Into the Woods with Reverence

by

Lesa Miller and R. C. Curtis

In the small town in rural Pennsylvania where I grew up, my brothers and I could simply step out the back door and be amongst the wild critters of the woods. I used to search for snakes, salamanders, toads, and insects, carefully capture them and then gently let them go where I had found them. I had no urge to keep wild animals captive as pets. I knew deep inside that they were better off free. Sometimes I would find injured or ill animals, which, with my limited knowledge and resources, I’d attempt to nurse back to health. The results, alas, were nearly always unsuccessful.

My father liked to fish and hunt. Being the first girl in three generations on his side of the family, and the eldest child, I was the one he took fishing and frogging. No dolls or tea parties for me. It was playing outside with the boys in the dirt, on our bikes, and in the water! Kids in Pennsylvania were able to take a hunter’s safety course and get their hunting license at the ripe old age of twelve. Soon after I passed the test, I was in the woods with my father on my first hunting expedition. It was deer season. I felt nervous carrying a loaded weapon and I was not looking forward to killing anything. But it was the thing to do where we lived and this was, I suppose, a way for us to bond as father and daughter.

A couple hours after the sun rose, we were sitting still and listening to the trees above us quietly creaking in the wind. I kept looking at my gun, wondering if I’d have to use it that day. Suddenly, we heard gunshots in the distance, and soon after a deer, a button buck, ran, stumbled, and then collapsed several yards away from us. Dad and I ran over to where the deer lay and we saw how badly injured he was, having been shot more than once. The poor thing was still conscious, blinking, and breathing shallowly.

I was mortified. This wasn’t the way I had envisioned it! Hunters were supposed to have good aim and kill their prey instantly! I hated to see any animal suffer. When my hamsters got so old and feeble that they would no longer eat, I didn’t let them linger, but had them humanely euthanized by a veterinarian. This poor deer was no exception. My father shook his head and muttered, “He needs to be finished off and quickly.” Then he turned to me and said, “You do it.”

It seemed like an eternity to remove my gloves, take the lock off safety, and take aim. My hands were shaking. I was filled with anxiety. All I wanted was for the deer to stop suffering. I fired from just

two feet away, but missed the mark. Now my anxiety level was even higher. I was relieved when Dad finally delivered the fatal shot himself. I can still see the fear on that deer’s face.

I went hunting only a few more times after this, but didn’t shoot any animals. The last hunting trip was in the 1980’s with my then-husband, who was a hunter. He would usually hunt alone or with buddies, but occasionally I accompanied him. It was opening day of doe season and the woods and fields were full of fluorescent orange figures. My husband was at the top of a hill and I was near the bottom . If any deer ran past one of us, the other might still get a shot.

It wasn’t long before I spotted a large doe and two yearlings with her. They were nearly full grown,  weaned, and spots faded. They ran part way down the hill where I was crouched, waiting. The doe hesitated for just a few seconds, testing the air and watching for movement. I raised the gun, held my breath . . . and I fired. She went down immediately, kicked for about two seconds, then was still. A bullet from my gun had taken her life. For several seconds I squatted on the ground, not believing she was dead.

Then I realized the yearlings were looking at her, waiting for her to move. Then they looked all around, confused and scared, I imagine. They had always had her to depend on for guidance and safety. But no more. All of that had been taken away from them. I felt as though I’d been run over by a steamroller,  any sense of pride and accomplishment was crushed by sudden grief and regret. I tossed the gun into the snow, a sacrilege to hunters. I knelt down on the ground, and I cried over what I had done.

By this time the yearlings had run back up the hill. Then I heard another shot but couldn’t see what happened. I just hoped they’d gotten away. Within five minutes my husband came down over the hill, all smiles. “Congratulations!” he said, “You got your deer.” When close enough, he saw I was in no mood for celebration. I told him this was the last time I’d be hunting. He quietly acknowledged, but didn’t offer any words of comfort.  In fact, to the contrary. He told me that last shot I heard before he appeared was the one fired by another hunter only 100 yards from me who had killed one of those yearlings.

On the drive home with the doe in the back of the truck, I hoped and prayed that the other yearling had survived. If so, he or she would be bedding down alone for the very first time that night.

This memory remains fresh in my mind even after twenty-five years. I’m compelled to share it because if I don’t, it seems that doe would have died in vain. What a bittersweet irony that the very animal I killed continues to live on in my memory and acts as an example to others why sport hunting is environmentally unsound and cruel… not just for the animal victim, but even the hunter themselves.

I had just begun my journey down the road from venison to veganism. It was not an overnight transformation, but took some time for me to process, to figure out, and reason with. Books like Cleveland Amory’s “The Great American Hunting Myth” were helpful in confirming my thoughts and feelings about the death sport of hunting. It was also the 1980’s, when the animal rights movement was getting higher profile coverage from the media and a ground-swelling of grassroots activists were getting involved, like myself. The more I learned about sport hunting and factory farming, the less meat I ate until on my twenty-eighth birthday, I officially announced to my family that I would no longer be eating animals – wild or domestic.

Since that time, I divorced the hunter, have written several letters to the editor about the facade behind organized sport hunting by Fish and Game agencies (including my hometown newspaper in Pennsylvania), and continue to be a voice for wildlife and factory farm animals through volunteering with animal advocacy organizations, and simply setting an example for others.

I will always be drawn to the hills and wild places of Pennsylvania or wherever I am living. I am proof that you can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl. But now I go in peace and with reverence, marveling at the wild animals again like I did as a young girl in the woods.

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