By Daniel Friedman
When my daughter was 4, she asked me where hamburgers come from.
“Cows,” I replied.
She thought a moment, then asked, “Are the cows dead when they’re hamburgers?”
I told her yes, they were dead.
She pondered this a moment before declaring, “I like hamburgers.” She realized that animals have to die to be our food.
I don’t hunt, my parents don’t either and neither did their parents—and yet we’re all meat-eaters. Like so many others, we’re perfectly willing to let commercial meat processors kill and slaughter animals by the millions every year to stock grocery stores.
But when the topic of hunting comes up, non-hunters tend to wince, smirk or declare they could never shoot an animal.
Hunting is no longer a necessity; it’s a lifestyle choice. I talked with four families that hunt to find out what motivates them. The first thing everyone mentioned was the joy of being out in the wilderness, far from the city, camping with family and friends. To them, hunting is a family activity involving hours or days of being close to nature and participating in a sport that is part of their family history and culture. There is satisfaction in bringing meat home to their families like their ancestors did, rather than just making another trip to the grocery store.
Martin Hughes of Chandler says hunting is “a heritage passed down from generation to generation. There are so many aspects of hunting that you pass on to your kids.” One of those aspects is respect for non-hunters as well as animals. Hunters are careful about how they talk to non-hunters and they don’t show pictures of bloody wounds in the game they have shot. Hughes says hunters have a reverence for the animals they kill. “You’ve taken a life and you need to be respectful of that,” he says.
Don Striker of Chandler, who hunts with his sons Joe, 17, and Shawn, 15, explains that there are lots of rules to make hunting fair to the animals. For example, hunters are prohibited from hunting at night, with spotlights, with automatic weapons, from roadways or from vehicles. Last September I attended an Arizona Game and Fish Department seminar for people interested in hunting deer. The seminar specifically mentioned not taking a shot unless it would be sufficient to kill the animal without needless or prolonged suffering.
The number and percentage of Arizona residents who hunt declined from 1996-2006, according to a 2006 report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This is hardly surprising as more people live in cities.
Arizona Game and Fish has an elaborate lottery system whereby hunters put in their name and pay fees for the right to draw a “tag” for the type of game they seek. The number of tags for different species depends on the “carrying capacity” of the area—how many animals it can support and the number of game that can be hunted to maintain a healthy population. For big game like deer and elk, hunters draw tags for a male or female, in a specific area, in a specified time period and with a specified weapon. A bow hunter cannot switch to a rifle mid-hunt. Hunters cannot shoot a cow elk if there are no bulls around.
The number of tags issued is dependent on the likelihood of hunter success for the specified game in that area. Hunters who are lucky enough to draw a deer or elk tag in the lottery aren’t guaranteed they will actually get their one elk or deer limit per year. If they do, they can fill a freezer with a hundred pounds or more of lean, free-range, organic game meat. But it is entirely possible that hunters will not get close enough to take a shot during their hunt. Bow hunters have to get much closer to their prey, so their odds are worse.
Arizona Game and Fish personnel are out in force to monitor the hunting season. The department also combats poachers and illegal hunting through a program called Operation Game Thief—a website and toll-free phone number (800-352-0700) where violations can be reported.
“One of the things you have to remember is that a successful hunt isn’t going out and getting something,” says Hughes, echoing a sentiment expressed by other hunters with whom I talked. “A successful hunt is going out and having the opportunity to spend time with your family and friends going out in the wilderness and seeing wildlife. Many of the hunts that I have the most enjoyable memories of are the hunts when I never got anything.”
The notion that hunting isn’t mostly about killing was part of every conversation I had with the families I talked to. All said they enjoy seeing other species of wildlife that aren’t part of the hunt. Gary Lasham of Phoenix, who hunts with his son Caleb Ruegsegger, 14, talked about watching squirrels play around him while he was waiting for game or seeing the hawks and eagles land in trees right above him like they were checking him out. He joked that animals must have calendars, because he always seems to see the animals that aren’t in season. A hunter who has drawn a tag for does often sees only bucks.
