Sunday, November 8, 2015

Shooters, Hunters, and Moral Sentiments

An earnest young man called me earlier in the season to help with a track.

Hunting on family land twenty minutes from my house, he was in the midst of that awkward transition from gun hunter to bow hunter.

His bow was a newer compound, tricked out with stabilizer and sights; his arrows, quiver, and clothes were all top of the line.  He had more than enough gadgets to be successful at his current level of development.

I want him to be successful.  More than that, however, I hope he continues to develop and become ever less a gadget empowered harvester of meat and more and more a hunter.

Traditional bow hunting is like throwing a baseball.  It takes time.  Would we call him a ball player if he needed sights and a range-finder to throw out a runner on second?  It is experience which teaches the hunter to say, "I don't know how far away it is, but when something is that far away, I shoot like this" or "I should not take that shot."

Even with gadgets bow hunting is less precise than gun hunting.  And while our weapons, expertly used, are more lethal and less disturbing to the animal made dead, few of us are experts.  In the hands of a student, and I count myself a student, our weapons are less lethal than the gunpowder alternative.

Using his .22 my son gave me three chances to hit the dot once,
with a bow I could probably have hit the jug twice.
Thanks to hydrostatic shock, gun shot deer rarely survive even an imperfect shot from a hunter using an appropriate cartridge.  A hit yet unrecovered deer feels like a moral failure to the gun hunter, but moral sentiments honed as a gun-hunter do not always apply to the very different act of bow hunting.

It is the experience of bow hunting over gun hunting which teach the young man to recognize how many deer survive the imperfect shot.

  They can live just fine with one collapsed lung, especially if that lung is hit high, decreasing the amount of bleeding the deer experiences.

Deer might still be seen participating in the rut after an arrow passes through the dead zone of a high back shot (above the lungs/below the vertebrae).

Nearly every week I meet a hunter with a story of finding a broadhead inside a deer they kill or scar tissue on the pelt.

An imperfect release, wind, or a branch can throw off a bow shot.  The deer has more of an opportunity to move, even jumping or crouching at the sound of the bowstring.  This is what challenges us to know our prey better, to hone our craft.  This is what forces modern man to move from participating in the shooting sport, which is modern gun hunting, to become a hunter in tune with his prey.

The bow hunter does not have a dispensation to be reckless but must recognize and accept more things are outside of her control.  It means the individual is progressing from harvester of meat to hunter.  When you are a hunter, the prey often escape.  We serve the herd not because we intend to take the weakest and least fit but because the strongest and most fit escape our grasp.

If your interpretation is wrong, your moral sentiment will be flawed.
Far from a Cartesian when it comes to animal welfare, I am not so much of a narrow-minded ape as to think that animals experience pain in the same fashion as homo sapiens. Descartes was wrong, but he was not an idiot.  He merely misinterpreted certain observations of non-human animals.  Who isn't guilty of that mistake?

I have cleaned maggots out of the wounds of apparently calm bovine.  I have burned the horn buds of goats and watched them playfully skip away seconds later.  I have watched bow shot deer walk away with barely a flinch.If you have not been surprised at how different animals experience pain, I suspect you've not spent too much time around animals.

Adam Smith, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments wrote,

Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred. He desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be praised by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of praise. He dreads, not only blame, but blame-worthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be blamed by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of blame.

Bow hunting is a moral act and should be done in which a wise bow hunter would recognize as "lovely."

But like any virtue it is gained through time, experience, and failure.  We must first recognize what we do not know, cling tightly to what remains, then maybe we begin to recognize "the lovely," and finally to cultivate it within the self.  

Animals feel physical and emotional pain and we should seek to avoid inflicting it unnecessarily.  The bow hunter, once he has learned to recognize the avoid the irresponsible shot, need not feel guilty about the unrecovered deer.  It probably survived.  It suffered, but not in the fashion or to the degree we're inclined to think.

I regularly hear hunters say, "I respect the deer too much to let it go to waste."  That is a good start, but there is no waste.  If it did not survive, than it fed coyote, fox, raccoon, and any number of species of bird, including the proud bald eagle. There is no waste.  All flesh eats flesh.  We hunt because we are part of the biome, part of the ecological system, so are those coyotes.

We show it respect by what is in our control: making every effort to recover the deer we pursued.

An interview with the author
If we did not fail, we would not recognize the need to develop the resources to improve our character: to become more patient, more courageous, more wise.  Without falling short of our expectations we would not recognize the need to spend more time with our equipment; we would not recognize the need to practice the simple act of standing up in your stand, the mental toughness of waiting to begin a track, the courage to limit your hunting practice so that it is more challenging for you and improving the odds for your prey.

There is no fault in being human.  If hunters were always successful, we'd have destroyed the planet long ago.  I'm no longer a pastor but my contribution as a tracker often feels pastoral.  I meet people whose conscience, by my own flawed understanding, are just a little malformed.  I try to point them in a direction compatible with the human experience of a hunter, which is the experience of an imperfect, earthbound predator.

Working as a tracker has further challenged my ability to accept the things outside of my control (a blog post to come later), but more important than the unexpected challenges has been the unexpected joys.  I have learned from wiser and more experienced hunters, I have been a small part of the education of others.  

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