October 1st marked the opening day of deer hunting season in my home state of Michigan, a pastime that has a devoted following rivaled only by the likes of Elvis and Jesus. Every year since I can remember I've grappled with why this so-called sport is such a fascination and ultimate passion for hundreds of thousands of hunting enthusiasts. And every year I arrive at the same conclusion: I'm stumped.
The Sport of it All:
Hunters have frequently told me that they find the most enjoyment in the "thrill of the chase." They'll explain how killing a deer is actually quite challenging and fraught with obstacles. It takes skill and precision, patience and discipline. I don't know much about any of those things, but one major challenge to hunting that I can speak of with some authority, having experienced the joy of quail hunting with my father as a 12 year old, is effectively hitting your target of choice.
I was about as accurate a shot as any given member of the A-Team. I couldn't hit the broad side of a barn from ten feet away using a high-powered scope with a telephoto lens. So in that regard, one could make a case for a challenge inherent in hunting.
But then there's the part where you don't actually track down the animal, the animal comes to you while sitting in a fort and enjoy the wonders of nature. And the part about the reason said animal paid you a visit in the first place is because you tricked it by laying out a spread of delicious vegetables (enticing Richard Simmons into your home with a pound cake and then locking him in the basement is not a sport either, by the way).
The laws in Michigan briefly disallowed hunters to dump massive piles of carrots and sugar beets (a practice known as, not surprisingly, 'baiting') in front of their tree forts where they sat and waited for the deer to pass by, hoping to lure them in for an afternoon snack. But the law was recently abolished and baiting is once again legal. This practice seems about as close to a sport as inviting your family over for Thanksgiving dinner and then knocking them off one-by-one by wielding an Uzi as the mashed potatoes are being passed around the table.
To me, a more accurate example of hunting as a sport would be the guy in Jurassic Park chasing the Velociraptor. Or, Kevin Costner tracking Tatanka in Dances With Wolves. A number of scenes from Jaws also come to mind. The point here is that, rather than sitting around and waiting for a docile animal to stroll through the neighborhood to grab a bite, they pursued the dangerous beasts with diligence. Conversely, it's impossible to actively pursue wild animals from a Barcalounger, and neither a deer nor a quail can be considered a dangerous beast.
Tales of Great Hunter/Warriors:
Around this time of year I inevitably receive a phone call from my hunting-obsessed father informing me that his head is about to explode as he waits in anticipation for hunting season to commence. He's keenly aware that I have zero interest in anything having to do with hunting, but this fails to deter him in the slightest because he's already told my mother the same story eleven times (forcing her to take up temporary residence in an unidentified hotel until the season ends) and exhausted his list of friends and relatives who still take his calls this time of year. He thwarts my every attempt at changing the topic to something, anything, other than crossbows with carbon fiber arrows, and we engage in a conversation that seems to last for several days.
He recounts in great detail how he spent the previous day building a tree fort that will be his lookout point (similar to Charles Whitman in a clock tower), how he cultivated a garden of sorts that will serve as the last supper for many-an-animal, and how he calibrated the trajectory of some technological tool in the deer killing industry.
My retort is typically:
"That is truly the most spellbinding story I have ever heard in my entire life."
"But perhaps you could consider a hobby like racquetball or Irish hurling before dialing my number again?"
Sadly, this call is actually less insufferable than the one that I will receive subsequent to his successful slaying of one of Bambi's descendants. Said call always includes a staggering amount of detail that could easily be used by Homeland Security as an interrogation technique to drive detainees insane.
One might think that such a story could be described as succinctly as "a deer walked by...and I blew its head off." But you would be sadly mistaken. Rather, it involves numerous storylines with intended suspense and intrigue. In example:
"The wind was blowing out of the Northwest. The sun would be setting in less than 30 minutes. I had an itch on my nose that I couldn't scratch, lest I scare away the savage beast. The deer bent down for a nibble in the field, and continued grazing for several minutes. I stifled a sneeze that made my eyes water...and then I blew its head off."
About halfway through these conversations is when I invariably have to remind myself that I am actually speaking to my father, and not listening to an enchanting narrative recited by the slow-witted love child of Jack London.
More erudite minds than mine might have attempted to tackle a larger philosophical question of whether hunting animals in the modern Western world should be allowed at all. For the purposes of this piece I've chosen to evade such a question entirely because:
A) I remain incapable of cracking the seemingly easier question of why people spend their leisure time chasing after animals with a multitude of weapons in the first place, and
B) I'd prefer to not receive death threats from members of PETA, the NRA, and the Michigan Militia simultaneously.
What I can say with certainty is that I have found yet another reason for preferring adulthood over childhood. Thankfully, when I was a child there were laws that required one to be a minimum of 12 years of age in order to hunt anything. This didn't stop my father from dragging me against my will on hunting excursions at the age of eight, but I digress.
Today, in the great state of Michigan, one is legally allowed to hunt at the age of zero, provided they are accompanied by an adult. Such a law could have had deep seeded (perhaps deeper seeded is a more apt phrase) ramifications on my development because I would have undoubtedly been rushed to a tree fort wearing a camouflage 'Onesie' and handed a shotgun shortly after the doctors cut the umbilical cord.
Nevertheless, I remain unable to fathom deriving enjoyment from dressing up in camouflage and occupying a tree fort for hours on end. I don't understand why, if the goal is to obtain food, one doesn't simply visit their local supermarket that surely offers everything from salted-cured meats to rump roasts. And I fail to grasp why hunters enjoy watching other hunters in the act of hunting on television. Perhaps it's just me, but watching someone watching animals is as enthralling as, well, watching someone watching animals. The "thrill of the hunt" shall remain my personal paradox.