Thursday, August 6, 2015

Hunter vs. Non-Hunter: A tale of two little kids

After Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist, killed Cecil the Lion, the outrage expressed in social media was as extreme as I’ve ever seen on any issue, including when human beings were gunned down in a church. So much anger and frustration over a trophy hunter blithely luring a collared lion out of a national park to kill it on private land, and then claiming, probably disingenuously, that he didn’t know that was illegal, seemed to bring to a head all the anger and frustration building over decades in non-hunters about hunters killing Whooping Cranes and getting off with a hand slap; the Minnesota DNR rushing through a Mourning Dove hunt, and then a Sandhill Crane hunt, and then a wolf hunt, completely disregarding all dissenting public opinion; the rise of canned hunts, and trophy hunting in general. 

Americans are so polarized about so many issues right now that compromise and reasoned discussion about controversies just doesn’t work anymore—a dangerous development, because the very underpinnings of any democracy depend on citizens trusting one another and accepting the many differences among themselves even as they engage in reasoned debate. It makes me wish we could all go back to childhood. Children seem much more capable of dealing with these fundamental differences. That caused a rush of childhood memories about the hunters and non-hunters in my own family.

I spent my childhood in a blue-collar suburb of Chicago. We children of the 50s and 60s were on our own all day most weekends and during summer vacation. In summer we explored the banks of the creek that ran through town, and in winter we ice-skated on it. My brother somehow got a kayak and used to take me over to a tiny island on the creek—he’d leave me there alone for a few hours while he went on a “voyage,” and I could play “Wilderness Girl” by myself until he returned. We played with snakes and crayfish, watched caterpillars pupate into moths and butterflies, and conjured animals and castles out of clouds.

My grandpa escaped the farm for city life and as an adult neither hunted nor fished--he told me he'd had enough of death and dying during World War I. His two sons were city boys from the start. My dad didn’t hunt but occasionally went fishing; my uncle was an avid sportsman, hunting and fishing both, and taking at least one major fishing expedition to the wilds of Canada every year. My older brother loved fishing, and got a Daisy air rifle when he was 10 or so, joined the National Rifle Association, and learned all kinds of rules about firearm safety and hunting ethics from their publications. He quickly became an avid hunter.

As a preschooler I had pet worms, and I used to play with and protect the garter snakes that emerged every spring from a hibernaculum under our front porch. Until I was six or seven, I wasn’t supposed to go to the creek by myself, so sometimes my mother made my big brother, who was two years older than I, bring me along when he was going fishing. I hated the thought of sticking a hook into a worm—I could tell from my pets that worms feel pain—and I couldn’t imagine hurting or killing a fish, either, but I loved going with him. I loved the peace and quiet, leaves rustling above, the little red-and-white bobber floating in the rippling water. So my brother made me my own special fishing pole—a bamboo pole that had seen better days, held together with electrical tape, with an 8-foot or so fishing line ending at a bobber, with no hook at all. I loved the many hours I spent “fishing” with him, even as I averted my eyes every time he baited his hook or pulled a struggling fish out of the water.

I went through a stage, lasting several years, when I would not walk on lawns. I knew the grass and soil beneath teemed with life—earthworms, insects, spiders, and all manner of critters I couldn’t identify. Any step of mine could crush those tiny beings. Our swing set was in the back of our yard, and I grew terrified to walk the 30 or 40 feet to it—as much as I loved swinging, my pleasure didn’t seem worth the deaths of minute animals whose existence I’d never even be aware of. One morning my brother led me to the back door to show me, to my surprise and delight, a stepping path he’d made out of rocks leading directly from the porch to my favorite swing. Jimmy and I were too little to imagine the other might be pursuing nature in the wrong way. Our different approaches were like our different eye colors—part of what made us who we were.

Of course, those differences occasionally led to squabbles. He shot a couple of squirrels with his BB gun when he was going through his taxidermy phase. He did a pretty good job of stuffing them, but didn't know he was supposed to stitch the mouths or the BB holes shut. As the skins dried, the lips pulled back into weird snarls, and the white stuffing poked through the BB holes. So he decided to live-trap a squirrel, kill it with car exhaust, and try again. 

First he needed a Havahart Trap, so he ordered one by mail. Back then, in the early 60s, it took 6 to 8 weeks for most orders to arrive—an endless wait for a little boy. But his trap finally arrived and he immediately set it with peanut butter bread for bait to catch himself a squirrel. 

But being a typical little kid, patience wasn't one of his virtues. When he got tired of waiting for a squirrel to walk into the trap, he went to a friend's house. I looked out the window a little while later, and there was a squirrel in the trap, trying desperately to get out. I couldn't possibly have stopped myself: I went outside, opened the trap and let the little guy out. 

I didn't think to replace the bait when I reset the trap. Jimmy came home and the trap was unsprung, but the bait was gone. He thought he'd set it wrong, so he double checked over and over, and tried again.

But again, his impatience got the best of him and he left. Again a squirrel walked in, and again I let it out. Jimmy and his friend went over how to set the trap over and over, but they just couldn't catch a squirrel in it. Finally, he gave up, boxed up the trap again, and returned it, telling the Havahart company that it must be defective and asking for a new trap.

It took even longer to return the package and get a replacement, but after over two months, the new trap arrived. This time he apparently got suspicious, and caught me in the act of releasing the squirrel. He beat me up, which was fair by our rules, but by then he'd lost interest in taxidermy work, and that was that. Neither of us held a grudge. Over half a century later, he still has those two stuffed squirrels.

Jimmy never gave up hunting or fishing. He's lived in a Chicago suburb all his life, but has always been an avid angler and hunter, traveling widely, nationally and internationally, in those pursuits.

Meanwhile, my uncle stopped hunting entirely after he shot one particular Mallard hen. When his hunting buddy’s retriever brought it back to him, it was still alive. Up until that moment, for him ducks had been targets in the sky and then meat for the table. Now suddenly, he was holding in his hands an individual duck who desperately wanted to stay alive, but she was wounded and in pain. He had no choice but to wring her neck. My uncle told me how he “watched the light go out from her eyes.” This memory haunted him, and he retold the story many times. He continued fishing his whole life, and never thought less of his friends who hunted—he’d just lost the stomach for it himself.