I have killed my own dinner before, but always shellfish. Oysters and clams from a raw bar are alive until swallowed, and I have done violent things to lobsters to prep them for grilling. (You guillotine them, lengthwise and abruptly, with a chef’s knife. It’s gruesome, but I am assured it is the most humane way to kill them. I’m okay with it, because lobsters are delicious. If lobsters tasted like balsawood airplanes I might be more supportive of their right to life.) My previous experience with hunting, however, comes from a deep admiration for Woody Allen’s standup routine about shooting a moose and thirty-five years of watching Bugs Bunny. So I was a little trepidatious when my friend Jon suggested pheasant-hunting at his hunt club. But I’m a gamer.
We arrived at the club and I began playing with dogs. The dogs were my favorite part of the hunt. The guide, Josh, worked with a pair of them, a “pointer” and a “flusher”. The idea was that we would tromp around a snowy cornfield until the pointer showed us where a bird was and the flusher ran over and scared it into the air. We would then shoot it, and one of the dogs would grab it and bring it to Josh. For the most part, this system worked very well. For me, however, it worked less well, because I was absolutely paralyzed by the possibility of accidentally shooting one of the dogs. So how it worked for me was that we would tromp around in a snowy cornfield for awhile, and a pheasant would launch into the air, and I would begin thinking: “Okay, first release the safety. Now pull the stock tight against my shoulder. Okay. Now, start tracking the pheasant over the sight-bead. Wait. Where are the dogs? Okay, there they are. All right, where’s that pheasant?”
The pheasant, of course, had by that point long since received the Sonny- at-the-tollbooth treatment from the other guys and was en route back in the mouth of one of the dogs I was so anxious about shooting. Eventually I started holding my fire on a few, just to watch the process. A pheasant tends to take off straight up, like a helicopter, and then whiz off laterally from there. There’s a pause at the top of the initial ascent, and once or twice one of us — including me — got it there. That was somewhat uncomfortably firing squaddish. I felt we should have given the bird a blindfold and a cigarette. Once it starts moving, the process becomes more like watching cartoon airplanes get shot down: there’s a burst of parts off the bird and a long arc to the ground. You almost expect to see a tiny pilot parachute to safety.
Every so often, one of the birds would be brought back not-quite-dead. They were always sorta dazed–as I assume I would also be upon being shot out of the sky–and Josh would swing them around by their necks to finish them off. I assume this is the humane method. It’s certainly neater than chopping them in half lengthwise would be. If lobsters had necks I would feel no guilt about whacking them by this method at all.
I asked afterwards if using the dogs was considered unsporting. The answer was mostly no — it’s not like the birds were staked out on leashes like the goat in Jurassic Park. I am told an apt comparison for a hunt club is charter fishing: You have a captain, he has a sonar fish finder, there’s a mate to do the dirty work. As someone who is not terribly vested in the ethics of the sport or in the prevention of harm to all things cute, I can tell you that hunting made me feel a little bad at first, but it’s surely more honest than pretending meat is born on those styrofoam trays. No bird escaped injured, and we did eat what we brought home. I think that’s fair. Might even be willing to try this with ducks. I love duck.
But I also love venison. And I could never shoot a deer. (They remind me of dogs.)