Shawn Striker, 15, enjoys the “unexpectability” of hunting. He says he never knows what will happen or when he’ll suddenly see the game he’s after. Usually it’s when you’re not paying attention, or after hours of waiting and watching through binoculars or “when you’re peeing.”
Hunters feel a deep and abiding connection to the animals they hunt. They consider themselves conservationists because they have an interest in protecting wildlife populations so they can continue to hunt. This may sound contradictory, but being out in the forest gives them an appreciation for balance in the ecosystem. Hunters aren’t interested in the wholesale slaughter of animals.
Sydney Buck, 19, of Chandler, likes spending hours with her dad, Brian, during hunts. “There’s a lot of teamwork,” she says. “That’s where a lot of the bonding is.”
Everyone is looking out for others and it’s quiet as they walk through the forest, anticipating the excitement of the hunt. “And then you talk about things when you’re waiting and you’re bored, not seeing anything for hours, and you kind of start to have life talks, just random things,” says Sydney. “We’re a Christian family, so if we think of something that reminds us of something spiritual, we’ll have a deep talk, not just like, ‘How’s your week going?’”
Sydney says the fun of hunting is stalking the animal. Hunters get what is known as buck fever—“which is funny,” Sydney says, “because that’s our last name. It’s a rush of adrenaline when you get your sights on [an animal].”
She’s usually the only girl on hunts and the guys often want to remind her that they are probably better at it than she is, though she did get an elk once. Girls she knows don’t understand hunting and that it isn’t about hating animals. She loves animals and even cried when she shot her first deer.
“It was not the way I would have expected it,” she says. “I had never done that before, [shot] that big of an animal. It was a shock, frankly.” But that didn’t stop her from hunting. “I think it’s more humane almost. You’re not raising them to kill them” like in a slaughterhouse. “They’re out in the wild and you’re working hard to hunt them.”
As her dad says, “We all eat. This is a different way of going about it.” He respects non-hunters’ attitudes and the “ewww!” factor.
“I respect that people have that reaction because that seems natural, especially if you live in the city and you don’t kill what you eat,” he says. “You’re removed from that part of life. I try to talk with a sense of understanding to [non-hunters] and explain hunting in ways they understand. Hunting adds another layer of depth to the character of a kid because that kid is going to be connected to the outdoors and with wildlife in ways that people who don’t hunt won’t have. You typically respect things you understand, and you fear things you don’t.”
Buck has been a high school history teacher for 22 years. “When you educate people, the ‘ewww’ factor goes away and is replaced with, ‘Oh, I see. I get it,’” he says.
McKenzie Holliday, 13, of Phoenix, who hunts with her dad, Stewart, also says her non-hunting friends don’t understand. “My friends think it’s weird and say, ‘You’re an animal killer.’ I tell them at least I’m using it for the meat.”
“If they got to experience the hunt they’d change their minds,” her dad says. “It’s so peaceful out there. [To] sit there for hours and not see anybody, it’s unique.”
Being the only girl on the hunt, McKenzie has had to deal with male egos. She avoids the topic of who’s better at hunting “so we don’t have drama during (the hunt).”
Part of the process of being a hunter is firearm safety. In Arizona, kids between the ages of 10 and 13 who want to hunt big game must take a hunter education course either in person or online. A field day is required after the classroom portion. Wesley Hughes and Caleb Lasham both recited from memory the TAB+1 safety rules for firearms:
Treat every gun as if it were loaded.
Always point your muzzle in a safe direction.
Be sure of your target and beyond.
+1 Never put your finger on the trigger unless you’re ready to fire.
Kids who are around guns for hunting treat them differently than kids who don’t hunt. Joe Striker says his non-hunting friends view guns relative to video games. “This is how they feel they would go hunting, pretty much,” he says. Kids with hunting experience respect the power of firearms and would never think of them as toys or something to handle outside of hunting.
In an era where virtual communications make it easy for people to interact without ever meeting face to face—creating a weirdly connected and simultaneously disconnected society—the hunters I talked with see hunting as a way to maintain a direct connection to other people and particularly the environment. For hunters, there are no virtual substitutes.
Visit azgfd.gov for hunting and fishing information in Arizona.