The tenderloin was gently cooked in butter to medium rare and served alongside some sauteed onions. While enjoying the meal, I reflected on the experience. I saw the deer go from a living thing, to a dying thing, to a dead thing, to a butchered thing, to piece of meat on my plate…all in the span of 24 hours. Also not the first experience for me with an animal I hunted, but the first with a deer. I was filled with appreciation but also a desire to do more of it. This year, the goal is 2-3 deer for the freezer and more meals like the one I had last November.